On our last day, we drive south to visit the Kwenia hills area, home of a large Ruppell’s vulture colony. Along the way, we pick up Titus, a young Masai who is studying in Nairobi.

Kaai Titus / Meera Subramanian

He has been working with Munir to try to further vulture awareness among the Masai people. He takes us to his mayatta, and we meet his mother. He is one of ten children, his mother one of his father’s three wives. They all live together in a cluster of mud homes and generously offer us hot tea heavy with goat milk.

Typical Masai home. / Meera Subramanian

Titus with the family goat herd. / Meera Subramanian

Another family member does some woodworking. / Meera Subramanian

Goats / Meera Subramanian

Titus shows us a small reservoir that the family has built to secure steady water in this arid region. It is an indicator of the transition from a nomadic tradition to something more sedentary.

Students look over the new small reservoir. / Meera Subramanian

Farther down the valley, at the vulture site, Munir shows the students how to use photographs and a scope to undertake long-term surveys of nest sites.

Munir shows the students photographs of the cliffs. / Meera Subramanian

Chris and Brian look on. / Meera Subramanian

Murage haws been our expert driver for weeks, safely transporting us along the rough roads of Kenya. Now, he returns us to Nairobi on the last day of the course.

Murage / Meera Subramanian

After a couple of days rest in Nairobi, and time to start working on final papers and journalism articles, not to mention laundry, we headed back out of the city to Game Reserve Limited, or GRL. Owned by John Hopcraft, the 20,000-acre land is just an hour from the city in the Athi Plains and has been in the Hopcraft family since 1906 when J.D. Hopcraft, arrived from South Africa after fighting in the Boer War. Once, this land provided a tremendous amount of “bush meat,” animal from game meat of impala, gazelle, oryx and more, until the practice was made illegal seven years ago. Today, they struggle with how to make the land a viable ranch while protecting the land and wildlife contained within, including  280 species of birds and 20 species of animal. Protecting places like this is crucial, given that 80% of Kenya’s wild animals live outside of the country’s protected reserves.

Lukenya cliffs / Meera Subramanian

We spent the last two days here, learning from Sandy Simpson and Nashon about the work to make this land an official conservancy and their hopes to raise the money needed to fully enclose the land with an electric fence that will keep poachers out. (An ongoing problem, for example eland poachers were once caught on this land and are now serving five-year jail sentences.) Ideally, a conservancy could be created in collaboration with other neighboring private landholders, potentially creating a 50,000-acre block of land. Without the protections, hope for the animals that live within the ranch is limited. Even within the expansive Nairobi National Park, which is enclosed on three sides, the fourth side has all but been lost for migrating animals due to extensive human settlement, poaching and poisoning/killing in response to human-animal conflicts (ranchers losing livestock or farmers losing crops to wild animals).

White-backed vultures / Meera Subramanian

The land supports a healthy colony of white-backed vultures, and we also see black-shouldered kites, martial eagles, bustards and more. But surrounding the land is extensive development, including major flower farms and a new concrete factory right next door.

An ostrich with a backdrop of neighboring greenhouses. / Meera Subramanian

Wild giraffes... / Meera Subramanian

...live among cattle whose meat will be sold to the Middle East. / Meera Subramanian

sunset / Meera Subramanian

Arian and Munir around the campfire. / Meera Subramanian

Drew turned 21! And we celebrated with cake and his first (legal) Tusker.

Happy Birthday, Drew! / Teeku Patel

And we did a nighttime safari with Nashon, entering a whole different world inhabited by bush babies, bat-eared foxes, spring hares, African hares, and grey nightjars, as well seeing — in the bright beam of Nashon’s flood light — a huge pack of 20 hyenas.

It seems miraculous that this, like Nairobi National Park, can exist so close to the exploding city of Nairobi, now estimated to be inhabited by 3 million people.

Today we visited Olare Orok Conservancy, 30,000 acres of privately leased lands adjacent to the Masai Mara Reserve. Here’s an explanation from their website:

Olare Orok Conservancy is an intriguing new conservation concept on land-use. Just three years old it has set what is to become the blue-print for sustainability of the greater Masai Mara eco-system. Prior to 2006 the Olare Oroks 30,000 acres of prime grasslands, riverine forests and Acacia woodlands were populated by rural homesteads and grazed in an uncontrolled manner by large herds of cattle, sheep and goats. The eco-system was over-grazed and sustainability of the habitat for both people and wildlife being destroyed. After many workshops with the local Masai it was agreed that a new community conservation vision should be tried. To address sustainability of their land and to add value in both income and conserving vegetation, so that a combination of wildlife tourism and sustainable rotational grazing would create a win-win situation for both the Masai landowners and the wildlife of the Masai Mara eco-system.

James gave us a tour and answered our questions, then showed us their latest project — mowing the fields for hay bales to help generate income, make the land more attractive to certain herbivore grazers, and help balance out the lean times of the year for cattle. The towers of hay serve as a perfect backdrop for a group photo.

Smile! / Teeku Patel

Today our attempts at trapping more birds were in vain. Going to a different part of the reserve, we realized belatedly that the arrival of the wildebeests in the area we were in yesterday is where all the action is. The few bateleur eagles and vultures that took into interest in the trap were chased away by screeching, attacking crowned plovers!

Setting the trap. / Meera Subramanian

A goat head is our lure. / Meera Subramanian

While there is not the animal concentration we saw yesterday, today’s drive through the park gives us a feel for what the Masai Mara feels like most of the year. Still we see hyenas, elephants, bataleur eagles, vultures, impala, and many other birds and animals.

Common zebra / Meera Subramanian

Topi / Meera Subramanian

Crowned crane / Meera Subramanian

African elephant / Meera Subramanian

Pair of tawny eagles / Meera Subramanian

Tawny eagle up close / Meera Subramanian

Secretary bird, a most unusual raptor. / Meera Subramanian

A brief rain turns the red soil slick, but a good heave-ho gets us out.

Push! / Meera Subramanian

The days in the field are long, but picnics under acacia trees allow time for a little r&r.

Drew takes a siesta. / Meera Subramanian

Teeku enjoys the landscape. / Meera Subramanian

Almost ready to call it a day, we stop for a sundowner, watching a storm move across the horizon, bolts of lightning flashing up the dark clouds.

As clouds move in. . .

Just as we were about to load up, a group of wildebeests were startled and a closer look revealed a lion! We went to get a closer look and saw four lionesses lounging in the tall grass, slowly preparing for their evening hunt.

One of a few lionesses. / Meera Subramanian

After madly snapping photos, as the last light faded from the sky, it was time to go. Really. But the park wasn’t done with us. On the way out, we came across another pair of lions. The male snoozed just feet from the vehicles that had gathered to observe.

Lion / Arianwen Jones

You just never know what might be around the next bend when you’re in the wild world.

Hot air balloon tourism / Arianwen Jones

There are still places on earth where wild things happen. As we approached the Masai Mara in southern Kenya , the famed landscape at first appeared to be an overgrazed dustbowl. Masai tribesmen moved across the open grasslands tending their cattle, goats and sheep. But when we entered the reserve this morning as first light brightened the sky, beating even the ticket taker to his post, we encountered a sea of red-oat grass, shin-high, knee-high, thigh-high, rich with the rains, green and ready. Within moments we see two jackals, each with its own half of a small antelope. Around the bend, Chris spots a cheetah sitting poised, elegant, the form instantly recognizable, but REAL, there in front of us. She stands, her belly hanging, and Teeku tells us she’s pregnant. She moves off into the grass, disappearing in perfect camouflage. She emerges and laps from a puddle. She retreats, an awesome arrogance, queen of land-bound speed.

Cheetah / Meera Subramanian

It is just the beginning. We pass an elephant with a criss-crossed tusk. A male ostrich bright pink with lust. Herds of wildebeest moving in single file. By breakfast, as we crack hard-boiled eggs on our knees under an acacia tree, the vultures are soaring. They descend to a wildebeest carcass down the hill from us as we pack up and head down the road. And then in a flurry the scavengers are chased away. Lion! One, then another. But they’re too full to eat it seems. We watch them fifty feet from our Land Rover, close but seeming to not disturb them. Her muscles pop out in definition when she tries to pull the heavy body into the grass. We can hear her panting as she stands over the body, catching her breath. Vultures wait in nearby trees, others kettling above, ten, twenty, forty, sixty as we try to make an accurate count. The lioness passes off her guard to a second female, who emerges from the treeline, and the second sits to eat off the rump of the fallen prey, her muzzle emerged saturated with blood. But together they have barely broken the hide. They are full, bellies hanging, disinterested. They leave, and we watch as the vultures return. In ten minutes they have gutted the creature. White-backs and lappet-faced vultures, and marabou storks fighting over the organs.

Lioness fresh from a wildebeest kill. / Meera Subramanian

When the lions don’t return, Munir cautiously sets the trap — a long line with large noose snares strung along it — as Brian and Arian serve as lion lookout. Twenty minutes later, we’ve caught a white-backed vulture. Evan is out of the jeep in an instant with a blanket to cover her and loosen her talons from the noose, holds her calmly as she vomits bright red innards back out.

White-backed vulture / Meera Subramanian

Vultures on the kill. / Arianwen Jones

Forty minutes later, we’ve attached GPS unit #432 and set her free. Into the wild.

Munir and Evan with a white-backed vulture. / Meera Subramanian

Here is a clip from a BBC show to give you a better feel.

There is more. The wildebeests have begun the migration, though it is early in the season. There are thousands, grunting – humph! humph! There are warthogs, and a single mud-caked buffalo swarming with flies. There are giraffes, legs sprawled to bend down in reach of shrubs. More elephants. More wildebeest. More ostrich. More warthogs. Grey kestrels. Yellow-throated sand grouse. Crowned hornbill. Striped mongoose on their hind legs like meerkats. Lappet-faced vultures. Two tagged vulture resightings. Tawny eagles. Secretary birds. Superb starlings. Rufous-naped larks. Lesser grey shrikes. Antelope. Thomson’s gazelles. A studly impala trailed by his harem. Waterbuck. Topis nodding to us in agreement. More wildebeest. We pass seven carcasses in just a few kilometers. Food. Food. Food drives everything and it is either abundance or death at this moment in the Mara. Grass grows. Grass gets eaten. Calves are born. Mothers are hunted. Wildebeests cross the Mara River and crocs lie in wait. Jackals kill. Jackals are robbed. Everything is immediate. Everything is now.

The Masai tribe — with their distinct red clothing and great herds of cows that they depend on — have become emblematic of Kenya. Touring their manyattas, simple circular villages made of mud huts and surrounded by thorny acacia branches, is often part of visiting the region. Over the course, we visited a few of these, comparing ones that are heavily geared toward tourists (like the one we went to today), and others that we had a rare opportunity to visit through a family member where we could witness the Masai simply going about their daily lives.

We visited the manyatta outside of the growing town of Talek in the Mara and began to think about important questions regarding authenticity. The students are invited to dance with the tribe (men compete to see how high they can jump, and then later, the women stand in a long line singing). We are given a look inside one of their small homes. We watch as they start a fire with sticks. We are offered a wide of array of beaded handicrafts for sale. Throughout we investigate whether they are imparting their cultural heritage or whether we have fallen into nothing more than a tourist trap.The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Masai warriors singing. / Meera Subramanian

Masai dance / Meera Subramanian

Chris joins in the jumping. / Munir Virani

Arian in the long line of women. / Meera Subramanian

Maria joins in on the fun. / Munir Virani

We also visited Basecamp Masai Mara, a local eco-lodge, for a tour. In addition to high-end yet low-impact lodging, the camp is also connected to the Koiyaki Guiding School, which trains local Masai to be naturalist guides, and a women’s collective, where they can make traditional handicrafts for sale in which they receive a much larger percentage of the profits than the conventional sale through a middleman or distribution company. There are no flush toilets, and they collect their rainwater, plant trees and limit their electricity use. Here’s how they heat their water:

Solar hot water heater / Meera Subramanian

In the evening, after settling into Ilkeliani tented camp, Meera taught another environmental journalism class by candlelight before we sat down for dinner, fighting over the Tabasco!

We spent the last two days trapping birds on and around Lake Naivasha. One group loaded up in the van and drove the road that circumnavigates the lake to do a road count of resident raptors with the hopes of trapping and banding some while the other group climbed into boats armed with fish to trap African fish eagles. The next day, we switched.

A brave little mouse was our lure on land. Safe within its cage that was set with fine fishing line snares, an augur buzzard immediately descended, got tangled, and Munir and Evan jumped to release him.

Munir and Evan band an augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

Banding, or ringing, of birds helps biologists track bird populations over time and geography.

Maria holds the augur buzzard before releasing it. / Meera Subramanian

It’s also a chance to experience and learn about the birds up close.

Augur buzzard / Meera Subramanian

As its mate waits in a nearby tree, the buzzard calmly lets us affix the ring to its leg.

Drew releases the next bird, in perfect form, as a curious local looks on. / Meera Subramanian

Meanwhile, on the water, Shiv leads the African fish eagle trapping. First, Shiv shows us how to get our hands dirty, using a carp fish as a lure and setting snare lines through it.

Shiv holds a carp with snares. / Meera Subramanian

Shiv holds a fish eagle, calm with its eyes covered. / Meera Subramanian

Fish eagle populations are doing well at Lake Naivasha, but only more studies will determine whether they are being effected by pollution, changes in the ecosystem and water quality, or the lead that remains from decades of bird hunting on this lake.

Maria and Drew watch as Shiv bands a bird held by Chege. / Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, we visit two flower farms to see their wetlands water filtration system. Homegrown produces both flowers and vegetables.  Oserian is one of, if not the largest flower farm company in Kenya, and a major player in the Naivasha region. Representatives from Oserian came to Elsamere to make a presentation about their company’s ethics, mission and policies. Both companies raise interesting questions about fair trade certification and what it really means. Oserian was proud that they are paying their full-time workers 7,900 shillings per month, which is about a hundred dollars US. Some workers also receive housing, school for their children and health care, but a hundred dollars is still not much money for a month’s labor.

As for their environmental practices, both companies claim to not use WHO Class I pesticides, listed as extremely hazardous. Oserian opts for Integrated Pesticide Management (IPM) instead. What chemicals they are using to produce a million stems of cut flowers each day, though, they refuse to reveal. Both site visits displayed a small area with a series of water containment areas that were filtering not the water coming from the flower production area, but the water from the kitchens, laundries, etc. It was impressive, visually, going from this:

First intake pool. / Meera Subramanian

To this:

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

Last pool. / Meera Subramanian

But where is the rest of the water that makes it back to Lake Naivasha, untreated and unfiltered? And what, exactly does it contain? What might be in the bodies of the fish that are caught and eaten from the lake? No one, at this point, seems to know.

Oserian shows us their wetlands. / Meera Subramanian

Sunrise / Meera Subramanian

In the early morning, we visit Lake Oloiden, the small lake adjacent, and once part of, Lake Naivasha. Flamingos, mostly lesser, with a few greater popping up twice as large, form pink flocks along the shores. The water is a deep green, thick with algae. We keep a distance and run the engine low, but our presence is still mildly disturbing to the birds, which move in a synchronized counter-clockwise motion in unison. Some peel off in flight, the pale pink erupting into flaming florescent and black as their great wings unfold and lift off their pencil-thin bodies. Clunky black beaks pull them forward, a downward frown etched on their faces. Having boats on this lake doing tourism is a new thing and inspires Brian to write a piece about the complicated world of eco-tourism.

Flamingos flying / Arianwen Jones

Flamingos flying. / Arianwen Jones

Meera Subramanian

Lesser flamingo / Meera Subramanian

Cormorants / Meera Subramanian

Meera Subramanian

Rupert Wilson speaks after breakfast. Author of The African Baobob, he is a lawyer who trains in conflict resolution and points out that more and more environmental issues are ripe for facing with this approach. He says he doesn’t believe that the next wars will be fought over water, that it’s simply too necessary. He thinks that the increasing scarcity of the clean drinking water will foster cooperation, not conflict.

In the afternoon, we visit the Mvuke Primary School, a public school of 700 students within the KenGen compound of red-roofed houses, but students include children from surrounding settlements as well as staff kids. Miss Jane meets us, along with two other teachers, including the science teacher. We’re led into a classroom with nearly a hundred middle school students in white and gray uniforms contrasted with striking red ties.

Mvuke Primary School / Munir Virani

They give us a huge round of applause and we say “Hello!” and they all respond in unison. Meera tells them who we are and then tosses out questions to them. How do we protect the environment? (Don’t litter. Don’t cut down trees.) What kinds of birds do you have here? (Pelicans. Flamingos. Eagles. Ducks.) Why are trees important? (They help make rain.) They cheer madly when Munir does the African fish eagle call. Then they ask us questions, and Brian is our star responder. What is the deepest lake in America? (We’re stumped. It’s Crater Lake, we learn later.) What is the longest river? (The Missouri-Mississippi.) How many freshwater lakes do you have? (Who knows exactly, but just one state is called Land of 10,000 Lakes.) What kinds of trees do you have? (Maple. Oak. Pine. Fir. Redwoods.)

Afterward, we go to the home of Sarah Higgins, the local who came as a guest lecturer a few days ago. In addition to being a farmer, she also is a volunteer bird rehabilitator in a country that has no official support for injured birds. She shows us a Wahlberg’s eagle, a pair of crowned eagles, and a tawny eagle that we all fall in love with. It stands, golden as a retriever and nearly as soft looking, its feathers spiked a bit atop its head as it watches us with curiosity and caution both.

Sarah Higgins with a tawny eagle. / Meera Subramanian

A man in a green jumpuit comes out with meat and a falconry glove and lures Tornado to his fist. The bird is stunning. But there’s more. Marsh eagles. A one-winged fish eagle. A pair of augur buzzards. A pelican. A lilac-breasted roller recovering a hurt wing.

Meera Subramanian

And an eagle owl that might not make it.

Meera Subramanian

But Sarah is doing her best to see that at least it has a chance.

Sunrise / Meera Subramanian

With perfect light, we head out again in boats to put some of our new-found knowledge about photography to use.

Munir Virani

We toss some more fish for fish eagles…

African fish eagle / Arianwen Jones

African fish eagle / Arianwen Jones

Meera Subramanian

…and spot other birds as well.

Pied kingfishers / Arianwen Jones

We observe the human use of the lake.

Meera Subramanian

We apply sunscreen liberally.

Meera Subramanian

In the afternoon, Meera dug deeper into environmental journalism, as the class dissected Mark Seal’s Vanity Fair article “A Flowering Evil” about the murder of Joan Root and the impact of flower farms in Naivasha. Then guest lecturer Don Turner, former tourist operator and long-time resident of Lake Naivasha, joins us. His message is heavy. As an older man, he has seen the transformation that has happened in Kenya.

“It’s terrifying to realize that the population of my country has gone from two to 42 million in my lifetime,” he said.

In Naivasha alone, the population has increased a hundred times over in the past 20 years, from 5,000 to half a million. He described the staggering loss of forests, birds, animals, and ecosystems and wondered how we’ll ever be able to offset the carbon being produced in the rising Asian tiger nations.

It is an ongoing challenge for those in (and entering) the field of conservation biology, but we all hope to err on the side of optimism.

Another guest, Rupert Wilson, who will speak tomorrow morning, tried to interject “a spark of optimism”to the conversation.

“Yes, you would have seen more if you’d come ten years ago, but you’re seeing more than if you’d waited to come in another ten.”

We bemoan the loss, even as we watch the ibis perch overhead in the acacias, hear the fish eagle making its last cries of the day.

Among the flower farms, private landholdings, gated communities, and slums that surround Lake Naivasha lies Kedong Ranch. Started in 1974, the 60,000-hectare ranch — that’s a staggering 600 square kilometers — straddles Mount Longonot, Hell’s Gate and Lake Naivasha.  Here’s a satellite image. Hit hard by the drought last year, which killed much of their livestock, there are only 1200 head of cattle, goats and sheep currently grazing on the property. At least legally. Masai commonly bring their cattle onto the property to graze. With only 40 employees, it is impossible to monitor the entire ranch.

To generate income, the ranch runs a tourist lodge, the Longonot Ranch House, and leases some of their land for agricultural production.

Farms with Hell's Gate in the background. / Meera Subramanian

Meera Subramanian

A month after our visit, these same workers will go on strike, rallying for better wages they were promised.

Meera Subramanian

Power lines run through the property, carrying KenGen electricity to Kenya’s growing population and also creating a dangerous zone for birds. We see feathers whose shafts are cracked in a distinct way, showing electrocution.

Meera Subramanian

Later, we find the remains of a stork hanging on a line that must have caught its wing on the lines which are invisible to the fast-moving birds.

Meera Subramanian

Dr. Munir Virani is working on a paper warning about the impact on threatened bird species as electrification efforts increase in Kenya.

The ranch felt oddly empty, although there were some wild game, including zebras. Here, Arian inspects a broken water trough:

Meera Subramanian

Later in the day, Sarah Higgins, a local landowner and member of the Lake Naivasha Watershed Council comes to give a lecture.

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