Saturday, September 25, 2010

Wrap-up in Watamu – dung counts, poachers, and a continuing conflict

We wrapped up fieldwork in Watamu this week, capturing some more birds and collecting their fecal pellets, as well as trapping more arthropods. The fecal pellets have been sent to a forensics lab in Nairobi, where they will be scanned for DNA signatures of different types of insects, so that we can determine the composition of the diets of the birtds (and hence focus our data collection and conservation efforts on those species). We also finished recording turtle nesting habitat data along a 4km stretch of the beach; these data will be combined with similar surveys done throughout this year, so we can discern any patterns between beach condition and turtle nesting frequency.
On our last evening in Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, we did an elephant count data collection practice run. This consists basically of walking along a linear transect, noting any elephant dung piles nearby, and measuring both their distance from the transect as well as their stage of decomposition (from fresh to disintegrated). We’re setting our sights on doing a full comprehensive count in the spring, during the rainy season.
On our way into the forest, we learned that one of the rangers had had a near-fatal encounter with a poisoned elephant trap put in the forest by a poacher. This trap consisted of a sharp knife embedded in a log; the knife had been coated with a concentrated toxic paste of toxins that had been extracted from a local tree. The trap had been laid near a group of downed logs, so that passing elephants might not see it and step on it, injecting the poison into their foot. The poachers are interested in the tusks of the elephant; sadly, the black market for ivory in Africa continues to thrive despite a bevy of national and international restrictions/regulations. The ranger had accidentally stepped on the trap, but miraculously, had been spared because the poison had rubbed off onto his rubber boots before it was able to enter his bloodstream. He is still in recovery; meanwhile, the rangers are redoubling their efforts to find the poachers. This conflict between livelihoods and conservation continues to rage both here and across the globe – conservation biologists are finally starting to focus more on providing alternate sources of incomes for local peoples who historically have depended on hunting and other forms of extraction of biodiversity – but it may be too little, too late in many areas. For our part, continuing to unravel the mystery of how best to foster biodiversity in reserves like Arabuko-Sokoke may be some small help – the more that is known about the wildlife/biodiversity there, the more visitors to the area may include a forest visit in their beach-going itinerary – and hence the more revenues the Forest Service will receive for ongoing conservation efforts. The real trick is to tie things together so that locals (especially the residents of the 50+ villages that ring the reserve) also receive direct benefits from this cascade – and also begin to take more interest in sustainable forest stewardship.
For now, it’s kwaheri to Kenya – until next time!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jambo from Kenya!

Jambo from Kenya! I am on the east coast about an hour and a half north of Mombasa, at the Mwamba Bird Observatory & Field Centre. Nestled here at the facility on the Indian Ocean, I and three UWT students have been doing fieldwork for a few ongoing research projects. We spent the last few days in the nearby Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, catching birds in mist nets with a colleague (ornithologist Colin Jackson, Director here at Mwamba) and his team. As the birds are “ringed” (banded for future identification), we have been collecting fecal pellet samples that we’ll have analyzed at a forensics lab in Nairobi for DNA from different types of arthropods in order to better establish what the birds are eating. At the same time, we’re setting traps and catching ground-dwelling arthropods (beetles, spiders, etc.) in order to see where in the nearly 400 sq. km forests reserve their diversity and abundance is higher or lower. Since arthropods constitute a major part of many of the birds’ diets, we hope this work will go a long way towards better understanding (and ultimately protecting) several of the endangered species found here – especially the East Coast Akalat (Sheppardia gunningi), which is found almost exclusively here. This collaboration with the ornithologists here at Mwamba began in 2007, and we are making plans to continue for the next several years. One of the things we discovered last year was that African elephants (who roam freely in most of the reserve, constrained by an electrified fence that runs around most of the perimeter) seem to have a substantial effect on beetles and the organic leaf litter in which many of them thrive – could the elephants be having an indirect effect on the birds by affecting their food? One thing we’re doing as part of this investigation is attempting to count the elephants – next Wednesday we’ll do a practice run for a more comprehensive elephant count that we hope to conduct early next year during the rainy season. Counting elephants here consists mostly of counting piles of dung along kilometers of transects – the elephants themselves are very difficult to find in the dense forest cover!

Out on the beach, we’re undertaking another type of research. The beachfront here in Watamu is in fact a marine reserve, and it turns out to be very important nesting habitat for a variety of sea turtles. The turtles crawl up out of the ocean at night and deposit their eggs in the sand, making a Herculean effort that often takes two or three hours. The condition of the beach habitat is critical to their nesting (and hatching) success – so we are characterizing it in terms of the amount of plastic pieces and the quality of the vegetation covering the area. We are in the process of seeing if beach habitat condition correlates with nesting frequency – there is some evidence so far that the turtles do nest more often in those parts of the beach here that have more intact vegetation cover.
We’re here for another week or so doing fieldwork – then it’s back to Nairobi (a long dusty 10 or 11 hour drive on often rough roads) – I’ll give a talk on our research there at the National Museums of Kenya before beginning the long journey back home!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Notes from España

Greetings from Spain - I've been here the past two weeks attending a workshop and giving seminars. The workshop, which was held in La Mancha (the central region made famous in part by Cervantes' beloved fictional character, Don Quixote), focused on bringing an ecological modelling perspective to some particularly challenging problems in cancer biology. Our group of interdisciplinary scientists included applied mathematicians, ecologists, cancer biologists and physicians - and we spent several days trying to generate some new ideas to tackle some old problems. The workshop was sponsored by the James S. McDonnell Foundation and the Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, and was quite productive - we have plans to publish some conceptual articles, submit some grant proposals for experimental work (my group focused especially on problems in neuro-oncology), and plan a larger follow-up meeting sometime in the next year.

Today I gave a seminar at the headquarters of the Estación Biologica de Doñana, an ecological research center based futher south in Seville, where I have been spending the last week. Tomorrow, I'm heading even further south - down to Kenya, where I'll meet up with a team of UWT students and head to the coast to continue research on elephants, birds, and arthropods. I'll post updates once work is underway there - our first big challenge will be to organize and conduct an elephant census in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest!