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!

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