Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Human-forest mutualisms in Kenya

Preparing to enter kaya Kinondo

I have just wrapped up a  two-week expedition in coastal Kenya, where, along with colleagues from Michigan State University, I've been helping lay the groundwork for research that explores the mutualistic relationship between coastal forests and nearby local villagers. Working with local collaborators that include the National Museums of Kenya, A Rocha Kenya, and the Kenya Forestry Research Institute, we have been meeting with members of local Community Forest Associations around Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, Dakatcha Woodlands, Shimba Hills, and a few sacred forests ("kayas") around Mombasa and the South Coast. Many of these villagers (which consist of members of several of the nine tribes that constitute the Mijikenda coastal tribes, who originated from Somalia) rely on forest products such as cut stems/poles for fuelwood, charcoal production, and wood carving - all responsible for negative effects on forest ecosystems that are well-documented in this part of the world. At the same time, many villagers living adjacent to forests also contribute positive benefits to forest ecosystems, including such activities as planting native tree and plant species and beekeeping. Our interest is in documenting such human-forest mutualisms, comparing them with biodiversity metrics in a range of habitats subject to different governance systems. Furthermore, we hope to engage local residents in participatory planning processes to positively increase the scope and impact of these human-forest mutualisms.

Wood carvers at Lunga Lunga, Kenya-Tanzanian border

Colobus monkey, kaya Kinondo

Sunset, Indian Ocean

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The coast!

Mastatal sunset

Tarantula - Mastatal night hike

Thursday morning we said farewell to Mastatal and headed westward down the road towards Parrita and the coastal plain. Cruising through miles and miles of oil palms (a major crop on the Pacific side of Costa Rica - oil from the fruits are processed at factories along the coast), we entered the more heavily developed Pacific coastal zone and headed south to Quepos and Manuel Antonio. We spent most of the day in Manuel Antonio - Costa Rica's most popular national park - which was indeed very popular as it was filled with both international and domestic visitors taking advantage of the Semana Santa holiday! We had a guided nature hike in the morning, featuring many wildlife sightings (including bats, sloths, and monkeys!) followed by some downtime to enjoy the beach during the afternoon.
At Manuel Antonio National Park

Smiling sloth!
Chestnut-mandibled toucan

We spent Thursday and Friday nights at Hacienda Baru, a wildlife refuge about a half hour south of Manuel Antonio; Friday we headed north again for a tour of the mangrove ecosystem on the coast. Boarding a small covered boat, we wended our way through a network of canals lined with several species of mangrove.  We wrapped up our stay on the coast Saturday morning with a visit from Jack Ewing, the founder and proprietor of Hacienda Baru before heading north to San Jose and the flight home!

Mangrove tour
Jack Ewing discussing the history of Hacienda Baru

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Life in Mastatal

In Santa Maria de Dota

We are finishing up our fourth day here in the small rural village of Mastatal – we are  now over halfway through our Costa Rica expedition. We rolled in Saturday evening after spending the morning in San Marcos visiting a coffee farm way up in the highlands and stopping for lunch in town…all settled into open-air bunks upon arrival in Mastatal, and were greeted by a cacophony of bird sounds the next morning. A tour of the Villas Mastatal, the sustainability center and organic farm where we are staying, was followed by a hike through the rainforest to a waterfall – terrific relief from the heat and humidity down here in the lowlands!  Sunday night we all went into town to have dinner at the community center, followed by a rousing evening of Bingo (Nicole was our big winter, taking home two different prizes!). Monday morning we had a tour of another nearby sustainability center (Rancho Mastatal)  and then took another hike through tropical forest to a river where we all swam with local Costa Rican families enjoying the afternoon. This week, the one before Easter, is Semana Santa – kids are out of school and many families are on holiday.
Villas Mastatal, with La Cangeja National Park in background

Enjoying fresh watermelon in the dormatorio, Villas Mastatal

Nicole with a big win at bingo night in Mastatal!

Hiking the river at Villas Mastatal
Monday evening everyone had a chance to experience a homestay, pairing up to spend the night with local families. This morning all reunited at the local primary school and did some service work, transplanting some grasses and trees onto a steep slope adjacent to the school.
Yesterday afternoon we were visited by a local “medicine man” from the nearby indigenous village of Zapaton. He described several various local forest plants that are traditionally used for medicinal purposes – a great chance for students to get a glimpse of a different (and fading fast) world! We finished off the afternoon by making straw baskets in the traditional manner of the residents of Zapaton.
Visiting with Gerardo from Zapaton

Tree planting in Mastatal

Today we started off the day by planting native trees around a spring (water source) at Villas Mastatal - in addition to offsetting our carbon footprint stemming from the flights to get to our Costa Rice Expedition, these plantings will help shade the water source and help stabilize the riparian zone. We planted over 45 plants in under two hours - hitting our estimated 2-3 plants per person target to offset the carbon output associated with our trip. In the afternoon we hiked up to see a cacao plantation belonging to local farmer Juan Luis - and then spent a few hours learning about chocolate production - including a hands-on session extracting seeds and grinding them to make chocolate confections (which we also sampled extensively!). We celebrated our time in Mastatal with a big send-off, eating homemade pizzas made in Javier's earth oven. Tomorrow it's off to the coast!
Hiking down from cacao plantation
With Juan Luis in the cacao plantation

Processing cacao
Crossing the river during our cacao hike

Enjoying confections at La Iguana Chocoolate!

Pizza night farewell to Villas Mastatal!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

TarrazĂș - coffee, coffee everywhere!

Leaving the Central Valley behind!

We began our first full day in Costa Rica with an open-air breakfast in the Alajuela hotel, followed by a drive across the Central  Valley through the old capital city of Cartago, and up into the highlands to the TarrazĂș coffee growing region. In the town of Santa Maria de Dota, surrounded by hillsides covered with coffee fields, we had lunch at the home of a local coffee farmer. In the afternoon we had a tour of the CoopeDota coffee mill and roaster in town (which included lessons in coffee tasting - and the chance to buy coffee directly from the cooperative) followed by a terrific barbecue dinner this evening. Spirits were high as everyone retired early in anticipation of a long day tomorrow  - we’ll get up for an early breakfast before heading out to explore some more coffee farms en route to the rainforest.

Checking out Dota coffee varieties
The group checking out the sun-dried coffee process
Coffee tasting at Dota

Visiting a coffee farm
Lunch in Santa Maria de Dota

On the bus!
The Expedition Fellows group, consisting of freshmen and sophomores from UW Tacoma, along with Peer Advisor Gloria Shin, had a chance tonight to meet a UWT graduate who is living in Costa Rica with his family for the next few years conducting research for his Ph.D. Levi Keesecker, who was an Environmental Science major, is now a graduate student at the University of Idaho in an interdisciplinary program that culminates in a two-year fieldwork stint in Costa Rica in conjunction with CATIE, a university in Turrialba that focuses on applied ecology & sustainable agriculture. The students had a chance to hear about Levi’s pathway to graduate school (including international experiences doing research in Costa Rica and Yucatan while an undergraduate at UWT) while enjoying tonight’s barbecue dinner – hopefully an inspiration for some as they learn more about opportunities available to them!

Friday, March 22, 2013

Expedition Fellows 2013 - Costa Rica!

UW Tacoma Expedition Fellows is underway - we are all settled in Alajuela, Costa Rica, ready for an exciting 10-day adventure. Tomorrow morning we are heading up to the highlands, where we'll spend a few days exploring the process of coffee production, from farm to roasting...then we'll head down into the mountains to spend several days in a small farming community doing some community service, restoration planting, and learning about tropical forests and cacoa plantations....then it's off to the coast for a few days to check out mangrove ecosystems and explore coastal ecotourism development. Stay tuned for more updates on our adventure!

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Sampling wrap-up!

Wrapping up sampling in the shambas

Orb weaver - one of many beautiful specimens around sampling sites!

We finished up our sampling of shamba habitat this week, collecting from two more farms on the eastern side of the Gede National Monument. Some anxiety during our last 24hrs of sampling, as the farm in which we set up was full of goats - some of whom seemed to be eyeing our malaise tents with a lean and hungry look (see photo below). Luckily all of our traps survived the night intact - concluding 27 plot samples over the course of the past several weeks. We celebrated with an overnight trip to nearby Tsavo East National Monument and some rugby viewing this weekend - Monday we'll do some gps mapping in the Gede ruins, and then prepare for our long journey back to the U.S.!

The goat menace!

Sunset over Tsavo East National Park, east of Gede research site
Staple foods at Mwamba (ugali and sukuma wiki - delish!)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

No more monkeying around

Sampling for arthropods near the outer wall of the ancient city of Gede

After a successful monkey-free sampling round in the forest on the far side of the Gede ruins, we decided to take a more practical approach at re-sampling the site where our traps were under siege a few days ago. After much discussion, our field assistant Simon volunteered to hang out at the site all day yesterday in order to deter any monkey mischief. Our primate friends were in full evidence as we arrived at the site in the morning to put up traps; we also saw a few duikers (who apparently have a strong affinity for soapy water - hence posing a continuing threat to our pan and pitfall traps) running about. We set up our traps to the sounds of Hadada Ibis and the near constant (and seemingly mocking) call of the  Trumpeter Hornbill (check out its mournful if somewhat annoying call here), and then Simon settled in for the day - with provisions for food & water, of course!

Simon preparing to hunker down for the day on monkey patrol!
At the end of the day, our scheme paid off - Simon did indeed have to chase off monkey troupes a few times - but our traps held fast and we got some great data this morning! We travelled to a nearby shamba (farmstead) and set up traps there - the first of three days of farm sampling to round out our comparisons (diversity in the regenerated forest vs. established forest vs. farmland). Back on track, we're busy sorting insects this afternoon - and hoping to take in some Saturday night rugby on tv at a local bar this evening!

Jake hoisting malaise with Stanley at the shamba

Meg helping with set-up at the shamba

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Monkey trouble

Malaise downed by monkeys!
Duiker prints by empty pitfall
Today marks the end of our first week of fieldwork this expedition - to commemorate this milestone, we arrived to the field site this morning to find that monkeys apparently enjoyed themselves last night deconstructing our experimental set up! Malaise traps were knocked over, and pitfall and yellow pan traps were flung about - basically undoing our last 24 hours of sampling work. This comes a day after we found some of our pitfalls and pan traps licked clean by what appeared to be a forest duiker (small antelope in the genus Cephalophus) with a taste for soapy water. This morning we collected what we could, and reset traps in a nearby forest site on the other side of the Gede Ruins archealogical site. We're hoping that this round will go smoothly - it's in the same reference forest, but far enough away that it is ruled by a different (and hopefully less mischievous) monkey troupe (which we saw moving through the trees upon our arrival). Tomorrow we'll know if this incident was a one-off - or if we need to get serious about guarding our experimental set-up from marauding monkeys 24/7!

Don't be misled by that innocent look!

(and they can also pretty hazardous to scientific research as well!)

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Setbacks in the field - get your Sisyphus on!

Apiary crops up in the forest
A house fit for bees...in the middle of regen plot!/!
Fully underway in the field at week's end - our second day in the regenerated forest we were surprised to see that an entire house was being constructed in one of our experimental plots!  Apparently this is to be an apiary to replace the managed honeybee colonies scattered about in the regen area - but in order to build it, some clearing of native trees planted 20+ years ago occurred. Luckily we were able to find a suitable replacement plot neraby for our diversity sampling - and fieldwork continues...
This sort of thing is unfortunately not too uncommon in conservation work - despite the best efforts of several local groups to establish and study plots such as the restoration area where we're working, there are constant tensions over land use. Furthermore, it seems that the group that decided to clear the area (without consultation of any of the team working on the restoration) could have easily set up the  apiary in a less sensitive area nearby - at best it seems poor communication and coordination were happening here. These types of miscommunications are happening in all conservation realms here on the coast - from the inland dry forest to the marine zone, where poaching continues unabated despite widespread education compaigns aimed at  highlighting the short-sightedness of overfishing/overharvesting for short-term gain in areas where many people's livelihoods depend on sustainable resources. Despite all, good work carries on - the spirit of Sisyphus (the Corinthian king from Greek mythology condemned to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll back down - for eternity) is alive and well here on the coast - lots of people working together to tackle complex multi-faceted conservation issues!
Field crew in Gede, undeterred!