Monday, November 10, 2014

A call for a more holistic approach to conservation science

Conducting our fieldwork in the Gede restoration forest this week, we learned that there are large challenges looming for conservation in the vicinity. The Kenyan government has given permission to an energy company to explore for oil & gas in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, the main site where we have been working the past several years (and just 2km away from where we are doing fieldwork this week). This exploration will entail cutting large (4m-wide) swaths through the three different forest habitat types (Brachystegia woodland, Cynometra thicket, and Mixed forest) in order to sink drills deep into the ground - potentially disastrous for the resident wildlife, not to mention the integrity of the forest reserve. A Chinese company that has been subcontracted to conduct the exploratory drilling has decamped to a (former) corn field just adjacent to our restoration forest plots in Gede. The local newspapers summarized the situation in a a story they ran late in the week
View of BGP staging area for oil/gas exploration from our study site

This type of threat to the preservation of forest habitat and rare animals is, sadly, not uncommon - witness the ongoing challenges to conservation and indigenous rights faced in the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. Arabuko-Sokoke Forest (ASF) is home to a critical mass of endangered/threatened birds and mammals, and, as the last remaining big patch of coastal forest in East Africa, is extremely critical to numerous conservation efforts. For the past five years I've been working with a local NGO that has amassed a ton of data on many of the endangered species in the forest; together we've worked to collect more data and publish scientific papers that try to describe the habitat needs of threatened bird species as well as the complexities of managing for a disparate array of wildlife  (including a herd of African elephants) in the confined space of a small forest reserve, among other things. But arguably a much bigger threat to conservation is the fact that ASF is also ringed by 50+ villages of Giriama (one of the nine coastal ethnic groups that comprise the Mijikenda) residents - with a total population of 100,000 or so local residents who have historically relied to varying degrees on forest products (bushmeat, wood for charcoal production & fuelwood, etc.). Reducing some of the pressure on the forest associated with such intense anthropogenic disturbances is key to conserving the Arabuko habitat and the species within, of course. And, as elsewhere in tropical biodiversity hotspots, there have been some well-meaning and effective programs established over the years aimed at providing alternative incoming generating activities for locals, including butterfly rearing and bee-keeping programs as well as a terrific environmental education scheme. But these can seem woefully inadequate in scale when put in a geopolitical context. 

     Of course, apart from the poaching concerns, there is also the ever-present issue of security in this country - as I write this, rioting youth have blocked the streets with coral and burning tires in nearby Timboni village in protest over the inaction of police in response to a killing in the streets of Watamu Saturday night. The ongoing battle with Al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia (a conflict which just marked its fourth year anniversary) and its attendant unrest also continues to threaten stability throughout the country. This ultimately leads to heightened threats to the environment: as tourism has plummeted due to security concerns, many people have been reduced to relying on dwindling forest and marine resources for survival.

The challenge for conservation science is incorporating all of these issues into cogent, practical, and effective solutions. A scientific approach to the underlying ecological issues is of course absolutely essential -- as is a fierce and passionate dedication to the conservation of biodiversity. At the same time, conservation strategies that willfully ignore the basic needs and misunderstand the culture of local people will never be effective or sustainable. Working together with local communities to solve social, economic, and environmental challenges will be the key here. Several recent articles circulating in the scientific community have argued eloquently for a more holistic, inclusive approach to conservation science - a call that extends to working to ensure an increased diversity of perspectives within the scientific community as well. This approach would be well-suited to situations such as the ones facing many communities here in coastal Kenya.
     In the meantime, here on the ground in Kilifi District, a number of local community groups along with concerned NGOs presented the governor with a petition protesting the oil & gas exploration plan a few days ago. Let's hope this diverse array of voices will be heard, and more rationale attitudes prevail -- we already face enough challenges!


Saturday, November 8, 2014

Gede fieldwork underway!

Sampling arthropod biodiversity with Kirao and Arnold in Gede restoration forest

With the help of intrepid field assistants Kirao and Arnold (local residents with the intern/volunteer program at A Rocha Kenya), we have been getting it done in the restoration forest at Gede Ruins. Each morning we've been putting out pitfall traps full of soapy water to capture  ground-dwelling arthropods (spiders and beetles), and malaise traps designed to capture flying insects (wasps/bees, beetles, flies). I have brought two kinds of malaise traps (visible in above picture) with me for this expedition -- a large white trap that is anchored on the ground and captures insects flying up to a meter or so off the ground, and another smaller gray trap that can be hung from trees used to capture insects flying around two meters above the ground. Each of these traps has a collecting chamber at the top of the netting material; insects flying into the netting make their way upwards (towards the light) and fly into the chamber, falling into alcohol with which we have charged the trap. We also put out yellow bowls full of soapy water, which attracts wasps and bees. Each morning we collect the specimens from all of the traps, and bring them back here to the Mwamba Field Centre , where we transfer them to vials containing 70% alcohol sorted by type (Order) of insect. I will deliver the specimens to a colleague at the National Museums of Kenya in Nairobi before flying back to the U.S. next week.
Kirao and Arnold placing scarab (dung) beetles into vials.
For this expedition, we are exploring the effects that the presence of Neem (Azadirachta indica) trees may have on arthropod communities. Neem has insecticidal properties -- the seeds are used to make biorational pesticides -- so it's possible that the mere presence of the tree may deter insects from lingering in plots with high concentrations of Neem. Our traps are designed to measure activity of insects/arthropods in the plots -- because they are "passive traps", they don't measure overall abundance -- so they are well-suited to comparing activity among plots with different concentrations of Neem. Our preliminary results from our last sampling expedition indicate that there may be a pattern, so we're checking to see if any sort of pattern emerges from a larger number of replicated plots.
Neem tree in Gede Ruins

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hurry up and wait! or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the journey

On the tarmac in Nairobi

Day three here on the Kenyan coast, and we have finally placed our first arthropod traps in the nearby Gede restoration forest.

Yesterday was a day spent wrangling with various bureaucratic headaches - replete with frantic phone calls/texts to colleagues back at the Nairobi headquarters of the National Museums of Kenya - the organization that oversees operations of the Gede National Monument here on the coast where we're working. As is often the case here, our dialogue was full of nuance and intimation - eventually it became clear that a sticking point was my lapsed membership as an Affiliate Member of the National Museums of Kenya.
By the end of the day we had resolved that upon my renewal (and accompanying fee payment), we would be allowed access into the forest to do our research. Thus ensued a frantic afternoon rushing into town to take care of transferring money via M-pesa, a cell phone-based service for which Kenya is quite well known (The Economist has highlighted this service several times recently, praising it's simplicity and practicality). Once we were able to load the money onto our phone, we then simply sent it to our colleague's phone in Nairobi, and we were all set.

M-pesa station, Watamu
This morning, as promised, we were allowed access to the forest (after another hourlong delay - but who's counting?) - finally putting in traps to capture ground-dwelling and flying insects in the restoration forest. We're looking forward to returning in the morning to see what we've caught!