A Monday in the Life of a Conservation Biologist

Report From International Intern, Nathan Dowds

From the age of 16 and with the experience of volunteering in a conservation project in the Peruvian amazon, I knew that conservation was the right career choice for me.My love of Africa developed when doing further conservation work in Tanzania before university. Having completed my bachelor’s degree in Zoology from the University of Manchester and obtaining a Masters in conservation and Biodiversity from the University of Exeter I was ready to begin my career. In April 2016, after flying into Nairobi, I assumed the position of Intern & Research Center Coordinator at the Elephants & Bees Project in Taita-Taveta county, Kenya. The below account is a brief insight into what a Monday is for me, in my opinion much more interesting and rewarding than a normal 9-5 office job!

I wake up at 7am and have breakfast, which has been prepared for us by our intern Jess, after washing in our outdoor shower (bucket and scoop) I am ready to start the Monday morning briefing. This is where the other interns, our two excellent staff members Emmanuel and Nzumu and I formulate a loose plan for the week to come. As always with conservation, this is likely to change as new details come forward and work has to be prioritized. During the meeting it is decided that we need to finish monitoring the beehive fences in Mwakoma village and complete the monitoring in Mwambiti, along with the usual school lesson on Wednesday afternoon. We are currently in the midst of harvesting the hives, so we work a rota of which beehive fence farms to visit each evening. In addition to this, we work out when we can process the honey that we collected in the previous evenings. Emmanuel takes the opportunity to alert us that two of our beehive fence farmers were raided by elephants the previous night, so Emmanuel, Edwin (Kenyan intern) and I will proceed to track the elephants after the meeting. This is vital in order to gain necessary GPS data of the paths the elephants take and to increase our knowledge on how effective the beehive fences are.

Some of the tick bush we encounter when out tracking

Some of the thick bush we encounter when out tracking

After the meeting Simon Trevor unexpectedly arrives at the center enquiring about where would be a good place to film our crop raiding elephants. Simon is currently filming around Tsavo East National Park to create three documentaries about the history and current situation of the park. After showing him some of our recent tracking data I decide that it would be easiest to jump in his car and show him the best place to spot the crop-raiders. I take him to the water pan in Mwakoma village, this is an artificial watering hole created by the villagers to provide water for their livestock, however it is also used by crop-raiding elephants for a drink before they start their night’s raid. This pushes back our plan to go tracking a little while, but as the nature of fieldwork you always have to be flexible and adjust to anything that comes your way.

Emmanuel measuring the diameter of elephant foot prints to gauge what age the elephants we are tracking are.

Emmanuel measuring the diameter of elephant foot prints to gauge what age the elephants we are tracking are.

Once back at the center the three trackers get into our Landover and proceed to drive as close as we can to where the elephants were reported to have raided. Initially this is at our farmer Silas’ shamba (farm). We arrive at the shamba and have a look around before starting to collect any data, in order to figure out which direction they enter and where they left. We discover that last nights raid was a very large group of elephants, with about 11 individuals, including two bulls. Once we have figured out their route, I start up the GPS and proceed to track their footprints using pugmarks and signs in the vegetation to figure out their route. Whilst I am doing this Emmanuel and Edwin complete a crop-raid assessment form of Silas’ shamba, showing what crops the elephants ate and their route through the shamba. After completing this we track the elephants to Charity’s Shamba (another beehive fence farmer), luckily they only entered the shamba briefly before turning east and heading towards the National Park. We continue tracking the elephants, measuring any good-quality footprints which can be used to gain an estimate of their age. In addition any dung we find, we break up and see what the elephants have been eating previously. This is very important as the digestion status can also be used to gauge the age of the elephant and any seeds found within the dung gives an indication as to whether or not they have crop-raided recently.

Inspecting elephant dung bolus to estimate age and assess what they have been eating.

Inspecting elephant dung bolus to estimate age and assess what they have been eating and whether they have crop raided.

We follow the tracks to another one of our beehive-fence farmers, Nzai, two elephants were found to have briefly entered his area before retreating the way that they came in. We decide to have a break at his shamba, by this time it is already 1.30pm and around 31 Celsius. We don’t know how long we’ll be out, so need to rest before continuing to track. After a fifteen minute or so break we continue tracking the elephants back towards Tsavo East NP. Edwin talks to a Somali camel herder who says that he saw 3 large bulls pass through Nzais’ shamba around midday. I decide to end the track here as we know that elephants do not move long distances during the middle of the day and are likely resting in the bush a close distance away, better to be safe than sorry and not to encounter an elephant in the bush!

Crop raiding elephants - photo captured in one of our beehive fence farmers shambas

Crop raiding elephants – photo captured in one of our farmers shambas.

We walk back to our car and drive back to camp, Emmanuel goes for his lunch break and Edwin and I have some lunch. Realizing how tired I am from this morning and the previous few weeks I decide to take a nap back in my tent for a few hours in the afternoon.

Once awakening I grab a quick cup of coffee and a snack and proceed to help the team great ready for the honey harvest tonight. Our local tracker Nashon has been joining us the past week or so for night work in order to give some extra man power. He turns up at 5.30 pm and we leave at 6pm to drive to Kara Kara’s shamba. From there we unload all the equipment and walk a short distance to Jennifer’s. By this time it is almost dark so the five of us of get suited up quickly, taking care to tape up our bee suits as otherwise we will get stung by these highly aggressive African honeybees. Once the farmer has given us some hot coals from their fire we are able to light the smoker, and begin the harvesting process, we anticipated that two hives were ready for harvest so obtaining honey from these two beehives was our target. We returned after much success gaining honey, whilst removing our bee suits, Nashon’s keen eye spotted one elephant eating maize a mere 100m from where we are! We call Jennifer and her and her dogs scare the elephant away. We quickly gather our things and walk back to the car.

The trusty landrover - that is essential for all our project work.

The trusty Landrover – that is essential for all our project work.

Back at the center, the team unloads the car whilst I quickly get changed into some non-sweaty clothes, so that I can drive Nashon back to his shamba. It is too dangerous to walk long distances at night in this area, due to the presence of elephants. Once the car is unloaded I proceed to drive Nashon back, which is about an hour round-trip along a dirt road then a bit of off-roading. After dropping Nashon off, I see a civet running across the path! Last week I saw a honey badger, and I’m sure I’ll see more in that area at night. I arrive back at the center at 10pm, grab some food and head to bed eager for the next day. Definitely beats the old 9-5. 

Comments are closed