Life in the Undergrowth
Field Report by Intern Josh Clay, Elephants and Bees Project
This is Harry. He is mad in general and mad about snakes in particular.
He has all the makings of a brilliant naturalist. His uniform at E&B is a strict regime of ill-fitting Hawaiian shirts and just-that-little-bit-too-short-shorts. Harry can be found spending most of his spare time catching snakes, often shirtless, and regularly presenting his findings to an often-reluctant campsite audience. Oh, and he also has a PhD in Venom Pharmacology.
During the first week of my internship at the E&B camp, Harry emerged from his tent after dinner – head torch tightly applied, and short shorts pulled up as far as they could go – announcing that he was going on a night walk; and would anyone like to join him. My inner Gerry Durrell somersaulted at the prospect. Night walks in England are a tame affair. One might expect to see a badger or if lucky, chance upon a hedgehog, and although I admire the Springwatchbrigade’s perennial zeal for closeups of red squirrels or bluetits, compared to Kenya, there is no contest.
In this country however, a night walk in a conservancy or in a National Park may grant you that closeup of a leopard or buffalo, but it’ll likely be your last. So the rural lanes of Sagalla promised to be the Goldilocks bowl of non-fatal biodiversity spotting I had been hoping for.
As if on cue, we hadn’t even left the campsite before we spotted a large centipede meandering through the courtyard. A sizeable beastie, quick and purposeful, it certainly did not give the impression of wanting to start a new friendship with two sweaty and excitable giants.
I am not sure about you, dear reader, but my initial instinct upon encountering a centipede was certainly not that of Dr Williams’. Whilst I was busy thinking about how to inspect it from afar, Harry immediately bent down and gently and deftly scooped it into his hands.
“Ethmostigmus trigonopodus I believe. Tanzanian blue legged. Very misunderstood creatures, centipedes, they don’t bite nearly as often as they are made out to.”
I was mesmerised. Watching it spiral around his forearm, his comments reminded me of another lover of much maligned beasts, Rubeus Hagrid.
trigonopodus is a member of the family Scolopendridae, which consist of the largest centipedes in the world. A quick Wikipedia search later that evening vindicated my reservations about getting too close and personal: “All Scolopendra species can deliver a painful bite, injecting venom through their forcipules, which are not fangs or other mouthparts, but instead modified legs.” Charming. However, after spending time with Harry, what quickly becomes clear is that cultivating a more accurate understanding of these creatures’ behaviours leads one to stop recoiling and to start feeling quite fond of them.
Scanning left to right like clammy lighthouses, our flip flops gently flapping, we turned off the main road and up the nearest shrubby path. The April rains have prompted Sagalla to erupt into verdant splendour and the path was adorned in a blanket of Ipomoea mombassana, now neatly folded up awaiting the morning. The stench leeching across the road from the pig farm, euphemistically named “Pork Palace”, was replaced with a delicious, sweet aroma that wafted over us in gentle waves. The fragrant culprit was Thunbergia guerkeana, a climber whose long, white flowers jump out in long trumpets that are believed to be pollinated by hawk moths.
Our headtorches illuminated several immaculately maintained trapdoors, their arachnid inhabitants’ legs flickering as we passed. We both stopped to examine a solifugid patrolling the lane. Despite what I said earlier, it is with these creatures that even Harry draws the line on handling. He confessed that he finds their speed quite unsettling and of course I agree with him.
They are, however, fascinating if rather little-known arthropods. Neither a spider, nor a scorpion, but a disconcerting combination of the two, Solifugids are the missing biological link you wish you didn’t know about. They lack what’s known as (to almost no one other than arthropodologists) a pedicel. In layperson’s terms, this means they are unable to produce silk or webs. Instead of setting traps, they actively seek out their victims and are the formidable possessors of two pedipalps: two protruding sense organs that do not quite touch the ground and are used to detect obstacles and prey. They storm about the undergrowth, and as we later discovered, along branches, wielding their pedipalps like menacing lances. To top off their fearsome repertoire, they are fast. Very fast. And are able to reach speeds of 16kpmh. Solifugids’ least horror-inducing attribute is their rather elegant name which translates as “those that flee from the sun”. Although, after reading this you are probably a solifugid-fugid.
After pausing briefly to look at several cockroaches, crickets, and a legion of Siafu, we happened upon one of the night’s more easily lovable creatures: Kinyonga, or chameleons. Whilst they are in fact diurnal, chameleons are significantly easier to spot after dark. And how thankful I am that they are. To be able to see a chameleon, almost every time one ventures out on a night walk around Sagalla will never cease to thrill. We met four of these charismatic creatures that evening. All of whom looked thoroughly unimpressed to be ogled at, but as I’m sure you will agree, it is difficult not to.
Harry informed me that they were slender, or graceful chameleons (Chamaleo gracilis) and soberly declared:
“I hate waking these guys up, so we might have to just look at it from here.”
I nodded reluctantly, thinking come on, the camera crew aren’t here mate, you can save that for your Netflix series…
“But since he’s awake anyway, let’s get him down and have a closer look.”
That’s what I’m talking about!
This little beauty was smaller than Harry’s thumb. After initially flaring up to make itself seem large, it soon calmed down and started to crawl along his hand. This brought into focus its tiny feet, whose terminology would impress any Scrabble professional. They are of course: zygodactylous (32 points). However, for a creature that can list changing colour, a tongue longer than its body which can fire at its prey in less than 0.07 seconds, and eyes that can move independently of each other, having two toes that face in opposite directions from each other perhaps isn’t quite as impressive.
Graceful chameleons, as my good friend The Internet later informed me, are one of the most extensively exported chameleon species. The majority are destined to live out their lives as pets in the U.S., but a significant percentage are dried to be used in what must surely be amongst every conservationist’s two favourite words: Traditional Medicine. Fear not, they are widespread over much of the African continent and their numbers don’t appear to show signs of decline.
Still reeling from our chameleon encounter, Harry then spotted something that really made him giddy: a sand boa. He told me excitedly that this whopper was Eryx colubrinus. A real beauty. As he rattled off its entire life cycle and habits, the boa weaving around his fingers, Harry’s lisp suddenly made complete sense, subtly supporting his passion for all things slithery, it was clear that handling and talking about snakes is what he was meant to do. A dead cert for Slytherin.
Our final meeting was with a spider who, upon closer inspection, turned out to be hundreds of spiders. Arachnophobes may want to look away now. This lovely lady is a female wolf spider, and her attractive spots are actually her young which she will carry on her abdomen like this for several weeks. No other spider species are known to carry their young in this manner. It isn’t just chameleons that are sweet.
A few days later, we left camp in the morning for a weekend trip to Tsavo East. As we drove out, we passed a group of twenty men with pangas heading up the path we had taken. When we returned on Sunday, it was quite clear that the guys had spent their weekend doing a spot of pruning, and the path had now become the beginnings of a road.
Whilst not necessarily spelling doom and gloom for the creatures that called this place home, events like this serve as pertinent reminders that this is a landscape undergoing rapid change. New farms are emerging every year, more bush is cleared, and there are more opportunities for humans and wildlife to come into further contact. It is therefore essential that the E&B team keeps up their fantastic work with the communities that live here and ensure that the future contact between humans and animals in Sagalla can be mutually beneficial.
The views, opinions and position expressed in this article belong solely to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy and position of Save the Elephants