Kenya’s Rangelands, An Ecologist, & Television Attention

In Kenya, those animals which poachers and cattle-herders have not killed off are being wiped out by new roads, power lines, mushrooming towns, and overgrazed, shrinking rangelands. Photograph by Khadija Farah for The New Yorker

Thanks to Jon Lee Anderson, whose Latin America stories’ gravity have compelled our attention in the past, for this story from another part of the world he once called home:

A Kenyan Ecologist’s Crusade to Save Her Country’s Wildlife

To get her fellow-citizens to care about threatened animals, Paula Kahumbu became a TV star.

Seventy miles southwest of Nairobi, the Loita Hills climb toward the sky from the red stone cleft of the Great Rift Valley. Situated beside the Serengeti and the Maasai Mara, the Loitas provide a vital watershed for migratory animals on the plains below. Forest pigs, bushbuck, black-and-white colobus monkeys, leopards, and Cape buffalo find refuge there, along with elephants that come to graze when the plains are dry. The Loita forest, one of Kenya’s last surviving stands of old-growth cedar, is sacred to the Maasai people, who call it Naimina Enkiyio—the Forest of the Lost Child, after the legend of a girl who followed wayward calves into the trees and never returned. Some twenty-five thousand Maasai live in settlements scattered through the lower valleys, where they herd goats and cows in sweeping meadows reminiscent of the Rocky Mountain foothills. The Loitas, rich in medicinal herbs and plants, are an irreplaceable resource for the laibon, the spiritual leaders of the Maasai. Continue reading

Spying on Birds

“So, like, what do you do every day?”

I get asked this often and I’m not always sure how to explain it to people without pictures at hand or infinite patience for follow-up questions. So, in this blog post, with the benefit of time to pick the right words and theoretically infinite space to write them out, I figured I would try to provide an adequate answer.

View from the field, a week or so ago

Why fieldwork?

This, I feel, is the question at the crux of the what-do-you-do-every-day question. Why do you have to go to Kenya to do your work? Right, the bird you study is only found there, but why do you have to be out on the savanna everyday – can’t you just bring the birds back to the lab or study them in a zoo?

Of course, you can (nowadays, only with the right permits) and that is precisely what early zoologists did, collecting specimens – alive or dead – from around the world and bringing them back to examine them under microscopes or in aviaries in a rainy British country garden. While this may be convenient, it inevitably renders your conclusions about a bird’s diet or the adaptive nature of its plumage coloration suspect, because they are arrived at out of context. Without the bird having been examined in the environment it’s found in, with different factors that might affect its behavior and morphology in play, it is impossible to understand why it acts the way it does and why it is the way it is. Hence, fieldwork: observing and sampling critters in the wild. Continue reading

When Wheels Move the Soul

skating

Korogocho skaters are taking advantage of some of the best streets in one of Nairobi’s poorest slums. PHOTO: Will Swanson 

Can a paved road and a pair of used skates aid development? An emphatic yes. This is the story of a failed slum upgrading project that saw the light of day when kids took to the streets. Over scavenging in the dump for things they could resell, the children took to the streets this time to skate. To keep out of trouble. To compete. For a chance at life.

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Cleaning Kenya’s Slums Through a Toilet Franchise

Sanergy builds healthy, prosperous communities by making hygienic sanitation affordable and accessible throughout Africa's informal settlements.

Sanergy builds healthy, prosperous communities by making hygienic sanitation affordable and accessible throughout Africa’s informal settlements.

Innovations are intriguing, ones with the power to change lives more so. Add development of communities, better health and dignity of life to the equation and you can’t say no to knowing more. We are talking toilets. Do you know Caltech engineers and Kohler designers are testing a self-cleaning, solar-powered toilet that turns human waste into hydrogen and fertilizer? Then there’s Peepoople making ‘toilet bags’. Inside are chemicals that break down human waste into fertilizer, offering alternative sanitation in slums and refugee camps. Then there’s what Sanergy is doing in Kenya.

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