My guest blog post on lion conservation is up at Scientific American! I write about how data I collected in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve in 2005 were combined with lion count data from more than 40 other sites on the continent to test hypotheses about management options and conditions affect lions. The data were published today in the journal Ecology Letters.
Posted on March 6th, 2013 under: blog,Carnivores,human wildlife conflict,kenya,Science Writing,wildlife | No Comments »
After a year of camera-trapping we finally ‘captured’ a couple of hyenas! Two spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta) made their way across the plot to the fence hole at 4AM on Monday morning! Being a hyena-ologist, I actually leapt from my seat with joy when I downloaded these photos from the camera trap. Have a look at the video below: I think the first hyena is an adult female, and she appears to have a wire snare around her neck. The second looks like a sub-adult. So maybe a mom with her weaned cub? Just when I start to think I don’t need to check the cameras every day, we get another new species – and this time it’s my favorite!
A new species ventured through the fence hole last week: the bushpig, Potamochoerus larvatus.
Here is a video, composed of the still images taken by my motion-activated Reconyx camera trap:
We have had warthogs on our plot since the day we moved in, and I have hundereds of photos of these portly suburban pigs coming and going through the fence hole since we put the camera traps up about a year ago. Day after day I have gone through the camera trap images full of warthog snouts and butts. I have more images of suburban warthogs than any other wild animal, and we honestly never even considered that there was another species of wild pig in the neighborhood
But about a month ago, I was quickly reviewing a few days and nights of camera trap photos when I suddenly saw a new shape peering at the camera from the darkness beyond the fence hole. It looked like a warthog without any warts or tusks, and with a swollen, abnormally long face. And it was a bit too hairy in some places, not hairy enough in other places. Even though the photo was blurred and dark, I knew it couldn’t be a warthog. So I turned to my trusted field guides (The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals and Estes’ The Behavior Guide to African Mammals), and confirmed that the only animal it could be was a bushpig. Over the next few weeks I continued to get images of this shy creature checking out the fence hole at night…until she finally decided to come on to our plot at 20:15 on January 17th – and leave just 5 minutes later.
Very little research has been done on bushpigs, but according to the work summarized by Estes, they are widespread in wooded and savanna habitats and can live in any kind of habitat with concealment and food. They are nocturnal and omnivorous: while roots, bulbs, and fallen fruit are thought to be main foods, bushpigs will also readily eat carrion and excrement, and they can even kill small mammals and birds. Although you can’t see the tusks, they are razor sharp and can be up to 7 cm long. Bushpigs use these tusks to dig deep holes, for defense, and for fighting.
While I was thrilled to see this new species at our house (I have never seen it elsewhere, despite it being widespread and common!), the bushpig is considered a serious agricultural pest in Africa. Bushpig populations can increase in farming areas due to food availability, and their rooting can strip all plants from a sizeable area.
In my next post, I’ll explain how this species has played a role in an astounding number of lion attacks on humans in southern Tanzania.
Posted on January 23rd, 2013 under: blog,camera traps,kenya,Nairobi,urban wildlife,wildlife | 2 Comments »
At the end of my last post, I promised to write more about suburban lions within a day…..as long as nothing else exciting happened on the plot. Well, something exciting did indeed happen and I am finishing up a post about Syke’s monkeys, lesulas, and kipunjis…
In the mean time, apparently I was on tv in the USA last night. Animal Planet aired Eating Giants: Hippo as the first part of a two-part special about what happens to carcasses – who eats first, how long things take, etc. If you missed it, you can watch the video on Animal Planet’s website here.
The show was originally filmed for Channel 4 in the UK, and was titled Hippo: The Wild Feast. I was brought on as the hyena girl, joining the croc lady, the bug girl, the vulture guy, a couple of lion guys and presenter Mark Evans, one of the hosts of Inside Nature’s Giants. It was an incredible filming experience (we even did some live broadcasts!) and South Luangwa, Zambia, is a stunning safari destination.
The show has been reviewed in the NY Times (here).
Posted on September 17th, 2012 under: blog,wildlife | No Comments »
I was planning to post more information about Nairobi’s suburban lions today, but I just got distracted by some monkeys terrorizing my chickens.
We chose to live in this part of town in part because it still feels a little bit rural. We have three acres of forest and thick bush, crisscrossed by warthog trails and teeming with birds. But choosing to live in a place with warthogs and birds means choosing to live with other wildlife as well. In addition to our recent lion guests and the occasional leopard, we must also contend with the real thugs of the African urban wildlife world – baboons and other monkeys. We have a whole gang of Syke’s monkey thugs, currently numbering at least 20, on our property most of the time.
This means keeping the kitchen doors closed at all times. To avoid banana theft as well as scaring the hell out of the cook (me) when she turns away from the stove to find a monkey sitting on the sink, considering whether it is worth the risk to go for the stuff in the big saucepan. Other doors and windows are often kept closed as well ever since we found a bottle of Advil floating in the dogs’ water bowl after it was thrown from the veranda of the guest room above our garage (when my mom was visiting and forgot to close a window).
This also means never being able to use the rainwater we collect from the roof for anything other than washing the cars. Contaminated with monkey poop and pee washed into the gutters with the rain, the water is simply gross and probably a health threat. Moneky poop has also appeared in the bathtub, in the laundry basket, and all over the guest room above the garage (when my best friend was visiting and forgot to close a window).
And perhaps most surprisingly, this means many trips to the vet. We currently have 5 dogs, and 2 of them, as well as a dog we gave to a friend a year ago, have ended up needing some serious stitching up after run-ins with the monkeys. The adult male Syke’s monkeys have formidable canines and are completely unafraid of me, the dogs, or the kids. Three of our dogs half-heartedly chase the monkeys (more on the other two dogs -excellent hunters – in another post). And the monkeys taunt those dogs from perches just out of reach. Our Rhodesian ridgebacks have needed 13 and 16 stitches each after one of the adult males slashed open their backs. And here are some pictures of Dingo, one of our Maasai dogs from near Amboseli, after he was mauled by a baboon.
We got chickens about a year ago, mainly to have fresh eggs and to teach the kids how to care for animals other than dogs. And how I wish they could be free-ranging. That would be good for the chickens, good for the eggs, good for the yard, and good for us. But the Syke’s monkeys and baboons would probably quickly capitalize on the opportunity to eat a chicken. So the chickens live in a big coup and muck around in a small fenced area most of the time. And we make due with a portable mini-shelter to rotate our chickens through visits to the yard to scratch for bugs and seeds and to poop on the grass. Probably the best we can do in the current situation.
Will post with more detail on Nairobi’s suburban lions tomorrow, barring any other excitement on the plot!Posted on September 12th, 2012 under: blog,urban wildlife,wildlife | 3 Comments »
I created this blog a year ago when I launched this website. But there are no posts. Why? Well, as a scientist morphing into a science writer, I find it very difficult to quickly write a few hundred words about something interesting and post it immediately. And there are several reasons for this. Or excuses, depending on how you look at them….
The first problem is time. I probably see, read and experience blog-worthy stuff every day, but I rarely have the time to write about something then and there. I might manage a few notes and make a quick outline…and then life necessitates I focus on something else, like feeding, bathing, and putting my kids to bed, or making a deadline for other work. The next thing I know, it has been a couple of days and I have not even started to write the post. By then, I have stumbled on something else I could blog about…and I have mentally moved on from the original story idea.
The second problem is time to write well. I want to become a good writer, and several folks have advised me to practice and improve my writing by blogging. But I want to be a good science writer, with a focus on particular areas of biology in which I have some expertise. For me, this requires a lot of research and reading, even when I want to tell a story with a first person narrative.
A safari guide friend of mine recently asked me about reproduction in ostriches. He wanted to know whether ostriches ever lay unfertilized eggs, and, if a female mates once with a male and then lays one egg per day over perhaps a week, what goes on with the sperm during that time? When is each egg fertilized and how long can sperm live in the ostrich reproductive tract? What fun questions! Interesting! Relevant! I should blog about it! Ostrich sex and reproduction are actually really fascinating in a number of ways, and answering these questions in a blog post shouldn’t take me too long, right? Well, in order to answer the questions, I need to talk about sperm storage tubules and sexual selection. I need to talk about the mating system of ostriches. I need to check whether any recent research has been done on ostrich reproduction – in both prominent and more obscure journals. I need some links and images – where are those pictures of ostrich penises and mating displays I took a few years ago?! And I should speak with a particular ornithologist here in Kenya. And I of course need to think about my (hoped for) audience and figure out how I can stick a bit of narrative in there, add four or five nuggets of good science in a way folks can understand, and do the topic justice. I simply have not been able to do this, and actually write the post, in a few hours.
For me, writing well also requires significant editing. And I think I actually enjoy the editing process more than getting the first draft done. Moving words and phrases around, rethinking ideas, making decisions about what can be left out and what needs emphasis, and incorporating an editor’s or mentor’s suggestions are probably my favorite parts of writing. I also tend to rework countless versions of various documents – my cv, scientific papers, letters, professional emails – and I never think they can’t be further improved. How am I supposed to “get over it” and “just write” some blog posts? I suspect the posts would be so bad that nobody would want to read them.
These excuses manifest themselves as various thoughts when I attempt to write: perhaps this is because I am a new writer and not skilled enough. Perhaps I am just not disciplined enough (I reckon I am an excellent procrastinator – time for another espresso, and I may as well clean the fridge while I am in the kitchen!). Perhaps I am still approaching writing as if I will be submitting to a scientific journal and subjecting my work to the peer review process. Or maybe I am just not seriously compelled to write.
So, should I just give up or should I still try to blog?
Any thoughts from those of you who have moved from science into science writing? Or those of you who manage to do both successfully? I suspect you do not waste time rambling on about how you struggle with blogging. But perhaps you have other less obvious recommendations, too.
My mentor from the 2012 Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop, David Dobbs, gave me a piece of advice for the first story I was paid to write: “Do not try to do too much.” That advice served me well as I wrote that first story. So maybe I should just listen to him, use the advice for blogging as well, and just get on with it!Posted on September 11th, 2012 under: blog,Science Writing | 5 Comments »
I have finally updated my list of articles. Visit the page to see what I have been writing about, and to get links to the abstracts of my academic publications. This list is about to expand, with the publication of my first ‘real’ story next week…Posted on September 5th, 2012 under: blog | No Comments »
I am finally starting this blog after about a year of procrastination. Why now? Because I just landed in Paris and have some time to kill before my best friend arrives. Because after 9 hours on an incredibly crummy, overnight Kenyan Airways flight I do not have the necessary focus to remember anything I read in my French phrase book. Because the train station wifi session I just purchased is at least 10 x faster than my normal Internet connection at home in Nairobi.
And because a significant part of “living the scientific life in East Africa” is the need to get the hell off the African continent a few times a year, at a minimum. While there are amazing scientific discoveries being made and great adventures to be had in East Africa -and plenty to write about!- the place simply wears you out. Nothing is easy and I often feel like I am in an intellectual vacuum. Not a void – a real vacuum. Slowly sucking the good brain cells out as I am repeatedly confronted with just how little science seems to inform policy, actions, and society in general. After living in Kenya for most of the past 12 years, I know I need to get out to gain vital perspective.
So this blog is officially launched from the train station at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. The next stop will be a hotel next to the Jardin du Luxembourg. Hopefully it will be a good place to start writing about what a field biologist/science writer gets up to here, as well as whatever perspective might come from a week of walking, running, drinking, and eating through this city of lights.
This is a very small selection of photos and one video from my years working and playing in Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve. Just a practice blog post, really. I guess I am finally launching this thing today…after about 6 months of procrastinating…definitely going to write something about THAT in the future.