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Friday, April 6, 2012

a couple of posts from Ol Pejeta!

What an amazing last few days! I was able to check two items off my Africa checking – listening to “Africa” by Toto in the middle of an African rainstorm, and watching a wild lion while listening to music from Lion King. Two for two! We’re at Ol Pejeta at the moment, a 90,000 acre conservancy outside Nanyuki, Kenya. This place is incredible – we’ve been here two days so far, and already I’ve seen a million Plains zebra, impala, Grant’s gazelles, warthogs and Thompson’s gazelles. I’ve also seen waterbuck, Jackson’s hartebeest, Anubis baboons, eland, oryx, savannah buffalo, white rhinos, black rhinos, silver-backed jackals, 7 lionesses and a cheetah! In two days! Mind blowing.

The lions today were the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. In the morning, Dan found a fresh lion kill – the skeleton of an old female zebra with wet blood on it and fresh lion poop nearby. That in and of itself was pretty amazing. It was neat to see how thoroughly cleaned the bones were in such a short time. Before the blood had had a chance to dry, the lions, jackals and tawny eagles had made short work of everything that wasn’t straight bone. Then this afternoon, I was driving through a local depression with the three students in my group and there were the two lionesses sitting RIGHT NEXT TO THE ROAD. Like literally 3 meters from our car. They were obviously stuffed to the gills – bellies hanging down almost to the ground – and seemed content to just lie under their tree while we took a thousand pictures of them from our minibus. It was incredible to be so close to such a huge, powerful predator. After about 30 minutes of watching them, one of the females stood up, stretched and mosied across the road directly in front of our car. A little while later, the other female stood up and followed her friend to a new resting spot under a fever tree. We continued watching them, and were able to see some incredible. The lionesses stood up and started stalking a warthog!! They were very full, obviously, but they still gave that warthog a bit of a chase! It was amazing to see and we got some incredible pictures.

The course is going well, although I’ve been overwhelmed with how much is going on! We are going all day long and well into the night – field work, lectures, presentations, communal meals, discussion sections…. The fun never stops! It’s been a really great experience to get to work so closely with the students and to share my love and excitement for Africa with them! Much more fun than being the teaching assistant for a standard classroom-based class.

Another day on Ol Pej, another set of animal sightings. Today was exciting for my group. After several days of finding out too late about awesome animal encounters (an oryx chasing a cheetah, a jackal eating at a lion kill, a black rhino interacting with an elephant herd, hyena pups playing, etc etc), we finally had some excitement of our own. We left the research center before the other groups this morning, in the hopes of getting some data before the day heated up. On our way out to look for Thompson’s gazelles and Plains zebra, I spotted a little face by the side of the road – a bat-eared fox!! We stopped to take photos of it, and lo and behold, two MORE bat-ear foxes popped up behind it! They all wrestled together for a minute or two before moving back into the grass away from the road. Very exciting though! Later in the morning, we spotted an ostrich running along with a herd of zebra! This evening we saw 6 more ostriches (5 females and a male) eating, running and fighting. Soooo cool. We also saw a pair of striped hyenas! What a coup for my car of students. And those were just the rare and unusual sightings – we also had close encounters with elephants, giraffes, gazelles and zebra – just another day at Ol Pej. :)

Things are going well and time is flying by. It’s hard to believe that a week from now, the students will be taking their final exam and a week from tomorrow I’ll be flying back to Ethiopia! We are just finishing up our second set of projects – data collection is done and the students are analyzing their data tonight and tomorrow and presenting it to the class and the Ol Pejeta management on Thursday. They’ve also been giving nightly presentations about African mammals around the campfire each night. That’s been particularly fun. The students got to choose their species, so many people have presented on animals they are particularly fascinated by. Although I’ve been living in Africa since last summer, the fauna in my area is pretty limited – it’s really fun to learn more about warthogs, giraffes, buffalo and the other other animals we see out here every day.

Just made it back to Mpala and am getting settled back into my room here. Ol Pej was great! The student presentations were really interesting and we had a nice souvenir shopping stop in Nanyuki on our way home. Now back to the grindstone for a few more days!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Sorry for the loooong delay between posts - as usual, time is flying by and keeping up this blog is sadly at the bottom of the priority list... But there have been lots of exciting happenings since late February, so I'm finally making time to let you know all know about them!

The first is that I'm no longer in Ethiopia. Before you start freaking out, it's not because of any unrest or problems of that nature (although Ethiopia did bomb Eritrea just before I left, which was worrisome) - it's because I was invited to be the teaching assistant for a Princeton undergrad class in Kenya! One of my advisors, Dan Rubenstein, is teaching a course called "The Natural History of African Mammals" here in the Laikipia district of Kenya. It's a three-week course that's part of a larger, semester-long series of courses based at Dan's field site (Mpala Research Centre - check it out at It's such a fabulous opportunity for me - I get to knock off a semester's worth of teaching requirements in three action-packed weeks on the savannah! And it's such a great course. It's a project-driven sort of set-up; the students do a series of small group projects over the course of the class. They start with project design, then do a few days of intense field work before analyzing their data and presenting their results to their classmates and other researchers at MRC. What a great experience for an undergrad!

We have been here a week now, and the first batch of projects are just finishing up. The first round of presentations will be tomorrow evening, so everyone is crunching data and starting on analyses today. We had four projects in this round, with 2-4 students per project. The one that I helped out was really cool - we are looking at the effects of bomas (cattle corrals) on land usage by wildlife. We had 8 sites, which varied in how long they were used (short - 1-2 weeks, long - 1+ year) and in how long they had been lying fallow (short - 6 months to a year, long - 2 years). We did vegetation transects inside the bomas as well as at 50m and 150m out from the boma, dung counts to look at long-term wildlife use, and camera trapping to look at active, recent use. The students got a chance to learn quite a few field methods over the course of the last week, and I think we're going to get some interesting results! Right now, the students are going through their camera trap data, and already we've caught some neat wildlife - hyenas, giraffes, elephants, zebra, several antelope species, and even a porcupine! Very exciting.

It's amazing how different this place is from my field site in Ethiopia. It's so luxurious!! Hot showers, chefs to prepare food, room stewards to do our laundry and make our beds, an incredible intellectual community of researchers, students and postdocs to bounce ideas off of, internet access, flush toilets.... WOW! I do miss the peace and quiet of the Simien Mountains though, as well as the down-time (and of course, my geladas!). It seems like there is always something going on here! If it's not work (which takes up most of my time), it's a game night or a wildlife viewing opportunity or a conversation that was supposed to take 5 minutes but ends up last for an hour because you end up talking about your research.... Gone are the days of relaxing in the afternoons after work! But I really can't complain - this is such an amazing community and a truly special experience. I recently learned how to drive a manual transmission car with my left hand (and on the wrong side of the road!) and have been enjoying driving my students around in the field. The wildlife here is spectacular - Grevy's and Plains zebra, elephants, giraffes, dikdik, impala, Grant's and Thompson's gazelles, eland, oryx, warthogs, ostrich, waterbuck, Greater kudu, spotted and striped hyena....amazing! And last night a lion walked by my room! I didn't actually see it but I heard it growling and the security staff confirmed this morning that it was in fact a lion..... Crazy!

On Friday, we'll head to Ol Pejeta. Ol Pej is a nature conservancy in this same part of Kenya, but with a slightly different ecosystem and consequently different wildlife. It's got the highest predator density in the area, so we're expecting to see lions and cheetahs as well as the usual African fauna. Should be a lot of fun!

I won't have internet in Ol Pej, but I'll try to update this again when we get back! The news from gelada land is that there's been some rain (yay!) and quite a few takeovers (possibly yay, depends on if it makes my older male juveniles disperse or not - the last set of takeovers in the fall did, so I'm hoping that will happen again). Two of my favorite male geladas, Quinn and Dikos, got taken over by unknown bachelors last week. :( I'm hoping the two former leaders can stick around to protect their kids! It's hard not being up with my monkeys when all this drama is going on....

That's the news from here! hopefully things are going well with all of you guys. Looking forward to being back in America in May!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

February News

Hello from the field! I can’t believe it’s already late February – where has this month gone? I’d like to say it’s been packed to the brim with data collection, but that’s sadly not true. Two of my units and the one bachelor group that I have had boys disperse into have gone missing! And, Murphy’s Law in action here, the groups that are missing contain a huge number of my monkeys! The Ts have 7 juveniles and the 4 subadults who dispersed, and the Zs have 11 juveniles and subadults. Yikes! Luckily, the 6 other groups I work on have been relatively easy to find so I have had work to do. I do usually end up with one or two days each week where I fruitlessly search nearby areas in the hopes of finding my missing geladas. I guess I shouldn’t say fruitlessly – last week, I found the bachelor group that had the four T subadults in it! We got their focals and poop, so that was good. Apparently the Ts and Zs have a habit of disappearing every year about this time, so it wasn’t totally unexpected, but it’s still frustrating! Hopefully they will return in the next week or two and I can get back to checking off all the names on my check sheet every week.

We also took our monthly Gondar trip recently. That was a lot of fun. We had to get our car fixed so we were in town for three days. One of those days was Valentine’s Day, which I didn’t think would be a big deal at all in Ethiopia. But while Julie and I were at dinner, two men came around handing out red roses to everyone in the restaurant, free of charge! Then when we were walking home, carrying our roses, passers-by started shouting “Happy Valentine!” at us! So all in all, a pretty fun day. It was also nice to be in town because we had reliable internet and phone service. I got to talk to my family and Sam, send off some important emails – all the things that seem like no big deal until you are stuck somewhere where you can’t do them!

Tomorrow my aunt and uncle will be driving from Bahir Dar to the mountains, so I will get to stay for two nights in the Simien Lodge with them! I’ll still go to work during the day (and take them with me) but I’ll get to spend my evenings in the lap of luxury – electricity, hot showers, a chef, a full bar…. Not too shabby! It will be really great to see them and to hear how they are liking Ethiopia so far. Maybe the Ts and Zs will even cooperate and come out to say hello! It does mean I have a few things to do this afternoon – clean my room, wash my hair, write some emails to be sent in the next few days, things like that. Then tomorrow after work it’s off to paradise! :)

OH I also forgot to write about my birthday! We took a day off work and hitched a ride up to Chennek in a dump truck. We spent the night there, and just kicked back and relaxed. We saw a bunch of geladas, a pair of bushbuck, and even a Walia ibex! Very exciting. I had a brownie cake with candles on it for dessert and some random local guides joined in with the singing. Although it would have been nice to have phone service so that I could call home, it was a really fun day. I got lots of awesome packages in Debark, so that was exciting and special. And now I’m 25! Crazy. It was a little bizarre to have it be so toasty warm and dusty here, given that my last couple of birthdays have been in the snow in Princeton! I did find it amusing that last year I celebrated by cooking a big Ethiopian dinner for some friends in America, and this year I celebrated by eating Top Ramen in Ethiopia. Strange how the world turns…

Friday, February 3, 2012

Catching Up - Post #2

Lalibela was one of the highlights of our trip for me. It's a really famous site in Ethiopia, since it's home to a whole bunch of rock-hewn churches that are hundreds of years old but still in use today. It's completely unlike anything I've ever seen before - the churches are carved DOWN into the rocky ground, so from ground level you actually look down on the buildings. They were built way before machinery and technology and all that, so it's particularly impressive that they are not only architecturally sound but also symmetric, highly decorated and actually useable! The insides of the churches are filled with pillars, paintings, carvings and all sorts of mysterious areas that non-Orthodox Christians are not allowed to visit. Several of the churches are connected by these amazing underground tunnels, and there are little areas set aside for hermits to live, religious folk to get buried, communion bread to be baked, etc etc. Each church is dedicated to a different holy figure - Mary, St. George, St. Gabriel, etc - and they all vary in size, shape, motifs and interior decoration. It was pretty amazing to see. We were in Lalibela on a Sunday, so many of the churches had priests and worshippers in them. One of the priests was blessing (aka hitting) people with a 7kg cross made of gold! Quite a sight. At one of the churches (St. George's), we had to wait for a while until a priest could be roused from wherever he was. Once he opened the passageway for us, he showed us all sorts of relics - crowns and crosses and robes that were very old. It was an amazing experience.

Also in Lalibela, we went to the open-air market. Wow! You could almost literally buy anything you could dream of there - livestock, chickens, grain, fruit and vegetables, salt from the Danakil, handmade textiles, jewelry, cooking pots and ceramic coffee jugs, coffee beans, honey, baskets..... it was amazing! Very neat to walk through and shop at. We also made friends with a local souvenir seller whose shop we visited several times. She sort of adopted us for the time we were in Lalibela and had us over for coffee, gave us small gifts and generally was incredibly friendly. I got to practice my Amharic with her and act as translator for the rest of our group. It was pretty neat to see how much of the language I've picked up just living here!

Awash: Our final stop of the trip was Awash, a national park about 4 hours outside of Addis. It's a much more savannah-y ecosystem - acacia scrub, large ungulates, baboons and gorgeous sunsets. We didn't spend much time there, but managed to see a plethora of new animals while we were there - oryx, kudu, crocodiles, vervet monkeys, Hamadryas and Anubis baboons, giant tortoise, dikdiks, bustards, African fish eagles, Abyssinian rollers, hammerkops, weaverbirds, warthogs and even an Abyssinian lion!! There was a beautiful waterfall right by the lodge where we stayed, and it was neat to hang out by the river and watch the wildlife come and go. We went on an amazing sunset game drive to the edge of the Rift Valley and got to watch the sun set over the edge of the Rift. Our driver let some of us ride on the roof of the Land Cruiser, so we had a particularly amazing view of the landscape and the wildlife as we drove along. On our second day in Awash, we got up very early and drove to the nearby hot spring. On the way we saw more wildlife, including the lion. What an amazing experience - in my time in Kenya, I had hoped to see a lion but managed to be in the wrong car every single time someone else saw a lion. Well, I finally got my chance in Awash. We were driving along and there was a male Abyssinian lion just lying there next to the road in the shade of a tree! So amazing. We were able to get quite close before he stood up and wandered off.  Incredible. The hot springs were also pretty awesome - a oasis of palm trees and creeks and pools in the middle of dry acacia scrub pocked with termite mounds. The water was very hot, but most of us decided to go in anyways. It was fun to be in a hot spring that was so different from the ones in the Sierras! All in all, Awash was a great way to end our family vacation!

A few weeks later, Sam and I took a weekend trip to Axum with our friends Derek and Claire. We took the public bus there (12 hours of hot, dusty, cramped travel - not the best way to get somewhere!) and spent two days exploring the many stelae, tombs and carvings that are in Axum. It was pretty neat - there are stelae there that are 25-30m tall and were erected about 2000 years ago. They are still standing today - pretty incredible! We also saw the Ethiopian version of the Rosetta Stone, a tablet carved in the 4th century in Ge'ez, Greek and Sabaen. One of the tombs we went in is allegedly the tomb of one of the Three Wise Men! It was pretty cool to explore. I also climbed down into a tomb that was still being excavated - something that would never be allowed in America but seemed fine in Ethiopia! We also got to see the outside of the church where the Ark of the Covenant is stored - no women are allowed in the church compound and nobody at all is allowed in the church so we just looked from the outside. It was neat to be in a different part of the country. Axum is in Tigray, the northern-most province of Ethiopia. In Tigray, they speak a different language (Tigrinya), have different styles of clothing and hair, and make different crafts. It was cool to be somewhere so different from everywhere else I've been!

I guess that's the news from up here. Work is going well, although two of my groups have been missing for the last week or two. We've been searching for them, but so far no luck. Luckily the rest of my study animals are still easy to find so I've been collecting a lot of data. I'm starting to play with a social network analysis program, so hopefully soon I'll be able to actually visualize some of my results! I've passed the halfway mark for this field season - under four months to go now! - and I'm starting to think about how I want to organize my summer lab and data analysis work. Sometimes it feels like I've been here forever and I can hardly remember what life is like back in America! Thanks to my family and Sam, I think I have enough goodies to last me for the next four months. :)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Catching Up

Sorry for the lack of posts in the last month and a half - my family was out here visiting, and then Sam stayed until yesterday. Balancing work and vacation and visitors and all that has cut into my blogging time and motivation! Finally though, here are some highlights from the last 6 weeks!

Bahir Dar: I met my family (my parents, my sister and her boyfriend, my uncle, my brother, Sam and Sam's sister Ruth) in Bahir Dar in mid-December. Despite the long journey from the States (with a 10 hour layover in London and part of a day exploring Addis Ababa), they were happy to see me and excited to be in Ethiopia! In Bahir Dar, we went on a boat trip across Lake Tana to the Zege Peninsula, where there is an old monastery called Ura Kidane Meret. It was a really beautiful place - gorgeous, brightly colored religious paintings from the 14th century, a collection of interesting old crowns, and even the "practice sketches" of failed and hired painters on the doors and interior walls of the church building! Definitely an interesting place. The boat ride was also neat. We saw a bunch of pelicans, as well as men paddling traditional papyrus canoes piled high with firewood. A fisherman even paddled up to our boat and offered us some freshly caught tilapia!

We also went to an azmari beyt in Bahir Dar - a traditional bar/dance house with live, traditional music and dancing. As the token white folks, we all were forced into dancing which was both fun and embarrassing. The best was when my sister's boyfriend Mark was called up to dance. He's very tall (and surprisingly good at Ethiopian shoulder shaking!) and the guy who invited him to dance was very short. He quickly realized the problem though, and ran behind the bar to get a stool. Once that was settled, he hopped up on it so that he was the same height as Mark and started dancing away! Pretty awesome. We also went on several nice walks around town, including one to the local open-air market. While we were walking through, a tomato rolled across the path in front of my mom. She nicely picked it up and offered it back to the seller, who, it turned out, was throwing it away because it was moldy! All the other vegetable sellers thought it was pretty hilarious.

After Bahir Dar, we drove up to the Simien Mountains for a few days. It was so much fun to have my family visit the research station! We spent several days with the geladas, and I got to introduce everyone to my gelada babies. We all had a great time watching the juveniles scamper around, chase each other, wrestle and generally cause trouble. We also hiked to the local waterfall, and went on a very nice day hike up in the higher elevation part of the park. That hike was at about 4100m, and in a completely different ecological zone than our field site. The plants were mainly Giant Lobelia - these crazy Joshua tree-like plants that look like they belong on a different planet. The views were spectacular, and we got to see some more geladas and a lot of neat birds. It was the first time I'd gotten to explore that section of the park, so it was a real treat for me. We also did a lot of communal cooking, and had plenty of time for cards and games in the evenings.

Next, we drove back down to Gondar, where we had several days before our flight to Lalibela. Several people got sick in Gondar, so we spent a lot of time just relaxing at our hotel and doing nothing. We did get an afternoon trip in to the Gondar sights though - a bunch of 16th century castles (complete with lion cages, a sauna, banquet halls, stables, and a library!), Debre Berhan Selassie Church, and the royal baths. The castles were neat - we got to go inside them and explore everything in a way that you would never be allowed to in America. You could touch the walls, climb in and out of pretty much anywhere, and basically just explore things at your own pace. We had a very knowledgeable guide, so we were able to learn about the history of the various kings of Gondar, who had built what and when, and what the various buildings in the royal enclosure were used for. The church was also amazing. Apparently it is one of the most famous churches in all of Ethiopia (and there are thousands of churches, so that's saying something!) and the inside was filled with extremely detailed paintings of religious scenes and figures. Even the ceiling was covered with painted cherub faces, all of which had a different expression! The grounds were neat also - we got to see the squat towers that the monks live in, including the entrance tower which was designed to look like the Lion of Judah! The bath was the third stop on our tour, and the only one that we didn't have to share with a bunch of other tourists. It's an amazing large pool (empty when we were there) with a building in the middle of it that is reached by a bridge. We couldn't go in the building because it was being renovated, but we did get to walk around the bath. Every year for Timkat, the celebration of Jesus' baptism, they fill the pool up with water that is blessed by priests, and then everyone in town jumps in for a holy water bath. We didn't see that happening, but we got to imagine the the pool and the surrounding compound packed with people! The compound had a bunch of beautiful old trees in it as well - lots of shady places to sit!

Still to come in the next pot - Lalibela, Awash and Axum, as well as an update on how work is going! (I have been working for the last month, despite only mentioning vacations so far!)