Biodiversity of East Africa 2023

Origins, Patterns and Conservation of Biodiversity in East Africa

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Lake Naivasha first full day – guest lecture, student talks, birding & hippos – June 6

Blog Post 2: Kaida, Alyssa, Meghan

Habari za mchana (Good Afternoon)!

The first full day at Lake Naivasha started early as we arose with the sun in hopes of seeing some cool birds and hippos grazing on shore. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any hippos… but we did see a green tree wood hoopoe, a unique bird that we think everyone can agree was pretty darn cool. Other notable species include: the lilac-breasted roller (Andrea’s favourite local bird), African green pigeons, and droves of superb starlings that are marked by beautiful iridescent blues, greens, and rufous underbellies.

During a wonderful first breakfast at Lake Naivasha, vervet monkeys crashed our peaceful morning coffee and stole everyone’s attention, hearts, and watermelon! We took the opportunity to snap some photos of the baby monkeys that rolled and tumbled across the grass.  After breakfast, we listened to a riveting lecture by Silas Wanjala on the history and ecology of Lake Naivasha. Home to one of the largest populations of hippos in the country (>700 individuals), this lake has no surface outflow of water which contributes to its function as one of the largest sources of fresh water in a long chain of alkaline lakes. Silas discussed the lake’s past from the time of the first settlers to present- day development as an important resource for the community and focus for wildlife conservation. Lake Naivasha (derived from Maasai word meaning ‘fluctuating’) has experienced an ever-changing water level. After a severe drought in the 1850’s Lake Naivasha almost dried out completely, devastating the local wildlife and leading to the extirpation of the native fish species – which is why all aquatic species that currently reside in the lake are introduced and non-native. In response to the constant threat of the lake drying up, the water act and MCA regulations were developed to monitor water levels and restrict commercial water use. In 2020 there was a major flooding event, the results of which can be currently observed from our camp. Acacia trees (fever trees) near the shore died and papyrus reed beds were greatly reduced (most destroyed). An engaging discussion period tested Silas’ encyclopedic knowledge of dates and statistics imparted the audience with a great appreciation for the local ecosystem.

As soon as the lecture was finished, Alyssa noticed a shadowed bird in the upper branches of the acacia trees behind camp. After several attempts trying to draw everyone’s attention, the others finally took notice. Cameras were grabbed, chairs toppled over as everyone took off with reckless abandon. After snapping some photos, the bird was finally identified as a long-crested eagle: a regal highlight of today’s wildlife observations.

Following a delicious and nutritious lunch; student led peer-reviewed article analyses were slated to begin. However, prior to the first presentation an exclamation rang out across the camp: “Holy crap, look at that hippo!!”. Once again, cameras were snatched as students and professors alike fled to the water’s edge. When everyone was finished gazing at the gargantuan grazer, the presentations began. Focused on the biogeography and biodiversity of tropical ecosystems, we heard presentations by Alyssa, Madeleine, Andrea, and May that provided the background knowledge necessary for the day’s final lecture by Steve that explored ecological hotspots across the tropics. Following a short bout of stargazing after dinner, we all went to bed early to get plenty of rest to wake up bright and early for the next day.


Silas talking about management and environmental issues for the Lake Naivasha region.

Andy giving her presentation on species richness and phylogenetic richness of mammals

Hippo visitor to our camp, happily munch grass alongside the electric fence.

Long-crested eagle

Lilac-breasted roller viewing our camp with righteous, sartorial disdain.

Vervet looking off into the middle distance.

First staff meeting. From left, Mukhtar (owner of Bunduz), Carol (co-instructor and logistics coordinator), Steve, Yuxiang, and Wei

Nairobi-Rift Valley-Lake Naivasha – June 5

BLOG Post 1 June 5th, Group A: Andy, Sol, Grace

Today was our first full day in Kenya! After the previous 24 hours of travelling, we woke up well rested and excited. While waiting on a delicious and filling breakfast prepared for us by the great folks at Kolping Conference Center, the birding began. Cameras and gear were busted out and the ID process began – some notable sightings were the Amethyst Sunbird and Black Kite. Andy was lucky enough to see a Cinnamon Chested Bee-Eater! Steve, Carol and Yuxiang went off to chat with folks at the Kenyan Wildlife Research & Training Institute about possibilities for collaboration on wildlife genomes and conservation. After a little more exploring, photography, and birding, we packed up our things and piled into the Bunduz truck to begin our trip to Lake Naivasha. In the early legs of the trip, we passed some beautiful flora, and had great vantage points over the red-soiled agricultural countryside. Not long into our drive we took a brief pause at a viewpoint overlooking the great Rift Valley. The sheer magnitude of the landscape extending out around us had the whole group in awe, and the distant mountains -ranging from 2000 to 9000ft of elevation- enclosing the valley were incredible. Needless to say, many pictures were taken. We stretched our legs and browsed the wares of some local sellers – some of us came away with some sweet trinkets to bring back home! With a few dozen more photos and a few thousand shillings lighter, we piled back onto the truck and continued on our journey.

On our way to Lake Naivasha, we got to admire the landscape of this megadiverse country. We saw zebras, baboons, and antelopes mixed with cattle. We noted some interesting plant species including some that belong to the Euphorbeaceae family. This plant family was a nice sight, as they are an example of convergent evolution – they share a lot of phenotypic traits, but evolved separately from cacti. When we got to Lake Naivasha, we took our gear to our tents that the Bunduz staff had generously set up for us, and then immediately began exploring. This particular habitat is the threshold between aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems which allows for high diversity. Next, we were served a delicious dinner of spaghetti, meat, potatoes, and zucchini. We were then introduced to Mukhtar owner of Bunduz and his amazing staff: John (the First), John (the Second), and Chenze. After dinner, co-instructor Carol Muriuki taught us about politics in modern Kenya and the 47 ethnic groups within it. This led to a group discussion about misconceptions of Africa, the lasting effects of colonialism, and wildlife management. Steve challenged all the students to compete in a Bird-a-thon that consisted of identifying as many birds as possible within an hour.  The group currently writing this blog dominated the competition, winning by a landslide with 17 species identified in just 60 minutes – all lifers for us. Some interesting species that the groups identified included the Lilac-breasted roller and Hildebrandt Spurfowl. Finally, we discussed what the best strategies are for amateur naturalists to identify birds and other animals. The discussion eventually devolved into various discussions about snakes, grant proposals, and possible activities for the remainder of the trip. The Bunduz team cooked us yet another great meal before we went to bed, hoping to start the next day of our trip well rested. We ended the night with a chat about the climatic and other factors that shape the tropics.

Meeting with Moses Yongo head of the Wildlife Research & Training Institute

Vista from outlook descending onto the Rift Valley.

Group at outlook overlooking the Rift Valley.

First lunch at Naivasha provided by the Bunduz staff

And monkeys can fly. Photo by Kaida Cheah.

Colobus monkey one of many in a Colobus troop that greeted us.

Well-named superb starling

Arrow-marked babbler pair. Lake Naivasha

Lake Naivasha panorama. Photo by Wei Xu

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