Sunday, January 24, 2010

[Tanya] Last Mpala day: what a day!

Last day at Mpala. It came way too soon. Everybody is trying to wrap up the projects. The general feeling is that we are just now really have figured it out and we can REALLY do the projects. The sheep people (sheeple) have collected their last GPS data the day before, Ipek is downloading the 20 Gb of video she has taken of sheep behavior (yep, 20Gb of a sheep followed by other sheep grazing, drinking, baaaing). Caitlin has gone in the morning to give a water bottle to the sheepherder, Steve, who was in charge of our specially created numbered herd (he is also the head herder of the Mpala sheep herd). Other people from the sheep project are helping the ants project.

Everybody is helping the ants project, which is Collin’s and Viktor’s. They are looking at the species of ants that live in little nodules, called domiciles, on branches of acacia trees. When you tap a branch the ants run out of the holes of the domiciles. Those are the defenders. The workers and larvae are in the nodules. If you crack a domicile open the workers right away start carrying the larvae to another domicile. Not all domiciles have the same number of larvae and workers. Is there any logic to it? Are the defenders concentrated in some strategic domiciles while the larvae are in the safer ones? Nobody knows and that’s (part of) Collin’s project. Viktor’s main focus is on visualization of a schematic tree and the information Collin and he gather about domiciles and the distribution of ants. Gathering that information is an extremely time consuming process. First they cut down one tree, instantly killing all the ants on it (using special gas). They measured the exact topology of each branch, counted the number of each type of ant in each domicile. Insane. They and Iain have tapped dozens of branches, letting the guard ants come out and sting them, enduring little stings for hours, to estimate the number and distribution of guards. They’ve opened hundreds of domiciles, estimating their contents. That’s what everybody has been helping them do the last day. Counting ants.

Qing, who is studying zebra stallion behavior, is downloading gigabytes of GPS data. Ann and XingLi are wrapping up their butterfly project, Maria and Jenni are done with mapping out weaver nests, and Sebastian is in the lab, trying to process for parasites all the dung he has collected (don’t ask).

At 8:30 am Dan, Mayank, and I set out for Mpala, carrying 25 GPS loggers, the same ones that were used to track the sheep. We are going to give them to Ol’ Pejeta so they can put them on scouts and trackers. Among many other things that Ol’ Pejeta is doing, is rhino conservation. There are numerous rhinos on its property and the number is growing, all brought in. Every rhino must be seen at most once every 3 days. Ol’ Pejeta has 23 trackers who patrol the preserve and find the rhinos. They are also acting as security for the preserve and protect the preserve’s extensive wildlife against poachers. Batian, the director of security for Ol’ Pejeta, wants to make sure the trackers are doing their job, that the entire preserve is covered, that there are no blind spots, and, possibly, to see if there is a pattern to rhino sighting. From tracking sheep to rhino conservation, not bad.
Almost as soon as we enter Ol’ Pejeta, we see a group of wild dogs. This is great, especially since they have just introduced wild dogs on the preserve only 2 days ago. As we ride, we wave “Good bye” to countless animals. Ol’ Pejeta is giving us quite a farewell.

After we come back to Mpala, we eat our late lunch and a group of us sets out to the Mpala school. People have brought little things for the kids (about 200 of them on Mpala), like stickers, etc. Rajmonda and I also have brought soccer balls. We arrive at the school and al the kids are assembled in the schoolyard, politely waiting for us. The headmaster introduces himself, directs the kids to welcome us, we say our hellos. Then we give out the four soccer balls. The kids (both boys and girls) instantly start playing in little groups. Our boys (Iain, Andrew, Albert, XingLi) join in. In the meantime, the headmaster explains about the school, tells me that he has only 6 teachers, shows us the tiny school, the sheets with kids’ marks and the handmade posters displayed on the walls. We also give out stickers to kids. Over the last couple of weeks, especially during the soccer games with Mpala staff, I have gotten used to seeing dozens of little hands trust out and the screaming “Me! Me!” whenever we give something out to kids. At the soccer matches we gave out bubble gum and I played little games (like high fives and tickling) with the kids, which earned our team a great cheering squad who could chant in unison “COMPBIO!” (I hope it doesn’t mean anything in Swahili). Every time we have to say “only one” and every time the kids are trying to get away with getting more than one of whatever it is we are giving out ☺ Here, at the school, the scene has been repeated again. By now I recognize the kids and I know which ones are likely to try for more then one and I watch for them. As soon as the kids get the stickers they start putting them on their faces. It’s very cute.

The school bus picks up the kids from the Mpala village (where the research centre staff live) and leaves the Mpala ranch kids (the school is at the ranch so they just walk home). We follow the school bus to the village. There I take a glass pitcher of hot water and a couple of capsules of foam animals. I show the capsules to all the kids now assembled around me on the ground in a circle. They are uncertain of what’s going to happen. I dump the capsules into the pitcher and hope that they are going to dissolve quickly. They do. And as the foam animals unfold, there is a collective “Ah!” from the kids. They love it. I pull out one animal. “Goat!” somebody yells. Yep. Another. “Sheep!” I put more capsules into the water. “Cow! Pig! Cock! Ducky! Horse!” They give me both the English and the Swahili names. They don’t recognize a turkey or a goose. No surprise.

We hurry back to the center to meet everybody else, to pack our beers into cars, and to go to a rock for our last sundown. Oreste, the mechanic shop director, and Julius, the head of Mpala security, join us. With a couple of hiccups we get there perfectly as the sun starts setting. It’s gorgeous. We drink, joke, take pictures, and are sad to leave. We come back for dinner and Dan tells us that he has arranged for Turkana (the tribe most of the staff are from, similar to Maasai) dancers to perform for us after dinner.

After dinner we clear the tables from the dining area and turn it into a stage. It’s dark. Before we see the dancers we hear their rhythmic singing. The procession, led by Anthony, a young man who works as an assistant on various research projects on Mpala, enters the dining area. The dancers are dressed in various combinations of traditional red and black wraps and T-shirts saying things like “Go Aggies!” or “Bob Marley”. First song is just a performance but from the next song on the dancers/singers pull us into the dance with them, nobody is left sitting. It’s a lot of fun. Julius (head of security), Patrick (another security guard), and Laurence (the head of the kitchen staff), who are all Turkana, join in, too. After they are done with the traditional dances, the performers ask if we can put on our music and dance our dances. We bring speakers, a couple of iPods, and we all dance anything from hip-hop to salsa for the next hour. We still need to pack.

After the dance, Josphat, the driver that took the bird and the sheep people every day, as well as helped out with the bird project, suggested a night game drive. We try to find a spotlight but after half an hour of futile searching we set out armed with the car’s headlights and our head flashlights. In two hours we see many many hares and dik dik. But also Genet cats, aardvark, and a group of 9 giraffes and some zebra, sleeping. We get back at midnight. I still haven’t packed.

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