Saturday, January 16, 2010

[Tanya] Zebras and rhinos and cheetahs, oh my!

We (Dan, Mayank, Qing, and I) went to Ol’ Pejeta again on Wednesday (Jan 13) to take flank shots of zebra for Mayank’s project. First, we did some behavioral observations for Qing’s project. There were TONS of zebra with a group of about a dozen bachelors (single males) and a harem (a group of females with a stallion) near by. One particularly dominant stallion was reasserting his superiority over all the bachelors. He sniffed, bit, and fought into submission the near by bachelors, in the process initiating a spectacular fight among the bachelors themselves. Then another harem came by and a few more bachelors. Our stallion and the new one joined forces to deal with the 15 or so bachelors. Once they were done, they faced each other. “So, we are definitely better than all these single guys, but what about you and me?” The fight escalated right away into biting the Achilles’ tendon, rearing, and running. The new stallion would not submit to our one and our guy was clearly getting exhausted by all that fighting. He was very near loosing his harem of 4 females and 3 babies. When all seemed to have been lost, they suddenly took a grazing brake. Just like that. And right after they had a snack, our guy managed to get a good bite and the visitor went away. All was over. The females peacefully grazed through the whole thing.

The zebras are around a waterhole and there are also impala, Grant’s gazelles, warthogs, waterbuck, giraffes, ostrich. Further away there are rhinos, buffalo, baboons, …

We then started taking photos for Mayank’s project. Each zebra has to be photographed on each side. We keep a blank shot in between individuals to keep track of who is who. It is an exhausting process of driving around zebra (off road) trying to get them to turn both sides. Through all of this I sitting on top of a 4 ton Lan Rover in the narrow strip in between two pop tops, my legs over the opening of the front pop top, hanging on for my dear life, burning to a crisp (first serious sun burn in my life). Throughout the day we got about 2000 pictures of about 40 zebra total. We give them to Dan’s field assistant Rosemary for identification of individuals (for the test set for learning algorithm). She is amazing, taking about 15 seconds to pick out the individual from the photo when she knows it.

After we drop off the photos we go to the Serena Hotel, which used to be Adnan Khashoggi’s house. It’s an expansive place with a swimming pool, 12 feet in every direction bed, a bathroom bigger than some houses, a walk-in closet the size of my living room, and pulleys in the dining room ceiling. A canoe used to be suspended on those pulleys and women would be sitting in it covered with fruit during the dinner. It would be lowered for dessert.

We thank the very accommodating house keepers and go to the information center to see Baraka (means “Blessing”, just like “Barak” in Barak Obama), the blind black rhino held in an enclosure. He is one of the poaching orphans rescued by the conservancy. His horn is sawn off to prevent poaching. He comes up to the observation platform and the keeper gives him some sugarcane. We touch him, feed him. A 2 ton pet – amazing. Dan is impatient: “C’mon, guys, we need to get back before dark” But I want to feed Baraka and take a picture with the keeper (and his AK 47). So Dan walks to the car hoping we follow. We do, after the pictures. Dan is dishing it out: “You guys missed some jackals, a whole bunch”. I answer that between touching a rhino and seeing jackals, I am ok with missing the jackals (I have seen them before). “Ahhh,” says Dan, “but what if had missed some cheetahs?” “Then I would have been upset”. We pile back into the car and take off on the way home. Not five minutes later we see four cars standing on the road. Must be lions. No! Cheetahs! A momma with a baby. When we saw it, it was laying with the mommy, but then it got restless and started bouncing around. Mom got up an started walking away. He ran around, back and forth, play hunting andpouncing. Sat for a while, looked at us directly and then got restless again. It was fantastic! We try not to look too smug when we get back to Mpala but our poker faces don’t work.

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