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Laikipia Plateau: I have arrived

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Well, I made it to Kenya successfully, seem to have conquered my jet lag, and am exciting about getting my fieldwork in motion. After spending a couple of days doing meetings and errands in Nairobi, I am headed off to my field site in the Laikipia District. Laikipia is truly one of Kenya’s treasures, from its geology and landscapes to its vast and unique biodiversity.

In order to give you some ecological context, I’m going to introduce you to a few aspects of the local environment, which hopefully will help to enrich the picture when you read about my research activities in later posts.

The Laikipia Plateau ranges in elevation from 1,700-2,550 meters, (averaging about 2,010 meters; Kareri 2009), and acts as a sort of bridge between the base of Mount Kenya and the edge of the Great Rift Valley. The climate up there is relatively mild, especially considering it only an hour’s drive from the equator: right now the daily highs are in the low-80s and the overnight lows are in the mid-40s. The land is composed primarily of very ancient metamorphic rock called gneiss, some of which are formed by pre-Cambrian deposits (Kareri 2009). Atop these gneiss layers are younger deposits of basalt, which are were formed by ancient lava flows.

These geologic layers create a striking landscape. One of the most prominent features of the landscape near my main base, the Mpala Research Conservancy (MRC), is Mukenya, a tall outcrop of gneiss that has been exposed by countless millennia of wind and sand swept across the plateau, gradually scraping the basalt away to reveal the ancient layers.

Two main rivers run through Laikipia, the Narok and the Ewaso Ng’iro (sometimes spelled “Nyiro”). Both of them flow down from the nearby Aberdare Mountains, and they are the primary source of water for Laikipia’s ranches and wildlife. This became clear during a devastating drought a few years ago, when the Ewaso Ng’iro literally ran dry, as seen in disturbing images captured by NASA satellites.

The landscape around the MRC is primarily an Acacia woodland. Rather than the open, grassy expanses found in some African savannahs (including elsewhere in Laikipia), there are many shrubs and Acacia trees that create a good deal of prickly cover.  The landscape can appear relatively dormant and brown in the dry season, but flourishes into a verdant green almost immediately after seasonal rains move in.

Traditionally, Laikipia experiences two rainy periods per calendar year: the “long rains” lasting from March-May, and the “short rains” around November. In recent years, however, these patterns have become increasingly erratic, and the IPCC forecasts even more disruption of seasonal patterns as global climate change progresses (Solomon et al. 2007). This is projected to result in in more frequent and intense drought events, which is of high concern to conservation biologists and local residents alike.

There is a lot at stake in the face of these shifting conditions. Within Kenya, only the Masai Mara rivals the biodiversity found in Laikipia. As I mentioned in my introductory post, the plateau is home to critical breeding populations of species such as the Grévy’s zebra (Equus grévyi) and African wild dog (Lycaon pictus). The Grévy’s zebra exists only in northern Kenya and isolated parts of Ethiopia, and nearly half of the species’ remaining 2,500 wild individuals resides in Laikipia.  Likewise, Laikipia is home to 49% of Kenya’s Endangered black rhinos (Diceros bicornis) and 70% of its white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum). Laikipia’s Ol Pejeta Wildlife Conservancy houses four of the six to seven remaining individuals of the northern white rhino subspecies (C. s. cottoni), and the only potential breeding pairs—although their effective population is just 1.71, because the living individuals are so closely related (Emslie 2011).

Laikipia also harbors populations of the reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardus reticulata), which is the most threatened form of this majestic species. Remaining populations of these gentle giants are restricted to northern Kenya and parts of Ethiopia and Somalia. Similarly, the Jackson’s hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus lelwel) is completely endemic to Laikipia, and is currently facing steep population declines.  This situation creates a bit of a conundrum: the Hartebeest is thought to be suffering from lion predation, putting the survival of the species at great risk, and yet conservation biologists must also try to protect lion populations as well as they can, as the big cat is facing steep population declines across much of Africa. Such are the challenges that face conservation biology, where there are very seldom easy solutions to the most  important problems.

Laikipia’s biodiversity is notable for another reason as well: much of the land in this area is held by private owners, mainly cattle ranchers, and is not set aside in official national parks.  This is an extremely promising example of how wildlife management practices can be optimized to preserve and even enhance populations of critical species, while also allowing local peoples to continue to occupy and making a living from the land. Finding conservation solutions that are sustainable for local people is the only hope for some species, which cannot be adequately saved within park boundaries. For example, just 0.5% of the remaining Grévy’s zebras live in officially protected areas (Moehlmon et al. 2008). Clearly, pursuing ways to preserve them on private land will be key to their survival.

So, that is a whirlwind tour of the area in which I will be working. I highly encourage you to read more about the wildlife and conservation efforts going on at Laikipia over at the Laikipia Wildlife Forum’s website. I look forward to updating you as I progress with my research on the plateau!

References:

Emslie, R. 2011. Ceratotherium simum ssp. cottoni. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>.

Kareri, R. W. 2009. “Some aspects of the geography of Kenya.” Online: http://international.iupui.edu/kenya/resources/Geography-of-Kenya.pdf

Moehlmon, P. D., D. I. Rubenstein & F. Kebede. 2008. Equus grevyi. In: IUCN 2012. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. <www.iucnredlist.org>.

Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K. B. Averyt, et al. 2007. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Cambridge, U.K.

Images: copyright by author.

Previously in this series:

Laikipia Plateau: mesopredators in Kenya

Anne-Marie Hodge About the Author: Anne-Marie Hodge is currently working on her doctoral degree at the University of Wyoming. She graduated from Auburn University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Zoology, including a concentration in Conservation/Biodiversity and a minor in Anthropology. During her years at Auburn, Anne-Marie was a founding member of Alabama's first chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology. She completed her a Master of Science in Biology at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington in 2012, and has participated in field research trips in the southwestern U.S., Mexico, Belize, Ecuador, and Kenya. When she is not chasing carnivores at the equator, Anne-Marie blogs at Endless Forms on the Nature Network and is a frequent contributor to Ecology.com. Follow on Twitter @aubiefan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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