Mesocarnivore trapping has kept me extremely busy for the last couple of weeks, but the results have been encouraging. So far I’ve had very heartening trap success rates (especially considering that I’m sampling carnivores, which usually yield notoriously low sample sizes).
The cast of characters so far includes white-tailed mongoose (Ichneumia albicauda), slender mongoose (Galerella sanguinea), black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas), and both common and blotched genets (Genetta genetta and G. maculata). I even managed to capture a real prize: a leucistic male slender mongoose, a find that was so exciting that my adviser drove all the way out to the trapping grid from the research centre to have a look at it.
It has been fascinating to observe the characteristic temperaments of the different species. White-tails are fearsome creatures, and it seems as though each one is more irate than the last. Our recapture rates have been high—we’ve caught some individuals three or four mornings in a row—and by the second or third capture I can tell which white-tail is in the trap before I even see it, just going by its vocalizations.
One of my favorites is an old snaggle-toothed female that emits extremely distinctive hissy-roars about every 30 seconds while we’re working with her. She keeps coming back to see me, though…and despite their nasty tempers, the white tails are undeniably handsome animals.
The slender mongoose are not as aggressive, but are extremely slippery during handling. They can climb like squirrels, and live up to their name with gracile bodies that can slip through unbelievably small openings. The genets, my favorites, are strikingly beautiful and have a more delicate demeanor than the mongoose animals. They also differ from the mongoose in that they don’t act like they want to eat you through the bars of the traps, which is always a nice change of pace.
I’ve been baiting the traps with all kinds of goodies: orange slices (supposedly genets will eat fruits, although I’ve observed that they haven’t been touching them even when locked in a trap with them), eggs, and fried beef fat scraps. Both my housemate and I are vegetarians, and the beef fat smoke filling our kitchen every afternoon while I’m preparing the bait is a sure symbol of our dedication to science.
I have also positioned game cameras on each of the traps, in order to monitor two phenomena: 1) the rate at which mesocarnivores visit the traps without actually being captured, and 2) to survey large carnivores that are attracted to the scent of the bait but can’t fit themselves into the traps. The diversity of large carnivores on the grids has been as exciting as well: spotted hyena (Crocuta crocuta), striped hyena (Hyaena hyaena), leopards (Panthera pardus), olive baboons (Papio anubis), and lots of jackals that are too crafty to go into the traps. It’s also interesting to see some of the behaviors that go on during the night, like jackals doing doglike play-bows at each other, or a leopard giving my camera a thorough rubbing with his head.
I have been at Mpala for nearly six weeks now, and we just had our first real rain shower this morning. It lasted for about thirty seconds. You can be sure that the wildlife here will put that bit of water to maximum use, however. The abundance and diversity of organisms that are sustaining themselves and even breeding in the near-total absence of precipitation is amazing.
Just in the last few days, I’ve seen elephants, spotted hyenas, oryx, dikdik, impala, giraffes, vervet monkeys, baboons, and servals with youngsters. Coming from previous work in the Neotropics, where “dry season” means that it might go an entire day without rain sometimes, I’m continually in awe of the perseverance of the flora and fauna here.
Even though the landscape is looking parched, the lack of rain is good for my research at the moment, as I’m trying to sample each site both before and after the rains come. I worked up in the northern part of Mpala this week, at the driest end of the rainfall gradient within which I am structuring my study. The vegetation up there is strikingly sparser than it is here at the southern end of the property (where the research centre and residences are located), and the lack of cover means the sun is very intense.
The highest temperature I’ve recorded at a trap station so far was 43° C (109.4° F), although it cools down to around 15° C (59° F) at night. The difference in the species composition between that trapping grid and the grid that I sampled down south is intriguing and has me very excited about the ultimate insights these data will provide.
Between checking traps and processing animals in the morning, driving back out to bait the traps in the evening (we close them during the day to avoid catching any animals while it is sunny and hot; no one wants crispy genets), cooking up loads of bait every day (I spend more time in the kitchen cooking for my critters than I do cooking for myself), and reviewing tens of thousands of camera photos from each sampling bout, things have definitely been busy. The results are exciting so far, however, and I’m still in a state of awe every time I have one of these animals “in hand.” In terms of the landscape, the biodiversity, and success with both observing and capturing animals, Kenya is definitely spoiling me.
Previously in this series:
Secrets of the Universe: Past, Present, FutureX