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    An Unforgettable 13-Day Volunteer Experience In Kenya

    Africa is a powerful continent where you can remove yourself from the stress of your life at home, recalibrate your priorities, and simply live and appreciate life as is. Here is my story, my 13-day journey in Kenya as a "citizen scientist" with Biosphere Expeditions to help preserve the biodiversity of the world-renowned Maasai Mara.

    PRELUDE

    “Africa is a powerful continent,” my South African friend texted me right as I was getting on a flight to Nairobi, Kenya. “It will bring you back to your core.” Reflecting on my 13-day wildlife conservation expedition at the majestic Masai Mara, I agree wholeheartedly. Africa is, indeed, a powerful continent where you can remove yourself from the stress of your life at home, recalibrate your priorities, and simply live and appreciate life as is. And if anything goes as unplanned, just say, “Hakuna Matata.” No problem - because life goes on and everything will be okay.

    BEGINNING

    Biosphere Expeditions

    I first learned about Biosphere Expeditions in 2015 while searching “volunteer trips” online. I stumbled on a blog post about the diving expedition to study coral reefs and whale sharks of the Maldives. Further research revealed the mission of Biosphere Expeditions, which is to make an active contribution towards a sustainable biosphere through citizen science conservation and voluntourism work. This non-profit organization leads projects around the world -- from the conservation of elephants in the Himalayan foothills of northern Thailand to the monitoring of brown bear in the Scandinavian woodlands of Dalarna Province in Sweden -- while empowering ordinary people and placing them at the center of scientific study so they can be actively involved first-hand in the field to conduct conservation work. Even though the mission of the organization left a powerful impact on me, it wasn’t until this year that I decided to pull the trigger and go for it.

    ARRIVAL

    Since I had never been to Africa, the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, elephant and buffalo) and African biodiversity protection project in Kenya’s Maasai Mara particularly appealed to me. Once I signed up for the expedition, the rest of the planning was simply a matter of crossing items off the checklist. Purchase flights? Check. Get vaccinated? Check. Buy equipment such as hiking boots, insect repellent, and headlamps? Check. As the departure date neared, my initial hesitation and nerves shifted to excitement and anticipation.

    The journey to Enonkishu Conservancy, the expedition’s core study area located on the northernmost boundary of the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem (MSE), was a long one, worsened by the poor road conditions due to the unusually rainy season. The expedition consisted of 14 participants from all over the world, from Germany to Australia to Canada. We even had an intern - a Maasai himself - joining us and he proved to be an invaluable addition with his local knowledge.

    PROJECT SCOPE AND TRAINING

    Biosphere Expeditions

    The main objective of the Kenya expedition was to monitor wildlife and biodiversity of Enonkishu and neighboring conservancies within the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem (MSE) and to work with local people on biodiversity protection. Because of Enonkishu’s location on the northern tip of MSE that separates the wilderness of the Mara from the agricultural lands in the north, it is sometimes referred to as the “Last Line of Defense” to indicate its key role in defending the Mara from encroachment.

    The MSE is home to the most diverse migration of grazing mammals on earth. Currently, only 25 percent of the wildlife habitat is protected in the Mara National Reserve, while the rest within conservancies face threat due to unprecedented population growth and the subsequent transition in land uses from livestock to crop farming. The aim of the Biosphere Expeditions project is to monitor wildlife in the area through data collection so that efforts can be made to combine sustainable cow herding with wildlife presence.

    In addition to diving deeper into the project’s mission, we spent the first two days getting trained on skills to become successful citizen scientists, such as correctly using tools such as compass and rangefinder to identify and map mammals, as well as practical skills such as how to change flat tires in case of roadside emergencies. It wasn’t long until we felt competent enough to venture out into the field for data collection. Below are some snapshots of the different activities we were tasked with.

    ACTIVITIES

    Mammal Mapping

    The objective of mammal mapping is to create a spatial map of abundance and distribution of mammals in the Enonshiku Conservancy, either by vehicle or on foot. The aim is to assess wildlife population changes within the conservancy with the data. Every time we saw mammals, including wild ones such as wildebeest, warthogs, and cheetahs, as well as domestic ones such as cattles, donkeys, and goats, we would measure the compass bearing, distance from where we were, and quantity and sex of the mammals. The data were entered in real-time using the Cyber Tracker app.

    Foot and Vehicle Transect

    The transects are similar to mammal mapping - think of them as "game drives with a purpose," but with a focus on tracking population distribution and density using a method called distance sampling. Unlike mammal mapping, you record the mammals (and birds) from 90 degrees to either side to the front of the car, then record the perpendicular distance from you to the center of the group using the rangefinder. Temperature is recorded for transect as well.

    Camera Trapping

    Biosphere Expeditions

    Camera trapping, which includes setting up, servicing (e.g. changing batteries), and retrieving a camera, enables us to capture images of mammals during all hours of the day in order to monitor mammalian biodiversity, especially those that are rare, nocturnal, and elusive. Cameras are deployed in strategic locations throughout the conservancy, and they are triggered upon movement. Once the images are collected, we browse through them to identify and record the mammals.

    Waterhole Observation

    The waterhole observation involves watching and recording the type and number of animals in a hideout as they come to drink at the man-made waterhole in Enonkishu. Due to climate change, Kenya has experienced drastic variability in its weather conditions, which are further exacerbated by deforestation and clearing of land from overgrazing and over-harvesting resources. Investigating the animals’ behavior around water sources could demonstrate the stress related to resource competition in terms of water availability.

    Education Day

    In order to inspire future generations and instill the importance of wildlife conservation, one of the days is dedicated to interacting with and educating local students in order to help them become advocates for the environment. We had an opportunity to visit a secondary school to get a glimpse into the students’ day-to-day, and took some of them to the conservancy for a game drive and delivered an education program where they answered the thought-provoking question, “What can you do to help conservation in your area?”

    ROOM AND BOARD

    During the two weeks of the expedition, we stayed at a very comfortable and modern field station in either a cottage (double occupancy) with en suite bathroom or a safari tent (single occupancy) with ablution block nearby. The site was located on the banks of the Mara River, and also included two chalet-type structures - one that served as a training centre (Mara Training Centre) and another for eating, relaxing, and hanging out (Cow Shed).

    In order to reduce environmental impact, Biosphere Expeditions serves exclusively vegetarian food. We enjoyed a rotating menu that included sweet corn and spinach quiche, spaghetti Bolognese made with seitan, beans and potato stew over brown rice, and vegetarian cottage pie, just to name a few. All the food items were prepared in-house and made with locally sourced ingredients.

    REFLECTIONS

    It would be too premature to say the expedition was life-changing, but I reflect on it with newfound appreciation and perspectives on life. Throughout the experience, we encountered several unpredictable events - from the cars being stuck in a mud ditch to the torrential rains keeping us away from a few activities. As a stickler for orderliness, these uncertainties caused uneasiness initially, but I learned to adapt and assume a “Hakuna Matata” lifestyle - and discover unexpected surprises with the change of plans, such as the time we encountered a female cheetah with her six cubs instead when our planned morning hike was postponed due to the rain.

    I also realized we live with so many “luxuries” in life, yet we take all these for granted and are too quick to complain if the Netflix show isn’t downloading fast enough or the subway is delayed by a few minutes. During our visit to the secondary school, I was surprised to find out there is no running water, so the students have to collect rainwater for consumption, showers, and laundry.

    Biosphere Expeditions emphasizes that its projects are not tours, photographic safaris or excursions, but genuine research expeditions and citizen science wildlife conservation projects. And indeed in many ways, the experience was extremely meaningful and empowering: That someone like me, a New Yorker who has never been to Africa before, can serve as a citizen scientist to help contribute to this conservation efforts in the Mara and elsewhere. I loved interacting with the Enonkishu rangers, who accompanied us on most activities. The highly skilled and knowledgeable rangers made sure that we followed safe trails away from potentially dangerous animals at all times and taught us many skills, such as how to identify animals based on their tracks, scats, and resting spots.

    CONCLUSION

    Just 100 meters away from where we parked the car, two giraffes - a mom and her young - are grazing out in the vast green prairie. As we approach them closer, the mother giraffe’s ears perk up. Amidst the knee-high grass, she stares right into our eyes. “She spotted us,” one of the rangers whispers softly. The mother giraffe tugs her young, and the two of them elegantly gallop further into the forest.

    This scene unfolded during my first game drive on our way to set up a camera trap. Prior to this experience, I had never witnessed wildlife (other than occasional antelopes) in its truest form. It’s hard to describe the overload of emotions I felt at that moment. I just stood there, muted to all the other sounds around me, just watching the giraffes as they retreated to their habitat - nature.

    DO MORE...

    I want to thank everyone at Biosphere Expeditions and Enonkishu Conservancy for making this experience possible. For more information, visit https://www.biosphere-expeditions.org/ and https://www.enonkishu.org/.

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