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The Lewa Conservancy: Kenya’s crown jewel

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I have mentioned it several times of the last few weeks and now it is finally time to talk about it. The Lewa Conservancy in northern Kenya is often held as the pinnacle of wildlife conservation in Kenya. Out of all the areas I visited in Kenya this area was the best for wildlife viewing. From the moment our bush plane touched down on Lewa’s airstrip we were surrounded by wildlife. In fact we had to run off a greeting party of reticulated giraffes, Giraffa camelopardalis reticulate, and plains zebras, Equus grevii, from the landing strip.

From the airstrip we headed to Lewa’s security compound. Along the way we spotted 4 species of the Northern 5 (Grevy’s zebra, reticulated giraffe, beisa oryx, and Somali ostrich) species only found in northern Kenya. The elusive gerenuk,the fifth member, was not located until the following day. At the compound we had the distinct pleasure of meeting with John Pommeri, the head of security, who spoke with us about the history of Lewa and their current conservation efforts.

Reticulated giraffe in Lewa

Reticulated giraffe in Lewa

Lewa was founded in 1983. The original conservancy covered 10,000 acres but has since expanded to 45,000. This area is fenced to avoid conflicts with humans which occur when the animals leave the conservancy. As John says, it is not to keep humans out of the conservancy, but to protect them and the wildlife. Lewa tries to maintain good relations with the local community to gain the support of the community for their conservation efforts. They hope that through providing water sources for the community and education to empower women and children they can foster change within how the community views wildlife and deter poaching. Originally grazing of cattle was allowed within the conservancy as part of their community relations campaign. This is no longer allowed as the conservancy has switched to a more natural management approach. To maintain relations the conservancy is teaching local communities how to manage their lands for wildlife rather than cattle so that they can earn income through tourism.

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Lewa has several species which it works to conserve, but the bulk of their efforts are focused on three species: rhinos, elephants, and Grevy’s zebra. As I stated in my post about the Grevy’s there are only 2,000 individuals left including juveniles as well as mature animals. With 400 of the remaining 2,000 calling Lewa home, the conservancy is an area of vital importance to this species. The Grevy’s at Lewa seem to be breeding very well.

Rhinos have been another success story. Lewa has worked extremely hard to protect their rhinos using a combination of technological advancements and old fashioned foot patrols they have been able to protect their rhinos so well that they are now at carrying capacity for the conservancy. As such they intend to relocate excess rhinos at some point in the future to neighboring reserves to start rebuilding other populations. Sadly rhinos are still poached in the conservancy on occasion, but the security personnel swiftly catch up to any poachers that manage to enter the conservancy. Of the three incidents this year one group was forced to flee without rhino horn, the second group of four men was killed when they engaged security personnel in a firefight, and the third group of poachers were captured and convicted.

Grevy's Zebra in Lewa

Grevy’s Zebra in Lewa

Along with rhinos, elephants were the other species that John focused most of his time on. In the past Lewa and the surrounding area have had trouble with the local elephants. Lewa elephants would often brake fences as they tried to migrate to other areas for food and water. Also, the local community has grown so much that they have blocked the path for elephants living in the nearby mountains to mingle with the Lewa herd. This genetically isolation could have led to serious problems in time. So the folks from Lewa came up with a plan. Gaps in the fence were created to allow the elephants and other species of Lewa to migrate in and out as they historically would have. These gaps are built along sections of fence which do not border local communities that may have a problem with wildlife entering their crop fields. Concrete barricades in the gaps prevent rhinos from leaving and entering areas where they cannot be protected but are still short enough that elephants can get over them. The second step of the Lewa plan helped the isolated mountain herd. A fenced corridor was built, including a tunnel to allow elephants to travel under a major road along Lewa’s border, to allow the mountain elephants to mingle with Lewa elephants preventing genetic isolation.

Lewa is really the paragon for wildlife conservation in Kenya. Their efforts have shown many local communities that wildlife is to be valued and conserved rather than eradicated to make way for cattle and settlement. Lewa teems with wildlife and as such has been incorporated into the Mt. Kenya World Heritage Site. This is a wildlife lover’s utopia and I highly recommend anyone traveling to Kenya must see it.

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Fighting to Save an Endangered Bird — With Vomit – Yahoo! News

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Fighting to Save an Endangered Bird — With Vomit – Yahoo! News.

The Stinky Turkey: Hoatzin birds

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Hoatzins were possibly the most unique bird species I observed during my time in Ecuador. This species seems to have branched off from other species of birds very early in history. They have a prehistory look to them and links to other species have not been found. As such they have been placed within their own family of birds. These are a unique species of tropical birds found in rain forests. Known as stinky turkeys, these birds have developed a unique strategy for surviving in a harsh environment.

While most of the vegetation biomass of the Amazon rainforest is tied up in tree leaves, many animals are unable to survive on these as they are hard to digest and often contain toxins. Hoatzins however are folivores, meaning they eat only leaves. While some mammals have also developed this diet,this dietary behavior is especially unique amongst birds. They are the only bird species known to use foregut fermentation (like cattle). This adaptation is necessary to digest the leaves they feed on. As a result of this diet they have a distinct odor often compared to fresh cow manure due to this fermentation process.

Another unique adaptation is found in their nestlings. As these birds live in an environment that is full of predators they need some way to evade them while they are still to young to fly. These birds live near water bodies and  often their nestlings will fling themselves into the water to evade predators. This is not an act of suicide though. The nestlings possess claws on their wings which they use to hook on limbs and climb back out of the water and into their nests.

Hoatzin along Napo River, Ecuador

Hoatzin along Napo River, Ecuador

Wildlife of the Galapagos Islands

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As a wildlife ecology student my recent trip to the Galapagos Islands was the experience of a lifetime. I was so pumped about the trip that I even read Darwin’s “Origin of Species” (it was rough). From the moment I set foot in San Cristobal, my point of entry, I was completely blown away. My expectations for the trip had been surpassed within the first hour in the archipelago.

As soon as I had cleared through customs I spotted my first Magnificent Frigatebird and a couple of Blue-Footed Boobies. My first sighting of a Darwin Finch was on my way to meet up with my local guide. I felt like I was treading in the footsteps of Darwin himself as I observed the magnificent variety of bird life all around me. As my guides described it to me, the Galapagos do not have a huge diversity of species like I had seen on the mainland, but those species found in the islands are found in abundance. Imagine colonies of 70 or more Blue-footed Boobies or 400 sea lions laying on the beach.

One of Darwin's finches

One of Darwin’s finches

The most amazing characteristic of the wildlife I found on all of the islands I visited was their complete lack of fear. It was not uncommon to see a sea lion flop down on a bench next to a human. During my snorkeling trips I came face to face with Galapagos Penguins, sea turtles, and Galapagos sharks and none of them cared I was there. Sea lions would swim up to me and start trying to play by spinning in the water and bumping into me. However this lack of fear is not the result of taming or acclimation to human presence. The Galapagos do not have any large, terrestrial based, predatory mammals that are native to the archipelago. As such the animals do not see humans as a threat.

Sea lion on a bench

Sea lion on a bench

Along with some amazing photography opportunities due to this lack of fear I also had the opportunity to observe the effects of isolation and evolution. The greatest example of this were the mockingbirds I observed. The mockingbirds of the Galapagos originally evolved from a mainland species that somehow migrated to the islands. Over the years of isolation they have become genetically distinct from mainland mockingbirds. They have evolved into their own unique species, the Galapagos Mockingbird. I observed this species during my travels on Santa Cruz and Isabela. Speciation has continued with those mockingbirds found on San Cristobal though. Again they have evolved into a species of their own known as the San Cristobal Mockingbird.

San Cristobal Mockingbird

San Cristobal Mockingbird

Another great example of evolution within the species of the Galapagos is amongst the tortoises. Currently there are 11 species of Galapagos tortoises located on different islands throughout the archipelago (there were 15 species at the time of Darwin’s visit to these islands). These species are not only genetically distinct, some have developed unique shell shapes as an adaptation to conditions on their individual islands. The carapaces (shells) of tortoises on the islands I visited all had the common dome shape. However, on some of the islands like Española, which are arid and have little low lying vegetation, tortoises have developed saddle-shaped carapaces. This shape allows them to stretch their necks higher up to feed.

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  Galapagos Tortoise with domed carapace       Galapagos tortoise with saddle-shaped carapace

Galapagos tortoise with saddle-shaped carapace

Unfortunately I was unable to see the Flightless Cormorants (with no land based predators and a diet composed of fish flight is an unnecessary expenditure of energy and has thus been lost) during my visit to the Galapagos. However the trip was still an amazing experience, especially for a wildlife ecology student such as myself. Although they are somewhat difficult to get to the Galapagos Islands are an amazing destination and I would highly recommend them as a destination for nature enthusiasts.

Ecuador: A birder’s paradise

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From the viewpoint of a birder  Ecuador is paradise. In size Ecuador is roughly as  large as the state of Colorado, yet it has almost 1000 more species than the entire US. While the US has only around 500 species that are regulars (not counting odd migrants that have drifted off course), Ecuador has over 1500. According to the birding field guide released by National Geographic the entire continent of North America only has 990 species.

Not only does Ecuador have an incredible variety of birds in such a small area they have an excellent infrastructure to allow birders to quite easily visit all the different ecosystems the country holds. In a matter of two weeks I visited the Amazon rainforest, the Andes Mountains (around Cotopaxi National Park), the cloud forest on the western slopes of the Andes, and finally did some island hopping through the Galapagos. Aside from the Galapagos most of these regions are no more than a half day drive from Quito, the capital of Ecuador and main port of entry for foreign visitors.

Flame-rumped Tanager

Flame-rumped Tanager

As this trip was for a class most of my time was strictly scheduled and I could not break out and do some hardcore birding. Even so, on only three occasions dedicated strictly to birding and incidental sightings as we traveled, I picked up almost 100 new species for my life list. Some birds such as the hummingbirds and tanagers I saw displayed beautiful vibrant colors. Others, like the Hoatzins have developed unique adaptations to survive in their ecosystems. In fact the Hoatzins will likely be the focus of a later post.

In the Amazon I saw such species as Hoatzin (these strange looking birds feed entirely on leaves), an Anhinga, Blue-headed Parrots, Cocoi Herons and many more. These birds were mainly spotted as we were traveling from one activity to another, typically along the Napo River.

Hoatzin

Hoatzin

My only days of official birding on the Ecuadorian mainland occurred in the cloud forest at the Inti Llacta reserve and in the paramo (high mountain grasslands in the Andes) outside of Cotopaxi National Park. In the cloud forest I saw my first trogon, the Masked Trogon, Flame-rumped Tanagers, and almost a dozen species of hummingbirds including a Tawny-bellied Hermit and Booted Racket-tail. Up in the Andes I saw species such as Rufous-crowned Sparrows, Andean Lapwings, and Tyrian Metal-tails.

The Galapagos Islands provided some of the best birding opportunities. While they do not have as much diversity as the mainland, they have far greater concentrations. It was not uncommon to find Blue-footed Boobies in groups as large as 30-50 members. Not to mention Darwin’s finches which seemed to be chirping from every tree or window sill. And who could complain about snorkeling with Galapagos Penguins?

Blue-footed Boobies

Blue-footed Boobies

I would highly recommend Ecuador and the Galapagos to any nature lovers, but especially to birders. With such great variety of species in such a small area birders will think they are in heaven. Not to mention that the tropical climate and welcoming atmosphere make Ecuador a true paradise.