Tana River Blog

The following posts are from Laura Loyola, a PhD Candidate in the Integrative and Evolutionary (IEB) Program at the University of Southern California. To learn more about the IEB Graduate Program, or the Department of Biology, please visit the USC website at: http://dornsife.usc.edu/bisc/heb/graduate/admissions.cfm


Tana River red colobus. Photo credit: Julie Wieczkowski

A little about my actual research

What brought me to the Tana anyway? That would be preparation for the field aspect my dissertation research. As a fourth year PhD Candidate at the University of Southern California, Program in Integrative and Evolutionary Biology, I am in the process of conducting original research in the broad field of primatology. Specifically, I will be looking at the physiology and behavioral ecology of the endangered Tana River red colobus.

A typical day at camp in Tana

So what is a typical day at camp like? There is a lot going on right now regarding the politics of the area and the ecology of the area and the communities. I have been to one community development workshop and into 4 forests. Next week will be split between forest/monkey time and people time. Oh right, so what is a “typical day at camp” like?

Depending on the schedule for the day (forest, a day at camp or community work) breakfast is either at 6:30, 7, 7:30 or 8 am. We have had chapati every morning and eggs one morning, which means Malibe (our cook) is up very early making fresh chapati. Then if it is a camp day I work on my computer until the battery runs out, read or write and have been spending a lot of time thinking about all the revisions to my research plan I need to make and all the logistics I need to get a handle on…it is all very tiring. Lunch is around 1 and dinner is around 6 or 7, depending on the generator. Days in the forest have been a few and are mostly walking around, looking at the vegetation and trying to associate the names with what they look like, getting some GPS data and finding the red colobus before they run higher in the trees. I have been around the camp and to a few forests that require a car to get to, and will go visit a couple that require a trip in a dug out canoe and then motorbike. There are also days of community work, mostly going to villages and helping with workshops.

The camp itself is ok. Then again, after Indonesia anything is great. I am camping – hadn’t prepared for that so had to rent a tent and am

Inside my small little tent...just enough room for me to sleep.

sleeping on my clothes for cushion, which was not so bad when there was plenty of cushion from the leaves on the ground but then the termites invaded and now I am on very hard ground (though will try a pilates mat tonight). There is running water pumped up from a bore-hole so showering is no problem and our cook boils drinking water so that is taken care of as well, though over the fire makes it taste very smokey. There is a generator that KWS runs from dusk (6pm-ish) until 10pm, which for now is running so that is also not problematic and I can charge my computer, phone and GPS. I do work throughout the day and sometimes after dinner while there is power to use my computer. Since power goes out at 10 I’m usually in my tent before then reading or writing. Speaking of, it is now 9:15pm and time for me to get to my tent…

Week 1:

I can hardly believe it has only been a week since I arrived in Tana. Here are a few of my thoughts for the first week…

Tana River mangabey. Photo credit: Julie W

Monkeys: There are sykes (which I have previously studied elsewhere), mangabeys, red colobus (my new people), vervets and baboons and yes, I have seen all of them. The sykes here are a little on the dumb side (sorry to all my other sykes people)-they still chirp and run away when you walk by them even though this is a research camp and people have been here for years! You could be completely ignoring them and they freak out, causing quite a commotion. The mangabeys are rather cute, though they are loud and all over the place. They come to the ground and make quite a ruckus when one is scolding another, which often happens near my tent. The vervets and baboons I have seen outside of the forest as we drive from village to village or forest to forest so I can’t really say much about them except that they are around. Which leaves “my people” as we have come to call them, the red colobus. Let’s be honest, they’re not as cute as the mangabeys or sykes or some other species of red colobus, and they are going to be a lot harder to study as they are further up (about 10m) but when you get a glimpse of their red head (that is the only part of these red colobus that is red, otherwise they are a sort of grey-ish/brown) it is really kind of cool. Their faces are very dark so you just see a grey body, dark face, dark eyes and a gleaming red crown poke out of the treetops, especially brilliant when the sun reflects off of them. They are not habituated so I will have to make arrangements for that but I think it will be do-able in 3-6months. More on my research in a minute…or three…

This is how we store our food...greens in some water to keep them fresh.

Now for a quick note about the food. Because I am here at the same time as other researchers we have jointly hired a cook, I am not going hungry. We have chapati every morning for breakfast-I feel sorry for Malibe that he gets up so early to make chapati by saa moja na nusu (7:30am). We also get lunch and dinner. Mostly rice with some form of red beans or lentils and cabbage-a lot of cabbage- but I have requested ugali also (yes, I REQUESTED to have the solid porridge-like food!) and sukama weki…and now we have had ugali and sukama weki for 3 days straight! The food is nothing fancy but it is good and I am not going hungry…so much for my “field diet”…oh well.

Insects before I get to the people. Because there has not been any rain during this last rainy season there aren’t really mosquitos, thank goodness, and I am doing fine with just my 40% deet and have only used my 98% deet once so far. However, we do have plenty of termites and some decided to take up camp under my tent after the 1 hour of rain the day after we arrived here. Normally I wouldn’t mind termites under a canvas tent as they don’t eat through canvas but the thing is every time you hit the ground they are in there is a series of vibrations, which happen to be magnified against the canvas tent. So, basically every time I moved or put something on the ground my entire tent made a really cool vibrating sound (think of one of those long rain instruments). When sleeping at night that can get rather annoying. So we moved yesterday and I am no longer on top of termites, just on harder ground :P Flying roaches are gross in any country, at any time, on any continent…yuck! There are also the flying ants, yeah, still don’t like those. And the cicadas which are incessant in their hissing. We also have some bees somewhere between my end of “the village” (what we now refer to camp as, and it’s not really a village) and the main part of the camp. I can hear them all the time, a low hum. I can especially hear them at night for some reason and at point thought they might swarm my tent al la Birds by Hitchcock.

And now about the people I have met so far. David and Julie have been so extremely helpful. Both have shared so much knowledge about their time here in Tana; it has been invaluable. I really do not know what I would do without the insights of both of them while here. When asked why I chose to do my research in Tana and I have honestly told them, aside from the really amazing ecology of the area, they both welcomed further research in the area. One would be amazed what a big difference that makes in the decision of where to conduct one’s research. Even without some of the “comforts” that might come at other sites, their knowledge of the area, their understanding of what it is like to live and work here, and their willingness to help me with research questions and logistics is beyond what I expected and makes it seem like kismet that I came here at this time.

Through David and Julie I have met their past field assistants, who will be working with me and who know the forests and monkeys very well. I have met KWS staff, and I have met some local wazee (elders) of the villages surrounding the forests. All very good people to know and I am fortunate to meet them early on in this process.

That’s the quick and dirty summary of my first week here.

Week 2

Oh my, so much can happen in one week—I feel like that should be the title of a movie. So much and yet the last few days have been rather uneventful—mostly because of the “excitement” of the days before…

Let me first begin with, it is a minor miracle that I am able to type this out on my computer, though I am not sure how much longer the

Itty Bitty baby elephants and big mamma elephants!

computer screen will last…it has decided to go blank and/or freeze, which is rather inconvenient (and it has not been working for the past week…I am writing this on my last night at Tana-a minor miracle that the screen is working now…may be pushing my luck…oh well…) ok, my second week in Tana…started with a solid 5 hours in “my” forest—yes, my home forest—being quizzed on Tana River trees and looking up in said trees for “my people”, the red colobus…yay! But, the most exciting part of that morning was seeing the herd of 13 elephants in the river…from across the river of course! It was totally AWESOME! Julie, Abio and I stood there watching them across the river for about 30 minutes and I was amazed at how much noise they made in the water, and then how quiet they could suddenly be. There was a whole heard, ranging in age from little babies of just over a year (no tusks) and slightly larger young ones of about 3 years to very large adult males and females.

The rest of the week was mostly community workshops, getting up early, eating chapati for breakfast everyday and in the car anytime between 7 and 8 am. The first two days we went from the car (45min) to a dug-out canoe to get across the Tana River, to a motorbike (usually shared with the driver and another person, but sometimes two other people) all to get to a school classroom (varied between concrete floors and dirt floors) to help with community workshops which were both eye-opening and tiring and amazing to be able to be a part of since it was a great opportunity to get to know many of the Pokomo community leaders and elders in the villages in the area I will be working. It also consisted of eating hard –boiled eggs and biscuits (as in cookies) for lunch, or on a good day making a complete mess while making my new friends laugh when we were fed pilau (flavored and colored rice) in a big shared plate that was eaten with our hands. There was also the joy of using “long-drop” toilets and dodging acacia branches as our boda-boda (motorbike taxi) driver zoomed through dry brush.

Youth leader, Michael, Abae, and boda-boda driver, 4 men on 1 motobike!

Thursday did not require crossing the river or taking a boda-boda, and it was only a half-day (only one workshop)…woo hoo! After lunch I went with David to take one of our amazing assistants home to Wenje, a village that is about 15-20 minutes away, and buy eggs…we got back to camp more than 5 hours later! And that was after we got fleas at the chicken coop, had a beer at a “pub” (yes, with our fleas) and the car died 5 minutes outside of Wenje…yup, our car died. Long story short, we pushed it to an open spot on the side of the dirt road, called a few people to see if we could some how hot-wire it, a priest miraculously drove by in his Landcruiser, we sent someone for a tow-bar and rope, a crowd of about 6 spectators happened to gather (more impressive than it sounds since I have hardly ever seen anyone else driving here), we towed the car back to Wenje and took a 25minute piki-piki (motorbike boda-boda) ride back to camp in-The-DARK…did I mention this was all while I was wearing a skirt? Oh yeah…a good day was had by all…ahaha!!! But I did learn an important lesson: that there is a hierarchy of problems, as soon as the car died I totally stopped itching from the fleas!

Without a car the rest of the week and weekend was pretty mellow, 4 days at camp, and my computer wasn’t working so I finished one book, started another and did a lot of revisions on my original research plan and timeline…

Oh yeah, a very busy week indeed, but a very good and productive combination of foresting and workshopping if I say so myself.

Week 3

Again, writing this on my last night in Tana River as my computer has finally decided to work after I tried spectacularly unsuccessfully over the past two weeks! Well, I am grateful nonetheless, that at least now that I am alone in camp my computer decided to work and I can listen to music/podcasts while I write.

Alright, this week, combo of forests and workshops meant a lot of being driven around in a car after picking up and dropping people off, a few

A few of the children who were "helping" with the workshop. The highlight of my afternoon!

dug-out canoe trips, packed lunches and getting rained on twice. It also meant one glorious afternoon in a workshop where I got to simply take photos of all the kids who kept running up to me, staring at the mzungu (me), and laughing as they ran away and then who all crowded around me when I showed them their pictures. Friday was by far one of my best moments here in Tana.

I went to many forest patches and am continually amazed at how incredibly diverse the forests are, as in how different they are from each other. The ecology here is simply astounding. I have also had the wonderful opportunity to hear about Pokomo cultural rules regarding wisely using the forest and see the pride that many people take in this area, the forests and the wildlife.

And now for the excitement of the week…so we finally got another car in place of the broken one on Monday. 3 days without a car meant a little rearranging of everyone’s schedule and meant I did a lot of double time from Tuesday through today. That however was not the exciting part, I mean it was and I enjoyed all my time in the forests and in the villages but it wasn’t “the excitement” of week. Thursday (yup, Thursday) I had a very hot 3-hour walk in a couple of forests along with two canoe trips and got rained on again in the morning. After lunch I went to Hola (really pronounced Hoe-la, but I now have everyone saying Hol-laa…) so that I could see the nearest town (they have markets, cafes with hi-speed internet, and the ever important ATM). After it took an hour to get there (on the fast road) and reading Harry Potter for 2 hours outside a government office while others had a meeting, I did a little market shopping and enjoyed the air-conditioned ATM enclosure. We finally left Hola (hol-laa…ahaha!!!) after 5pm, cutting it close with the amount of daylight left. We got to Wenje, via a slower, more windy and bumpy road, as it got dark (a little after 7pm) to deliver a document. Then it was off to yet another office for another meeting…with us arriving back at camp right around 8:45pm…with me stinky, tired and very hungry! I’d say that was pretty exciting…ahaha!

Friday was pretty good, 3-hours again of forest time in the morning, after an hour and a half drive, and then I got to wait over an hour for everyone to finish with the workshop so I could finally eat my lunch of hard-boiled eggs and biscuits. Then we drove to the next workshop, partially along a bike path although a car is slightly larger than a bike…Like I said, the afternoon was good with me bonding with the kids of the village, as in they no longer ran away or cried when I came by and they even shook my hand and spoke to me by the time I left! Also shared one last communal bowl of pilau with Michael and Abae (two of our Kenyan research assistants), which was both a happy moment and a sad moment since it was the end of the workshop work.

My last (full) day in Tana

So, everyone else that has been here for various types of research all left this morning while I was out in the forest. I am sort of sad to be all alone but also getting a good idea of what it will be like when I am here for the long haul…as long as I have a working computer I shouldn’t go too bush-lady crazy…ahaha!!

Tana Sunset

I went to 2 more forest patches south of camp this morning. Now, normally walking through a forest is comprised of following a guide who is whacking branches with a panga (machete), ducking under tree branches, climbing over fallen trees, and fighting my way through lianas all while making sure I don’t get lost or step on safari ants (or worse). Got the idea? Ok, so picture this, we are walking along a foot path (also used by bikes), none of the adventure that I just mentioned above, I am not even taking notes or entering anything on my GPS, just walking…and down I go! Apparently, hyphaene compresa (a palm) seeds are dangerous to my health! They fall in the hundreds, I have been stepping on them and over them over the past three weeks in the forests and I have been fine. Yeah, not on my last day…Ouch! Make this sprain to right ankle #4.

I can’t help but laugh at this really. Things like this only happen to me. Anyhow, I sucked it up, tied my boot even tighter, popped two Aleve and proceeded to walk in the forests for over two hours. But I am glad I stuck it out, I saw a lot of colobus groups and one had over 20 individuals! Also saw lots of animal paths leading from the bush/woodlands into the forest where they can drink water from the river. And yes, when a tree falls in the forest, it does make sound, a very loud and slow crashing sound. As we got back to Mchelelo we heard a very big tree fall!

One of my favorite sayings from this trip is from one of the youth leaders who assisted in the workshops: If you follow the path of a baboon you will end up in tree. –Abae Anna

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