Letter of Introduction from the New Executive Director - Dino Martins
Dear students, scientists, friends and the wider Mpala community,
I am deeply honoured and humbled to have been selected to serve as the director of the Mpala Research Centre. I thank the Search Committee, Board of Trustees, National Museums of Kenya, Kenya Wildlife Service, scientists and Laikipia community for their support and feedback during this process. This is a very exciting time to be a scientist in Kenya and I look forward tomeeting, talking and exploring how we can work together to sustain, grow and celebrate science and education at Mpala.
Firstly, I would like to salute the tenure of Dr Margaret Kinnaird who has ably served the students, scientists and staff of the research centre for the last eight years. Dr Kinnaird leaves an outstanding legacy that is evident in the cutting-edge, world-class science accomplished here. She has forged a dynamic team, instituted systems in management and infrastructure and built important links with local and international institutions. Dr Kinnaird’s accomplishments have brought an energy and optimism that is palpable at Mpala today. Therefore, we all owe her our thanks and gratitude for her thoughtful and dedicated leadership.
Mpala is one of the world’s leading field research centres and as part of the greater Laikipia ecosystem offers students, scientists and visitors the opportunity to explore one of the most beautiful and interesting parts of the world. From termites to elephants, hornbills to hippos, livestock to public health, the potential for exploration of new ideas and questions here is almost limitless. And the potential links between these questions, synergies and opportunities are themselves myriad like the many links between species in this ecosystem.
This is also a challenging time for Kenya as a country. It is without a doubt a time of great change. Social, political and environmental changes are rapidly sweeping through our world, and Laikipia is no exception. Mpala offers us a tantalising glimpse of life on the planet carrying on its evolutionary dance to an ecological drumbeat. The future presents both challenges and opportunities to link this deep understanding of the world around us with practical knowledge to make a difference in the lives of people in Laikipia, Kenya and beyond.
I very much look forward to exploring new ideas and projects, building on Mpala’s strengths and connecting students and scientists with opportunities that will have a broader impact across the Horn of Africa. I would also like to let you all know that I would be happy to listen to questions, concerns or ideas that you might have related to Mpala or research in Kenya. I will continue to communicate regularly with you, and my door will always be open to all of you at Mpala – so please feel free to stop by, even if it’s just to say ‘Habari!’.
I would also like you all to welcome our new Princeton in Africa Fellow, Danielle Martin who will be joining us in July and thank our out-going fellow, Sally Goodman, who has been a wonderful part of the Mpala team for the past year.
Looking forward to working with you and moving Mpala forward.
Letter from the Executive Director - Margaret Kinnaird
The world looks deceptively peaceful for those of us on Mpala. The air is clean and cool, the mountain looms clearly to the southeast. Elephants graze on the hills in front of the centre and plucky hornbills beg as usual at the dining hall. There is nothing obvious to reflect the horrors of the Westgate Mall tragedy that took so many lives last Saturday – less obvious is the pain in our hearts for those lost and the confusion in our minds over those who commit such acts.
It is hard to believe that I was sitting in Art Café enjoying lunch with a colleague 2 days before the event. Same place, same hour, luckier day. The news came to me via static radio. Westgate? Attack? I immediately assumed that the small community by the same name in Isiolo County had been attacked by cattle raiders. Only a few hours later was my image shattered by reality.
It has been a full week now since the first bullets were fired, and the siege has come to an end. The extent of the devastation and numbers of lives lost have yet to tallied. Although none of us on Mpala was directly affected, our network is broad and was not untouched by those who suffered. Our hearts go out to those who lost friends, colleagues, loved ones.
‘It’s a different world order’ a close friend and colleague Skyped me. Indeed it is. But I am finding comfort in the courage of and solidarity among Kenyans of all creeds and colors as their nation gathers and bravely moves on. Kenya remains the beautiful country that is always has been and perhaps now, an even stronger one.
The Ministry of Commerce and Tourism has assured visitors that Kenya is peaceful and will use its full capacity to ensure that they are safe. I want to re-iterate that Mpala is also safe and we continue to evolve our security measures as necessary to make all students, scientists and their families feel protected and welcome. I encourage anyone planning to come to Kenya not to change their plans; avoiding Kenya only favors terrorists and encourages their atrocious deeds.
We hope to see you on Mpala soon.
Past Letter From Margaret Kinnaird:
This year I made my annual pilgrimage from Kenya to my mom’s home in the bluegrass region of Kentucky. She turned 89 this year. Her vision is failing, her legs are not providing the support she expects of them and her grasp of short-term events is fading. But ask a question about Kentucky’s forests and farmlands, secret places where she rode her ponies, or the cultural landscape of Kentucky in the mid 20th century, and she provides crisp, detailed narratives. Her stories highlight the astounding changes that have occurred in America during her life-time.
My mom was a child of the American depression, who grew up to experience WWII and then contribute to the baby boomer generation (me and my sibs). She experienced a time and place where all phone calls required passage through a local operator (known for her penchant to listen in), when horses outnumbered cars, milk had cream on the top, butter was churned on the porch, and the vegetables were fresh but seasonal. Cigarettes were rolled by hand and smoking was simply considered a rite of passage in growing up. The doctor actually made house calls.
Today, my mom calls on a phone so small she frequently loses it and she is able to talk to her great-grandchildren who live 400 miles away in real-time over skype. Traffic jams in her once small town are daily events, milk is sold fat-free and margarine passes as butter. Veggies are still fresh but they arrive from a dizzying array of far-off countries (which has improved her geography). The tobacco fields of her youth now produce GM soybeans or have turned to strip malls, smoking is discouraged, and she is lucky to get more than 5 minutes with a doctor who certainly has not traveled to her bedside.
Kenyan elders of my mother’s age have seen similar yet far more dramatic changes during their lives. Young members of our Northern Kenya Conservation Clubs have been tasked with interviewing their parents and village elders to understand how Laikipia has evolved during the course of their lives. The hope is that the younger generation will better appreciate the past and grasp how the changes might influence their own futures. Elders of my mom’s age speak of British colonial powers, the Mau-Mau revolution, and the dawn of a new, independent country. They tell of a Laikipia landscape rife with rhinos but absent of elephants, and a mountain covered with dense forests and topped by glaciers, that provided perennial water to the plateau below. Communication with neighboring communities required long-distance treks and face-to-face encounters to exchange news and stories around a manyatta fire. Milk came directly from the cow, as did the rest of the meal. Blood was extracted with a quick and neat punch of an arrow into the cow’s jugular vein. Tobacco was chewed, not rolled. Witch doctors or herbalists dealt with medical problems; western medicine either was feared or unavailable.
When elders describe their current world, the focus is on life having become less nomadic, more settled. Many speak of the transition from large cattle herds of their youth to mixed herds of few cattle and abundant sheep and goats. They find the financial challenges of moving from barter to cash economies bewildering. A primary cash need is to provide children and grandchildren with the schooling that was unavailable to during their youth. The rhinos are gone with the exception of those behind fences, protected with heavy security. The elephants have moved in by the 1000s and once maligned predators are on the rise, often causing grief for herders. It’s no surprise that rainfall is a common topic when it comes to discussions of changes over a lifetime – even without benefit of rain gauges and time series modeling, elders remark about longer droughts and less predictable but more severe rain storms. And everyone remarks on how – three years ago - the Ewaso River dried up for the first time in their memory.
Like my mom, just about every elder interviewed has a cell phone (many hanging from intricately beaded lanyards). They also speak of opportunities to travel farther and faster with the vast increase in roads and vehicles, even in the marginal lands of northern Kenya. . Clinics staffed with nurses and western medicines dot the landscape and are increasingly sought out – although for those in their 80s, a strong reliance on herbs and witch doctors remains. Not everyone has electricity and most cooking is still done over a fire. But just about everyone has had an opportunity to be dazzled by a TV screen in a village duka (store) and be exposed to images of the ‘developed’ world, the world where my mom lives.
Kenya’s new government aims to bring these worlds – developed and developing - closer together. Vision 2030 provides an ambitious blueprint for the nation to achieve its development goals. If successful, Kenya will be a “newly industrializing, middle-income country providing a high quality of life to all its citizens by 2030 in a clean and secure environment”. The vision is anchored on three key pillars; economic, social and political governance - all of which are important to Laikipia and specifically speak to the mission of Mpala.
Kenya’s challenge will be to meld and balance these goals. A current example is the construction of a high-voltage powerline to bring electricity from Ethiopia to Kenya’s populous rift valley. The Kenya Electricity Transmission Company Limited (KETRACO) and their donor agencies (World Bank, African Development Bank, French Development Agency) have charted a route for the line – carried by 45 m (~150 ft) pylons – through the heart of Laikipia’s wilderness and, unfortunately, through the middle of Mpala. There is no doubt that Kenya cannot reach its development goals without plentiful, affordable electricity but the conflict here is clear – Laikipia is visited by an increasing number of tourists who seek a wilderness experience with dramatic, unspoiled vistas, not ones broken by powerlines. Laikipia’s tourism sector provides employment to more than 1,600 local residents who support more than 8,000 dependents and provides more than KSH 600million/year in expenditures on goods & services within the county.
Together with representatives from community conservancies, conservationists, NGOs, civil rights organizations and commercial ranchers throughout Laikipia – and neighboring Isiolo and Samburu counties, we have proposed viable alternatives to the current route (a 33 km diversion from the wilderness corridor to a more developed area with similar powerlines. Although potentially more costly for construction, the alternative would not affect long term electricity prices.
My mom’s home state would never dream of eliminating horse farms or closing down the Derby for other developments, because they know these are major attractions that draw thousands of visitors to the state. One must then ask why Kenya would even consider seriously degrade their wilderness areas that attract millions of visitors annually. As Kenya moves forward with a new government and a new constitution, I cannot think of a more positive move than to show that the nation can proceed with development while simultaneously showing concern for all her people and her invaluable natural heritage. There is a chance to do it right – to involve communities in a democratic process unlike prior governments and show the world that the goals of Vision 2030 can be achieved in a wise, balanced, fair, and sustainable manner.
A view from the highest point on Mpala MuKenya. Photo by Matthew Snider.
Past Letter From Margaret Kinnaird:
Recently, I visited my old haunts in Bukit Barisan Selatan National Park (BBSNP) in Sumatra, Indonesia. The park is home to the Way Canguk Research Center, a small but vibrant research center that Tim O’Brien and I built in 1996 with support from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). This was my first return to Way Canguk since signing on as the Executive Director of Mapla nearly 4 years ago. I’d become accustomed to the gloriously cool, dry and relatively bug-free environment of Mpala and had forgotten the intense heat and humidity of the rainforest – not to mention the abundance of blood sucking leeches. It rained 250 mm during my 9 days in the forest which sums up to nearly half a year’s worth of rain for Mpala. The contrast to my daily life on Mpala could not have been starker.
Like Mpala, the Way Canguk Research Centre welcomes students from around the world who are interested in conducting research on tropical rainforest ecology. Students ask questions like ‘Why are there so many different types of trees here?’, ‘What happens if rainforests burn?’, ‘Are forests disappearing and if so, what is causing the loss, and what needs to be done to slow or stop it?’ A personal interest of my own – and the reason for my trip – was to see if these forests are really doing their much-promoted job as ‘the lungs of the earth’. If they are, the trees that make up the forest should be growing at a healthy, steady rate. Trees that are getting taller and fatter are taking in CO2, and using energy from the sun to convert into wood. In scientific lingo that’s called ‘sequestering carbon’, a crucial service of trees in a world that generates more atmospheric carbon than is good for it.
While at Way Canguk, I easily fell into my old pattern of sitting on my veranda after a cold bucket shower watching night arrive and contemplating the day’s work. Each night, I found myself dwelling on the vast differences between Way Canguk and Mpala. There were the obvious things like the rain, the bugs, the heat, even my evening panorama. The vista from my Way Canguk cabin is blocked at less than 2 meters by a dense curtain of chaotic green vegetation. In contrast, my Mpala porch has a sweeping view of Acacia woodlands with Mt. Kenya some 100 km away in the background.
The less obvious differences lie in land use and approaches to conservation. BBSNP is a government established park delineated by hard boundaries, where humans are supposedly not allowed. This is the antithesis of Mpala and much of Laikipia where there are few hard boundaries and wildlife and humans move unfettered across the landscape. That’s not to say that Laikipians don’t recognize and respect property boundaries but there is an enormous effort as a society - pastoralists, commercial ranchers, conservancy owners, researchers, and tour operators alike – to manage Laikipia as a vast, working landscape where wildlife, people and their livestock live side-by-side.
I found myself comparing the successes of the two conservation approaches. Have boundaries and the attempted exclusion of human activities made a difference for BBSNP’s wildlife? Or the surrounding communities? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is no. There are no more Sumatran rhinos – all having fallen to poachers extracting their horns for trade. Tigers – the iconic animals of Sumatra - are down to less than 50 individuals. Elephants were so rare that I had none of the usual run-for-your-life encounters of the past. Like rhinos, elephants and tigers are victims of illegal hunting. But on top of persecution for their ivory, skins and body parts, BBSNP’s elephants and tigers are also being systematically removed by the Indonesian government as conflict with humans increases along park boundaries. Corruption among park management and the limited ability of local communities to benefit from the park ensures that the communities are far from ‘pro-wildlife’.
I had been deeply aware of all these problems before, and indeed much of our work focused on providing the information to help resolve them. But they seemed more vivid after my recent experiences in Laikipia. I admit to empathizing with the idea that humans should be excluded from some wild areas. I believe this because we so often outsmart, control and ultimately remove anything that is either not beneficial to our needs or is so beneficial that we unthinkingly consume what we desire until we’ve exterminated it. But I am also deeply aware that parks – even where well managed with local human populations benefitting from their presence – aren’t enough to protect the wide ranging animals we care so much about. Only with a combination of strictly protected areas and new approaches to land stewardship – such as what we are attempting across - will this be possible.
As I write, I am watching a herd of elephants grazing calmly near the research centre. Our Boran cattle herd is not far away and just across the river our Maasai neighbors are allowing Grevy’s zebras to share pasture and water resources with their various livestock. My recent analysis of wildlife trends across Laikipia shows a 15% increase in overall wildlife numbers. This is in contrast to the rest of Kenya - especially in the parks and protected areas - where animal numbers have plummeted over the past 3 decades. Although Laikipia isn’t without conflicts and continues to face enormous challenges, we seem to be doing something right. And that makes me feel incredibly privileged to be part of this unique conservation experiment.
Dr. Margaret Kinnaird's favorite sites: