Professor Dan Rubenstein's Email from Kenya
March 19, 2006

Dear Parents of Kenyan EEBers,

I'm now in Oxford after having completed teaching the Natural History of Mammals course in the Field Semester in Kenya. Your kids are now heading back to Mpala after an exciting two weeks on safari. After leaving Mpala we went to the Ol Pejeta conservancy where we did two group projects. One focused on how animals adjust risk of predation by changing their time-activity budgets; the other involved assessing the impact of different levels of predation on the stability and dynamics of zebra populations. Both projects were illuminating and your kids had to present their findings to the CEO of the conservancy! In a very professional way they showed that species view risks differently depending upon body size. The biggest species we studied--the buffalo--showed no change in behavior with respect to habitat and with respect to gender only females with youngsters showed any tendency to be vigilant. For the smaller bodied species-- zebras and Grant's gazelles--vigilance levels changed with habitat and the differences between males and females were more pronounced with males taking on more active roles in scanning the environment. They also demonstrated that a new and simple analysis of relative abundance of age classes could illustrate the degree to which populations have sufficient recruits to sustain theselves. They also showed that with some simple assumptions, the ratios they computed could be used to estimate mortality rates. To do this your children had to really think conceptually and grow into mathematical model building, not something that 3rd year undergraduates normally do. They also had to take a test just be for we left which they didn't seem to mind too much!

Ol Pejeta was not all work, though. We did use radio tracking gear to find a pride of lions; we managed to see many rhinos of different ages and sexes which was fortunate since we spent a significant amount of time examining a case study showing how biology and policy can be combined to conserve endangered species such as rhinos. We even got to touch the horn [the reason for the rhinos' demise] of Morani, the friendly (old and tame) rhino and record the event with tons of photos; I include one of the class for your amusement! And for a treat, one afternoon we all got to go swimming in one of the pools at the Ol Pejeta house--the former mansion of Kashogie (the arms dealer from Iran-contra fame)! Again, pictures will surely be sent your way to record the event.

After leaving Ol Pejeta we headed to Nairobi where some of the students made contact with the rest of the world via email and where we spent the night. Then it was on to Amboseli where, after an excruciating long journey on a washboard road, we joined professor Jeanne Altmann at her camp where she has studied baboons for decades. We actually stayed in the group ranch campsite run by the local masaai and had a great time.

Kenya has turned green now that the rains are falling, but this means that all the wildlife that normally is in Amboseli because its swamps provide a haven as a dry season refuge, had dispersed. But what we saw was terrific and illuminating. The elephants true to form were dispersing in their small family groups but some had aggregated into larger 'bond' groups that the students had read about and discussed during one of our evening sessions. And we got to see fat and lazy hyenas by the dozen; the drought meant there were many carcasses for them to feast upon. Up until this point we had been studying the 'slower' ubiquitous grazing species; now we switched to primates. Every student got to spend a day with Jeanne's team walking with the baboons and each student did an observational project on one key issues with respect to their social biology. To do this the students had to really work hard to standardize descriptions of behavior and design their investigation to answer a question that they had to pose precisely. This project represented the culmination of all we've been trying to teach them. I had to leave Kenya before the final presentations were made, but Jeanne tells me they did a good job.

We also had a guest lecture by Dr. David Western the former director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and a long-time ecologist studying the dynamics of the Amboseli ecoystem. He showed us his elephant exclosures and talked about how the compression affect of elephant poaching which has forced them into the park at extraordinarily high numbers, has led to a massive change in the structure of the habitat. His insights on how people and wildlife can co-exist if certain conditions can be created led to a vibrant discussion and your kids did a terrific job peppering him with thoughtful questions. The comparison with what is happening up north near Mpala provided a valuable and reinforcing lesson.

The weather was perfect in Amboseli--rain every afternoon to clear the air--so the views of Mt. Kilimanjaro were some of the finest I've ever seen (see below). The group was terrific. They are now heading back to Mpala as I write to become engineers. They will begin the third course on 'Global Technology' tomorrow. I'm sure you'll hear all about everything as soon as they reconnect to the world. Isolation, though can be splendid as they have found out. Best, Dan Rubenstein Professor and Chair Instructor EEB 404

All my best,

Dan Rubenstein
EEB professor and chair
Instructor of EEB 404 in Kenya
Department Website:

morani and class
Morani and Class
observation hill amboseli
Observation Hill Amboseli

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