By Gilbert Koech, The Star
A light aircraft gets ready to soar into the skies at Mpala Research Centre, with the mission of counting Kenya’s iconic species in the first census of its kind. On board are a pilot, front seat observer and two other rear seat observers, one on the left-hand side and another on the right-hand side.
Before the plane leaves the airstrip, Stephen Ndambuki, who is a research scientist from Wildlife Research Training Institute, ensures everything is in order. “We have to record the names of observers, pilot, starting time and our mission in dictaphone before embarking on the mission,” he says.
Ndambuki is among the research scientists taking part in the National Wildlife Census covering both land and aquatic wildlife that was launched on May 7.
Tourism CS Najib Balala presided over the launch at Shimba Hills National Reserve in Kwale county. Balala recently said the country has 35,000 elephants, 1,600 rhinos, 100,000 giraffes, 2,400 lions and 2,000 Grevy zebras.
However, data on some wildlife, such as cheetahs, leopards, spotted hyenas and the endangered pangolins, is not there.
The census is fully funded by the government and is being executed by the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the newly created Wildlife Research and Training Institute. It will enable the country to have refined data on wildlife and find out where they are.
Ndambuki continued as he records an update on a dictaphone: “Laikipia, Samburu, Meru, Marsabit aerial total census June 2021. We will be heading to block 22. I’m the front-seat observer and rear-seat observers are Lilian on the right and Rose on the left.”
Block 22 is near Ol Jogi Wildlife Conservancy, a stronghold for the Eastern black rhino subspecies. The conservancy was established in 1980 and is one of the oldest conservancies in the Laikipia region in Kenya.
Ol Jogi has what has proven to be one of the most successful rhino breeding programmes in Kenya. It has contributed many rhinos to the overall national population by helping to restock areas where rhino numbers were dwindling.
The researchers are armed with a handheld map, Global Positioning System, datasheet, camera and pens.
After recording all the necessary information, we are ushered into a caravan aircraft, ready for the census. The pilot feeds coordinates of the area to be covered into the plane for purposes of navigation. Here, the area has been divided into 106 blocks of 600 square kilometres. Each of the 15 planes from different organisations is assigned at least two blocks in a day.
“Welcome on board, we are ready for the census. The area we will be covering is 30km away and we will be there in six minutes as the aircraft is doing about 5km every minute,” Captain John Munyori says.
As the engine of the plane roars, Ndambuki records into dictaphone that we are taking off. “Take-off time is 1500hrs,” he says.
The plane will be flying at 8,000 to 9,000 feet above sea level. As it gets near the census area, it flies as low as 250 to 350 feet above the ground level. This allows observers to spot the wildlife, livestock and human activities.
The blocks are divided into small lines called transects of one kilometre each. The plane moves in each transect with hawk-eyed observers landing their eyes on an area of 500 square kilometres on each side.
“We are on the counting area and the counting starts now. The start count time is 1508hrs,” Ndambuki says. When the counting starts, the time is also recorded.
Low Flying and Low Speed
The plane also moves in low speed of a minimum of 80 knots and a maximum of 100 knots. As the counting start, the pilot and all the observers communicate using headphones. “To my right are three elephants,” Ndambuki says as the pilot circles the area for observers to confirm and take photos.
The GPS positions where elephants are spotted are taken and also recorded in the datasheet.
The plane makes the elephants flap their ears as they closely watch out for any threats.
“To my right are 200 shoats [sheep and goats] and a boma,” Lillian says as Ndambuki keys in GPS positions. “To my left are three gazelles and 10 cattle,” Rose says. “There is also a tourist camp on my right,” she adds as Ndambuki feeds the GPS position.
“On my right are a herd of 10 buffaloes,” Lilian says. “To my left are four rhinos,” Rose says giddily.
The sight of elephants and rhinos excited the observers the most. The survey continues until the whole block has been covered. It takes about five hours to finish. “We have successfully completed census in block 22,” the pilot says.
The end time of the exercise is recorded.
The plane will then fly to between 8,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level as it navigates back to the airstrip. As it lands, the time is recorded.
Data will then be taken to Mpala Research Centre for transcribing and feeding into data set by the more than 60 clerks at the centre. Voice, GPS and photos are downloaded for analysis.
Back in the Air
During the aerial survey, the scientists said the distribution of wildlife within the mountain conservation area is fairly good. The area includes Laikipia, Samburu, Meru and Marsabit, where most wildlife is outside the protected areas. It covers 65,518 square kilometres.
On July 4, research observers and pilots report to the airport at around 7am, ready to embark on a similar exercise but in different blocks.
This time round, I accompany pilot Michael Nicholson for yet another session in block 61 and 46. The two blocks are situated in Merti Plateau, Bulesa, Biliko and Makadaka in Isiolo county. As part of the preparations, aircraft are fuelled.
“Laikipia, Samburu, Meru, Marsabit aerial total census June 2021. We will be heading to blocks 61 and 46. My name is Timothy Nikime and I’m the front-seat observer and rear-seat observers are Chrispine Ngesa on the left and Erick Mwenda on the right,” Nikime said.
The journey from the Mpala Research Centre to census sites took almost one hour. We took off at 8.22am and arrived at the census site at 9.07am. “Shoats (sheep and goats) and abandoned bomas on my right,” Mwenda said as Nikime feeds GPS. “A herd of elephants on my right,” Mwenda said as Nicholson flew around the area for photos to be taken.
The elephants were foraging for food.
“Dry natural water bans on my left,” Ngesa said as Nikime took GPS positions. “Five giraffes on my left,” Ngesa said.
That Sunday, we spotted elephants, giraffes, Ostriches, camels, water bucks, patches of freshly burnt forest, among others. Most wildlife was dotted along Ewaso Nyiro river. At 1.39pm, the census covering the two blocks of 600 square kilometres each successfully ended. Following the completion, Nicholson navigated the aircraft high up to between 8,000 and 9,000 feet above sea level.
We later landed at Mpala Research Center airstrip at 2.26pm.
Nicholson said there are challenges with flying at a low level. “Flying in 250 to 350 above ground level is challenging due to turbulence. Keeping the aircraft straight while managing speed and height is tough,” he said.
Wildlife Research and Training Institute acting head Dr Patrick Omondi said the census has employed an internationally accepted methodology. “Elephant-specialised groups have adopted the method. In marine census, the method that scientists have adopted will also be used,” Omondi said.
He said data will be peer-reviewed before the report is published. Omondi said the data will be publicised so experts look at them in order for the report to be refined.
KWS director general John Waweru said the census is critical to the service as it will help in boosting security as well as in the development of management plans. He said the results will help counties plan well to safeguard the country’s iconic species. He said poaching has been addressed through the multi-agency approach.
Senior research scientist Dr Joseph Mukeka says they check for double counts after all data has been entered. “After all data has been combined into one data set, validation and cleaning is done. Double counts and errors in entry are also looked at in order to have a clean entry,” he said.
Mukeka said there are other methods of counting small and nocturnal animals, such as pangolins. These methods include camera traps.
Mukeka said elephants are key species as they open up the ecosystem for other species. “The elephant modifies the habitat and makes it better for other species. The dung of an elephant hosts a lot of other species,” he said.