Spots and Stripes: A Guest Post from Kenya

With this post we’ll take a brief trip from the tropical forests of Borneo to the savannas and scrubland of Kenya. My friend and Columbia University colleague Michael Butler Brown has agreed to write a guest post about his work with zebras while I recover from the VERY busy but productive IPS conference. I’ll be back blogging about Vietnam soon, but in the meantime please enjoy MBB’s stories and photos!zebra 1This zebra is not cooperating today. We’ve tracked him through the thick acacia scrub in our Land Rover for well over a kilometer and we have yet to get a good look at him. As the old diesel engine whines under the stress of crossing a deep lugga, the zebra finally trots through a gap in the bush. He is only in view for a second but with a reassuring click, the field assistant captures the image that ends our pursuit. The photograph isn’t very pretty – I’m certainly not going to frame it and give it away as a Christmas gift- but it contains the signature stripe pattern of the right flank, allowing us to identify the individual and track both his survival and space use over time.

It's not pretty but it's all that we need. We use zebra's unique stripe patterns to monitor populations of the endangered Grevy's zebra over time.

It’s not pretty but it’s all that we need. We use zebra’s unique stripe patterns to monitor populations of the endangered Grevy’s zebra over time.

I am the current project manager for the Laikipia Zebra Project at Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya. My project is a collaboration between the good folks at Princeton University and the Denver Zoo, and we work to study all things zebra…movement ecology, population dynamics, demography, disease and parasite ecology, sociality and human/wildlife interactions. My home in Laikipia is unique and interesting place to study zebra ecology in that it is one of the few places in the world where two species of zebra live on the same landscape. Here, the more common plains zebra and the endangered Grevy’s zebra traverse the same scrub and graze the same glades – sometimes side by side – allowing us to examine how different species of zebra respond to the same environmental stresses.

A Grevy's zebra (right) and a plains zebra (left) graze side-by-side. Grevy's zebra are larger bodied, have thinner stripes and a white belly. Grevy's zebra are also an endangered species with an estimated global population of 2,500-3,000 individuals

A Grevy’s zebra (right) and a plains zebra (left) graze side-by-side. Grevy’s zebra are larger bodied, have thinner stripes and a white belly. Grevy’s zebra are also an endangered species with an estimated global population of 2,500-3,000 individuals

Additionally, Laikipia is an interesting model for conservation in east African since it is a mosaic of private ranches, community lands and private conservancies. Unlike their brethren in national parks, zebra and other wildlife in Laikipia navigate a complicated landscape full of grazing cattle, roving goat herds, rural villages, unobliging ranchers and (sometimes) training British army units. Despite these challenges, Laikipia is a remarkably diverse system containing lions, wild dogs, leopards, cheetahs, elephants, hippopotamus, rhinoceros, eland, oryx, hartebeest, plains zebra, Grevy’s zebra and all of the dik dik (very small deer) that you could possibly ever want to see. I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the oodles of less fuzzy but equally cool plants, insects and birds.

Laikipia hosts a suite of remarkably diverse systems that contain a spectacular array of megafauna. Here, I encountered a white rhinoceros and her calf as I survey Grevy's zebra.

Laikipia hosts a suite of remarkably diverse systems that contain a spectacular array of megafauna. Here, I encountered a white rhinoceros and her calf as I survey Grevy’s zebra.

To address the diverse needs of our ongoing research projects, we are taking advantage of an expanding scientific toolkit which ranges from time-tested aerial surveys to cutting-edge GPS tracking technology. One of the emerging tools that has proven very useful is the stripe identification survey technique, which uses pattern recognition software to help understand zebra population dynamics. Understanding the current population size and having a tool to monitor changes in population numbers over time is a critical goal in determining the status of the Grevy’s zebra and assessing the effectiveness of conservation measures. Fortunately, nature has decided to lend a helping hand in these efforts. Just as humans have unique fingerprints, each zebra has a tell-tale stripe pattern. These patterns act as a bar code to specifically identify unique individuals. By simply photographing a zebra and using innovative stripe recognition computer software, we can compare zebra seen in the field to a growing database of known, previously sighted zebra. From this information, we are working to develop a clearer understanding of the number of unique zebra over the landscape and beginning to piece together life histories of individual zebras. Although the questions may seem simple, the implications of the answers are strikingly significant. Having an accurate method to count unique zebra can provide reliable estimates of population counts and distribution throughout the range. Additionally, collecting GPS coordinates at each sighting allows us to monitor movement of individual zebra across property lines to more realistically depict how zebra use space throughout the wet and dry seasons that are typical of their semi-arid environments.

We outfit several Grevy's zebra and plains zebra with GPS-equipped collars so that we can track them and understand how different zebra species navigate this complicated landscape and respond to environmental changes over time

We outfit several Grevy’s zebra and plains zebra with GPS-equipped collars so that we can track them and understand how different zebra species navigate this complicated landscape and respond to environmental changes over time

Like many aspiring field biologists, mine was a youth spent tracking deer through the woods near my Pennsylvania home, reading National Geographic magazines, and watching the Discovery Channel. This fascination with understanding the environment eventually manifested itself in pursuing an undergraduate degree in biology. During my undergraduate career, I had the opportunity to work for a number of ecology/conservation organizations in the Washington DC metropolitan area, including the United States Department of Agriculture, the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and African Wildlife Foundation. I also had the opportunity to spend a semester studying wildlife ecology and management in Tanzania with the School for Field Studies (sound familiar? Cassie’s note: for those of you who don’t know, I spent a summer with SFS in Kenya studying the same things). Here, in the spectacular national parks of northern Tanzania, my passions for field ecology took a real and tenable form. After graduating university and spending a year working various field tech positions, I wanted to build on this foundation in applied ecology, so I joined Cassie’s cohort in Columbia University’s Master’s Degree in Conservation Biology Program. While at Columbia, I conducted my thesis research on movement ecology of Grevy’s zebra in northern Kenya. As you might imagine, there is not a huge market for Grevy’s zebra resesarchers so I was very fortunate to be offered this position at the Laikipia Zebra project.

As fascinated as I am by the systems in which I work and the species that I study, I am equally enamoured with the process of conservation biology. Applied ecology is fascinating field that allows me to get my quantitative jollies while spending a healthy portion of my time outdoors. Here, I have the opportunity to use science to engage policy makers and communities in creating solutions to real-world problems. That, to me, is the true draw for applied ecology and conservation research.

A group of Grevy's zebra watch as I collect fecal samples for parasite analyses. The fresher the better...

A group of Grevy’s zebra watch as I collect fecal samples for parasite analyses. The fresher the better…

Although I have enjoyed my tenure in Kenya, all good things must inevitably come to an end. At the end of August, I plan to transition into a PhD position at Dartmouth College in collaboration with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. The foundation of my dissertation work will be in understanding population dynamics and movement ecology of the Rothschild’s giraffe, an endangered subspecies of giraffe that lives primarily in isolated protected areas in Uganda and Western Kenya. Fortunately for me (perhaps not so much for the giraffes), I will also be heavily invested in applied conservation research. Just as the orangutans in Kalimantan are feeling the squeeze from the development of forest habitat for palm oil and agriculture, giraffes in Uganda are also potentially threatened by agricultural development and oil exploration. One goal of my work will be to make sure that we understand the demographic problems associated with isolated populations and the conservation implications of oil exploration within a National Park so that this subspecies of giraffe can continue to exist within its natural habitat. It’s a certainly promising to be a challenging and exciting new project.

Obligatory cute baby giraffe photograph. Who wouldn't want to conserve this darling?

Obligatory cute baby giraffe photograph. Who wouldn’t want to conserve this darling?

Thanks to the infinitely patient Cassie for letting me write this guest post. Keep up the great work with the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project! For more information on the diverse work being done at Mpala Research Check out the new Mpala Live! For more photographs feel free to take a look at MBB Photography.


Work! And Jet Lag.

Well 3 days here and it’s already been a busy weekend. I should backtrack though…

From Jakarta I made it to Ketapang with no problem- the flight wasn’t even delayed! Which is pretty amazing since domestic flights are always delayed here. Boarding a flight in Indonesia is always a combination of good timing and luck, though. The gate listed on the boarding pass is never correct, and there isn’t really any announcement that the flight is boarding. You just have to wait until a lot of people get up and run to the door, then follow them. I always find it amazing that non-Indonesian speakers actually get on the right plane.

When I got here the Finance Director, Yan, met me at the airport with a taxi and we headed to the house. The neighborhood is good, the house is walking distance from lots of useful shops and the police station is just a block away so it’s very safe. Here are some pictures of the inside, for those of you that have spent time in Indo you will know that a Western toilet is a BIG deal! The bathroom also has hot water for the shower so it’s pretty much like living in a palace. My room also has air conditioning and a giant bed, I’ll post pictures of it once I really get settled in because right now it looks pretty plain.


The hallway and part of the kitchen, stairs to the upstairs (there’s a balcony on the roof!), the front sitting room complete with my motorbike helmet, and a view of the bathroom. I think I can live with the color since the shower does have warm water…

This weekend was a bit of a whirlwind, but I traveled up to some of the villages near the national park where we work to meet people and see some of the program activities. There was a mobile cinema, where we showed orangutan/environmental films in one of the villages to help educate people about the forest around them. There was also a school group gathered up at GPOCP’s environmental education center so I got to see the staff in action and meet some of the kids. It was really cool!

The village of Sukadana, with the mountains in the background. Nice morning!

The village of Sukadana, with the mountains in the background. Nice morning!

As for the jet lag, I thought I was pretty much back on track but last night I accidentally took a 5 hour nap so now I have to get back into a system. As a result I’ve been awake since 2:30 am (it’s currently 6:00 and I’m watching the USA game of the World Cup) so this afternoon might be a little rough- oh well! Waking up so early is certainly good for productivity and communication with people back in the U.S. so there are some perks. I’m looking forward to a busy rest of the day!

5 airports later..

Greetings from West Kalimantan!

I just got here yesterday and have already been pretty busy, which I will write a separate post about later, this post is about the long trip from Minneapolis to Indonesia. I hit 5 airports in 2 days, which sounds pretty tiring but actually the trip was fairly easy. The longest part was probably the layover in Qatar- there wasn’t much to do there, although there was free internet, so I was able to catch up on emails. They also had tons of places to plug in electronics- both of these things (free WiFi and plugs) are things American airports are bad at but huge international airports do pretty well. It definitely makes long trips easier when you don’t have to worry about showing up on the other side with a dead computer, dead phone and no way to contact people if you need to.

One of the ways I entertained myself in Qatar was just by walking around! The country as a whole is pretty wealthy and this was definitely reflected in the shops and the airport itself. There were really fancy cars everywhere inside the airport, and you could kill some time shopping at Burberry and Swarovski! There was also a giant yellow statue in the middle of the airport, I have no idea what it was for but it looked funny so I took a picture. Here’s a little collage I made to pass the time:


Although it wasn’t my longest flight of the trip, the flight from Qatar to Jakarta seemed to take the longest. I had already exhausted the TV show/movie options that I wanted to watch and I wasn’t very sleepy, so when I looked at the map and saw there were still 7 hours to Jakarta it was a little depressing! But, after some plane food I was ready for a nap and so the last several hours passed a little more quickly than I thought they would. Then it was a brief overnight in Jakarta, thanking the travel gods that my luggage didn’t get lost along the way, and back to the airport for my domestic flight (see picture below). I think I’ll end this there, I have some more photos to post and stories to tell but I need to get the internet situation around here figured out and go buy some breakfast! Sampai nanti (see you later), everyone.





(Photo from OuTrop Facebook page)

On June a number of Indonesian conservation organizations (including those that I am closely affiliated with, OuTrop and Yayasan Palung) will be participating in a 24-hour live tweet and posting event, bringing you photos, videos, and updates from SE Asian rainforests. If you’re at all interested in wildlife conservation or just want to see some cool photos, I suggest you follow all the posts on Facebook and/or Twitter, which will be tagged with #rainforestlive. Should be pretty awesome! The posting starts on June 2nd Indonesian time, so this will be late Sunday evening into Monday daytime here in the U.S. Check out the publicity from Mongabay linked below.

Coincidentally on June 2nd I am heading to Boston to officially start training/orientation for my job with GPOCP. I have very little idea what’s on the agenda but I have a feeling it’s going to be a busy 5 days (annual reports? grant writing?) I’m excited though, I’ll get a lot of insight into all of the programs and responsibilities that I’ll be working on. I’ve never been to Massachusetts either, so I’ll check another state off the list! A couple of weeks ago I went to North Dakota for the first time so I’m on a roll. In the meantime I have 3 more jam packed days at work- I’ve been training about 7 students/day this week- and by the time Monday comes around I’ll be so ready to have a break from that.

More updates soon, and in the meantime don’t forget to follow #rainforestlive! For even more conservation and jungle news, you can also follow ME on Twitter (@CassieFreund) 🙂

Exciting News from BOS

A great post documenting the amazing work done Simon Husson, one of the founding directors of OuTrop, and his BOS (Borneo Orangutan Survival Foundation) team. Releasing rehabilitated orangutans into the wild is extremely expensive and time-consuming, as there aren’t many places left in Kalimantan that are both suitable and accessible, so this release is a huge triumph for orangutan conservation. All of us at OuTrop have been hearing about this process along the way, and it’s great to know that they have finally been successful!

Going Back to the Forest

Here is the momentous news you have all been waiting for! On the 2nd November 2012, we reintroduced our first rehabilitated orangutans from Nyaru Menteng into Bukit Batikap Conservation Forest in Central Kalimantan!


Having safely been sedated and transported in their individual travel enclosures, the first helicopter arrived at a pre-designated point in Batikap at approximately 10.30 am on 2nd November 2012, carrying Chanel and Charlie, Leonora and Lamar, Emen and Embong and Terusan. All of these orangutans were released at the end of Transect David.

As soon as each of the orangutans were released they all immediately climbed up into the trees. Terusan immediately started moving through the trees and approached Emen, then paused to play with her infant Embong for a short while before moving off towards the North-West. Terusan was clearly enjoying his freedom and was later located after 3pm about 550 m from…

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Volunteer Group 2 Gone…

Well, another group is done and gone.  Group 2 went home this morning after another nice visit to Tanjung Puting (their first and my second!), and man am I exhausted.  We got back on the bus from Pangkalan Bun at about 2:30 am today, then the volunteers hopped on their flight to Jakarta at 6:50 am.  Suffice it to say that no one got any sleep! However, I think everyone had a good time and overall the group was another success.  Thanks to them we got all of the planting for our seedling experiment done in about 10 days and finished 225 vegetation plots for a student project, and most importantly for them they are on their way home with lots of stories about- and photos of- orangutans, tarsiers, lorises, gibbons, kelasi, snakes, birds, the great friends they made at camp, and so on and so on…

Group 2 and interns at Tanjung Puting, November 2012

Now after 1.5 days off for me, it’s on to the next thing.  We have a BBC film crew scheduled to come to camp for about 8 days this coming week, and taking care of all of the logistics and field work for them is my responsibility.  I’m actually not sure how much I’m allowed to say about why they are coming, but they will be setting up some HD video cameras to catch footage of animals and the forest for an upcoming series.  These cameras will stay out for an entire year, so we have a lot of work to do to get all of the proper equipment set up at each of their filming sites!  This is quite exciting for us, though; we’ve had film crews come to Sabangau in the past but this will likely be the most intense project yet.  And, we get to use their film for our own camera trap database, so it’s a win-win.

Hopefully now that the volunteers are gone again I can update this blog more frequently, and maybe even Skype some people that I’ve been missing 🙂  Keep checking back for news!

Me in the field measuring seedlings for the reforestation project

New Vols

To camp today with the new vols!  I’ve been in Palangka for 4 days and am very ready to go back to camp.  Nick and I picked up the vols from the airport 2 days ago and have been spending most of our time with them since then.  We’ve been talking with them about Indonesian culture, OuTrop, and the type of work that they will do over the next 6 weeks.  Yesterday I took them all shopping to get everything they will need for the expedition- we spent about 5 hours in the market and the mall buying snacks, rubber boots, socks, bandanas, clothing, sarongs… the list goes on!  It was a tiring day but now they are finally ready to go to camp today.  I’m looking forward to it, and I know they’re all excited to see where they will be living, meet everyone else at camp, and most importantly get into the forest for the first time (that’s tomorrow’s project).  Hopefully I’ll be able to post a new update in a week or so, because I have to come back into town to write a report, so I’ll have more (and more exciting) updates later!