A citizen scientist in Kenya: Adventure of a lifetime with Biosphere Expeditions

by Jun 5, 2023Kenya

Citizen Scientist Matthias Outside The Biosphere Expeditions Vehicle Identifying A Raptor

For two weeks, I was a citizen scientist in Kenya with Biosphere Expeditions. Being a citizen scientist is not for everyone. It is not a wildlife safari. But the experience will change you and likely become remembered as an adventure of a lifetime. 

The cheetah stared into our open truck window as it walked right next to us. Sitting in the passenger seat, Matthias could have reached out and stroked its fur, though assuredly that would not have ended well.

Just a few moments earlier, I’d been driving our vehicle up a steep, rutted surface, away from the waterhole where we had been counting wildlife and humans. As our vehicle crested the hill and turned to head across the grassland, its headlights illuminated two cheetahs next to the road. We thought they would move off quickly. They didn’t. I drove our truck slowly forward and one cheetah ambled farther away. But the other cheetah seemed content just to walk beside us, as if it had decided to become our personal escort for the night. Since we were working as citizen scientists, Matthias dutifully recorded the sighting. And then we just enjoyed the moment, driving slowly along under a moonlit sky … with a cheetah as our shadow.

It seemed like only yesterday when my Biosphere Expeditions adventure as a citizen scientist in Kenya had begun. And yet already a week had flown by since I first joined 11 others from around the world in Nairobi.

Each of us had agreed to spend two weeks of our lives on a volunteer vacation working in wildlife conservation. We would bring the manpower, and Biosphere Expeditions promised to provide the tools and training necessary. Our comfortable base camp for the two-week adventure was named “Wild Hub” and located in the Enonkishu Conservancy.

Eco Camp Tents Biosphere Expeditions Kenya

Our accommodations at the Wild Hub were not luxury, but they were supremely comfortable.

Enonkishu, along with two adjacent conservancies, Mbokishi and Olchorro, are the northernmost conservancies in the Mara-Serengeti Ecosystem, serving as a buffer of sorts protecting the wilderness in the Maasai Mara to the south from agricultural spread in the north.

Conservancies seek to protect wildlife, people, and a way of life

The overall goal of the conservancies is to increase and then preserve sustainable wildlife diversity while at the same time supporting the Maasai pastoral culture. Unlike a national park or reserve, where the focus is on protecting wildlife and keeping local people and livestock out, the conservancy method embraces and relies on community-driven conservation. That means developing and supporting successful strategies for ongoing human and livestock coexistence with wildlife. This is proving critically important to protecting Kenya’s wildlife since it is estimated 65-70 percent of the country’s wildlife population lives outside, not within, national reserve boundaries.

A Boma In The Enonkishu Conservancy In Kenya

Looking out over some of Enonkishu conservancy. A home with a cattle enclosure to the left sits high on the hill. While below, in the distance, wildlife have the run of the grassland.

Biosphere Expeditions began working with Enonkishu in 2019, to help the community and the rangers by providing baseline biodiversity data that will guide decisions and policy around wildlife protection, farming, livestock management, and tourism. Biosphere collects this vital data by relying on citizen scientists, like us, working with professional scientists and guides, to conduct carefully mapped surveys by vehicle and foot. Every survey meticulously records numbers of mammals, birds, people, and livestock. Every encounter is properly mapped as well, creating datapoints tied to GPS coordinates. Since 2019, the enormous amount of critical data Biosphere citizen scientists have collected in Kenya has helped demonstrate the success of the conservancy model and underscored the importance of conservancies for successful wildlife and livestock management throughout Kenya and, potentially, other African countries.

Wildlife And People Coexisting In Enonkishu Conservancy

This is what the conservancy model is all about … humans and wildlife living in close proximity and in harmony.

Having spent two weeks within the conservancies — and as someone who has spent time in numerous national reserves and parks throughout Kenya — I am also now one who fully understands how important conservancies are. And I also support the assertion that it is only within the conservancies, and not in a reserve, that tourists can truly feel part of the interwoven cultural fabric that is Kenya, one that binds together wildlife and a traditional pastoral lifestyle of the Maasai.

Citizen scientists are not tourists

The big difference between being a citizen scientist and being a tourist on a wildlife safari in Kenya is that as a scientist you have a job to do. There is no driver guiding you about. There is no heading off to chase a leopard or cheetah sighting or spending hours just watching a lion at a kill. Data collection requires sticking to methodology that is, by design, often repetitive. Only by driving the same routes (called transects) over and over, never deviating from the mapped route, and carefully mapping all that is seen (wildlife, people, livestock, etc.) is it possible for scientists to look at the data and start to be able to measure the success of rangeland rehabilitation. The data Biosphere Expeditions teams collects is vital in helping experts understand shifts in a conservancy’s biodiversity.

A Biosphere Expeditions Research Vehicle With Citizen Scientists

This was just a part of the area we would be surveying … as far as the eye could see.

“This is an expedition, not a bloody holiday.…”

Though said with a smile on our first day of classroom training, Biosphere Expeditions’ team scientist Roland Arnison made sure our group of 12 indeed fully understood that as citizen scientists on a volunteer vacation, we were here to work. The mantra for the week was repeated often that first day: Safety, Science, Satisfaction. Meaning safety was always first followed closely by the science of conducting surveys and collecting data. After that, and only if there were time, would we get to act a bit like tourists – the satisfaction part of the arrangement. Still, it was not lost on any of us that we were embarking on an adventure that would allow us to experience Kenya, the people, and the wildlife in ways a tourist will never experience.

Classroom Training During Biosphere Expeditions Kenya Group 3 Tr

The classroom, where we could receive briefings, updates, and instruction.

The first several days at Wild Hub were spent learning research methodology and how to use the equipment, such as rangefinders and night vision goggles, needed to do our work. We added requisite apps to our phones, including CyberTracker and Google Earth, and then learned how to properly use each to record data and follow specifically designed survey routes, called transects. Data each of our teams collected would be uploaded to a computer every evening and analyzed. We also learned how to perform basic vehicle maintenance, such as changing a wheel and repairing a flat tire – there is no calling for an automobile service when out in the bush.

A Child Shall Show Them How To Inflate A Flat Tire

Out in the field, there is no auto service, meaning one must first repair the tire, and then pump it up, by hand. Maria is demonstrating how to properly inflate a tire while Andreas and Stephen look on.

And then it was time for driver training. No one was going to drive the research vehicles for us – part of that ever-present reality check that “this is an expedition not a bloody holiday.” That meant each of us would need to be able to drive the vehicles through river crossings and at times, over extremely rocky, steep, and slippery roads – keeping in mind a road here often means two somewhat visible tire tracks in the grass or dirt. And we would have to do this while keeping everyone safe (No. 1 on the daily mantra remember) and still bring the vehicles back to base with all the parts more or less attached.

Vehicle Maintenance Training Biosphere Expeditions Kenya

Johnny and Ralf confer underneath a Biosphere Expeditions vehicle during vehicle maintenance training. They did confirm the wheel was still attached.

During driver training, a certain amount of hilarity or terror was experienced – depending on your seat and perspective. Someone in our group humorously noted that the Toyota Hiluxes we would be driving looked like well-worn extras from a militant group’s recruiting video, sans 50-caliber machine guns mounted in the bed. Each of the four trucks also had disparate clutch and shifting personalities, likely from hundreds of visits to a body shop or makeshift garage. Which meant what worked in truck No. 1 — a firm hand on the gear shift and even firmer stomp down on the clutch — didn’t work so well in truck No. 2 that appreciated a gentler approach.

The other challenge is that you drive on the left in Kenya, meaning the driver sits on the right and shifts with the left hand. I can neither confirm nor deny that I may have tried to shift gears by reaching toward the door handle with my right hand at several critical moments during my first time in the driver’s seat. This inept reflex resulted in my not shifting gears as planned which caused the truck to lurch and then scrape past shrubbery and bounce into and across ruts and rocks that should have been avoidable. Johnny Adams, Biosphere Expeditions leader and driving instructor, sat nonplussed. I’m quite sure he’d seen this all many times before. My fellow passengers, who were now being unceremoniously tossed around in the back seat did not share Johnny’s calm, as I could see them out of the corner of my eye grabbing for anything that remotely resembled a secure handhold. Fortunately, my brain stopped short-circuiting rather quickly. This, in turn, allowed my left hand to successfully engage the gear shift, and I was able to find my center, if not my dignity, and guide our truck back on course.

Driver Training In Biosphere Expeditions Trucks Kenya

Driver training down a steep, muddy incline under ominous skies.

I was beginning to clearly understand why the expedition vehicles looked as though they had been beaten into submission with sledgehammers and then put back together with baling wire and chewing gum; they’d survived misuse and abuse by two prior groups that season. Already after only a day of driver training, there were new scrapes and perhaps one or two dents. I pitied the condition the trucks would be in by the time the next group got to use them.

Leaving the classroom, heading into the field

From day three onward, we entered the daily data-gathering routine of citizen scientists. Each day, we’d sign up on a white board to be part of one of four teams for the morning (a driver and two wildlife observers), and then part of another set of four teams for that afternoon.

Research Vehicle Assignment Board Biosphere Expeditions Kenya

The assignment white board, here for the morning of March 3.

Our mornings started with a delicious and hearty vegetarian breakfast at 6 a.m. (Biosphere Expeditions food is always vegetarian to help reduce human impact on the planet). Breakfast was followed by a short briefing to go over the vehicle transects, foot patrols, water hole monitoring, or camera trap setting assignments, depending on what Roland and Johnny decided was needed. Drivers were briefed on the routes to point out any anticipated challenges or obstacles to be aware of. And then, each team gathered its gear and headed to the trucks.

Though we were near the equator, mornings were often crisp, cool, and clear as we drove away from Wild Hub. On several mornings a light mist clung like a golden veil to forested hillsides as the sun began to warm the Mara’s grassy plains.

During the first few minutes driving along a gravel and dirt road that served as a sort of main thoroughfare, we’d pass locals walking to work or perhaps toward the hope of finding work. As is my habit at home in rural California, I’d wave at almost everyone our truck passed, and most often I’d receive a cheery wave back.

Morning wildlife observation work would last about three hours and then it was back to Wild Hub for lunch and then a rest during the hottest part of the day. Two hours to spend napping, walking about on your own to take photos of birds and wildlife (as many of us did), or to spend time taking care of personal needs such as showering and washing underwear and socks – or in my case, recharging camera batteries and downloading images.

Baby Vervet Monkey Peeks Out

A baby vervet monkey shot during one of our afternoon breaks.

By 2:45 p.m. it was time to get back at it. We’d gather in the classroom for a brief meeting and discussion regarding the various assignments, and then head out to our trucks. The difference in weather between the morning and afternoon was dramatic – a clear reminder the rainy season, which generally runs from April to June, was coming. Clouds would begin building by late morning and into the afternoon, resulting most often in the appearance of a dark, ominous storm front on the horizon as we drove away. And when the rain fell, which it did most afternoons by 4, it was often with big drops that began to slap the ground with an increasing crescendo until we would find ourselves driving in the middle of a riotous downpour.

Wildebeest In A Downpour In Enonkishu Conservancy In Kenya

A lone wildebeest trudges across a muddy surface during an afternoon downpour.

Roads that had been dry moments before would soon be running with water, and driving quickly became a slippery affair and certainly more adventurous. I tried to weather (pun fully intended) the first storm by donning a rain jacket and standing bravely in the back of the truck as we splashed and slid along. Once was enough. Getting pelted by wind-driven rain stung, and any part of me not covered by a rain jacket was quickly soaked. Future downpours found me crammed into the back of a truck that got oppressively steamy by the minute. Fortunately, the epic downpours were usually short-lived, allowing me to escape the steam and relative discomfort of sharing a backseat with another citizen scientist plus mounds of gear that included personal items, cameras and lenses, and equipment needed to do our jobs.

Between 5 and 6 p.m. we’d arrive back in camp. After another short briefing, it would be time for dinner.

Mealtime With Vegetarian Food At Wild Hub In Kenya

Mmmmmmm mealtime was always delicious!

At 8 p.m. we’d walk back to our tents, always with an escort to protect against surprise encounters with large beasts, such as lions and hippos. The group prior to ours experienced a lion kill right near the tents, which required them to be driven to their tents instead of walking and then remain in their tents until dawn. We never had a lion in camp, but I woke up one night with the sounds of munching right outside my door – which turned out to be a hippo enjoying the fresh grass just feet away. My apologies to my Swiss neighbor, Iza, who was happily filming the hippo from her doorway until my stirring caused it to exit stage left and back into the forest.

Each day, routine filled with daily delights

Biosphere Expeditions Vehicle Transect

Counting wildlife from a Biosphere Expeditions vehicle. Citizen scientists in the back are Steven Neely and Birgit Käser, joined by Ranger Saruni.

During driving transects, every encounter with wildlife and livestock must be recorded and mapped. Meaning along with a ranger, who always went a team, the two citizen scientists standing in the back of truck were constantly scanning the passing trees, grassland, shrubs, and horizon looking for wildlife. A light bang on the hood of the cab would signal the driver to stop so the counting could begin. “Nine zebra, two males, six females and one baby at 90 degrees, 142 meters away” might be called out, and the one charged with recording the data in CyberTracker would enter the information and that sighting would become another vital data point for research. Very often there would be numerous species of wildlife in the same location, including wildebeest, giraffe, ostrich, impala, or warthogs for example, and each would have to be separately counted and recorded before another light bang on the hood of the cab would tell the driver it was time to move on. There is little time to spend just watching and enjoying, let alone setting up a memorable photo. And I can attest that after you’ve sat in the heat counting and dutifully recording the hundredth cow for seemingly the umpteenth time on a transect, some of the luster of this Kenyan adventure begins to dull a bit.

Two Maasai Children Herding Cows

Two Maasai children moving cattle from one side of the village to another.

That is until the inevitable surprises which frequently seem to come out of nowhere turn the routine into magic. Daily delights I liked to call them. They happened often, typically when least expected, always when most needed. I remember a sunny morning, at the end of a hot and dusty walking transect. We’d been recording animal tracks and scat to see how close wildlife was getting to dwellings. We were trudging back to the truck when a woman invited us into her home for chai. The feeling of being hot and tired disappeared as we sat, drinking delicious chai, smiling, laughing, and sharing a bit of our lives over tea.

Drinking Chai Tea With A Local In Mbokishi Conservancy

Me, in the jaunty hat, with Rebekah Karimi, a scientist working with Biosphere Expeditions, the homeowner who invited us in for chai, and Ranger Paul.

On another walking transect, Maasai warriors came out to greet us, surprising us by inviting our little team of three into their village for a private tour, and where they performed a traditional Maasai dance for us. It was intimate and unforgettable.

Joy Of The Dance Maasai Warriors In Njapit Olchorro Conservancy

Maasai warriors from the village of Njapit in Olchorro performing the traditional jump dance

And then there were the exceptional wildlife sightings. Bat-eared foxes sitting near their den. A cheetah just lying beside the road watching the daily commute pass by. The sunbathing hyena, sprawled out in a mud-puddle in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. An elephant herd wandering right past our truck at sunset, seen only because we were running late returning from completing our driving transect. And, of course, the cheetah walking beside our truck under moonlight.

Cheetah Stare

A male cheetah giving me his best pose.

There is a lot of wildlife to see and count

The Maasai Mara ecosystem supports an amazing diversity of wildlife species. Which is what makes having the opportunity to spend two weeks immersed in the Mara so amazing. Over 95 species of mammals and 500 species of birds call this place home for at least part of the year. And as a citizen scientist I got to see many of them, often quite close to the vehicle.

Hyena With A Bone In Olchorro Conservancy Kenya

A hyena with a bone in its mouth.

In my notebook, I dutifully recorded as many as I could remember each evening:

Leopard (Panthera pardus), lion (Panthera leo), cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), hyena (Crocuta crocuta), bat-eared fox (Otocyon megalotis), black-backed jackal (Canis mesomelas), elephant (Loxodonta africana), African buffalo (Syncerus caffer), zebra (Equus quagga), giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis), hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious), warthog (Phacochoerus aethopicus), blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus), eland (Taurotragus oryx), hartebeest (Alcelaphus buselaphus), waterbuck (Kobus ellipsiprymnus), topi (Damaliscus lunatus), and impala (Aepyceros melampus) to name but a few.

Elephant Babies In Olchorro

Elephant herd in Olchorro

And while I am not the avid birder I once was, I was still thrilled to see a wonderful number of eagles, buzzards, bateleurs (Terathopius ecaudatus), gray-crowned cranes (Balearica regulorum), masked weavers (Ploceus velatus) and more than a few sightings of the amazing secretarybird (Sagittarius serpentarius).

Secretarybird Enonkishu Conservancy

Secretarybird

An education day with Kenyan school children

While all the encounters with wildlife were memorable enough, it was the one day spent with school children that had perhaps the most significant impact on me.

During the second week of our expedition, we headed to an elementary school from Munyas town in the Mbokishi conservancy. We arrived at the school — a series of basic, rather dilapidated buildings — in front of which 17 young school children stood, wearing colorful uniforms in bright yellows and blues. The children were, for the most part, very shy, as perhaps one might expect given their school had just been descended upon by 12 white adult strangers who were clearly not locals.

Munyas School Children Waving Goodbye

The Munyas school.

After a formal introduction from the headmaster, we divided the children into groups, loaded them into the back of the trucks and headed out on a two-hour game drive. For Biosphere Expeditions, the goal was clear — showcase the benefits of local conservation efforts through seeing wildlife near their school and homes. And then, by venturing into adjacent Enonkishu, where there is a much greater concentration of wildlife, show the children what a difference 10 years of conservation can make for wildlife. The children were rapt, and sometimes seemed a bit in awe as we drove next to feeding giraffe, stopped by a waterhole full of hippos, and then passed by a herd of running wildebeest. We showed them how to use binoculars, and they delighted in looking at images of zebra, African buffalo and even a secretarybird in my camera.

Munyas School Mbokishi Biosphere Expeditions Iza Binoculars

Iza helping Munyas school children spot wildlife through binoculars.

At noon, we arrived at our expedition base camp for lunch, a few games, and then a talk from Sikona, one of the local rangers. It was yet another opportunity to demonstrate to the school children the value that conservation and ecotourism offer them and the communities where they live. And finally, we broke into small groups to teach the children about camera traps, where we all came from, and more. Iza had brought a small smartphone printer with her from Switzerland, and she used that to create photos for each of the children that she gave them. It was truly delightful to see their smiles looking at the photos.

Oscar Presentation Munyas School Mbokishi

Oscar teaching Kenyan school children about a typical day at his school in Paris, France.

As we drove away from the school later that afternoon, with many of the school children still waving as the buildings slipped from sight, I found myself wondering if we’d managed to make a lasting impact – beyond the momentary thrill many of the students felt when using the base camp flush toilet for the first time. I hoped so.

Group Photo Biosphere Expeditions Munyas School Visit

The Munyas school children and teachers with the Biosphere Expeditions citizen scientists at the Mara Training Center and our basecamp, Wild Hub.

Our contribution to science

Two weeks passed by very quickly, as one might expect when there is so much to do, so much to see, so much to experience. For 14 exhausting but exhilarating days we had been up at 5:30 a.m. and in bed by 10 p.m.. My camera cards were full, as was my notebook. On my flight home, after I read the final report of our trip posted by Johnny on the Biosphere Expeditions blog, I must admit being rather stunned at all we had seen. According to the data, in all, our team of 12 citizen scientists recorded seeing 16,719 total animals that included 195 raptors and endangered birds.

We had counted 13,093 mammals (including lions, cheetahs, bush pigs, giraffe, leopard, hyena, and elephants) during 23 vehicle transects that covered a total distance of 311 kilometers (193 miles).

We had completed 12 walking transects documenting 139 scat samples and 65 footprints.

Identifying Animal Tracks At Njapit Biosphere Expeditions Walking Survey

Elisa Velez-Thobois and Ranger Saruni working to identify an animal track before recording it as a sighting during a walking transect.

We had completed two, 14-hour-long waterhole observations (each team completed 2-hour shifts) where we recorded 3,121 “observations” that included livestock, humans, tourist vehicles, and wildlife.

Waterhole Observation In Mbokishi Conservancy

Andreas Herold and Birgit Käser looking for wildlife during a waterhole survey.

And from the camera traps we placed or maintained, we downloaded 4,328 images containing images of leopard, lion, hyena, giraffe, and bush pig.

Setting A Camera Trap In Mbokishi Conservancy

Roland Arnison setting up a camera trap to see what animals feed on the Thompson’s gazelle carcass we stumbled across during a drive.

Collectively, the number of wildlife sightings we made represent a remarkable turnaround for this ecosystem, especially when one realizes that the first impala sighting recorded in Enonkishu was in 2010.

Male Impala Enonkishu Conservancy

A male impala looks back at our vehicle as we pass by in the grassland.

It was an adventure of a lifetime

Several months later, as I sat down to write this story, I was reminded just how special my time in Kenya was on this expedition. It is rare, as a traveler to a foreign country, one can make an active contribution, a real difference — one that benefits both the local community and the ecosystem. In my two weeks as a citizen scientist, I feel I achieved something so much more than I would have had I simply visited as a tourist. Instead of being driven about in a safari vehicle chasing wildlife sightings and photo opportunities in between catered lunches and happy hours at a lodge, I spent my time in the field working side-by-side with like-minded citizen-scientists from around the globe. These fellow expeditioners are all now people I am proud to call friends.

End Of Trip Sunset And Team Photo

Left to right: Ralf Bürglin, Roland Arnison, Johnny Adams, Nico Thobois, Elisa Velez-Thobois, Maria Thobois, Birgit Käser, Matthias Herold, Steven Neely, Andreas Herold, Iza Fragniere, and Oscar Thobois. Kneeling is the author, Michael Hodgson with Lou, sitting in for his human companion, Rebekah Karimi, who was taking the photo.

For two weeks I lived as volunteer citizen scientist in Kenya, allowed and trusted to get the job done well, and to drive and navigate myself and teammates through sometimes challenging and always beautiful terrain. I worked beside local rangers and shared laughter and stories with them along the way. I helped set up camera traps over animal carcasses and wandered through a forest with a ranger in search of an elephant skull.

Mbokishi Conservancy Ranger Carrying Elephant Skull

Ranger Mike Koriata carrying the huge elephant skull that we went on a search for.

I spent time meandering along the Mara River shoreline near our camp marveling at the birds, and spent countless hours recording wildlife sightings that will become part of a scientific report which will help determine the future of the conservancies I visited. It just does not get better or more meaningful than that.

Black-Headed Weaver On An Acacia Tree Branch In Enonkishu.

A black-headed weaver sits in an acacia tree near the Mara River.

I’ve been fortunate enough to do many wonderful things in my travels around the world, but this, truly, will be remembered as an adventure of a lifetime.

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2 Comments

  1. Shelly

    What an incredible experience! Glad you got to do this and share with us!

    Reply
    • Michael

      Thank you so much for the kind words and comment. It was an amazing experience indeed!

      Reply

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About The Author

Michael Hodgson

Adventurer, curious traveler, photojournalist, and lover of gin. Winner of multiple gold, silver, and bronze medals from NATJA for travel writing & photography excellence -- earning medals every year since 2018. Gold medal winner 2021 to 2023 in the IFWTWA Travel Photography Awards, Best in Show award winner in the 2023 photography awards, and winner of the Excellence in Journalism award in 2022. Winner of a Juror's Award and Best in Show in the 2023 California State Fair photography competition. Still searching for the perfect gin and tonic.