Bio Expedition Kenya: Cultural Immersion Disguised as Science

By: 
Ethan Collins
Class of: 
2018

What do a biology and GIS professor have in common? A love for Kenya. St. Lawrence University is well known for its study abroad programs and the students are known for utilizing the opportunities to the utmost extent. The most popular, and better known, study abroad programs are semester-long stints where you live as a college student in another country. However, with ever increasing popularity are shorter study abroad experiences that take place over the summer. These programs are usually focused on a particular subject in a particular place. The inaugural Biology Expedition Kenya had one major goal: stay outside for as long as possible.

Originally, the two professors planned on a two-week mountain bike expedition that culminated with a weeklong summit of Mt. Kenya. Unfortunately, the mountain bike portion of the trip became a logistical overload so the professors and the students, including myself, thought we had to settle on completing research by foot.

We arrived in Kenya and after spending some time at SLU’s compound in Karen (outside of Nairobi), we set off to the north in search of big animals and never-ending savannahs. Our first major stop was at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County. The conservancy is known for protecting several endangered animal species as well as educating the surrounding population in conservation. For myself, a self-proclaimed outdoorsman, simply driving through the shrub land to our first “camp” was a wild experience. I was used to tromping off through the woods, running into deer, and flushing grouse with maybe the occasional siting of a black bear on the opposing ridgeline. But, at Ol Pejeta we drove past massive herds of gazelle and zebra and, better yet, we had to try and scare rhinos off the road with our land cruiser. Rhinos!

We were told that our first “camp” was going to be quite primitive with minimal amenities. That is slightly true if it was compared to SLU’s campus. However, it was luxurious compared to any “campsite” I had stayed at before. The site was a bustling hub of activity; on one side of our camp were the conservancy rangers tasked with protecting the endangered animals, who we also happened to have a few fun soccer matches with. The other side was the central site of any monitoring or research being conducted by Kenyans at the conservancy. All of our meals were traditional Kenyan dishes that we enjoyed alongside the employees. Spending time, typically sunrise to sunset, with Kenyan graduate students and strictly eating Kenyan food for seven days was only the first major dose of Kenyan culture we received. The remaining portion of our stay at Ol Pejeta consisted of everything ranging from fence camera maintenance to bottle feeding an adolescent Southern White Rhino (don’t worry, he was only 400 lbs.).

Our next stop was further north at the escarpment of the Laikipia Plateau at the Mpala Research Center. The research center is home to a large portion of intensive savannah research that is conducted in Kenya. Though our stay at Mpala was not as culturally intensive at Ol Pejeta, it was much more research intensive. Our days consisted of walks with prominent researchers telling us all about the surrounding landscape and lectures about how the ecosystems are changing due to a menagerie of factors. The academic intensity at the center was astounding! Research was being conducted on anything imaginable such as how ants organize their colonies to the reason Zebras have stripes!

Though there are many young energetic researchers there are also numerous older academics who had come back to visit. After an evening game drive, a counterpart and my-self were debating what type of bee-eater we saw fluttering from tree to tree. The whole ride back we were poring over our bird books trying to prove who was correct. Upon returning to the main base at Mpala there was an excited bustle of activity and we caught word that the author of the very bird book we were holding was staying on-site for several days! While trying to hide our excitement we found the elder birder and sheepishly asked him what bird we saw. Without wasting a second to think, he rattled of the common and Latin names, neither of which were the ones my friend and I had guessed. We never would have guessed that we would meet such a prominent member of academia in one of the most remote regions of Kenya!

After our stay at Mpala was the final portion of our scientifically disguised cultural expedition. We were to summit Mt. Kenya with a group of Kenyan guides and porters and conduct our own research that was based on the high altitude. Though we possibly could have completed the trek without the porters, it was important to us to support the local economy that surrounds Mt. Kenya and it turns out it was another wonderful cultural experience. There was minimal conversation while we were actually hiking. This was not due to the scenic views that were taking our breath away, but rather the altitude. Every evening after we made it to our camps we would cram into a large dome tent with the porters to eat our supper. Though we did not talk while we gorged ourselves on food, there was endless conversation late into the evening, whether it was with the porters or amongst ourselves. Through endless discussion we constantly learned about Kenyan culture ranging from potato farming, to the educational systems, to how many of the current children are named after Barack Obama!

Even though the first ever Biology Expedition Kenya contained the promised plethora of scientific research it also contained so much more. I learned more about Kenyan culture than would be possible from any other source and it all occurred in a mere three weeks! So, even though the summer programs at SLU are short in duration, they are endless in knowledge.