Feature: February 5, 1997

Living Laboratory

The Mpala Research Centre Finds Ways for Africa's Booming Human Population to Coexist With Its Wildlife

By Doug Stewart

My first glimpse of the mpala research Centre, a five-hour jeep ride north of Nairobi, Kenya, is a strange one. A cluster of scientists are bunched like meerkats on a granite outcropping next to the entrance road, all of them peering excitedly toward a nearby ridge. I climb out of my mud-spattered Suzuki and quietly join the clump. Looking where they're looking, just below a rocky escarpment, I notice dozens of rust-brown boulders appearing and disappearing among the acacia trees. I realize they're a herd of wild elephants. I introduce myself sotto voce to Nick Georgiadis, the center's director, and ask how many elephants are in the group. "It's hard to say. At least 200."
Caked in mud, the animals are moseying up the side of the ridge a quarter mile away, heading north. The elephants move through the dry acacia scrub in an endless, lumbering procession. Their progress is intermittent: they stop periodically to wrap their trunks around tree branches, then rip them loose and tuck the brittle foliage into their mouths, thorns and all. The herd isn't following a trail; it's making its own as it goes.
Scientists who come to the Mpala Research Centre to study wildlife ecology don't have far to look. The field station, located on a 75-square-mile spread donated by George L. Small '43, is a research site jointly operated by Princeton, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kenya Wildlife Service, the National Museums of Kenya, and the Mpala Research Trust (MRT). Its mission is twofold: to study looming threats to the dry savanna-bush habitats of sub-Saharan Africa and to help train the next generation of African scientists and wildlife managers.
Mpala's landscape is a mostly parched, inhospitable-seeming mixture of brittle, ankle-high grass and stunted-looking trees, yet its varied terrain supports an astonishing roster of "charismatic megafauna": not just elephants but lions, cheetahs, leopards, monkeys, giraffes, hippos, zebras, buffalo, warthogs, and gazelles (of the large African mammals only rhinos are absent, due to poaching).

Daniel I. Rubenstein, the chairman of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) and a member of the MRT's science board, has been bringing teams of students to Mpala every other year since 1992. The students, some of whom are native Kenyans like Philip Muruthi *96, spend a month carrying out research projects and, in general, learning the ins and outs of doing ecological fieldwork. Says MRT trustee Howard S. Ende, the university's general counsel, "For the Kenyan graduate students, the idea is that they can do their field work at Mpala and their scholarly work at Princeton. After getting their Ph.D.s, they can return to Kenya with the knowledge they've gained and, ideally, contribute in a major way to their country."
The center's origins go back to the late 1980s, when Small, a food-industry executive from Baltimore, approached Princeton about turning over the cattle ranch he owned in central Kenya to wildlife research. Princeton brought in the Smithsonian, and together they joined forces with Kenya's two chief wildlife authorities to administer the field station.
Small serves as the operation's chairman and "principal visionary," according to Georgiadis. An ardent conservationist, Small visits Mpala several times a year. His ranch house is a simple affair with overstuffed furniture, an English-style lawn, and trellises covered in orchids and bignonia vines. There is a profusion of bird life inside and out. Ibises and hornbills perch in the pepper trees, wild Egyptian geese waddle across the lawn, and African swallows dart in and out of the dark-paneled living room.
Lanky and still athletic in his mid-70s, Small is a soft-spoken, self-effacing man. He inherited the ranch from his brother 28 years ago, but he still seems awestruck to find himself surrounded by wild animals. "We have a leopard that lives right behind the house here," he tells me, more in delight than anxiety, when I join him one morning for breakfast. "I think his tracks passed behind the house a couple of nights ago."
Eager to show off the ranch and its fauna, he hops into his Land Rover to give me a tour. Traveling north, Small stops to greet some of his 80 employees: Samburu herdsmen leaning on 10-foot spears as they watch over small herds of cattle, part of the ranch's total of 2,500 head. The grazing is plentiful now. The end-of-the-year "short rains" have come early this year, and the landscape is green instead of its customary yellow-brown.
On a plateau close by the ranch's dusty landing strip, we come to a stop. Nearby, a half dozen giraffes stare at us curiously before loping off in graceful slow-motion gallops, their improbable necks pumping back and forth. Less skittish and far more dangerous, 60 or 70 Cape buffalo stare at us suspiciously. In contrast to the zoolike inhabitants of Africa's game parks, these beasts are not yet blasť about human intruders. A small group of eland, the largest of Africa's antelopes, grazes nearby, along with a herd of coffee-colored Grant's gazelles. A kori bustard, the world's largest (and most reluctant) flying bird, picks its way on foot through a herd of Grevy's zebras. Farther off, a family of elephants browses contentedly, while in the distance a pair of yellow-billed storks come in for a landing, their enormous black-and-white wings flashing in the sun.
The elephants don't know it, but Mpala and the land around it, in Kenya's mile-high Laikipia Plateau, aren't officially protected. The plateau, however, is dominated by huge private ranches like this one, many of them owned by expatriates, so the wildlife populations have stayed largely intact over the years. The elephant herd in Laikipia today is the second largest in Kenya, and the largest outside a park or reserve.
That Mpala is a working cattle ranch, not a wildlife sanctuary, is part of what makes it uniquely valuable for research. Most wildlife scientists in Africa do their fieldwork in officially protected national parks and reserves. Yet most of the wildlife lives outside the parks. Now, with human populations surging and animal habitats shrinking, Kenya and other countries urgently need to find ways for people, livestock, and wildlife-large mammals in particular-to coexist on the same land without destroying it, or one another. Mpala can be a test case.

Officially, the Mpala Research Center occupies only the southeast corner of Mpala Ranch, but visiting scientists are free to prowl all of its 50,000 acres. The center itself is a small cluster of low buildings surrounded by thatched-roof huts tucked unobtrusively into the hillside scrub a few miles south of the ranch compound. A wide range of donors chipped in to make it materialize, among them British Air, Citibank, and the United Nations Environmental Program. The British Army for years has used a corner of the ranch for bush training, and it returned the favor by putting in roads and pouring building foundations. The result is rustic but comfortable. There are hot showers, laundry service, part-time electricity, jeeps for the borrowing, and three hot meals a day in the dining hall. The office computer runs off truck batteries in a crate on the floor. Milk is brought in by camel.
Pat Jacobberger Jellison appreciates every bit of it. A geologist for the Smithsonian's Center for Earth and Planetary Studies, she's been doing fieldwork in Africa since the mid-1980s. "In Botswana and Mali," she says, "I was packing everything in by car, all the water and everything I'd need for two weeks." At Mpala, less time spent doing camping means more time spent doing science.
In her case, doing science means studying desertification. "Mpala, for me, is a window where I can see what the Sahara and the Kalahari were like thousands of years ago," she says. Kenya's savanna teems with cattle and wildlife today, but even small changes in climate and land use could change that drastically. (Only 60 elephant lifetimes ago, much of East Africa was dense tropical forest.) "Geologists like me are used to thinking in geological time, but desertification can happen pretty darn fast." By combining her work in deserts, the desert fringe, and savannas, she hopes to tease apart the reasons-natural as well as man-made-that dry but productive land like this can so easily turn to desert. "The whole of East Africa and much of the developing world is concerned with this question," she says.
As a population geneticist, Nick Georgiadis understands the value of the kind of basic research undertaken at Mpala, like the study of baboons that Philip Muruthi did for his Princeton doctoral thesis. Muruthi, who began his field work in 1992, was one of Mpala's first researchers. Initially, he lived in a borrowed tent pitched on a riverbank, and when the center was built, he was happy to be one of its first guests. "I didn't have to cook for myself," he says, "and I could have my clothes washed for me." Over two years, he spent so much time with Mpala's baboon troops that they became habituated to him. "I was interested in what happened to animals-mothers and infants-as they dealt with different pressures of the environment," he says. "Nutrition, for example: how much milk can a mother give an infant in different habitats and how is that reflected in infant survival?"
After completing his dissertation last year, Muruthi stayed on at Princeton as a postdoctoral fellow, looking into how Mpala's many temporary thorn-branch cattle pens, or bomas, change the landscape after herdsmen abandon them. He also taught a section of the introductory course in environmental studies. This month, he returned to Kenya to work in the Nairobi office of the African Wildlife Foundation, where he oversees programs for endangered species and habitats.
Georgiadis makes clear that the projects he looks upon most favorably are those conceived and carried out by Kenyans to help their countrymen deal with real-world problems. "We need to force the academic and the applied together," he says, "which is hard because we know so little about the environment. Forget going to Mars, forget nuclear fusion-these are childish distractions compared to a far more complicated and challenging system: the global environment."
During my stay, I meet three Kenyan researchers who are doing the kind of field work that Georgiadis encourages. Bell Okello, a member of the Luo tribe, has begun a study of the environmental impact of the common practice of cutting down whistling-thorn trees to make charcoal. "Everybody uses charcoal here to heat water and to cook," he says, "but our sources of charcoal are declining." He cites a recent report predicting that, after the year 2000, Africa may be threatened less by a lack of food than by a lack of energy to cook it. He wants to find out how much wood for charcoal a field of thorn trees can yield, year after year, without suffering.
His friend David Kinyua, a bespectacled Kikuyu, is comparing the effects of age-old African practices like bush-clearing and field burning on the quality of the grasses that gazelles and zebras as well as cattle depend on. Oscar Wambuguh, a Kenyan at the University of California at Berkeley, is studying property and crop damage by wildlife-a hot topic in Kenya, which has one of the world's fastest-growing human populations. (The resulting spread of subsistence farming, according to David Western, chief of the Kenya Wildlife Service, poses a greater threat to African wildlife than poachers do.)

Georgiadis's own research, though esoteric, has a clearly practical side. A British citizen born and raised in Kenya, his special interest is elephant DNA, in pursuit of which he's stalked wild elephants (with a high-powered dart gun, not a rifle) throughout East and southern Africa. His DNA analyses have convinced him that African elephants are not one species but two, forest and savanna, each with its own genetic history and adaptations. This means that trying to protect elephant populations by mixing mismatched herds is unlikely to work. (Wildlife authorities in Kenya tried this recently when they set up a corridor for savanna elephants in arid, overcrowded Amboseli National Park to move to wetter, understocked forests on the northern slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro. The animals didn't cooperate.) Georgiadis continues to pursue his own research, and he offers to take me along on an elephant hunt to snatch a tissue sample with a biopsy dart. With ranch manager John Wreford Smith and Muchat Loipatare, a game scout, we set off.
Driving up the road in Georgiadis's Land Rover, we scatter a troop of baboons, who turn to look at us resentfully as they lope off on all fours. At the top of an escarpment, we find ourselves in a grove of euphorbia trees. Hazy blue plains stretch out below us on three sides. Mount Kenya, an extinct volcano 17,000 feet high-the second tallest peak in Africa-rises into storm clouds to our south. Large rocky hills erupt from the plains, their general north-south alignment giving them the appearance of top-heavy warships moving in convoy. The vista is enhanced by the fact that nearly all the trees around us have been toppled. Barren, cactuslike stalks and detached branches lie everywhere, like the remains of a frat-house banquet. Elephants apparently like a view when they dine.
Continuing on, we pinpoint small herds of elephants here and there but never in a dartable position. Finally, near a hippo pool at a bend in the Narok River, with the wind right and the ground reasonably open, we stop. Georgiadis grabs his dart gun, and we sneak quietly through the orchardlike acacia scrub toward the water.
At the river's edge, an elephant with huge dirty tusks is munching on an overhanging tree while her three children drink from a pool. Georgiadis stands in a narrow alley between two trees and sights his gun, but the animal is too far away. He needs to be within 50 feet before he fires.
The mother elephant suddenly turns and faces us head on. Her massive ears fan out threateningly, and with a snort she heads right for us. I look for an escape route-it's either jump in the river or flee blindly through the bush. There's a sharp "crack!" and the elephant turns away, spooked. The foursome clamber up the steep muddy slope of the river bank and rumble off through the acacias and fever trees, snorting and bellowing as they go.
Georgiadis coolly retrieves his dart from the ground where it's fallen. "I've done this more than 50 times in 10 countries, and you can see it never gets boring," he says. Filling the hollow tip of the dart is a plug of pink elephant hide that looks like a tiny piece of fresh shrimp. "As far as I'm concerned, there's an infinite amount of DNA in that." When he's collected enough samples to make a trip worthwhile, he'll take them all to a lab at the National Museums in Nairobi and study the gene sequences.
When I ask if he was scared, he dismisses the elephant's maneuver as a mock charge: "She couldn't have run on that stuff on the edge of the river." Georgiadis is an unflappable sort, with a James Bond accent to boot, yet his face is dripping with sweat, and the weather's not all that warm.
Back at his office, he talks about his vision for Mpala as the training ground of choice for young wildlife managers and biologists in Kenya and elsewhere in East Africa. Conservation biologists at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., are already devising field-training courses for the Kenya Wildlife Service to be conducted here. KWS staff and others would learn everything from how to take a plant census to how to anesthetize a giraffe. Ultimately, he wants Mpala to support the growth of a cadre of independent African scientists.
For far too long, he says, the human element has been left out of the study of wildlife conservation and management. Wilbur Ottichilo, KWS's chief scientist, told me in Nairobi: "Mpala can be a model for how we can have wildlife conservation and economic benefits for local communities at the same time. Without the support and involvement of local people, we cannot have wildlife." Georgiadis concurs: "The problems in Africa aren't biological. They're human." Africa's wildlife cannot be protected by electric fencing or government fiat alone. Conservation can only work if it brings people tangible benefits-and distributes them fairly. That means involving local communities in ecotourism, paying farmers for property damage from wildlife, and possibly reviving big-ticket, low-impact game hunting (now forbidden in Kenya, but allowed in neighboring Tanzania).

At dawn on my last day at Mpala, I stand in front of my hut and watch an enormous waterbuck with majestically arched horns gallop across the clearing in front of the dining hall and dive into the bush. As the chorus of birds around me grows in volume, I can see why old-school conservationists viewed Africa as a paradise to be defended from its inhabitants, as Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane recount in The Myth of Wild Africa (W. W. Norton, 1992). To someone from the United States, the setting here does seem unearthly. But Africa is real, and so are the needs of Africans.
Ross Simons, the Smithsonian's assistant provost for science, predicts that within five years the Mpala Research Centre's grass-roofed huts will be sheltering economists as well as ecologists. "There's a battle for the heart and soul of the conservation movement," he says. "There's much more experimentation now than there was in the 1960s. Mpala is the living laboratory of that experimentation."

Doug Stewart is a freelance writer living in Ipswich, Massachusetts. The photographer, Art Wolfe, works out of Seattle, Washington. This article appeared, in slightly different form, in the May 1996 Smithsonian magazine. The Website of the Mpala Research Centre is http://www.nasm.edu:2020/mpala/main.html.