These are just a few of the elephant families to whom I have had the pleasure of being introduced during my first days in Samburu. I arrived on July 24 to begin a three and a half week internship with Save the Elephants. I am entering my senior year at Princeton University (New Jersey, USA) and am writing my undergraduate thesis on elephant endotheliotropic herpesviruses (EEHVs), specifically those endogenous to African elephants. My fieldwork in Samburu will aim to document through photography any visible skin nodules of the elephants. These nodules typically present on their trunks. This work continues the research of my co-advisor, Virginia Pearson, who collaborated with STE in 2011 to immobilize several elephants with nodules and biopsy the skin nodules. From these samples, she detected the presence of EEHV 2, 3, 6, and 7. Although these EEHVs are not known to be lethal, it is important to understand their prevalence and incidence among the wild population of African elephants as a comparison to what has now been established to be a separate set of EEHVs endogenous to the Asian elephants. As the EEHVs endogenous to Asian elephants are responsible for the deaths of many captive Asian elephants and increasingly more Asian elephants in the wild, such information is crucial.
Riding in the truck with Shifra as she collects long-term monitoring (LTM) data by observing elephant families for a substantial period of time has been the perfect way to search for skin nodules. I love standing on the passenger’s seat of the STE car with my binoculars, camera, and field notebook and with my eyes peeled for an suspicious bumps or lumps. I am learning from Shifra the names and associations of many of the elephants that we come across. 2012 seems to be the year of babies, and it is a real joy to watch the young calves scuttle beside their mothers.
While the recent days have been fairly routine in the field, I got a taste of excitement on my second day in Samburu. Daud, Shifra, and I were returning from conducting a mammal census route when the car got mired down in the mud. Stuck in the mud is putting the situation lightly, I would think, since a whole side dove into the mud while the other hung precariously in the air. A couple of hours later— complete with sightings of elephants in the distance, musings of what if a wild animal were to approach, and hauling of rocks and logs to pry under the tire—our rescue began. Together with two different teams who provided a chain and a handy elastic rope, we all pushed on the submerged side as the car was towed backwards. When it finally dislodged, the force was great enough to send us sprawling to the ground with splatters of mud to boot! Needless to say, I was very thankful for my bucket shower back at camp. In fact, showering by the river under the stars and the trees with the peering vervet monkeys has become one of my favorite conclusions to the day. There is a beauty and a peace to this place that is quite special. After a shower it is very easy to have a good night of sleep and bid all at the camp usiku mwema (good night)!