Mapping Vegetation in the Midst of Leopards


Viraj Sikand, Local intern

Date Published

My main project over the next couple of weeks will be to assist Bernard, the STE GIS expert, in making a vegetation map of the Samburu and Buffalo Springs Game Reserves. Excitingly, this has never been done before to this precision and once completed, the benefits will be huge. Amongst many things, an accurate vegetation map can provide insight into elephant migration patterns, help in determining the human footprint on the area and may even act as a possible starting point from which to collect carbon credits.

The flower of a Desert Rose, Adenium obesum

The first step in making the map is identifying sampling plots within the game reserve. This is relatively easily done by using Google Earth to stratify Samburu into different regions according to certain factors (soil type, proximity to the river, aspect, altitude etc.) and then finding suitable plots within each of the different environments.

Then it gets a little harder. The next step is ground truthing. This entails going out into the field (in the hot Samburu Sun) and marking by GPS all the different plants and trees in our designated area, writing down the species name to each GPS point. As such I can now identify and name all kinds of trees- in both English and Samburu! It is only once we have collected all the data that we can then start making the map using GIS software such as ArcMap.

Bernard and Lunalo marking Acacia reficiens on GPS

Bernard, ever the encyclopedia with fascinating nuggets of knowledge, (most of which he obtained from when he used to herd cattle as a boy) is always giving us interesting ground nuts to eat and deceitfully bitter tree sap to chew. But even better than the nutritional benefits is that all this is being done within the game reserve. Yesterday, whilst marking down the GPS point of a particular Commiphora africana, we stumbled across the dead remains of a recently killed and eaten hare.

The dead remains of a hare

It turns out, that was only the appetizer. Today, just when we were about to get out and start to work, we looked up and saw a dead impala in a tree, only to be joined seconds later by a magnificent leopard. Needless to say, we had to find a different plot. “So that the tourists don’t see us” said Bernard.

The leopard with its kill right on our original Plot no. 4

So, in addition to being woken up by kudus grazing on our tent verandas and having dinner with silky genet cats, we can now expect to share work space with supposedly elusive leopards- all in a normal day’s work here at the research camp. Samburu continues to amaze me, and I can only wonder as to what else is in store for us at the next few plots!