Chester Zoo Education Officer, Steph Davies, visited Big Life Foundation headquarters in Mbirikani, Kenya for two weeks in September 2019. Throughout her visit, she carried out 36 evaluation trials, visited 2 schools, developed 6 lessons & attended 1 school trip to Amboseli National Park. This is her story…
My name is Steph and I’ve worked as an Education Officer for Chester Zoo for the past four years. At the beginning of this year, I was selected to work alongside one of our African field partners, Big Life Foundation (BLF), using my knowledge and experiences to help redevelop their outreach education programme. In September, I had the incredible opportunity to visit the BLF base in the Amboseli Ecosystem, Southern Kenya, to show the staff what I’d done, offer training for their new Conservation Education Officer and to see first-hand the amazing work they do protecting wildlife. And what an experience!
The first leg of the journey…
Before I knew it, I’d landed in the big, bustling city of Nairobi and was winding my way through the busy streets towards my hotel. The taxi driver was very friendly and chatty – as was everyone I met during my stay – and was quick to point out a zebra grazing by the side of the road. My first glimpse of Kenyan wildlife!
After a much-needed overnight rest, it was time to board the tiny 12 seater plane that would whisk me away to Chyulu Hills, where I was met by a member of BLF staff. What followed was a very bumpy – and incredibly dusty! – drive to Mbirikani group ranch, where the BLF headquarters are located. I’d arrived towards the end of the dry season; the main colours whizzing past my window were yellows, oranges and reds.
On arrival, I was introduced to Nikki Best (Conservation Scientist), Michael Tipaai (new Conservation Education Officer) and John Kasaine (M&E Field Officer), who I’d be working with for the duration of my stay. I also met many, many more members of BLF’s team, and enjoyed our chats over breakfasts, lunches and evening meals in the communal rest area.
The first few days involved showing the education team the changes we’d made to their presentations, based on the Strategic Plan we drafted with them last year. As we went through, we shared ideas and made changes so that the content was relevant and age appropriate. I also showed them our ideas for evaluating the programme using pre and post questionnaires, which we trialed during my stay.
Steph with Nikki Best, Conservation Scientist and Michael Tipaai, Conservation Education Officer.
Steph in front of a Baobab tree in the Amboseli National Park
Steph accompanied Michael and two others to deliver new Chester Zoo education sessions to eager local students.
Watching a herd of African elephants drinking water at dusk in the Chyulu Hills.
Steph trekked 6km to look at camera traps, helping monitor black rhino populations.
Spotted in the Kimana Sanctuary, Tim the famous tusker elephant with his herd at sunset.
I accompanied Michael, John and Nikki on three visits to local schools, and each time we were greeted by the eager smiling faces of very excited students! I gave an introduction to the class, then handed over to Michael for the first run through of the new sessions. Each time I was amazed at the enthusiasm and pride that all of these young people showed towards their native wildlife.
On the Saturday, I accompanied selected students from the surrounding schools on a field trip to Amboseli National Park – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Nestled in the foothills of Kilimajaro, the National Park was teeming with animal species that congregate there during the dry seasons – we saw hippo, giraffe, elephants, zebra, wildebeest, warthogs, buffalo, hyena, ostrich, many species of antelope and gazelle, birds, lizards…
During our lunch stop, the BLF education staff played games with the students at the top of Observation Hill. Listening to them speaking animal names in Swahili and watching them dance is one of my fondest memories of the trip.
During my stay, I also visited the Black Rhino Ranger Outpost in Chyulu Hills and went on a 6km trek through the lava fields to look at the camera traps. My guides were fantastic, leading the way through the dense spiny vegetation to where the well-concealed camera traps were positioned. Sadly, we didn’t find any footage of the rhinos but we did see signs of their presence, such as mounds of faeces and footprints in the sand. Black rhinos used to be widespread throughout the Amboseli ecosystem but there are sadly now only 8 individuals left. The ranger team do an amazing job monitoring their movements and protecting them from poachers.
A once in a lifetime trip…
Whilst in Kenya, I was incredibly lucky to be invited to spend three nights in Chyulu Hills, where I was treated to some stunning sunsets, great company and some close encounters with a herd of wild bachelor elephants. Sat there in the cool evening air, with just the light from the moon and the Milky Way overhead, listening to them slurping up water, was an experience that will stay with me for life.
My transportation back to Mbirikani took the form of BLF’s tiny biplane, piloted by head of security Craig Millar. En route, we flew over Kimana Sanctuary, where I was to camp that evening. Seeing the ecosystem from the air was unbelievable, and it was from the air that I first spotted Tim, the famous tusker elephant. That evening, after putting up our tents next to the river, we headed out on a game drive to find Tim and his bachelor herd, watching them way after the sun had disappeared behind the horizon. It was magical.
When my time in Kenya had come to an end, I was both sad to leave such wonderful people and wildlife and excited to get back and continue working on a workbook to complement the new presentations. Our Discovery and Learning team will continue to offer our support and guidance to this amazing project over the coming months, to ensure it’s delivering maximum education impact to the next generation of wildlife conservationists. My Kenyan adventure may be over, but the memories and experiences from this trip will last a lifetime – and I’m sure I’ll be talking about this visit during our workshops for many years to come!