Sketchbook Snapshot: Tortoises & Hares in Tanzania

“There’s so much of everything! All of it inextricably tangled together […] To describe is to select – and to select only a microscopic sample from this overwhelming profusion.”

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So wrote travel journalist Michael Frayan in Travels with a Typewriter, one of several books I read during my month-long research trip to East Africa. Frayan distills into two sentences the opportunity, challenges, and complexity of traveling to conduct research, particularly in a new field site.

As I mentioned in my previous update, this was my first trip to Africa. In addition to a mélange of language, landscapes, and villages/cities, the region struck me with its boggling biodiversity, and a host of socio-political situations that resist categorization or outsider resolution. I spent much of the trip mulling over my own reactions to what is ordinary life there, and pondering how to honestly incorporate it in my project without oversimplifying, romanticizing, or otherwise inadvertently appropriating.

I was in East Africa in order to connect with researchers and locals about their oral traditions, natural history understanding, and research findings about tortoises and hares. I also traveled there to observe, photograph, and sketch these species in one of a handful of ecosystems in the world where they co-exist. This was a prospecting trip, in a sense, as I had never been to the field sites. So, I was fortunate to encounter the animals, people, and material I did.

My time in East Africa was split almost equally between Kenya and Tanzania. I had initially anticipated focusing on tortoises and hares in Kenya’s Laikipia district, where University of Wyoming professor Dr. Jake Goheen studies small mammals and their ecosystem impacts. I wound up going to Tanzania also, because I had the opportunity to visit another University of Wyoming researcher. Dr. Tom Morrison works in the Serengeti. There, tortoises and hares also co-exist, offering me an opportunity to compare my observations from Kenya with management and traditions in another country. In both locations, I spent time shadowing ecologists, spoke with land managers, and met with locals.

I came to the region at exactly the right time of year. May is the tail end of the rainy season; it rained nearly every day in Kenya and had recently rained when I was in Tanzania. Tortoises tend to only be visible this time of year, because during the dry season they are inactive in burrows deep in the earth, seeking respite from the heat and rationing the water they’ve stored up.

In addition to tortoise- and hare-specific observations, I had much opportunity to observe, sketch and photograph the habitat and other animals that live alongside my focal species. I went for numerous drives through research properties and national parks in the region, in order to see the ecosystems at many times of day (early morning, daytime, evening, and nighttime). I developed a rich written and visual record of the ecosystem, which will be invaluable as I develop the illustrations and text for “The Ecologically True Story of the Tortoise and the Hare.”

I also had productive conversations with members of several East African tribes. In particular, a translator and I visited a village near the research station in Kenya, where I hit the jackpot for my project, as described in my previous update.

In the case of ecologists, I was able to make connections with additional researchers; in particular, one who studies illegal bushmeat hunting in the Serengeti. Through these contacts, I hope to be able to answer some of my questions regarding tortoise and hare consumption without having to provoke discomfort in the native sources I visited.

In an ideal extension of this visit, I would return to that village at the same time of year, to observe the process of capturing and preparing tortoises, expand on the questions I posed, and perhaps find a way to pose to the Turkana villagers some of the bushmeat-related questions I still have.

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The second phase of the international study I proposed – looking into hare hunting and endangered tortoises in France – is in the planning stage. I have made initial contacts with researchers and wildlife managers there, and will establish an interview and field-site schedule soon. I am requesting permits to view specimens and archival materials at France’s National Natural History Museum, and over the summer will conduct interviews with my new contacts in East Africa. My research trip to France will likely occur this fall.

And, I just heard about the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship program. I’m going to look into it, as it could be a phenomenal way to a) get to a couple more ecosystems and return to the ones I’ve already visited, and b) explore digital ways of telling this story in addition to the printed book I envision.

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*Image credits: J.A. Merkle (me with tortoise, Lekiji village – far right on second row of pictures); all others B.G. Merkle. (c) 2016, all rights reserved.

This blog post is a project update for “An Ecological Storybook: Writing/Illustrating the Ecologically True Story of the Tortoise and the Hare.” If you’re interested in more information, visit the project page for project background and complete details about project funders and supporters.

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