Mary Wykstra-Ross, MEM
Mary founded Action for Cheetahs in Kenya, (ACK) in 2009 after conducting research under Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) from 2001 to 2008. She has experience in both Kenya and in Namibia with data collection, cheetah research techniques, capture and immobilization, community development and education. She received her Bachelor of Science in Zoology from Michigan State University in 1987. Between 1987 and 2001, she worked at different zoos as with duties from animal care to exhibit design. She completed a Master of Environmental Management degree from Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2011. Mary's authorization is through the Kenya Ministry of Science and Technology in affiliation with the Kenya Wildlife Service and CCF. She works within the communities in the Mukaa and Samburu districts to coordinate programs in research, community development and education. Together with other partners she aims to secure a future for carnivores in Kenya.
To find out more about Mary's work, and that of Action for Cheetahs in Kenya, visit their website here - www.actionforcheetahs.org.
How did you personally become involved in cheetah conservation in Kenya, and how much of the year do you spend on the ground?
I became involved in Kenya when I worked in Salt Lake City Utah via the American Association of Zoo Keepers through an event called Bowling for Rhinos. I first came to Kenya in 1992 to visit Lewa Wildlife Conservancy for whom I was fundraising through the zoo. But my love of cheetahs started in 1987 when I worked at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek Michigan. Through zoo connections I first heard of the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) and was supported by Utah's Hogle Zoo on a six month volunteer project to build their education center in Namibia in 2000. While in Namibia, I made the decision to pursue requests from private ranches and the Kenya Wildlife Service to conduct cheetah research in Kenya. At first it was meant to be a three year study of the feasibility of cheetah reintroduction to the Nakuru/Naivasha region. But once here I realized that little was known about the cheetahs in Kenya, and without better knowledge of cheetah status and threats nationally it would be difficult to develop a cheetah conservation strategy. Since December of 2001, I have spent six to ten months a year in Kenya.
Laurie Marker with ACK Lumumba Mutiso at CCF in Namibia
How and why did Action for Cheetahs in Kenya develop and what are your links to Laurie Marker's CCF?
Between 2001 and 2008 the research and community project was called Cheetah Conservation Fund - Kenya. Our staff was supported by CCF and grants were written in collaboration with CCF to support the work in Kenya. At the end of my contract in 2008 I formed Action for Cheetahs in Kenya (ACK). We are still supported through grants from and with CCF, but the staff salaries are now a part of the grants and no longer employed by CCF. I am still the CCF representative to Kenya and have strong links with Laurie and her research staff.
Cheetah immobilization Mary with KWS veterinarians
Why does there need to be a dedicated Cheetah NGO when the KWS mission statement reads, quote "To sustainably conserve and manage Kenya's wildlife and its habitats in collaboration with other stakeholders for posterity."
ACK works closely with KWS to support their mission - we are one of the collaborating stakeholders. I trained specifically with CCF to be able to focus on the cheetah and its roll in habitat conservation and human livelihoods. Our research permits are granted through KWS, thus we aid their research and ranger staff through focused cheetah research. It is difficult for governmental organizations to support species specific research, but (although still a challenge) it can be easier for not-for-profit organizations or individuals to conduct this kind of field work. There are several programs both older and more established and younger and grass roots that support KWS in their efforts of sustainable conservation. We also work closely with area wardens and community/education staff from KWS in conducting awareness programmes in the community and the schools. KWS is a consultant, participant and partner in all that we do.
From where are donations sourced, and how are they spent on the ground to enable your work to be conducted? What are the critical areas for funding within the organisation?
Funding for operations and specific projects come from grants and private donations. Several of the zoos that I worked for and throughout the United States have been annual supporters of our work in Kenya. Our project is featured at several zoos that support our work through annual donations. We also receive grants and donations from other organizations in the US and Europe. A full list of our major sponsors can be found on our web site. The current and most critical aspect of our work is our vehicle - we are driving a 1992 Toyota Hylux double cab truck which was purchase through grants via CCF in 2002. We have 400,000km on the vehicle which has taken us through all terrains and to every corner of cheetah range throughout Kenya. We are in dire need of a replacement vehicle. Starting in June 2012 we are supporting two American and one Kenyan students in Master's research - we need funds for their fuel, housing and local research assistants. Of course, general operations (staff housing, office supplies, vehicle maintenance, phone and internet service...) are the most difficult items to fund and present a challenge each year. Project Survival is the 501©3 organization which accepts funds for ACK through our website www.actionforcheetahs.org and Cheetah Friends Europe is the charity through which donations are accepted in the Netherlands www.cheetahfriends.nl.
Jimmy, Pius, Lumumba, Mary - ACK SalamaTeam
What percentage of your team is made up of local people from your study area?
100% of my staff is Kenyan! (Ok, except me.) Students and volunteers are most often from outside the country, but their donations cover their food, accommodation and other expenses while they are visiting us. "Cheetah Scouts" are the team members who come from the communities in which we work. They are research assistants and community officers - our eyes and ears in every part of our study area. We have three scouts in each study site (Salama and Meibae). Cosmas Wambua is the ACK Senior Scientist - he has worked with me since February 2002. Through funds raised via CCF, Cosmas received GIS training at ESRI in California, Cheetah Biology training at CCF in Namibia and completed his Master's of Science at Addas Ababa in Ethiopia. I am very proud to say that I have a fantastic and professional team of people who care about wildlife and their communities. Without their dedication ACK could not exist!!!
Mary (ACK), Ricile (Ewaso Lions), Peter (ACK Volunteer) - Cheetah tracking in Samburu Reserve
How much voluntary assistance do you rely on? Why voluntary staff in the first place, and not more local people being employed?
Volunteers donate their time and funds to assist us in supporting operational and staff costs. International volunteers are often student interns seeking experience in conservation and often have a passion for Africa and/or large cats. Other volunteers include people who want to experience conservation rather than taking a safari so they can enjoy Africa but also assist in wildlife conservation efforts. It is very competitive to find employment opportunities especially in conservation in countries like Kenya where there is such biodiversity in close proximity to people. The skills that a volunteer can bring into our project are also a part of the training of our local staff. Paid staff perform regular duties and provide the project with consistent data - volunteers act as assistants to the staff and help build staff moral when they come in and remind us how lucky we are to work together in beautiful, amazing Kenya.
How much media coverage and attention is given to the cheetah's situation in Kenya, both at a local and international level?
Within Kenya there have been a few newspaper articles written through Nation Media by Rupi Mangat. SWARA Magazine (East African Wild Life Society) and TRAVEL NEWS published articles I submitted several years ago. Recently a story was published by SAGE Magazine. But Kenya's cheetahs deserve more attention. With fewer than 1700 cheetahs remaining in 75% of their historic range, Kenya holds a population central to the eastern Africa cheetah range. If the cheetahs in Kenya continue to decline, the southern and northern cheetahs population will be cut apart - Kenya is the connecting country along with Tanzania and the last strong-hold for cheetahs in eastern Africa.
Cheetah range and Study Sites 2012
Cheetahs home ranges can cover huge areas so how are you working without spreading yourself totoo thinly?
That has been tricky! Between 2004 and 2007 we worked in affiliation with East African Wild Life Society, CCF and KWS to conduct a national cheetah survey. I am working with several experts from Yale University and from KWS to complete a publication which will assist us in cheetah conservation management decisions. Land-use change and habitat fragmentation are the greatest threats to cheetah survival. Thus we are looking at all of the human impacts, wildlife and climate change issues that are affecting cheetahs. We are learning about the adaptations that cheetahs make to these changes and about how we, as humans, can live with the cheetahs. We are a small staff, but we also have some great partners in several regions of Kenya. Recently a Russian scientist, Dr. Elena Chelysheva, was approved to work in collaboration with us to evaluate cheetah social changes. Together with master's students using camera traps in rural areas and evaluating cheetah fecal material to determine prey selection and cheetah health and genetics ACK has a lot of help.
What are the instances of wildlife vs human conflict involving cheetah, compared the more oft reported lion incidents?
The level of conflict with cheetah depends on the area. Cheetahs most often hunt during the day, so a loss sometimes goes un-noticed. At the same time, when a cheetah or its track are seen in an area it can also be blamed for a loss even when no carcass is found. Our Cheetah Scouts attend to each report of livestock loss in the Salama area to document the circumstances of the conflict even when the predator is not a cheetah. We do not have a compensation program, but we do offer advice to the people about livestock loss prevention. Our staff will assist in making improvements to livestock holding areas (boma) if the farmer gathers the materials. Cheetahs seldom attack livestock in the boma, but predator conservation goes beyond single species. When we can identify that the problem is the animal and cannot be solved through improved husbandry we call in KWS experts to address the issue. ACK believes that improvements in livelihoods and environmental responsibility are solutions to wildlife conflicts with interference as a very last resort.
ACK Photo - Speared cheetah- Kima Oct 2008
ACK Photo - Spear removal during KWS necropsy cheetah- Kima Oct 2008
How do local communities deal with cheetahs, ie, what instances have you seen of retaliatory killings, and how can your work help to negate such instances?
Retaliatory killing of cheetah is rare. In 2008, our Cheetah Scout from Kiu, Lumumba Mutiso, received word that a cheetah was killed by farmers in a neighboring community called Kwale. This area was outside of our study area, so we were not alerted that a cheetah had been killing several sheep. With a lack of awareness about the cheetah and frustration after several sheep and goats were killed the farmers took the matter into their own hands. Lumumba and KWS visited the site to find out the details of the incident. The people there are now aware that ACK will assist them, even though it is outside of our jurisdiction. There are now two male cheetahs living around that community and the people contact Lumumba to tell him when they see the cheetahs. Lumumba has assisted farmers there in improving their boma's to prevent leopard and hyena attacks as well. We can’t be all places, but we have learned that awareness of predator behavior assists people in preventing loses.
A master's student who worked with us in 2009 conducted interviews within the Salama study area. He discovered that people with higher education had a lower tolerance for predators, but if the person was provided with information about the predators through school and community presentations their tolerance increased. People in the Salama area did not want to see the cheetahs killed, but they did want solutions to their problems. Additional interviews proved that the majority of livestock death came from disease, primarily tick borne diseases. Thus between 2006 and 2009 we assisted community based groups in getting access to government funding to improve cattle dips to prevent ticks. Seminars conducted by ACK assisted the management committees in understanding business operations to run the cattle dips. Now, six years later three of the four dips are still operational and two other dips have joined the project - learning from the original committees.
Cheetah cubs -females must be able to raise their families in community areas
With greater human encroachment upon wilderness areas, what is the long term outlook for the cheetah, and their existence with the communities on which they do / will share the land?
In the majority of the interviews that we conduct, people tell us that they do not want the cheetah to be killed; they just want the cheetah to stop killing livestock. The cheetah is one of the least dangerous of Africa's big cats with no documented case of a cheetah ever killing a person. While most people who live with cheetahs generally fear them, they do understand that the cheetah is not as dangerous to people as the lion, leopard or hyena. If I had a guaranteed solution to the issue of carnivore tolerance, I would be the most popular carnivore researcher in all of Africa. In general we all understand that the connectivity of cheetah range countries is essential to the survival of the species, but the demand for land ownership is putting a lot of pressure on the policy makers and the land. At the current rate of development, the outlook for the cheetah is not good... but we are trying to assist with land-use policies that recognize corridor areas and put protection measures in place.
What is the "ICT techno-city" in the the Kapiti region of Kenya?
The Konza Technical City is a part of Kenya's vision 2030 and is promoted as "Africa's silicon savannah". It is based on a 5000 acre portion of what used to be Malili Ranch along a dirt road off the Mombasa Highway leading to Konza Town. The site was selected because of its proximity to the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the major transport highway from Mombasa and the proximity to the existing rail line. It is meant to be a cluster of "technical business, financial service firms and other enterprises" bringing a new university, state of the art hospital and luxury living. That's the vision anyway!
Dead Kongoni from inside Konze fence - photo by Micheal MbithiHow is it that such a development has been allowed, and what processes were followed, for instance the results of EIAs etc?
This is a government driven project aimed at launching Kenya into the developed world. In the environmental section of the plan it state that a "Strategic Environmental and Social Assessment has been undertaken based on the guidance provided by the National Environmental Management Authority (NEMA) and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to evaluate the impact..." It states that water access will be a challenge, that waste disposal options should be explored, that a 2km buffer for "migratory species" and measures were designed in favor of development over biodiversity were established. The plan also mentions the concern of uncontrolled development - urban sprawl, but states the long-term positive effect of increased jobs will outweigh the negative impacts. Hmmm... explain that to the 800 animals that were just driven off their home range and to the host of people who have legal title deeds but will soon be given notice of the illegality of their subsistence farm according to this master plan...
Kavuko Primary School near Salama helow with ICT botttling Mar 2012
How has it impacted upon the environment itself, and what have its affects been on wildlife numbers? How have you and ACK been involved?
ACK has been monitoring cheetah and other wildlife species in this area since 2005. The land subdivision that occurred in 2007 caused a reduction on all small and medium sized game. At the time of our last game counts in 2010 the 5000 acre fence was not even started. Over 800 head of wildebeest, kongoni (hartebeest), grants gazelle, Thompsons gazelle, zebra and ostrich have been driven out of the savannah. These are not all migratory animals, most of them are resident species. The game was driven in the direction of the large commercial and private ranches, but they are displaced animals who will need to compete with other residents for food, water and home range. The initial subdivision of the Aimi and Malili ranches caused an immediate increase in conflict with the already existing settlements of Kiu, Ulu, Ngaamba and Kima-Kiu. The immediate effect of erecting the fence around the 5000 square kilometer site was that animals trapped inside were left without water until the Athi-Kapiti Cheetah Project, ACK and KWS realized what was going on and provided water. Animals unable to see the new fence would run into it (they see in black-and-white, thus the fence is somewhat invisible) when they were frightened by passing vehicles on the road, or by poachers. Animals were breaking their necks when hitting the fence. We called out to volunteers and have tied empty water bottles donated by a bottling company (65,000 of them) along the fence so the animals had a visual and noise barrier to alert them of the presence of the fence. In April, when the National Youth Service put the last portion of fence up, ACK staff assisted the KWS capture team in driving the animals out. From this point on all we can do is to monitor and document the longer-term effect.
How will such land use changes affect cheetah ranges in future?
The cheetah seldom used the Maili plains, but the prey base that moved in and out of the plains was critical to cheetah survival in the area. Prior to the ICT fence, the two farms that were subdivided were share-holder land with anti-poaching security and water management in place. Thirty thousand acres of land is now private property, with a new town center (Malili) growing rapidly. This whole development has cut apart a corridor for cheetah movement. Between 2005 and 2009 we identified between 8 and 20 adult cheetahs (numbers changed seasonally and depending on the rains). Currently there are only 5 to 8 cheetahs in the area east of the development. Projects like the ICT that do not take resident wildlife or wildlife corridors into consideration will have long-term detrimental effects and could completely separate the eastern cheetah population from access. The genetics of the cheetah rely on their large home ranges to prevent inbreeding. If cheetahs are forced into pocketed population inbreeding will increase and health problems will occur.
Human/community development, empowerment and infrastructure is surely more important than wildlife and environmental concerns, especially leading up to Kenya's general election next year, wouldn't you agree?
Human rights and development are essential aspects of a growing country. However, these do not always need to be detrimental to wildlife. Wildlife tourism, is one of the greatest sources of income to this country. Kenya is a drought-prone country, yet every aspect of current development planning requires more water. Instead of trying to be like the rest of the world, wouldn't it be refreshing if Kenya's leaders would look at the strengths of Kenya and Kenyan's. In other words – Kenya’s strengths are in the unique cultures, the vast landscapes and the unique biodiversity Kenya should be capitalizing on that!
ACK seems to be a fairly small initiative at present, with limited scope for research - what are your expansion plans, and what can you put into practice on a larger scale, that you have learnt from what has already been achieved?
I believe we are small in size but big in impact. Salama is our pilot site focused on human aspects of cheetah conservation. We are using the same data collection protocols to compare the Samburu cheetahs to the ones in Salama in terms of behavior and health. Our community projects and school programs need growth, but for now the greater understanding of the relationship of cheetahs and human livelihoods is needed to determine the way forward for the programmes in different parts of the country. Over the years we have worked with a variety of partners and continue to enhance our relationship with those partners. The new people coming into the project this year will greatly advance our research initiatives so that I can put greater focus on program development. I went a way for a year to improve my skills as a leader and achieve a Master of Environmental Management degree from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. We are also using Conservation Measures Partnership, (CMP) open standard program to design, manage, and measure the impacts of our conservation actions.
What has research taught you that was not known previously about cheetah's behaviour in Kenya? Have there been any surprising results, and if so, what were they?
Cheetahs are known to see better during the day than most other predators. Thus they are known for being day-time hunters and to move most during the day. We have placed pilot radio collars on one cheetah in the Salama study area and one in the Samburu study area. Surprisingly in both areas the cheetahs had longer night-time movements and greater activity levels during the night. Even more surprising is that the greater activity actually occurred when the moon was a sliver or less. We anticipated that in areas with increased settlement and human day-time activity... but finding high night activity in the Samburu/Buffalo Springs Reserves was surprising. We have yet to fully understand this change in behavior, so we have received permits to collar more cheetahs in both areas.
When tracking our first collared cheetah in Salama we found that she consumed hare, hyrax and even vervet monkey. In Samburu we often see the cheetahs killing dikdik. The energy needed to consume small prey is greater than that needed to kill and eat larger prey as documented in the Serengeti. We also witnessed female cheetahs with cubs of various ages to join together for periods of time. We are also looking into the potential reasons for these behaviors. We believe it could be an adaptation to living in thick bush or more rugged terrain, and/or an adaptation to human impact. The students and partners working with us this year will assist in answering some of these questions.
ACK Snared Cheetah - New Astra - Feb 2008
Since founding ACK, what have been the high points, and on the flip side, the low points? What has been the most rewarding experience for you personally?
The completion of the 2004 to 2007 national survey was a great accomplishment for us while we were still under CCF. It was very exciting to be able to map the cheetah distribution based on the first cheetah survey that actually visited the full extent of the cheetah range in Kenya. The huge data base that we are working with from that study has also been our greatest challenge.
The most difficult aspect of my work is in watching helplessly as unsustainable land development cuts wildlife corridors apart. As the corridors are severed, so is the livelihoods and culture of the people. The financial stability of the people who come from wildlife zones are not as positively affected as the political powers who have convinced the people that the benefits will come. Our project aims to empower people to have a voice in what will be best for them, but the pockets of the few are bursting while the mouths of the masses are still hungry.
I have worked with so many amazing people, and seen so many of Kenya's most amazing places thanks to the cheetah. I have helped students get an education, (staff and secondary students that have been supported through ACK, CCF and our friends). I have helped community members to start businesses through empowerment training and creating environmental responsibility. The most rewarding of all is a smile and a wave as someone yells "Hi Mary Cheetah" when I drive, walk or bike through their area.
Football Cup Salama reaching a new audience to say cheetah in every household every day
What do you hope ACK's long lasting legacy will be, not only to cheetahs but those communities who live next to them?
One of my staff, Lumumba, once told me to make it a goal that someone in every house says "cheetah" every day. Only through knowing that the cheetah is an important aspect of their lives will people care about the cheetah, and only through the care from people will the cheetah survive. I want people all over Kenya to be able to say that the cheetah has helped them!
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.