Sketchbook Snapshot: Tortoises and Hares in the Kenyan Highlands

This is my first trip to Kenya, and to Africa more generally. So far, it has been a fascinating blend of rural and urban, English and Swahili (and with it a reminder that learning a language isn’t a one-month project), and wildlife, plants, and landscapes utterly unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

I’ve come to the Kenyan Highlands in exactly the right season. It’s the rainy season, and out of ten days so far, yesterday was the only day without rain. This consistent rainfall makes all the difference for my chances of seeing tortoises. They tend to only be visible this time of year.

By now, nearly everyone at the research facility where I’m staying knows I’m looking for tortoises, so they keep pointing the animals out, telling me where to find them, and reporting their sightings. Once I’ve found one, there is usually plenty of time to sketch, look at it up close, check its gender, etc. And yet, while tortoises do move slower than, a hare, say :), they’re not actually that slow. So, sketching is a quick affair.

R0012563_lightViewing and sketching hares is another story. In the ten days I’ve been here, I’ve seen a handful, and all of them have been zig-zagging off into the bush. The moment they notice me, they dash off like they do anywhere you’ve ever seen a hare.

What’s particularly striking to me about the hares out here is their posture when they move away. They keep their tails tucked, and their ears are erect and splayed. If not terribly startled, they move off in the bounding equivalent of a trot (as opposed to a flat out run). And when they bound like that, with their tail tucked and looking long, and their ears large and wide, they look all the world like a fox!

I’ve yet to get very close to one, but I’m not too discouraged. That’s because my host out here studies small mammals, and he warned me that a few years ago, he tried to live trap the local hares, in order to study them. Problem was, he couldn’t catch them! So, I’ve contented myself with mad-dash sketching while the hares mad-dash away.

A few days ago, my host here in Kenya (a biology prof from UWyo) facilitated a really lucky morning for me. Along with one of his local field assistants who speaks fluent Swahili and English, he took me to Lekiji, a nearby village, where I hit the jackpot for my project.
There were people in the village who belong to at least 5 different tribes, so in about three hours, I was able to ask four different tribal groups about their oral traditions and natural history knowledge of tortoises and hares. They told me numerous stories and shared their understanding of natural history about tortoises and hares – it’s great information to add to the scientific knowledge I can learn from books, science articles, and from researchers out here.

*Image credits: J.A. Merkle (me with tortoise, me interviewing Lekiji villagers); 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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