Workshop at South Eastern Kenya University

A three days workshop was held at the South Eastern Kenya University SEKU, Kitui from 9th-11th March 2016, togehter with with representatives of all institutions and stakeholders involved in this project. The South Eastern Kenya University SEKU is located on an outstanding hilltop of the Yatta Plateau. The young university offers various student courses at bachelor and master level, like Environmental Management, Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources Management, Land Resources Management, Biology, and Forestry. During the three days workshop, the attendees were kindly hosted in the guest-house of the university, which is surrounded by 10,000 acres of wilderness.


Scientists responsible for one of the five working packages introduced the work load and methodology in more detail and highlighted open questions during the first day of the workshop. Challenge and chance of this project is to bring together scientists from different disciplines and research fields. The study setup has to be harmonized where possible, as data-sets will be combined if possible to shed light on identical topics, but from different perspectives. This holistic approach shall allow to create a complete picture on human livelihood needs and nature conservation. Joint-data-sets will provide potential synergies (method and topic wise). Such holistic approaches are particularly of relevance in human-dominated regions, where nature conservation can only be implemented together with the local human population. However, such transdisciplinary procedures are still rare and evidence based nature conservation is still en vogue despite many conservation biologists argue:

“Conservation is primarily not about biology but about people and the choices they make, and is therefore influenced by an array of socioeconomic and political constraints and opportunities, such as opportunity costs, funding, incentives, willingness to participate, modes of governance, institutional capacity, and an underlying value system that determines the cultural legitimacy of certain social sacrifices and behaviors.” Balmford &Cowling (2006) Conserv. Biol. 20:692–695.

During the second day of the workshop, further practical details were elaborated in teamwork. The outcome were presented by students. As “Ecology is always noisy” (statement by Sebastian Meyer), main focus during this second day was to elaborate and select the most appropriate study-designs (plots or transects) and to identify and extract the most meaningful units (taxa) to be assessed in the field. Furthermore, collected data should warrant comparability (across working packages, but also among the three study regions which will  be analysed during the next years).

For example, for Rapid Ecosystem Function Assessment the group decided to collect data in distinct study plots (randomly spread along the river, in riparian thicket, exotic invasive Lantana camara, and agricultural land). The parameters were reduced to the most relevant characters (as all parameters cannot be assessed within this short time period and by only few people). Parameters of relevance are indicated by red circles in the slide below (for all details on the REFA method see Meyer et al. 2015).


For the vegetation assessment, the group decided to collect data along transects (which will be set each 100m on both sides of the Nzeeu and Kalundu river). We further discussed parameters and the most appropriate units to be collected in the field: For example, the animal ecology studies (particularly movement ecology) decided to work on typical riparian forest bird species which represent the ecosystem and might provide insights into habitat needs, potential barriers and corridors while foraging through the recent highly fragmented landscape mosaic. Interviews on human behaviour (willingness, awareness, consciousness) will randomly be conducted in four pre-defined zones along the Nzeeu river. During this day, most of the working groups did some final modifications on their field work protocols (e.g. the social science group improved the translation of the questionnaire).

The workshops were framed by several explorative excursions at the large SEKU compound, very early in the morning and during sun-set (and night!).

The relevance of a transcisciplinary study framework became very evident during discussions of this workshop. Many text books and research articles on nature conservation argue that ecological data  (on ecosytems and single taxa) may help to improve the efficiency of management strategies (e.g. Sutherland et al. 2004). However, most of such management plans are far from being realistic, in particular when strategies has to be implemented in areas which are dominated by the human being. Thus, delineating potential conservation strategies has to include (i) human livelihood needs and ecosystem functions, as well as (ii) the protection of fragile biodiversity (like endangered species). In consequence, nature conservation should mainly focus on intact and diverse landscapes than on the protection of single selected species. Cultural and behavioural aspects of the human being has to be taken into consideration and might be of even higher relevance than improved knowledge on species´ ecology and behaviour. The coherence between nature conservation and human were summarized in a the following conceptual framework consisting of five chronological steps, as indicated by Kim Mortega in her talk:

KimMortega_FlulssdiagrammDuring the third day, we discussed two master thesis from students of SEKU (Effects of light pollution on arthropod diversity at SEKU campus; and land cover change detection in the Makueni County). We closed the workshop with two practical demonstrations: Sebastian Meyer explained and demonstrated various REFA applications in the field and Mike Teucher gave an introduction on how to use a drone and clarified that unmanned aerial vehicles are more than a toy and help to produce valuable high resolution aerial pictures and to gain valuable information on the recent status of the land cover (degree of invasion by exotic plant species, detection of land cover changes during months and years). The drone was an excitement at the SEKU campus – as well as in the field.

About 30 scientists and students participated at the three-days workshop at SEKU (and the one-day kick-off meeting in Nairobi), from all participating universities and institutions: Dr. Carol Hunja, Dr. Sichangi Kasili, Dr. Patrick Kisangau and Dr. Josphert Kimatu from SEKU; Dr. Maarifa Mwakumanya, Dr. Okeyo Benards, Prof. Dr. Halimu Shauri from PU; Prof. Dr. Marianne Maghgida and Prof. Dr. Hamadi Iddi Boga from TTUC; Dr. Ronald K. Mulwa from NMK; PD Dr. Jan C. Habel, Rebecca Rogers M.Sc. and Dr. Sebastian Meyer from TUM, PD Dr. Christine Schmitt from Bonn University and Mike Teucher M.Sc. from Trier University. Most of the students subsequently joint the field work activities around Kitui during the following two weeks.

The complete programme of the workshop is provided here. We all enjoyed the hospitality of SEKU, fruitful and exciting discussions with the Kenyan scientists and students, and the beauty of this remote area.