KITE was teaching again – Free Workshop in Nairobi

Another year has gone and we just finished teaching the updated version of our workshop ‘Vegetation from space and from the ground’.

17-22 March 2014, African Insect Science for Food and Health (ICIPE), Duduville Campus, Kasarani, Nairobi, Kenya

imFree workshop to provide training to aspiring scientists and researchers in Africa funded by the Finnish Government as part of ICIPE CHIESA (‘The Climate Change Impacts on Ecosystem Services and Food Security in Eastern Africa‘).

The students? ….were great with different experiences gained through their work in universities or agricultural research institutions in Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Like last year, we wanted the students to gain an overview of freely available earth observation data for vegetation analysis, focusing on passive sensors (e.g. MODIS and Landsat). The work schedule admittedly was intense but the students happily worked from 9 am to 5:30 pm each day and we had to throw them out of the class room so they could catch their bus to a nearby hotel.

What did we teach, apart from problem solving in QGIS and the beginners’ hurdles of working with R:  (1) land cover change analyses using MODIS land cover products, (2) potential and limitations of spectral vegetation indices and canopy traits such as the leaf area index, (3) an appreciation of how these properties vary over space and time, and how they relate to carbon and ecosystem function, and (4) relate these properties to satellite data and environmental controls. Look out for the teaching material at KITE’s homepage.

We did leave the class room for one day, having fun with measuring biomass and canopy traits in Karura Forest Reserve, Nairobi’s green retreat.

But now it is time to pack up and leave for the fun of the bush. Looking forward to it.




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Dirt Road Blues – KITE on tour in Kenya

May 20th The KITE team is flying out to Nairobi, to teach at KITE’s homemade workshop on the campus of ICIPE CHIESA: ‘Using Earth Observation Data to Explore the Impacts of Climate and Land Use Change on Vegetation Structure and Carbon’.

May 21st and 22nd Beside meetings at the African Conservation Centre to discuss KITE’s involvement in the development of Kenya’s Biodiversity Atlas (to be launched 2013) and at the National Museum Kenya to discuss KITE’s on-going Acacia assessment project, KITE managed to visit Karura Forest Reserve. This reserve lies on the northern outskirts of Nairobi and was chosen for a fieldwork practical within the context of our workshop. But more to that in a follow-up blog.


May 28th KITE sets out to travel north and north-west covering more than 1000 km’s in the following 8 days to visit biomes in different rainfall and elevation environments at that time-point under-represented in KITE’s LAI database.


We did a mapping exercise to locate potential future sampling sites for shrub land, woodland and forest plots, delineating these biomes on the background of rainfall and elevation maps. Sufficiently satisfied by the planned route, we ventured north to Lake Baringo via the Mau forests and from there towards the west crossing beautiful valley of Acacia shrub land taking hemispherical images in plots and transect set up along the way.


On day three, after a brief stop at Kitale, we arrived at Mt Elgon, for a brief respite and for a look around as to the suitability of more thorough assessments of vegetation biophysical structure. Beautiful. Next stop after Mt Elgon was Kakamega Forest Reserve, a protected area managed by Kenya Wildlife Service, which is surrounded by a heterogeneous matrix of croplands and farms. Kakamega had lots on offer: stars, fireflies (or Gluehwuermer as we say), very loud frog concerts, night walks. And we found some lovely forests for taking hemispherical images.


But, alas, we were forced to carry on leaving behind this peaceful place with much regret to arrive at Lake Victoria. Yes, we did see Hippos. And, yes, the view on Lake Victoria was very pretty. Did it compensate for the departure from Kakamega? Who would want to judge on that?


Before we had to return to Nairobi’s busy streets, we had one final stop at Hell’s Gate National Park. There is a lot to say for it: giraffes, plenty of zebras, warthogs. But there is, from my point of view (and even within KITE these views differed) lots to worry about. Extraction of geothermal energy has cut a network of roads and trails into the park and factories with accessories of houses are a stable feature of conditions within park boundaries.

Safari njema & Badaye

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The Future in Our Hands

The Kenyan side of Mt Elgon National Park, located 420 km’s from Nairobi, is a beautiful tree-covered haven for African wildlife. Among the creatures you can hope to find, are salt-craving elephants, leopards, giant forest hogs, the ever so frightening buffalo, and many many birds.img1

Whilst failing to spot any elephant, but not failing to spot traces of poachers in the caves often visited by the elephants, we (at KITE: York Institute for Tropical Ecosystems) did get a good overview on the vegetation that gives this national park in Western Kenya its unique character.


We took some hemispherical images whilst we were passing through. But mostly, admittedly, we just enjoyed spotting large trees and sniffing out potential areas visited by buffalos. Wouldn’t it be really amazing to stumble across them during a little hike through bamboo stands?


Our land rover was taking us along old forest ‘roads’, if that is what you want to call grass-covered linear features wide enough to indicate past use by motorised vehicles. Along the way, we did come across the occasional very old and very large tree. Assuming that these trees were once forming dense forests makes you wonder how majestic a walk across these mountains must have been like many, many years ago.

Mt Elgon National Park is fenced, protected by electricity in the hope to mitigate rising pressure from growing populations and land use demands in the landscapes surrounding it. The separation line between ‘in’ and ‘out’ is clearly visible from the distance.

Despite the poaching and despite our DSC_0135amazement at the little investment in ‘roads’, needed to promote tourism but also to allow forest rangers to patrol the park regularly, conservation programmes are abound funded by the governments of Norway and Sweden for example (MERECP –

As our knowledgeable guide for the day,  Silas Kibore, was involved in MERECP’s income generating activity Mt Elgon Porters and Tour Guides Association (chairman: Philip Towett:, we were given a brief tour around their tree nursery, located just outside the entrance of the main gate. Established to provide income by selling seedlings to local communities, it is now trying to overcome challenges of seedling oversupply and high-costs offering charities to buy their seedlings which can then be provided to local farmers for free.


How well this initiative will do in the future is unclear, as is unclear how tree planting activities on degraded land and forest conservation will help in the carbon-revenue plans for the area. But a start has been made.

On the Ugandan side, the forest-dwelling Benet people have been deriving their livelihoods from the forested landscape of Mount Elgon for hundreds of years. They were displaced from Mt Elgon for the creation of the national park in 1983 causing social and ecological problems in the park surroundings. The blog by Emile A. Frison et al. calling to reconcile biodiversity conservation and agriculture to combat poverty describes how local agro-forestry projects and participatory forest management approaches have helped to mitigate some of the negative impacts created by this historical eviction.

DSC_0157So, if you do plan a visit to Western Kenya, why don’t you fit in a couple of days at Mt Elgon? I did mention that there is a guesthouse within the park for those early birdwatchers (not me) and late-night elephant and buffalo adrenaline junkies (certainly me), didn’t I?


In 1974 a new movement was founded in Norway under the name ‘Future in our hands – a people’s movement for a new lifestyle and a just distribution of the world’s resources’.

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Identifying Carbon Change Hotspots in East Africa

Coherent methods to accurately estimate land use change at national and continental scale are difficult to implement. Remotely sensed data can provide a globally consistent method for assessing land cover and cover trends at large spatial scales (e.g. deforestation, forest to cropland conversion). See for example key papers by DeFries et al. 2002 (PNAS), Achard et al. 2002 (Science) and Hansen et al. 2010 (PNAS). Although, it is widely acknowledged that uncertainties can be high, partly due to uncertainties in satellite measurements, spatial resolution of the sensor data and varying definitions of what constitutes a forest (Grainger et al. 2008, PNAS).

Global earth observation products freely available via the internet, such as those provided by the MODIS team (NASA) or by MERIS (ESA), can be employed to obtain rough estimates of land cover transitions for more recent times. For a recent study  (as EarlyView in Environmental Conservation: Pfeifer M, Platts PJ, Burgess ND, et al.: Land use change and carbon fluxes in East Africa quantified using earth observation data and field measurements), we used the MODIS land cover product (MCD12Q1) and quantified land cover trends for East Africa between 2002 and 2008. Using field-derived estimates of aboveground carbon stored in specific land cover types allowed us to put an estimate of carbon change on the observed land cover trends.

East Africa appears to be a carbon source (emitting 288 Mt between 2002 and 2008). There are strong variations in land cover and carbon trends between individual countries encompassed by our study area, caused predominantly by varying deforestation (see also our paper in PLOS One).

Protected areas are not as successful as hoped in mitgating drivers of land cover change, which include human population pressure, distance to fires, and slope (like protection status a factor limiting forest accessibility). Although, locally adjusted park management, eg. via participatory forest management, could significantly improve forest conservation outcomes.

In the coming year, we will use hotspots identified in our East African carbon change map and we will focus on those with more detailed analyses(e.g. high spatial resolution imagery, ground survey of vegetation structure, governance and socio-economic conditions) in the hope to determine (1) what drives significant land cover trends /  carbon emissions on the ground and (2) what could be done to manage those trends within sustainable levels.

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The Guests – Mosquitos and Leeches in Sabah’s rainforests

I was sent to visit Sabah’s forests, the beautiful and the damaged. For two weeks, I enjoyed the hospitality of the SAFE (Stability of Altered Forest Ecosystems) research project, spending most of my time in the current base camp in a fixed hammock, separated from the rain by a (mostly working) tent cover and from the mossies by a sanity-saving mosquito-net.


Upriver from the research project’s current base camp

SAFE is conducting one of the world’s largest ecological experiments to understand how logging for timber, deforestation for conversion of forests to oil palms and subsequent forest fragmentation modify the structure and functioning of tropical rainforests in Malaysia. I have been analysing data collected in untouched, slightly touched and severely logged forests during the past months, and Rob decided it was time to have a look at how the data I only know from excel sheets translate into real life in the forests.

Never been to Maysia before, I did not know what to expect. Arriving on Tawau airport, I was surprised by the scale with which land had been converted to oil palms already. I was also surprised how hot it could become shortly after lunch time and how lively the mosquitos are throughout the day.

The current base camp, beautifully located at a river (used for daily baths) and equipped with badminton court and generator-driven TV, is surrounded by forests that will soon be logged for timber and replaced with oil palms.

Some forests, degraded and nearly virgin, however, will remain, representing a series of forest fragments in an island of oil palms. Thus, researchers are now very busy studying forest structure and biodiversity before the landscape will be changed completely (how big are the trees, how much deadwood can be found, how many species of beetles and ants are scampering around ?).

And there is lots of wildlife to be observed. I did even spot an Orang Utan, albeit only briefly (apparently that is nothing unusual here – they seem to be hanging around).

So what are the forests like? Well,…. They do differ a lot. The old untouched forests at Maliau look exactly like you imagine a rainforest to look like. And so do the forests in the slightly logged Virgin Jungle Reserve (now protected). Watch out for the very innovative and resourceful leeches there!

Maliau’s old growth forests

However, the degraded forests have the tendency to look more like bushland (at least in parts). And, along with the leeches (still plentiful) are now coming stingy, prickly, tangly plants.

In a couple of years, then the landscape has changed and the researchers are able to see how animals and plants respond to these changes, exciting results are likely to be published. So watch out for the SAFE project and its regular updates (note: a workshop is taking place this September showcasing a selection of the studies carried out and the programme incuding abstracts will be visible online:

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Tullow drilling for Oil at Turkana may be threatening high biodiversity

During the past three days (17th to 19th July) I shared my office with 14 year old Hannah Davies. Hannah, from local Windsor Girls’ School did a work placement at our research group at Imperial, helping to organise, enter and analyse data from our recent fieldwork trip to Kenya and Turkana. She was also kind enough to research recent oil drilling activities by a UK firm at biodiversity-rich Lake Turkana (see recent articles in Standard Digital News Kenya and in the Telegraph). Below you will find her excellent contribution to this blog.

by Hannah Davies:

Lake Turkana is home to two national parks that could be threatened by recent oil drilling operations.

Tullow Oil – an independent British oil and gas exploration and production group – has been widening their search for oil in Africa after their largely successful stint at their first site in Kenya. Their target: Lake Turkana, a large lake formerly known as Lake Rudolf. It resides in the Kenyan Rift Valley, with its most northern end intersecting the border of neighbouring country Ethiopia. Turkana is the world’s largest permanent desert lake and the world’s largest alkaline lake which is now offering new opportunities to many Kenyans, helping to provide new jobs and better living standards to those native to the area but there are some disadvantages. (

The drilling may have a negative effect on other key sectors of Kenya’s industry, though. “Agriculture, which is the backbone of Kenya’s gross domestic product, might experience a slump because the appreciating shilling will make the country’s agricultural products more expensive in the international market,” economist Owiro said. “This is what is called the economic oil curse, where the blooming of one sector drives other sectors down.” However, residents of Turkana  are still optimistic about their future thanks to the newly discovered oil and the jobs it will bring. After having to face a lack of electricity and a shortage of water, they’re hoping that the fiscal opportunity will help provide them with better living conditions.(

Unfortunately, the celebrations may be a tad premature as in Lake Turkana region are two National Parks: Sibiloi and South Island. The drilling could majorly affect the nature that has been protected there. Sibiloi is situated on the northeastern shore of Lake Turkana in northern Kenya, approximately 800km from Nairobi. It harbours a semi desert ecosystem which was first established to preserve wildlife and the unique prehistoric and archaeological sites that can be found there. Some of which are linked to the origin of man! In the 1960s and 1970s more than 160 fossil remains  of early man including Homo Habilis and Homo Erectus were discovered,  putting man’s origins back three million years. Over 4,000 fossil  specimens of mammal and stone age artefacts were also identified there.  (

There is no water at Sibiloi except for the alkaline waters of the lake; it however boasts a variety of wildlife including the common zebra, giraffes, hippos, crocodiles and a large number of bird species such as flamingos, pelicans and ducks.  Other notable features are the preserved wildlife fossils such as the Giant Tortoise and the 18-20 ft long Crocodile. (

At Turkana it has been found that there are around ~50 fish species with 11 endemics; 3 endemics frogs and 2 threatened turtles (at least 1 endemic: Pelusios broadleys). Which makes it an important site for 84 waterbird species, including 34 Palearctic migrants. (Dudgeon et al 2005 Freshwater biodiversity: importance threats, status and conservation challenges. Biological Reviews 81: 163-182).

It has been reported that BP, for instance, had decided against drilling in deep waters off Ghana because it was thought that the action would lead to expensive dry holes, due to the geology of the location.  (– Stanley Reed)

To conclude, the economy may be benefitting from the oil found at Turkana, but the high and unique biodiversity found within the lake (Dudgeon et al: 2005) and in the adjacent riverine forests (Stave et al 2006 Traditional ecological knowledge of a riverine forest in Turkana, Kenya: implications for research and management. Biodiversity Conservation 16:1471-1489) could be in real danger of being majorly disrupted. But for now all we can do is wait and see.

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Dance Me to the End of Love

Back from East Africa, …. hopefully dancing again soon to its beauty

Approaching LakeTurkana

This time the spotlight was on four major tasks:

(1) Get the  palaeo-ecologists / limnologists (Rob, Stephen, Katie and Dave) and their enormous equipment from Nairobi to Chencha to allow them taking samples in that tiny hidden lake in this archaeologically important landscape (analysed by John and Kathryn Arthur’s team)

Lake Chencha from above.

(2) Have a look at the Acacia species on the way up to see whether we can see something exciting there (Aida’s project), which will let us model potential climate change impacts on species

Sampling Acacias.

(3) Get an overview on environmental gradients and associated variability in land cover (Phil’s project). Look out for his future research into the modelling of vegetation-atmosphere relationships using regional dynamic vegetation models. You will be surprised.

(4) Extend the database of biophysical vegetation structure measurements in East Africa and take GPS coordinates of the different biomes (as well as locations of these exciting Acacias)

The trip itself

From left to right:
Phil, Rob, Stephen, Katie, A., Aida (in the back…look properly), and Dave

It started off all nicely, the sun was shining and the four flat tyres were distracting only little from the beauty of the landscape.

Plans changed slightly once we reached Southern Ethiopia. The palaeos stayed in Chencha enjoying the the hospitality of the locals and the adventures of sinking boats. With the collected cores containing sediment from the Gamo Highlands they will soon be able to reconstruct past environmental change and document human impacts on the environment over the past c. 5000 years.  In case you want to know how ecosystems and their interaction with environmental change and  humans in East Africa have evolved, look at work by Rob , Stephen and Jemma .

Aida, Phil and me, however, went on to face the raw quality of Jimma town aiming to gain a glance on Jimma transect, one of the three study sites of the ICIPE CHIESA project (Climate Change Impacts on Ecosystem Services and Food Security in Eastern Africa). With the friendly help of Rob’s local PhD student, we measured some of the biomes, only briefly interrupted by heavy thunderstorm rains. June is heavy rainy season after all. Be assured, the nighly thunderstorms are a must see (even if coackroaches and rats appar to be regular guests at the hotel we stayed in).

Valley of the Omo River, Ethiopia.

Aferwards, we recovered in Arba Minch National Park, a rough gem with horrendous roads but rewarding wildlife views (yes! I finally saw my first hippo head) and campsite.

Aida and Phil.

The car’s trouble worsened with time, letting us call into various garages during the subsequent journey. Reunited with Katie and Stephen (the rest of the crew disappeared to Addis) we ignored the car’s shy pleas and conquered the sandy desert west of Marsabit (Note: we did get chased by an angry forest elephant in Marsabit NP, which was incredibly exciting. But sheer panic prevented us from taking appropriate pictures for evidence. Sorry).

Lake Turkana is stunning. Beautiful. Absolutely unbelievably beautiful. If you can face the thrill, go for a swim (like me and Aida). There might be crocodiles around, though.

Further south, on the way to Maralal and back to Nairobi, we sampled Acacias and measured woodlands, scrubs and deserts. At least until we hit the road frequented by robbbers. Can it get anymore exciting than that. Our freshly hired police escort was very polite and friendly, throughout. Thanks again to you both.The car finally got a proper repair in Maralal. Feel free to contact me for excellent garages in Arba Minch, Marsabit and Maralal.

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