cattle

Upset Maasai

Intona 2 and Tommi copy

Tommi checking the cattle at Intona ranch.

As I mentioned in earlier posts about my work in Kenya, Tommi was one of the herdsmen working with me. Regrettably he passed away in a car accident a couple of years after I left Kenya, the sad consequence of a very common event in that country where unsafe public transport claims an excessive number of innocent lives.

Tommi frequently accompanied me to Intona ranch with great pleasure as for him it meant “going home”. He was not exactly from the Transmara area as he came from Narok but he was close enough to the Maasai around Intona to feel well among them.

This was a great contrast to herdsmen belonging to other ethnic groups, such as Benson above, that did not relish spending time in Maasailand. This was particularly obvious among the Kikuyu workers that could not wait for me to relieve them from their duties and take them back to their homeland. I still remember their voices getting louder as soon as the Kikuyu escarpment came into view after Narok! We, outsiders, do not often realize how foreign parts of a country can be to other nationals, product of some arbitrary divisions decided by their colonizers.

In the case of the Maasai people, their territory got split between Kenya and Tanzania when the straight line from lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean coast was drawn as the border between these two countries. Eventually the line did not end as a straight one. This was not the consequence of Queen Victoria giving Kilimanjaro to her grandson Wilhelm to meet his complaints of not having a high mountain in Tanzania as it is often believed, but part of the treaty of Heligoland through which Germany abandoned some places in the Kenya coast, receiving in compensation the Island of Heligoland in the North Sea.

Night watchmen Benson adn Tommi Intona copy

The herdsmen and cattle guards. Benson in blue and Tommi in white.

The herdsmen lived at a tented camp at Intona and their presence attracted both vervet monkeys and baboons. Over the years that the camp was there the monkeys gradually became more cheeky as they got used to taking food from the camp. This was an annoyance to the herdsmen and Tommi in particular took exception to the primates’ shenanigans.

Tsavo W baboon best copy

Mwizi’s relatives.

There was one particular individual that Tommi identified and called Mwizi that in Swahili means thief. He was able to recognize that particular animal and he maintained a long feud with it. The baboon seemed to know this and kept a wide berth from the man! For a few months a truce seemed to have been worked out but one day Mwizi overstepped the mark. (!!The baboon took advantage of a distraction and broke open Tommi’s bag of maize meal spilling its contents all over the tent.!!) This was the proverbial straw and the last act of misbehaviour that would be would tolerated.

Tommi decided to take exemplary action against the intruder. Before I tell you what happened, let me tell you that the Maasai social structure is based on a system of age-sets. This applies primarily to men, as women become members of the age-set of their husbands. Successive age sets, at about five year intervals, are initiated into adult life during the same period forming a cohesive and permanent grouping that lasts throughout the life of its members.

The age sets go through successive milestones that are celebrated as ceremonies. Among these are, to name a few, Emuratta (circumcision), Enkiama (marriage) and Eunoto (warrior-shaving ceremony)[1].

Tommi, like all Maasai boys had undergone their circumcision and became Sipolio (recluse). This is an important step into manhood (and warrior-hood) and, after this somehow dreaded event, the newly circumcised boys roam around the countryside dressed with dark garments and armed with bows and arrows. They shoot blunt arrows at girls as part of their social interaction. They also use the same arrows to kill small birds that they skin and place around their heads, together with ostrich feathers. During this time they acquire excellent skills with the various weapons.

In view of the above it is not difficult to imagine that Mwizi’s fate did not look good. I was not aware of the development of this feud at the time so its finale took me by surprise. After a day’s work, I was getting ready for a wash and tidying up my own camp when I heard the commotion, or rather Mwizi’s screams. It is not normal to hear a baboon screaming unless there is some kind of danger, so, expecting some leopard-mobbing, I rushed to the place where the screams where coming from.

There was no leopard but another kind of drama was unfolding. Tommi, looking upset, was circling a tree near the cattle kraal. Once closer, I realized that he had managed to tree the baboon and he was about to execute his revenge. He carried a few stones and he was trying to get the best angle from where to throw them at Mwizi! I felt sorry for the beast but the events moved too fast and the adrenalin was flowing on both sides so I could only watch from a distance, keeping my own head down!

I imagine that some stones had flown before I arrived and this explained the baboon’s alarm calls. The first stone I saw Tommis’s throw at the terrified beast missed it by a few inches and, Mwizi moved to the top of the tree. At that time Tommi said “I got it now” and threw another stone that must have passed a couple of cm from the baboon that now offered a clear view. This was too much for the monkey that was now in a serious panic with the consequence that it emptied its bladder first and soon afterwards the rest followed.

I have mentioned earlier that I do not like baboons while camping but I could not help feeling sorry for the poor creature so I did the unthinkable: I negotiated with Tommi on behalf of the victim! I managed to calm Tommi down and he agreed to leave the terrified animal alone. Seeing that the siege had relaxed, Mwizi climbed down in a flash and disappeared into the bush.

Vervet monkeys and baboons continued to visit our tents and behave in their usual opportunistic ways taking food items from us so we really needed to take care at all times. As I could not recognize individual baboons, I took Tommi’s word that Mwizi was not among them and that it had migrated to another troop in the Transmara, away from its deadly enemy.

 

 

[1] Among the many books describing the Maasai culture I would like to recommend “Maasai”, written by Tepilit Ole Saitoti and illustrated by Carol Beckwith.

Skewered Maasai chicken

When I was there in the 80’s the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya had established various partnerships with universities and research centres outside Africa. I was involved with the collaboration with the University of Neuchâtel on tick pheromones. The idea was to explore ways of attracting ticks to pheromone-baited traps and, with the addition of a tickicide[1], to destroy them.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

Bont ticks male (left) and female. A bad picture.

The composition of the aggregation pheromone of the Bont tick[2], one of the important cattle ticks, had just been discovered. It was a mixture of three chemicals that were available commercially. This offered us a good opportunity to test this compound in the field. Ernest was the scientist from Neuchâtel that would work with me at Intona ranch where natural populations of the tick occurred.

Ernest was a very enthusiastic and good-humoured Swiss that had a hearing problem as a consequence of firing cannons during his military service in the Swiss Alps, forgetting about wearing earmuffs! Luckily, we got on well from the start. So, armed with the necessary research tools, we departed for Intona to spend a few days doing fieldwork.

As a precaution, we did take a few ticks from the tick colony in case the bush ones would not cooperate! Crossing the Maasai Mara Game Reserve was never disappointing and, as usual, we spent a night there on the way to the Transmara where Intona was located. Ernest was delighted being able to see the plains game and we wee also lucky to spot elephants, lions and hyenas.

In the morning, as usual, we laboriously climbed the Oloololo escarpment and stopped to admire the breath taking view of the Mara triangle from its highpoint. The almost aerial view that it offered was really thrilling, even for me, a regular visitor to the area. Lines of wildebeest could be seen in the distance as well as dark patches that indicated buffalo herds. As I knew he would, Ernest loved the view. After spending a long while in contemplation, it was time to continue our long journey.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Maasai cattle at the Mara River bridge on the way to the Transmara.

Following the escarpment the road was bad as usual but luckily this time it was dry. However, we needed to stop a few times, not because of getting stuck or having mechanical problems, but because Ernest was amazed at how bad the road was! “Ooohh no, please stop!” he would shout and then get out of the car to photograph it even before I managed to stop. Clearly he was comparing the Transmara tracks with the Swiss roads!

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Stuck on the way to Intona on a rainy day.

Eventually, after a few halts, he got used to the rough road but, being a very active person, his attention drifted to other things. As all first time visitors to the Transmara he took a great interest on the Maasai people and their cattle, a normal sight in the area for me but quite so for guests. As the Maasai were not keen on pictures, we did not stop.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai herdsman on the way to Intona.

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai Manyatta (dwelling).

Maasai children looking after livestock.

Maasai children looking after livestock.

After about half an hour of hard going I heard “Stop” coming from Ernest as we approached a large muddy pond by the side of the road. While I stopped the car he rummaged in his rucksack from where he extracted what looked like an over-sized hypodermic syringe and a tumbler. I was not sure of what was going on and limited myself to watch, together with our herdsmen travel companions. “This is a Swiss water filter that will make any water suitable for drinking” he said as we were walking towards the mud and the terrapins swam away in fear! He added “It is recommended by the Swiss Tropical Institute, so it must be good!”

Without further ado he sucked water into the syringe and, once it was full, it poured into the glass. The water was indeed crystal clear! “You see,” he said, showing the glass. I must confess that it was an impressive feat as the puddle was truly a thick chocolate mud and I had not seen such a contraption before! Ernest offered the water to us and, when we all politely declined, he drank it himself before I could stop him, fearing for the consequences on his guts.

After praising the quality of what he had just drunk, he repeated the operation once more. This time one of the herdsmen agreed to try it and he agreed that it was indeed OK if with a bit of a muddy taste. “The filter must be getting clogged,” declared Ernest, “I must clean it when we get to Intona”. I refrain from commenting on the cost-effectiveness of the device and we resumed our trip, clearly ready for innovation.

Eventually we arrived at Intona ranch. It was almost dark so we rushed to assemble our tent, had an early dinner and went to bed as we both felt the long two-day trip.

The following day we started our work early and spent most of the day carrying out several trials that were quite successful. In the afternoon we decided that we would have roasted chicken for dinner so while Ernest continued working I went with Tommi, my Maasai assistant, in search of dinner. Eventually we managed to persuade a Maasai lady to sell us a cockerel.

Our prospective dinner was killed by me and plucked by Ernest. The size of its talons were unequivocal indicators of its seniority and its leanness qualified it as a Maasai chicken long-distance runner! Its muscular condition spoke of speed and endurance at the service of survival! Oblivious to all this, Ernest assembled a boy scout-like contraption with branches where, after impaling the chicken, it would be rotated over the fire. We invited our herdsmen to join us and they prepared their traditional “ugali[3]” to go with it.

The cooking of the chicken took a very long time. Ernest kept stabbing it and declaring that it was cooked but still tough. The lengthy turning process led to inexorable shrinking and darkening until it was declared fit for human consumption. The cockerel had turned into a “toasted baby chicken”. I saw the herdsmen exchanging doubtful glances over their Tusker beers, a bad omen!

Ernest cut it into equal pieces and -luckily- Joseph placed large chunks of ugali to go with it. Tommi bit the first piece and I heard a “Taargh” coming from him that became a clear “tough!” once he managed to swallow it. Bad news coming from a Maasai! Ernest agreed on its toughness but declared that it tasted like real chickens did a long time ago in Switzerland so he was happy! As for the rest of us, we could have done with a second runner Maasai chicken!

Transmara, Kenya, circa 1986.

 

[1] Also known as an acaricide, a substance that kills ticks.

[2] Amblyomma variegatum (the Bont tick) transmits Cowdria ruminantum that causes a deadly disease of ruminants known as Heartwater.

[3] From Swahili, maize flour cooked with water to a thick porridge. It is the staple food in Kenya.

Life and work in Kenya: Muguga[1]

The next time I met Matt, after my return from Intona Ranch, he was very positive about my collaboration with Alan at Intona ranch. That was good news as I did not need to present to him all the arguments I had prepared. However he tersely informed me that there was still one more hurdle: a final meeting with all institutions to settle the issue. Apparently, a new idea had come to the fore that needed discussion. The Director of KEVRI from Western Kenya had proposed an alternative area of work in Busia, his home area, of course. “You would live at a former leprosy hospice there”, said Matt just managing to suppress a chuckle! I was not amused at his Scottish sense of humour.

The meeting was large and long and then it was closed. I was dismayed as for me, nothing was decided and I felt like holding the participants in place until they reached a decision. As clearly this was not possible, I also left rather crestfallen at the apparent lack of agreement. Matt came to me and said “We are fine, it will be Muguga and Intona!” I looked at him totally perplexed. He saw my expression and said “Julio, you should be happy as things went your way!” I accepted his words in amazement and learnt that meetings in the Kenya environment did not involve heated discussions as they did in Latin America, but rather polite exchanges where things are often left unsaid but at the end decisions are taken. I learnt another valuable lesson!

A view of the Isolation Unit showing the flat top acacias under which I spent long hours writing.

A view of the Isolation Unit showing the flat top acacias under which I spent long hours writing.

Believing Matt and having confirmation from Alan, the agreement was that I would use a two-pronged approach to tackle my goal of evaluating the impact of ticks on cattle live weight gain: a controlled trial where I would infest three groups of young cattle with a known number of adult ticks and therefore attempt a finer quantification of their impact under controlled conditions and a field trial where I would compare cattle with and without tick control. This was possible as Alan had a reliable method to engender immunity against Theileriosis, enabling us to stop chemically treating the cattle against ticks[2].

The controlled experiment would take place at the then empty Isolation Unit in KEVRI (Muguga) itself while the field trial would take place at Intona ranch. I set to work immediately as time was short and there were many issues to settle before the work would start. I needed herdsmen, ticks, cattle, housing, feed, drugs and transport to name only the basic needs. The FAO funding was a modest USD 20,000 so I needed to collaborate with others to achieve my goal in the two years I had left!

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

Tommi preparing an animal for tick infestation.

With my colleagues’ assistance I recruited two herdsmen for the Muguga trial (Chegue and Karanja) and two for the Intona ranch work, Kimondo and Tommi. The latter was a Maasai and this would prove to be an immense advantage working in Maasailand! The others were of Kikuyu origin, very hard working although rather fixated with money!

An animal with an artificial tick infestation applied by means of an ear bag.

An animal with an artificial tick infestation applied by means of an ear bag.

For the Muguga experiment I needed to purchase cattle and feed as well as secure a weekly supply of adult Brown Ear ticks to infest the cattle. A constant supply of ticks needs a “tick breeding colony” where you could breed them and, after planning ahead, you “harvest” them weekly to infest your animals. As the trial would last for six months, this meant 24 tick installments to be applied weekly on the animals. One of the reasons ICIPE had accepted my fellowship was that they maintained such a colony, managed by Fred, a very smart guy that became an essential clog in my machinery! Together with Robin we planned our needs and, luckily, it worked very well.

I bought the calves for the Muguga trial locally and randomly placed them into two groups with different levels of tick challenge and a control tick-free group. I needed to measure the feed given to them and I would weigh them weekly and take blood samples and other measurements to check them for other possible clinical signs associated with tick infestations.

The Isolation Unit accommodation was suitable and I had a storeroom where all consumables such as cattle feed and drugs were kept as well as a scale to weigh the cattle. Although I spent long spells at the Isolation Unit, I did not have an office apart from a table and chair under a beautiful flat top acacia that was only good for the dry season! I did have a place at the ICIPE laboratory. The latter was a Spartan contraption built of cement blocks and surrounded by a water moat (to avoid ticks walking away) where a large number of guppies (Poecilia reticulata) introduced to control mosquito larvae, also lived.

The “laboratory” consisted of a front area with a long bench under a window of the same length. There were also two windowless rooms where the tick colony was housed. The back of the building had cattle pens used for tick feeding as well as other experiments being carried out, mainly looking at cattle resistance to ticks. In addition to Matt and Robin there were a number of Kenyan scientists and PhD students working there as well as about ten technicians and herdsmen.

I occupied a slot on the bench between Matt on my right and near the entrance door and Robin, near the other end of the bench. Matt (a Scottish Vet from Glasgow) and Robin (an English PhD from Oxford) could not be more different but somehow they endured each other. In between these opposite characters I sat and worked. In retrospect I had a privileged location, as from my left came thorough knowledge of tick ecology and from my right a veterinary insight including vast experience as well as all sort of ideas for future projects! Work would start at 08:00hs, break for lunch at 13:00hs and resume at 14:00hs until 17:00hs where it was back to Muguga House. This timetable had been established years back during the FAO project and it was maintained until that time.

Matt was very punctual when he was at Muguga. At 13:00hs sharp he would announce that it was lunchtime, leave the building to go to his car to fetch a litre of milk and a book. He would come back, drink the milk, place his feet up (on my part of the bench!) and start reading his book (a Western paperback novel from the back pocket of his trousers!). Soon his by now familiar snoring invaded the laboratory! I was surprised the first time it happened and was going to object when I saw Robin’s resigned look, which led me to understand that any effort in that direction would be futile so I learnt to live with Matt’s antics as I did earlier at Mbita Point!

Luckily for my work Matt was not always at Muguga as he was the Tick Programme Leader and needed to be at several places such as the central ICIPE HQs at Chiromo and another place being built at the moment known as “Duduville”. For this reason his car was his office and he kept all documents on the back seat. In fact Matt was a shrewd operator that was difficult to find as he “rotated” between offices (no cell phones then).

I suspect that he spent some time fishing for trout as well! I often found him parked on the road from his house at Tigoni to Muguga reading “The Standard” newspaper and enjoying his Sportsman cigarettes.

While working at Muguga I learnt that Joseph was in charge of all workers at the laboratory and instructions should be passed on through him only. His authority did not include my newly recruited workers with whom I had a “direct” working relationship. The staff feared both Matt and Robin. As I was a temporary addition to the group, somehow I kept a closer relationship with them, despite Matt’s advice to the contrary!

The Muguga House garden.

The Muguga House garden.

Time after work during the first few months was mostly spent at Muguga House, a place we shared with other lodgers of several nationalities: Kenyans, Tanzanians and Ugandans were the majority but there were also a few British and now two Uruguayans, probably the first and possibly the last! It was clear that the place had seen better days during the colonial time and when the East Africa Community was functional. It had a large area where the bungalows were scattered and it offered its lodgers a couple of tennis courts and bowling greens. It also had a bar where darts were a popular pastime, only second to talking about Kenyan politics!

I took this picture of President's Moi motorcade. Later I learnt that this was not allowed!

I took this picture of President’s Moi motorcade. Later I learnt that this was not allowed!

Joyce did not or could not manage Muguga House very well. Despite this the place was still reasonable and although the bungalows were basic, they were kept clean. Food, however, was another story and the daily topic of conversation. The British-style breakfast was good and I skipped lunch as I remained at work. Dinner was another matter. It consisted of dishes such as egg curries (with no yolks!) twice a week, very tough and overcooked meat with ugali and sukuma wiki[3] (twice a week) and other bland dishes during the remaining three days.

Desert did not shine either and we were given artificial egg custard and rice pudding (both made with water), jelly (orange and red) and bread pudding with “flies” (tiny raisins). Cape gooseberries either boiled or as part of a crumble were there permanently and you could -if you dared- consumed them “ad lib“. We did get five o’clock Kenya tea and biscuits. Food would greatly improve whenever important visitors came for lunch or dinner!

Our first camping experience at the Maasai Mara. From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and my wife.

Our first camping experience at the Maasai Mara. From left to right: Ranjini, Kevin and my wife.

Our first lions. Exciting despite doing what they do most of the time: rest and sleep!

Our first lions. Exciting despite doing what they do most of the time: rest and sleep!

After dinner conversations were well attended and, again, Kenyan politics was the main topic. I participated with stories of South America that generally horrified our British colleagues. I do recall my stories of pest control in Uruguay, in particular the elimination of the enormous numbers of damaging parrots that left one of them, a Cambridge graduate called Richard, speechless. Only much later was I to discover that he owned an African Grey parrot and suffered for the cruel fate undergone by its relatives!

Richard's parrot.

Richard’s parrot.

Through Richard we learnt of the existence of a house for rent at Tigoni in the outskirts of Nairobi, where many British lived, including Matt, Paul and Alan. We rented a house next to Richard’s, from a former Game Warden of the Serengeti National Park called Gordon. It was a superb location with tea plantations and remaining patches of virgin forest where many animals lived such as bushbabies and our favourite, the Colobus monkeys, surrounded us!

Our house at Tigoni.

Our house at Tigoni.

[1] Follows “Back to Nairobi”

[2] Ticks are killed by means of a toxic chemical known as an acaricide. The animals are normally “washed” with it but the chemical can also be applied by injection or poured on the back of the animal.

[3] In Swahili: maize meal and kale. The term “Sukuma wiki” means “push the week” in the sense that being a cheap dish, it helps to keep going.

Water cows

After our trip to the Iberá wetlands reported earlier in this blog, my mind remained on the fishing, as I almost could not remember when the last time I caught a fish worth lying about was!

A very simple armchair exploration showed me that the above-mentioned wetlands drained into the Paraná River, via the Corriente River. Further investigation revealed that in this area there is a town called Esquina in the Corrientes Province where people go fishing! I had heard about this place before but never gave it sufficient attention as it is closer to Buenos Aires than other fishing spots in the region and my belief is that large cities and fishing do not go together.

Arriving back to Esquina.

Esquina.

So, taking advantage of the need to travel from the Andes foothills to Carmelo, our town in Uruguay, I decided to explore the Esquina area with a view to go fishing there in the future.

Esquina, founded with the name of Santa Rita de la Esquina del río Corriente started its life in 1785 when fifteen families of which six were of Italian origin settled in the area. It is located on the left (eastern) margin of the Paraná River, about 670km North from Buenos Aires. Predominantly a cattle-rearing area it is also known for its watermelon production!

The city still maintains the air of a colonial town where its low houses -of Italian influence- are shaded by large trees. Esquina’s main attraction resides in its riverine location where it enjoys the calm waters of the Corriente River delta that connects to the Paraná -located further West- through a man-made channel.

Enough history and back to our trip!

The town can accommodate up to two thousand visitors. This large bed availability for a city of 26,000 people is explained by its hosting of street carnivals in January and February and the Fiesta Nacional del Pacú (National Pacú Festival), a fishing competition that attracts around 25,000 visitors, in May of each year. So, in view of this situation we did not book in advance and left the choice of accommodation to an in situ choice.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

Casa del Puerto B&B.

It did not take too much time to find a place to stay, the very nice “Casa del Puerto” that offers reasonable B&B and its lawns end at the river. Seeing the beauty of the riverfront, exploration turned into action and it was not long before a fishing trip was booked for the following day while we spent the rest of the afternoon walking about town and resting, after the rather long journey.

Fishing started at 07:00 hours when our guide José came to meet us at the hostel’s small jetty. All was taken care of and we agreed to fish in two stages, morning and afternoon with time in between to avoid the heat of lunchtime and have a siesta to recharge our batteries. We left with high hopes, as the setting was clearly fishing-friendly!

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

A channel in the delta of the Corriente River.

Despite the predictions by the hostel owner and our guide, fishing did not live up to our expectations and none of the “Big Three” Dorado, Surubí and Pacú were caught. To save you reading time, we did fish three “Palometas” (also called “Piranhas”) of the Serrasalmus genus (probably S. aureus) and one “Patí” (Luciopimelodus pati).

Our fishing efforts.

Our fishing efforts.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a pati.

The bushsnob with a "palometa".

The bushsnob with a “palometa”.

The affair was rather disappointing and we remained with the doubt of whether it was a strike of bad luck or the area has too many fishing enthusiasts! Although we fear the latter, we will come back to find out and report accordingly.

Despite the poor fishing, boating through the various channels of the Corriente River delta was a beautiful experience. We saw many water birds and even managed to spot one capybara, a sign that they are either very shy or few as hunting goes on in the area.

And then, while cruising through the channels, we saw it! A large head bobbing in a channel ahead of us that, for a few seconds, brought us back to an African river! We were aware that hippos in South America are still confined to Colombian rivers and it was not a semi-submerged capybara or tapir head either! It was a humble cow swimming to move from island to island in search of greener -or different- pastures. Clearly, to be a successful cow in the area you need to be a good swimmer!

The water cow...

The water cow…

The cow in shallow water.

The cow in shallow water.

We watched and followed the “water cow” for a while and learnt from José that, although the animals are used to water, when floods come cattle still need to be evacuated to dry land to save them from drowning. Further, I could also appreciate the difficulties of rearing cattle in such an amphibian environment and pondered the difficulties of mustering the cattle and the need for good (water) horses as well!

Swimming to safety.

Swimming to safety.

ALmost on dry land.

Almost on dry land.

 

Kenya: the Beginnings[1]

Recovered from my curry dinner and rested I met Matt, my future supervisor. My first impression was that he did not take much notice of his personal appearance. He was tall with stooped shoulders, going bald and had somewhat bowed legs. He wore khaki gray trousers, a long-sleeved shirt, a green cardigan and Clarks shoes (always the same model that he never changed[2] for the years I was with him!) and, at first sight, he seemed friendly and direct but also demanded respect. He spoke with a strong Glaswegian accent that took a while for me to get used to.

We had a cup of coffee and talked for a while and then he invited me for a tour of Nairobi as he said “Julio, we can talk while we see the city and tomorrow I will take you to Muguga House where you will stay for the time being”. I was delighted, as I had no transport. So we spent most of the day together and I got a valuable briefing on important issues for my future. Most importantly, I liked him and I thought then -I believe correctly- that he also liked me in his own way.

Matt had been born in Scotland 58 years earlier and graduated as a veterinarian in Glasgow. After working in Pakistan (he was very proud of his Urdu), in the 60’s he moved to Tororo in Uganda to work on African Animal Trypanosomosis[3]. His important findings on the epidemiology of this deadly disease placed him in a prestigious place in the parasitology world, particularly in the African context.

His success prompted FAO to hire him in Kenya to spearhead a very large programme to develop a protection method against another cattle scourge in East Africa: Theileriosis [East Coast fever (ECF) or Corridor Disease], caused by a blood parasite -somehow similar to Malaria- known as Theileria. Those were the days of the early East African Community composed by Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. The Brown Ear Tick (Rhipicephalus appendiculatus) is ECF’s vector[4] inoculating cattle (and other wild animals) with the Theileria parasites from its salivary glands, and, most of the time killing the susceptible animal. Some wild animals such as African Buffalo survive the infection and become “carriers” of the parasite, a kind of storage for the disease that can jump again to cattle through the ticks as the latter feed on different hosts.

Theileria schizonts (inside cells with nucleai) and infected erythrocytes.

Theileria schizonts (inside cells with nucleai) and infected erythrocytes.

Theiler's condecorations for his outstanding work.

Theiler’s condecorations for his outstanding work.

Clearly, Matt’s main contributions to the programme were to keep a very diverse scientific team working together for years and to achieve its goal. (Later, I learnt that he was a strong leader and heard several stories of rather vehement programme meetings where participants came to blows and chairs flew but I am not able to confirm them).

It was clear that he had managed to successfully “translate” his research in Trypanosomosis to ECF. Success started when the programme managed to reproduce the disease artificially by injecting a known number of ECF infective units extracted from the tick vector[5]. This achievement enabled the programme to develop an efficient system to work with the disease that, after more than ten years of research, culminated in the development of an immunization method: a mix of Theileria types[6] that, when inoculated to an animal together with the right antibiotic (tetracycline), would produce a very mild disease and result in the animal becoming immune practically for life[7].

Cattle being dipped with acaricides.

Cattle being dipped with acaricides.

Until the development of this immunization method, the only way to keep cattle in ECF endemic areas was by “cleaning” the animals with insecticide-like chemicals known as acaricides[8] dissolved in water as often as twice a week! In theory, the new immunization method would remove the need for intense acaricide treatment with beneficial effects for both the animals and environment.

Despite the advances in ECF immunizations, the ticks would still be there and have an impact on the animals as parasites. I was a small cog in this rather complex parasite-vector-host system and my mission was to quantify the effects of the ticks themselves on productivity and their economic impact. I had 30 months to achieve this! Clearly Matt’s over-optimism had permeated the project proposal, as I later discovered was true for most proposals he developed…

Heavy tick infestation, mainly Amblyomma spp.

Heavy tick infestation, mainly Amblyomma spp.

Brown Ear ticks

Brown Ear ticks

Amblyomma cohaerens (gold) and A. variegatum (orange) tick infestation.

Amblyomma cohaerens (gold) and A. variegatum (orange) tick infestation.

The size of a tick!

The size of a tick!

Matt, at the timenow retired from FAO, was the Director of the Tick Programme ofat the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE). The ICIPE would host me as an FAO Fellow attached to the Tick Programme so he was my direct supervisor. . I was seconded by FAO to the latter, hence his role as my boss. The Tick Programme was working on the ecology of the Brown Ear Tick as well as searching for a “vaccine” against the Brown Ear tick vector. “Julio, we have a laboratory in Muguga and good relations with the veterinarians working on ECF there, so we will succeed”, he said. I listened with interest, accumulating questions and anxieties!

He was very excited with my arrival. I recall him saying “Julio, you are at the right place at the right time” while lighting another Sportsman cigarette (he was a heavy smoker), adding “Most of the important work on theileriosis is taking place in Muguga!”. In fact I was a bit too early but I did not know this yet! He explained that the work of the now finished FAO programme still continued and the immunization method was being laboratory and field-tested in various places in Kenya, mainly Muguga[9] and the International Laboratory for Animal Diseases (ILRAD)[10]. “Julio, the key word is collaboration” Luckily, because of his past work he had lots of connections with people working in ECF in Kenya.

Almost immediately he mentioned Alan as one of his main allies. A Northern Irish parasitologist that as Matt put it: “has green fingers with parasites”. You will work closely with him, as he is the man behind ECF immunization. “He is waiting for you at Muguga!” he said. He added, “Robin, our tick ecologist -on leave now- is also there. He knows everything you need to know on the ticks so you will be OK”. I noted that Muguga would be an important place for me!

We drove around Nairobi and he showed me some of the key spots: the FAO Office near Bishops Road, the ICIPE HQs at Chiromo, ILRAD and the Veterinary Laboratory, both located at Kabete and other useful places in town. He never stopped talking about work! We did not drive to Muguga (about 30 km north of Nairobi). He promised to take me there the following day.

I soon realized that Matt was an “ideas man” and that I was part of one of them! He believed that my fieldwork was possible and had agreed with FAO to host my research. I also learnt that there were a number of knots yet to be untied for me to do my job. The place where I would work was the main bone of contention but Rusinga Island was still top of the options. My preoccupation increased!

Lunchtime was approaching and Matt proposed to have lunch at the Nairobi National Park. I happily obliged. So, after stopping at a duka[11] to buy samosas[12] and two packs of milk we drove to the Park. We soon got there and we drove almost straight to the Viewing Platform without stopping to watch anything! Matt had seen all or did not care about wildlife! I took some hurried pictures of what I could during the short stoppages he did or from the moving car. It was the first “real” wildlife I had seen! We stopped for a herd of giraffes and drove past vultures at a kill and had our lunch while taking in the view extending into the Athi plains and beyond. It was my first picnic in the bush at a beautiful location! Matt continued talking about work, his enthusiasm unabated!

My first giraffe at Nairobi National Park.

My first giraffe at Nairobi National Park.

I took this picture of vultures at a carcass while driving past!

I took this picture of vultures at a carcass while driving past!

Occasionally he would digress to his other passion in life: fly-fishing. He loved it and never missed an opportunity to practice it. He explained that he was building dams at his house in Tigoni -an area North of Nairobi where many British lived- so that he could keep his own trout. “Julio, I can catch them from my verandah” he said while mimicking casting his fly towards the plain! I was also a fisherman but knew little about fly-fishing so I limited myself to polite and rather useless comments! He promised to take me to his house to show me the dams and to introduce me to his family. Clearly aware of my rather useless comments regarding fly-fishing he never invited me to join him!

At the end of the day Matt dropped me off at the hotel and we agreed that the following day he would collect me in the morning and take me to Muguga, my future “home”. I was tired, both physically and mentally. Although I had gained valuable information I had also accumulated many questions that I needed answers to. Being young and rather anxious, I needed to rest, relax and think. I had entered a new world with new places, new people and a different working methodology. I was beginning to realize that my work would come with a few trials. Despite this, I never regretted my choice as I loved the Kenya atmosphere and I was hopeful that things would work out in the end, despite my present doubts.

[1] This post follows “Africa – Arrival”.

[2] He may have several pairs of the same model!

[3] At the time Glasgow Veterinary College was strong in East Africa.

[4] Similar role to the mosquito in malaria.

[5] Until then ECF was only caused by applying live ticks.

[6] Theileria parasites vary in different areas.

[7] This method known as “infection and treatment” is still today the only practical method available to us, despite years of high-powered and costly scientific research.

[8] Ticks are acari. Acaricides are very toxic chemicals.

[9] The Kenya Veterinary Research Institute (KEVRI) of the Kenya Agriculture Research Institute (KARI) was located at Muguga.

[10] Now the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI).

[11] The local name for a shop that in the “old” days was mostly owned by Indian migrants.

[12] A fried triangular pastry filled with minced meat, mutton or chicken, heavily spiced and chilly-hot.

The Cattle Are Gone!

Tongai came to see me today. Before he spoke I knew that there was something amiss so I braced myself for bad news. Information had come from his rural area that his cattle have disappeared. About one month ago, as the best possible saving strategy, through a loan from his employer i.e. me, he purchased four cows to start a herd in his home area.

Apparently the animals were taken to the dip tank, together with the family herd, for their periodic anti-tick treatment. This time they became very itchy and restless after the procedure which resulted in them breaking out of the holding pen. This means that they are now “bush-borne”. My immediate question, coming from someone that has spent his life in Africa, was “Why did only your cattle disappear?” The reply was convincing enough: “They are the new ones and they may have gone to their previous homes”. This sounded logical to me and we are still waiting (and hoping) for news that they have been found.

While talking to Tongai, memories of earlier cattle feats came rushing to my mind and I am now sitting at the breakfast table -the only sunny place on this Harare winter morning- writing this post to the detriment of the planned shopping that will need to wait until tomorrow.

The evergreen and beautiful Transmara area where Intona Ranch was located.

The evergreen and beautiful Transmara area where Intona Ranch was located.

In the page “The Blogger” I mentioned that my work in Kenya took me to Maasailand. I travelled there at monthly intervals for several years, crossing the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, up the Oloololo escarpment, into the Transmara District, pass Lolgorian and into Intona ranch where collaboration between the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology and the Overseas Development Agency of the British Government (now the Department for International Development) was taking place on ticks and tick-borne diseases.

A calf ear showing a heavy infestation of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, the Brown Ear Tick, vector of Theileriosis.

A calf ear showing a heavy infestation of Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, the Brown Ear Tick, vector of Theileriosis.

Please note that I will be referring to the Transmara and Intona ranch in future posts and I will satisfy your curiosity with further details as a lot of what I will tell you took place there or on the way there (see future posts under Memories). For the subject of this post it is enough to mention that I was in charge of a trial that involved the comparison of cattle with different levels of resistance to ticks. To this effect I had four groups of five cattle each in four adjacent paddocks, protected from large animals by an electric fence and from the many predators prevalent in the area by watchmen.

An "antique" blue slide to show the paddock design. There were five cattle in each of the sub-units 1 to 4.

An “antique” blue slide to show the paddock design. There were five cattle in each of the sub-units 1 to 4.

The Transmara District of Kenya is home to the Maasai of various clans (Uasin Gishu, Moitanik and Siria). Intona ranch was -and although now rather derelict- is located in Maasailand and people on foot moved freely through it. This meant that we were constantly being visited by our neighbouring Maasai who came to offer us milk and other produce.

More background is needed here before I continue with the story.

Cattle are the centre of Maasai life and cattle owners have a colossal wealth of information about their animals stored in their memories. They know not only the parents of a particular animal but also its grand parents and a couple of generations before that at least! They can tell you their colour, whether they were of good stock or not, how they died and other information on their cattle that they consider relevant. They are very proud of their animals and their aim is to get as many as possible as this gives them a better social status. One of the first things I learnt about them is their belief that God gave them all the cattle on earth and therefore rustling cattle from other people will just be recovering what is theirs.

Clearly then, being a veterinarian -able to treat their animals- meant that I was held in high esteem. This often resulted in them bringing their sick animals to me for check ups and treatments! It was a community service that I provided with great pleasure.

Now back to the story.

Try to picture me arriving at Intona one late afternoon with a large lorry full of young cattle and you start to get the picture. If to that you add that the animals were of the beautiful Boran breed, you get the full picture! The news of this Gods’ send spread like bushfire in the area so visitors trickled in to watch the animals for hours at the time for many days and participated in endless conversations about them. I am sure that I was providing the equivalent of a cinema premier!

The young Boran cattle at Intona Ranch being prepared for the trial. Please note that they have bags in their ears to test them for tick resistance.

The young Boran cattle at Intona Ranch being prepared for the trial. Please note that they have bags in their ears to test them for tick resistance.

 

The Maasai kept coming to watch our cattle.

The Maasai kept coming to watch our cattle.

Aware that I was bringing part of their cattle back home -as they I am convinced

believed- I needed to make sure that the animals would stay with us for science’s sake so I stayed while I took some measures that I thought would consolidate my situation as a “legitimate borrower” of their cattle! So, the holding kraal -already looking like a fortress because of feline predators- was reinforced with fresh thorn bushes secured with barbed wire and armed watchmen placed on 24 hour watch rather than the usual night watch. I am not exaggerating!

As if it would have been weak, the night enclosure was further reinforced...

As if it would have been weak, the night enclosure was further reinforced…

One of the night watchmen and co-workers.

One of the night watchmen and co-workers.

These security arrangements done, the animals were prepared and -as per the two-treatment groups- randomly allocated to their pens, five in each of the four enclosures. We were finally underway with our work! After a few days, when I judged that things had settled down, I returned to Nairobi as I had other duties to perform. A couple of months passed and interesting data were beginning to emerge so we were very pleased and already thinking of scientific glory!

A phone call from the owners of Intona ranch on a Sunday afternoon brought me back to reality. This was very unusual so I braced for something serious, thinking on an accident of the personnel stationed there, my ever-present main cause of concern. “A radio message had come from the ranch telling us that all your cattle are gone!” the voice said. I gulped and only managed to utter “Oh my word, the trial is ruined! And then asked: “When did it happen?” “Saturday night”, came the curt reply. I knew that over the weekends our vigilance would be more relaxed but I was not really prepared for such a blow! “OK”, I managed, “I will go there first thing tomorrow and deal with the situation, thank you”. I was at a loss as I had no plan for such an event! That night I counted cows to go to sleep… Despite this, I spent hours thinking about how I was going to recover the 20 cattle and if not, trying to prepare a good explanation for our donors! I hardly slept and I was up at dawn to travel as soon as I could!

It normally took me one day to travel from Nairobi to Intona. It was not the distance that mattered but the condition of the road. It was rough from Narok to Aitong and it could be very muddy once on the Oloololo escarpment, particularly crossing the swamps and then the cherry on the cake: the infamous red hill, the nearest description would be to try and climb over a gigantic bar of red wet soap, stay on and come down on the right side!!! As in the Transmara it rained almost daily, I knew that was always waiting. None of this came to mind that day and I cannot recall the travel details. I pushed the faithful Land Rover -Series III panel van- slow but reliable, and I am sure that it was in this trip that I broke its chassis (something the mechanic discovered on the next service!).

On the way to Intona Ranch with co-workers.

On the way to Intona Ranch with co-workers.

As expected, a reception committee was waiting for me with worried looks. They had not slept well either. I was given full details of the disappearance, their conclusions, and recommendations. We inspected where the fence was cut and the animals removed. We needed to report the theft to a special branch of the Police known as the Anti Stock Theft Unit (ASTU). This required us to travel about 40 km towards Lake Victoria to Kilgoris, the capital of the Transmara District.

Without further delay we went there, accompanied by the ranch manager and Sami, the Maasai herdsman working in the trial. He had been with me for the last couple of years and he was trustworthy and, most importantly he could speak Maa (the Maasai language). He had already done some tracking and had an idea of the manyattas that could be involved. A manyatta is a Maasai settlement or compound, normally surrounded by thorn bushes where a family or group lives, either temporarily or permanently. Inside the fence are the houses and enclosures where cattle, sheep, goats and donkeys are kept during the night.

The Officers at the ASTU listened and logged our case and -as usual- were ready to assist us. As expected they needed transport. We agreed and immediately four hardy-looking Officers carrying their full gear, including the ubiquitous AK47s, boarded the car. Our cattle tracking had started!

While on the way back, Sami took over the communication with the ASTU contingent and I was given only scanty information as translating from Maa to English was the only way I could learn what was happening. I learnt that the fact that the ranch where we kept the cattle belonged to a very important -now retired- statesman worked in our favor! After a while I was informed that we would visit a few manyattas. I knew, from past experience, that this meant cross-country driving in heavily wooded land which would result in getting totally lost without the assistance of some local person. I trusted that Sami would be able to be such a person.

I did not need to worry as the ASTU guys knew the area very well, suggesting that what had happened to us had -perhaps- taken place earlier? It was a long field day. I drove to the various manyattas. Unable to understand the exchanges I limited my job to drive and to watch the various “interviews” that took place. At nightfall, after all manyattas had been visited, I took the people back to Kilgoris and got back to Intona very late at night, totally exhausted and looking forward to a good night sleep.

When I opened my eyes, after been shaken, I realized that I needed more sleep but I was able to recognize the ranch manager, his grin almost blinding. “The cattle are back!” he said and added, “They were returned to the paddock last night!” I jumped from the bed, all tiredness and lack of sleep instantly forgotten. We immediately went to the paddock and, effectively, the animals were back! Further, they were not just back, they were returned to the same places they were removed, five in each of the paddocks, no errors committed! They looked fine if a bit empty and thirsty. The only apparent damage was that the identification numbers had been burnt over to remove them and their plastic identification tags cut off. All things considered, this was a minor issue and they promptly healed and grazed their fill.

Greatly relieved we immediately travelled back to Kilgoris to report the resolution of the case to the ASTU and to close it. We also thanked them profusely as they had saved us (me!) from a potentially embarrassing situation.

After all formalities and acknowledgments were over, a question still burnt in my mind: How did they manage to have an almost instant response from the rustlers? I asked them as my curiosity needed to be satisfied! A matter of fact reply solved the puzzle: “We told them that if the cattle were not returned, we would shoot all their animals” Whether this threat would have been carried out or not, I will never know but it served its purpose and that was what I cared about at the time.

I hope that I will not need to resort to similar actions to recover Tongai’s cattle!