We spotted a herd of zebras as soon as we drove into the Masai Mara. Mesmerized by their stripes, we nearly missed the hyena darting across, its eyes trained on a flock of sheep and goats. It crouched, crawled forward a few steps, then leapt. Seconds later it ran back, a baby goat dangling from its mouth. Farther down the road we saw a head poking above the tree line.
“Is that? Wait, seriously, is it a, a giraffe?” The excitement in the jeep hit new levels. “It is! Are you seeing this? Are we really here?” Yes, the giraffes and elephants and zebras surrounding us were real. The sound of bones crunching as the hyena devoured its lunch, also real. We’d arrived, already seeing more in the first 15 minutes than most of us expected to see in a week.
The travelers in the second leg of the Passport to Creativity partnership with Adobe Students gathered March 22 in Nairobi, Kenya. Early the next morning we set out on the five-hour drive to the Mara, a national park overseen by the Kenya Wildlife Service. Students Lidia Gulyas and Rachelle Tan came to document the work of the Mara Cheetah Project and how climate change is affecting the various species here. Australian photographer and videographer Jarrad Seng would guide them throughout the week as they experimented with Adobe Creative Cloud tools.
Jarrad is a Australian-based photographer, filmmaker and creative director. He has gained international recognition for his work with high profile artists and brands such as Passenger (UK), Ed Sheeran (UK), Qantas, Converse and tourism agencies around the world.
Lidia is a 23-year-old self-taught typographer & photographer from Hungary who is currently studying in Melbourne, Australia. She’s passionate about traveling, people, stories, adventures and Instagram communities.
As we set out on our first official game drive a few hours later, our guide quickly spotted a leopard and her cub near the bank of the winding, shallow river. The mother leapt into a tree. She made no attempt to intimidate us or scare us off; she simply stared at us, still, stoic. Rachelle and Lidia turned to Jarrad with questions about lighting and framing, how to shoot in such a rapidly-changing environment. It was an incredible change from the usual classroom.
“Being able to see the same things he’s seeing, and seeing that he’s capturing it in a completely different way to what you’re capturing,” Rachelle said later, “you put that knowledge to use right there, which is very different than being told the information and kind of having to solve it yourself.”
Back at camp that evening we met with Dr. Femke Broekhuis, who founded the MCP shortly after completing her doctorate at the University of Oxford in 2013. The project is the first to study Kenya’s cheetahs. “A lot of people don’t really understand that the cheetah is under threat,” Femke told us. “The current count is that there’s only about 6,600 cheetahs left in Africa. About 100 years ago, people think there were about 100,000 cheetahs. So it’s over about a 90 percent decline in 100 years.” The team has identified about 70 cheetahs in the Mara over the last four years, and is attempting to determine the biggest threats to the population here.
The next morning, we rose before the sun to capture our first full day in the Mara, starting at one of the area’s trademark isolated trees to shoot silhouettes. As we shot, our guide’s radio started buzzing: A family of cheetahs was stretching out on a mound nearby. We found Femke and her team there, recording data on their iPads. Femke took photos of each side of the cheetahs, then compared the images to those of the 70 cheetahs in her database. Each has a unique spot pattern on either side of the its body. Just as she finished, another call came over the radio. A guide had spotted one of the rarer cheetahs.
“If climate change begins to show an impact in the Mara, it will apply to all species here.”
“I need to see if it’s lactating,” she said, already shifting her jeep into gear. “We think she had cubs, but she keeps them really well hidden. If she’s lactating, that will confirm that she has cubs.” Femke hadn’t seen this cheetah in nearly four months. We drove right past it on the first attempt, the sleek animal hidden in the tall grass – taller than usual this year due to heavy rains. When we circled back we spotted her, sitting on a mound, solo. Through the binoculars, Femke confirmed that the cheetah was lactating. It sat on the mound for another hour, shifting with the sunlight, never revealing where she is hiding her cubs.
Two cheetahs in the Mara wear tracking collars, so discrete that they blend into the cheetah’s spot patterns. The researchers would put collars on more of the animals but the government is hesitant to approve it – tourism is the primary industry here. It’s the reason that many Masai tribes have abandoned traditional rights of passage, why males no longer have to kill a lion to prove their machismo. Tourists come expecting to see an untouched landscape. They don’t want to see a collar on a cheetah, research or not, and the government doesn’t want to upset tourists.
From the research side, though, the collars would eliminate the days and sometimes week-long stretches in which the researchers don’t see a single cheetah. A collar would’ve helped Femke determine whether this cheetah had cubs, rather than having to guess for the last four months. The collars would also help the researchers understand how changing weather patterns are impacting cheetahs and the species they prey on.
“The rainfall patterns are becoming really unpredictable,” explained Femke. “[The animals] don’t know whether they’re coming or going and that has a trickle-down effect on the cheetah.” The rainy season came late last year, causing wildebeest to shift their migration and give birth in unexpected areas. Rains have been heavier than normal this March. The MCP is still assessing whether these are isolated incidents or if changing climate is causing permanent shifts.
If climate change begins to show an impact in the Mara, it will apply to all species here. It will affect the herd of elephants we saw splashing in pools of water, tossing water with their trunks; the eight lioness lounging on a hillside while another hid in a bush, preying on a clueless warthog; the male lion yawning against the backdrop of a brilliant multi-colored sunset. It will also affect the Masai herdsmen we often saw walking with their cattle, completely at peace with the predators just meters away.
The people here are as much a part of the landscape as the wildlife. They are all one community, generally at peace. As in any community, though, there is occasional conflict. Lions, hyenas, and cheetahs break into cattle pens, or, as we witnessed, they feed on baby goats and sheep. When this happens, the Masai people will often retaliate by hunting the suspected predator.
The MCP works closely with the community to try to reduce the level of retaliation. The project recently created a documentary in which several elders discuss how retaliation eventually hurts the community – without these predators, the Mara would not have nearly as much tourism or the subsequent revenue. We joined the elders for their first screening of the film, and learned that they will now take the film into their communities to work with the younger generations. Later, we visited the wildlife club at a local school. The students were incredibly excited to tell us about the animals they love, to show us drawings they’ve made of lions and cheetahs and others. Lidia, Rachelle and Jarrad spent a few hours showing the students their photos. (We also had a heated soccer match, and showed them how a drone works. More than a few called it “magic”.).
It’s difficult to fully capture the experience in the Mara. We witnessed the circle of life in action. We felt a balance rarely felt at home, when life and technology take over.
“We are just so close and we feel like we’re part of nature wherever we go,” Lidia said. “Whatever we do we literally are a part of wildlife and it’s incredible to see that connection with the community and animals and just work around it and be part of it in such a creative way.”
Whether these scenes will exist 10, 20, 50 years is uncertain. Climate change is impacting this region in a way quite different from what the Passport to Creativity crew saw in Patagonia, where the visual evidence is overwhelming; where we actually felt and heard the melting glaciers, yet we left the Mara with the same sense of urgency, the same sense that as creatives, we have a responsibility to share the weight of the issue. It’s not just beauty we stand to lose: In Patagonia, these changes threaten the fresh water supply for thousands of local residents as well as the area’s tourism-based economy. In the Masai Mara, it threatens the species – and therefore the tourism that supports the local economy.
In the third week of Passport to Creativity, students Amelia Le Brun and Hugo Germain would join Passion Passport and Adobe Students to explore a place where the impacts are not immediately visible; where it’s all about what lies beneath the surface.