For a reserve situated in a region rife with tension, Mpala’s origins and acquisition are relatively cut-and-dry.
Sam Small purchased the Mpala property in 1952 and bequeathed it to his brother George Small ’43 in 1969.
“He wanted to set it aside and preserve it for the people, [for] the herders that used it, and for the elephants,” Rubenstein said.
So, in 1989, Small created the Mpala Wildlife Foundation and the Mpala Research Trust to fund the projects.
In 2014, the Mpala Board of Trustees proposed to Provost David Lee that the University take a more active leadership role in overseeing the site. The board suggested that instead of the current structure, in which trustees made annual visits to the site, they should have “one partner oversee the hiring of the executive director” and the priorities of the position, such as working with the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museums of Kenya, according to Harvey.
She said that the center has gone “from just a few buildings where scientists would pitch tents to providing a really transformative experience for undergrads.”
She also said that Martins has increased collaborative outreach efforts with U.S. and Kenyan universities.
One project works specifically with Kenyan graduate students in researching and trapping spiny mice. In the future, she said she saw potential for the center to be less a “Princeton satellite” and more of a “Kenyan nonprofit that is meaningful to Kenya and the continent of Africa.”
According to Rubenstein, the University said, “if it was worth it for our students and worth it for our scientists do to their research there, then we’ll certainly be involved.”
Mpala Wildlife Foundation, the University, the Smithsonian Institution, the Kenya Wildlife Service, and the National Museums of Kenya are responsible for obtaining the resources to support Mpala’s activities.
There are currently around 100 employees at Mpala, about half of which are employed as research assistants who check on and provide updates for experiments in the field.
Harvey said that she has seen many students arrive on the site with no expectation but have “benefited enormously in their career paths.”
Current projects and research
“One of the things you can do in Mpala that you can’t do elsewhere is experimental manipulation,” Martins said. “It makes the science done down there very robust.”
One famous ecological experiment conducted in Mpala is the Kenya Long-term Exclosure Experiment, which started in 1995 to measure the effects of savanna ecology on the wildlife.
Other research projects with University-associated principal investigators include the Grevy’s Zebra Project, a study tracking the numbers, movement patterns, and health of the endangered Grevy’s zebra population.
Another project, involving associate professor of EEB Rob Pringle, is Ungulate Herbivory Under Rainfall Uncertainty (UHURU), which uses plots and electric fences to simulate large mammal extinctions with rainfall as a variable. Pringle and associate EEB professor Corina Tarnita measure the impact on certain communities if one species’ abundance changes.
Assistant EEB professor Julien Ayroles studies the genomes of certain people in Kenya and how natural selection shapes genetic variation. He studies the Turkana, a seminomadic tribe that lives in northern Kenya, one of the hottest and driest environments on the planet.
“The Turkan provide a rare opportunity to connect ecological pressures to how natural selection has shaped their genomes,” Ayroles wrote in an email. “Very recently, the development of roads have facilitated the transition of many Turkana to urban centers. There, these desert dwellers experience a radically different environment, from their diet, to water available or pathogenic environment to list a few.”
Harvey said that all scientists are allowed inside the exclosures as part of a requirement by the National Science Foundation, which has awarded over 40 grants and over $8 million to projects at Mpala from 1992 to 2017.
“They all say this collaborative spirit is what makes Mpala special,” she said. “They talk to one another, they publish together.”
She said that unique to the University was a clause in the beginning of the trust agreement stipulating that they had to use their best efforts to fund-raise for and support Mpala.
While there are significant conflicts over land in Kenya, for University student researchers, such conflict is at most peripheral — and almost nonexistent. In fact, many of the students said being at the center was a great opportunity, which enabled them to dedicate their time to their work instead of dealing with other problems endemic to fieldwork.
“The logic we created in Mpala is to take away the onerous aspects of trying to run a field camp,” Rubenstein said. Because food, electricity, vehicles, and laboratories are provided, researchers do not have to worry about managing these essentials themselves.
McKenna Brownell ’20 worked at Mpala this past summer through a Princeton Environmental Institute internship. Through fieldwork, she assisted researchers in a project on the effects of parasites on gene behavior in zebras.
“I like the scientific community of people that are passionate about whatever they’re researching,” she said. Brownell said she also enjoyed the unique opportunity to interact with the local community at Mpala, as many locals were hired as research assistants.
Many of her most memorable relationships, she said, were formed with the field assistants, many of whom were from local villages. Apart from driving the researchers to and from and sites, she said that their extensive knowledge of the region served as a valuable resource when conducting research.
“They help you out with everything,” she said. “They are really knowledgeable about the grass … a lot of them are fantastic animal trackers, so they know where the zebras will be at 10 a.m. in the morning, because they know their grazing patterns.”
“Mpala has a very strong staff,” Brownell said. “They do everything from managing local schools, to fundraising nationally, to managing the rangeland, to working with researchers.”
Joanna Zhang ’19 was also at Mpala in the summer, doing research for her senior thesis, a study of livestock-wildlife interactions in a savanna ecosystem. She, along with a research team of another intern and two local research assistants, tracked four herds of cattle, two from Mpala, and two from the pastoralists, native residents who herd livestock on the land.
“We tracked where the cattle grazed everyday, and that’s going to let us see where do they graze, and how far do they walk,” she said. “And then the next piece was looking at how that grazing affects the vegetation.”
Like Brownell, she enjoyed the opportunity to conduct fieldwork, and said she hoped to be able to do more for her senior thesis.
Akash Kushwaha ’21, who came to Kenya along with Sarah Varghese ’19 and Rev. Theresa S. Thames, associate dean of religious life and the chapel, to teach at local schools as part of an ORL project, also stayed at the research center.
“We would spend our free time at the research center,” he explained. He and Varghese would prepare for lessons at the primary school or the high school at which they taught. They also learned Swahili from a local in their spare time.
“The program was based around connecting Mpala with the people who live there,” Kushwaha said. “The entire internship was about interaction. I’m now taking Swahili at the University so I can go back and talk to the friends I made over there in a language that resonates more with them.”
In the future
Kenya’s population is growing rapidly and is expected to reach 85 million by 2050, according to a 2010 World Bank report, and the researchers at Mpala hope to come up with solutions to the issues concerning natural resources and wildlife.
To that end, Rubenstein hopes to make the Mpala experience open to more people, noting that they are increasing the number of vehicles.
“We’ve never had to turn anyone away,” he added.