In the Southeast, off-roading – also known as mudding – is a 'sport' that consists of finding empty construction sites after rainfall and getting Jeeps or Blazers as muddy as possible.
But go a little farther south – Kenya, to be exact – and off-roading is a conservation activity to save the rhinoceros from extinction.
On May 30, Paula Kahumbu GS and her all-female team will drive a 4x4 through the Kenyan wilderness as a fund-raiser for the endangered black rhinoceros.
The fund raiser, sponsored by Rhino Ark, is a rally in which 50 cars must reach 12 checkpoints in the minimum distance possible, Kahumbu said.
Until exactly one month before the race, the location in Kenya is kept secret, she said. However, at that point, all contestants receive a map of the area containing the checkpoints so the teams can determine the off-road routes they will take, she explained.
Since the rally is off-road, routing involves considering both mileage and terrain. Teams must be able to forge across rivers, push their cars over rocks and drive through desert, Kahumbu said.
"You do whatever it takes to get it there. Each car has a meter attached to the wheel so (they) know how far you've gone," she said.
Kahumbu, who is the newest member of the team that won the rally in 1996, said her team has practiced on a man-made course, though she has never actually participated in the race. The team also practiced fixing the car and changing tires.
Participating in the rally is no Sunday afternoon drive. From 6 a.m. to 7 p.m., "most of the team members spend the time running in front of the car . . . trying to find a route for the car to go through," she said. The experience is "very physically strenuous," she added.
Money comes into the equation because individuals and groups sponsor teams in the race. For every shilling a team rakes in, one centimeter is subtracted from the total distance the team traveled. Thus, winning is a combination of off-roading savvy and sponsorship.
The organization also makes money from the $800 entry fee for the rally.
Rhino Ark then uses the money to build electric fences around sanctuaries and to pay security officers to guard the sanctuaries against poachers.
Rhinoceroses are poached for their horns, which are "used as dagger handles in the Far East and medicinally in China," Kahumbu said. The medicine made from Rhino horn is an aphrodisiac, she said.
There are only about 300 rhinoceroses left in Kenya due to poaching, and they "only exist now in protected areas," Kahumbu said.
'In the field'
As exotic as Kenya may sound to some students, Kahumbu has spent the past two years "in the field" studying elephants in Kenya, she said.
A student in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Kahumbu is studying the way elephants in rainforests react to and influence vegetation changes, Kahumbu said. "They are amazing animals to work with," she said.
Kahumbu does most of her research on the ground watching elephants. "They are very intelligent animals. It takes years to gain their trust" because of their fear of poachers, she said.
Since poachers operate on foot, the elephants are comfortable only with Kahumbu's presence when she is in her car. "They'll walk to my car and around it," she said. However, when she is on foot she makes sure the elephants do not see her, lest they might attack, she said.