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U. researchers in Kenya see land drama firsthand

McKenna Brownell ’19's research at the Mpala research center focused on gene behavior in zebras. Photo courtesy of the Mpala website.
McKenna Brownell ’19's research at the Mpala research center focused on gene behavior in zebras. Photo courtesy of the Mpala website.

The Mpala Research Centre is a world of its own. Great research comes out of the center — its reserves boast a wealth of environmental, scientific, and human resources which researchers draw upon. The subjects of the study — livestock and land, mainly — are contentious political issues in Kenya as well. In early 2017, for instance, famed conservationist Kuki Gallmann, author of “I Dreamed of Africa,” was shot in the abdomen in Laikipia, where Mpala is located. Despite this, the center will soon be celebrating its 25th anniversary, and Princeton students will continue to benefit from access to Mpala’s 48,000 acres of diverse ecosystems and wildlife.

Mpala began hosting University undergraduates in the summer of 2005 and has hosted researchers since 1994, according to Mpala Wildlife Foundation trustee Laurel Harvey.


“We have people from over 50 different countries that come and work at Mpala,” said Dino J. Martins, executive director of Mpala and lecturer in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB).

Researchers come from the Americas, Europe, and Africa.

“It’s an incredible place where people get to connect with the wild in a way that’s unique, because they’re not only unraveling problems and solving them, but they’re actually also working with people to do the science and apply the science to improve their resource management, their protection of biodiversity, and enhance their livelihood,” said Daniel Rubenstein, a member of the Board of Trustees of Mpala Research Centre and director of the Program in Environmental Studies. “Courses in the field program touch on all of that.”

Mpala promotes research that improves ecosystem functions, preserves biodiversity, and enhances the livelihood of pastoralists.

When research is not the centerpiece, though, another debate emerges: land ownership.

Mpala Research Centre is located in Laikipia County in Kenya, where land and politics have been intertwined since the country gained independence from Britain in 1963. Though the exact size of the land in the area owned by white settlers is unclear, it is estimated to be nearly a million acres, and politicians have often promised the local Kenyans that they would get the land from the rangers and used this as a bargaining chip in campaigns, according to David Hewett, the ranch manager.


From 2016 to 2017, in the lead-up to the elections in Kenya, members of the local communities started to drive their cattle into privately owned ranges, among them Mpala, and this turned violent.

In March 2017, for instance, the co-owner of the Sossian Range, Tristan Voorspuy, was killed.

Mathew Lempurkel, the member of parliament for Laikipia at the time, was one of the politicians who made the land issue part of his campaign, and he was even implicated in the murder, though later acquitted, losing his bid in the 2017 elections.

At the time, Lempurkel argued that the Maasai signed a lease for the land with the British administration in 1904, and as it has since expired — it was supposed to last only 99 years — the land now belongs to the local community.

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“The former MP was focused on generating conditions that wouldn’t have helped him get re-elected. The land was a promise. If they [the people] voted for him, they would get the land. And he never had to explain how he would give them the land. That was his platform in 2013 and he remained standing on the same platform in 2017, and tried to encourage a number of communities to basically create their own law and order,” Hewett said.

The local communities — the Maasai, Samburu, and Pokot — have been evicted from the land by the colonial administration, Lempurkel argued, and they deserve to get it back. This has led to tensions in the region regarding land.

The University’s involvement

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.

Day-to-day life

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.