Category Archives: Shrews

Four-toed elephant shrew found!

The four –toed elephant shrew (Petrodromus tetradactylus) is a brown, rat-sized elephant shrew with a large head and ears its legs are light coloured and very slender with only four toes. This particular shrew is found distributed throughout SE and central Africa found primarily in dense evergreen undergrowth in caesalpinoid forests, woodlands and thickets. It feeds mainly on ants and termites but is also known to eat crickets, grasshoppers and other litter invertebrates therefore relying on a rich leaf litter composition for food and nesting. Like many small forest mammals it is most active in early morning and evening. Last week GVI volunteers found a dead four-toed shrew in the coastal forests surrounding Shimoni and have been working to preserve the skin as record.

Skin of four-toed elephant shrew

Skin of four-toed elephant shrew

The Changing Face of Shimoni East

Typical charcoal pit in Shimoni Forest East

Typical charcoal pit in Shimoni Forest East

Being a person of very little spatial awareness, and lacking any sense of direction, right from our very first few trips into the forest I was hugely impressed by the knowledge of the staff and the ease with which they found their way around.  Imagine my surprise then, when last week we found ourselves in a state of confusion, in seemingly unfamiliar territory.  This is the sad fact of Shimoni East: it is changing so rapidly that a trail you have walked a dozen times can become almost unrecognisable in a matter of days.

The threats to the forest occur on several fronts.  All along the coast land is being bought up by developers and cleared with plans to build hotels, some of which are already under construction.  New sections of barbed wire fence are going up daily; some mark the edges of developers’ plots, and it would seem that others indicate locals staking a claim for possible retail space opposite.  The most substantial fence currently cuts off the last few sections of most of our six surveying transects, and the three new roads (which may be for access or a preliminary to wider clearing) which have sprung up in the last couple of weeks also cut across the eastern end of several transects.  Along the northern side of the forest, the greatest disturbance is the frequent appearance of new charcoal pits.  These are illegal, of which the locals are well aware, but since the entire village uses charcoal for cooking, they feel they have no choice in order to survive.  One of the main problems is that it is very inefficient: seventy percent of the energy is lost straight away in the process.  Plus, everybody understands the fact that this is unsustainable, given the rate at which the forest is disappearing.  Elsewhere throughout the forest trees are regularly disappearing as poles and timber for construction or firewood.

The implications of the shrinking of the forest on its wildlife are clear.  The Colobus monkeys, for example, are almost exclusively arboreal; without sufficient high canopy they will be restricted in movement, and therefore food resources and resting places.  As a general rule, the size of the forest determines the health of the Colobus community.  It is possible that if developers leave the very tallest and largest trees, and build around them, the Colobus community will not be too badly affected.  However, there is no guarantee that this will happen, and, in any case, the clearing of the smaller trees and undergrowth is disastrous for the biodiversity of the region.  For example, the rare Zanj Elephant Shrew relies on undergrowth and leaf litter for foraging and nest building, and as this species is endemic to Kenyan coastal forest, this is one of the few areas of habitat still remaining.  Essentially, the unsustainability of the forest use is such that eventually it will disappear, and there will be no wildlife at all.  The locals who rely on the forest will then also lose their means for survival, so it really is a lose-lose situation.

GVI’s continual monitoring of the area provides more and more evidence for it being a biodiversity hotspot, and thus the more likely it becomes that Kenyan Wildlife Services will decide to protect the area.  This would be a greatly positive step for the forest, but support needs to be given to the local communities who rely on their current use of the forest.  This is why the work that GVI is doing in the forest and with the community is so valuable.  By promoting sustainable development the community can find ways to utilise the forest for economic growth.  One such area is ecotourism; we are working with Friends of Shimoni Forest in order to train guides and market tours of the forest.  We have also helped establish a group of locals who are promoting use of an alternative charcoal press, which uses waste paper, food waste, forest debris and so forth to produce fuel blocks in a much more efficient process (for details on the press see these entries).  Another initiative involves promoting group farming of the casuarinas tree to produce a sustainable and more efficient harvest of poles for construction.

When a tree falls in the forest perhaps it only makes a sound if someone is there to hear it.  Luckily we are here and we are listening.  The changes occurring in Shimoni East are observable on a daily basis, but hopefully the work we are doing will enable the local community to effect some positive change and allow the forest to become a sustainable resource and natural treasure.

– Miriam

A selection of tracks

A small selection of tracks from the mud

A small selection of tracks from the mud

Daily rains make spotting wildlife harder. Vegetation covers everything and with all the mud it is difficult to cover a lot of ground. One thing the mud does bring us though is very clear tracks! It is quite hard to  identify species reliably but they give us a very good indication of what might be out there.

Once again – HUGE apologies from all of us for the lack of blogs.  Fingers crossed, our technical issue is solved and the power cuts seem to have vastly reduced in number!  Things are looking up, so hopefully we will be back in our routine and giving you all daily updates on things down here on the south coast of Kenya.  Enough of that…..BLOG!!!

On Friday one of our forest teams was treated to a sight that has not been witnessed by GVI since our arrival in 2006!  I have been here for one and a half years, and the closest thing I have seen to this creature is an old skull, in the northern parts of the forest.  Chris, one of our volunteers from the USA, tells us what happened:

“It was a nice evening walk through Shimoni east forest, with the intention of getting some evening colobus behavioural surveys.  It was a nice night, and we were looking forward to seeing how black and white colobus behaved in the cooler parts of the day.  As it turns out, we got a much more exciting sighting than a colobus monkey (which is a phrase rarely uttered here…).

Preparing to head into the field

Preparing to head into the field

As we were walking up and down the north / south spine we had sighted some colobus in a tree in the distance.  To get a better look we decided to follow a village path which led towards the colobus.  This route turned out to be fruitless however, so we were deciding what to do when we heard the familiar sounds of a Zanj elephant shrew in the undergrowth.  We crept around the corner to see if we could see it, but instead of a shrew we were faced with a very large antelope looking straight at us!  We had a great look at it in the brief seconds before it took off into the undergrowth. 

We later identified it as a bushbuck!  It was an amazing sighting because they are said to have been completely hunted out of this area, and hopefully this is a good sign for the future.”

Chris Allen

Bushbuck

Bushbuck (Kingdon, 1997)

In the past, I have asked some of the local people about the presence of bushbuck in Shimoni’s forests, and many have said they used to be quite abundant, but were hunted out of the area.

The bushbuck (Tragelaphus scriptus) is a small bovine, that converges with many antelope and small deer.  They are found across most of sub-Saharan Africa (excluding the south west) and are essentially dependent on thick cover, which would make the coastal forests of Shimoni ideal (Kingdon, 1997). 

From the excitement of the group (especially Kez who has been working here for over a year), I could tell it was an incredible moment for them all, and I am seething with envy!  I am over the moon that this beautiful animal may be making a comeback in the area, although one sighting is not enough to claim that quite yet.  With all our eyes and ears open, hopefully this will not be the first and last time!

Until next time…

Taming of the Shrew

For about a year now we’ve been experimenting with a method of trapping the elusive and shy Zanj elephant shrew.  This particular shrew is technically a sengi, and is a species that is not only endemic to the east African coast, but is also listed as ‘rare’ and ‘data deficient’ by the IUCN. 

Shimoni forest boasts a significant population of this small mammal, and sightings of it by our forest teams are fairly regular (especially at this time of year when visibility is good).  So we did some research and decided to procure ourselves a 50m long, very finely threaded fishing net with which to catch them with!

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 One of the cleared patches that mark the habitual pathway

We set the net up in a large semi circle, and either ‘beat the bush’ towards the net hoping to drive a shrew into it, or we sit nice and quietly and wait for one to wander in.  This method works because the Zanj elephant shrew uses habitual pathways, which it will travel along each day clearing them of obstacles.  So if one was to encounter the net, it would most likely attempt to get through or over the net, causing it to get entangled.  Once caught we would take its measurements, weight, and then clip a small patch of fur on a designated spot on its body for mark-recapture purposes. 

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 Some zanj elephant shrew droppings that are found around the paths

Unfortunately we haven’t caught one yet, but I do not doubt the method itself.  Due to the amount of time needed to complete all of our regular surveys, we only get a chance to do this survey perhaps once or twice every three months.  This is obviously not even remotely enough to stand a chance of catching a shrew.  Especially because until recently we did not know what their trails looked like and therefore could not strategically place our net. 

But a couple of weeks ago we saw one of the little chaps running away from us, and so we had a closer look at the exact route it took through the undergrowth.  To our surprise, the path was quite obviously marked.  Approximately every 30cm, there is a cleared area of dirt.  A patch where all the leaf litter and twigs and other debris is cleared, leaving a bare area of dirt approximately 10cm long.  And these cleared patches headed off into the undergrowth!

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 Several of the patches leading off into the undergrowth

Now we know what to look for, we have been spotting the shrew trails all over the forest!  This has given us motivation to get back into shrew netting, and allowed us to strategically place our net across these trails, greatly increasing our chance of catching one!

We’ll keep you posted!

Colobus Census in Gonja Forest Reserve Completed

Since August of this year GVI has been supporting Kenya Wildlife Service and the Colobus Trust to carry out the first national census of the Angolan Black and White Colobus since 2001. Having already completed the census in Shimoni’s forests, we have spent the last few weeks at Gonja Forest Reserve, between the border posts of Kenya and Tanzania. Our Terrestrial Officer, Emma, returned today after finishing off the last of the transects with our team of expedition members. For me playing a key role in the census has been one of the most valuable contributions we have made to the conservation of this amazing animal.  Emma, our Terrestrial Science Officer, tells us the news from Gonja…

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Above: The research team for Gonja Forest Reserve, Emma is second from the right in the top row

“After two weeks and twenty two transects, Gonja provided us with just 13 Colobus sightings from 5 troops, two of which were just solitary males. In 2001,  the census recorded 24 colobus, which indicates a worrying decline in the population for an area of forest that is under formal protection.

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Above: The red legged running frog, Kassina maculata, a wonderful find in Gonja

But there were some excicitng findings too… we found two new species of frogs that we haven’t recorded before one of which was the beautiful Kassina maculata, or red legged running frog, the second species in this genus that we have found.

We also had a visit from a shrew, a Crocidura spp, which was very cute! Unfortunately with over 100 species described that all look very similar, we are unable to identiy which species it is without taking a specimen for identification by experts. Finally our time crawling through Gonja forest also gave us some smaller adventures… the bee nests and army ant attacks were not the fondest of memories but we saw some very very cool spiders!”

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Above: The shrew we found, Crocidura sp 

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Above: One of the spiders that make the coastal forests such an exicting place of discovery