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Maasai undergrad provides unusual skill to help wildebeest research

Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs • Press Release
Posted 07/31/08 • Media Contact: Susan Knapp • (603) 646-3661

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Weldon Kirui '11 (second from right)
Weldon Kirui '11 (second from right) helped the researchers translate interviews with other Maasai tribesmen. (photo by Joseph Mehling '69)

It seems like destiny when needs are met through coincidence. When Tom Morrison, a PhD student in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at Dartmouth, needed some Maasai interviews translated, he happened upon Kipkorir "Weldon" Kirui, a member of the Dartmouth class of 2011, who needed a summer job. Kirui is from Kenya and a Maasai tribesman.

Morrison studies a declining population of wildebeest in Tanzania, tracking where and when they migrate and documenting their habits. As part of that study, he had taped interviews with members of the Maasai tribe who are very knowledgeable about Tanzanian wildlife.

"Weldon's ability to translate some of our interviews is very useful," says Morrison, who's been conducting wildebeest research since 2004. "He not only helps with translating the words, he can also provide some context or meaning that might be unspoken."

Kirui plans to major in chemistry and pursue medical school, but in the meantime he's sharing some of his hometown expertise with Morrison. Kirui relates many stories about how leopards, elephants, zebras, and wildebeests interact with local villagers and farmers in his native country.

"This particular population of wildebeest has declined substantially over the last 15 to 20 years," says Morrison. "Weldon's tribe, the Maasai, have historically inhabited the savannah grassland where the wildebeest live, but people from outside these areas are beginning to show up and convert land into farms, which has negative consequences for the wildlife."

Morrison uses a fingerprint-like technology to keep track of the 5,000-6,000 wildebeests in northeastern Tanzania. Through hundreds of photographs that he takes, he can identify individual animals from their stripes on their backs and sides. The pattern-recognition software, also used to study cheetah, salamanders, and tigers, can match the individuals in different images, and Morrison can then map out where that specific animal is going and when. He's learned that this population is somewhat unpredictable; they all meet during the dry season, and then some migrate north-south, some east-west, but not consistently. This flexibility might benefit their survival.

Kirui explains that the local relationship with wildlife is both respectful and a bit cavalier. "The herds of goats and cattle are fine with wildebeests," says Kirui. "So the farmers usually have no problem with them. Leopards and elephants can cause trouble." This is first-hand information that Morrison can put to use in his efforts to understand the many facets of the culture and environment and perhaps help the wildebeest population in this region recover.

Wildebeests fall in the middle of the food web, as prey to lions and leopards and as grazers stimulating grass growth. "They facilitate nutrient cycling in the wild," says Morrison. "Maintaining a healthy wildebeest population is critical, both for the local human and natural communities."

Not only is Kirui working on some translations, he is also helping catalogue Morrison's photographs, and throughout the summer will work with other Environmental Studies faculty and graduate students.

"This is a perfect example of how undergraduates actively participate in research," says Doug Bolger, professor of environmental studies and Morrison's advisor. "And in this case, the undergraduate, the graduate student, and the faculty member are all learning from each other."

Dartmouth has television (satellite uplink) and radio (ISDN) studios available for domestic and international live and taped interviews. For more information, call 603-646-3661 or see our Radio, Television capability webpage.

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