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Day 12 (July 7, 2011): ‘Conserving the Cradle’

July 7, 2011


brochure for the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO)
Information brochure for the South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO)
After the lift at Site 15 this morning, I arrived back in camp around 11:30 to find several expected guests. We were joined by my colleague and friend Dr. David Western, former director of Kenyan Wildlife Services, and John Kamanga, the director of SORALO, the South Rift Association of Land Owners. SORALO is a community-based and community-driven initiative that brings local land owners together for conservation efforts and natural resource management. They are composed of a number of nature conservancies across the southern rift. Within the past year, SORALO has started a new conservancy, specifically focusing on Olorgesailie! John Kamanga calls this initiative ‘Conserving the Cradle’.

John and David were accompanied by 4 others. And although I was dusty from several hours at Site 15, I immediately joined in on the conversation. I wanted to hear about the latest developments of the Olorgesailie Conservancy, yet our guests all wanted to hear first about the finds at Site 15. Our team had just recorded several hundred fossil bones and teeth of microfauna – the rodents, frogs, lizards, and tiny bits of bird bone from a layer immediately above the target soil that contains many stone tools. It’s intriguing, I told them, the target soil at Site 15 represented an ancient grassland and wetland about 990,000 years old where early human toolmakers were incredibly active with butchery and plant food processing. Yet in the layer just above the soil, we’ve found only a single small stone flake and all of that fossil microfauna. When we start studying it in detail, the microfauna will tell us a lot about the habitat in the layer above the soil – and perhaps give us a clue as to why the early humans had suddenly abandoned that once-attractive place on the old landscape.

Anyway, I had the pleasure of meeting for the first time Dave Jenike, head of the Cincinnati Zoo. Dave’s working with SORALO to develop wildlife exhibitions at the community resource center already built 50 km or so to the southwest of Olorgesailie, at a place called Olkerimatian. Our other three guests are the talented young people conducting wildlife research, running the logistics, and helping create the education programs at the Olkerimatian Conservancy.

Giraffe standing in tall yellow-brown grass near green accacia trees
A giraffe browing on accacia trees, south of Mt. Olorgesailie
For a couple hours, including lunch time, we discussed Olorgesailie. The conservancy here was formalized in May, when about 100 local landowners and family members joined Kamanga, Western, Dr. Farah (head of the National Museums of Kenya), local officials, and Kenya government officials to celebrate the formation of the Olorgesailie Conservancy. It’s the beginning of local people benefitting from eco-tourism with some of the local Maasai hired as guides (who will give walking tours around the area), rangers (who will promote the local people’s respectful interactions with the natural surroundings), and community representatives (who will serve as communicators between SORALO and the local community).

SORALO looks to our project for two reasons. First, we are representatives of the National Museums in the area. We are the longest running research project in what is now the entire conservancy area. And so we can help the Smithsonian and the Kenya Museums combine forces to carry out biodiversity surveys, promote conservation biology training for the local people, and help in building the community resource center. Second, our research focuses on the long-term picture of environmental change and human interaction with the surroundings. We get this information, of course, from the geological and archeological record. But our ideas about the past link to an understanding of the present and future. SORALO is very excited about this big picture, especially our study of past biodiversity, and how it lays the groundwork for understanding the changing grasslands and biodiversity of the immediate future.

A rainbow streches across the sky above green foothills of Mt. Olorgesailie
A rainbow above the foothills of Mt. Olorgesailie
Another great thing: The conservancy will preserve the landscape and habitat where our digs take place – that is, the entire region of eroded terrain that preserves