Satellites and Mpala: Interview with Margaret Kinnaird

Satellites are the catholic god of 700 years ago. Invisible, all-seeing, and unblinking. Constantly monitoring the private thoughts and actions of the soulful. Calling wrath and righteous fury upon the sinful. By and large a mystery to the masses, who depend on a few select devotees to serve as the mediators that maintain communications.

To the same extent that a cathedral on a prairie is the splintering of serenity, the thousands of unholy blips and bloops orbiting our orbiting orb are a stain on the cosmic canvas. But they’re useful! Of course they are. The worst things are the most useful.

Would it be a better world if the birds and clouds handled our communications? Not like analogue carrier pigeons, but feathery 1s and 0s. Tweet tweet BLIP.

Dr. Margaret Kinnaird knows everything about birds, all of them—backyard birds, jungle birds, birds born inside mudslides, birds with eyes like inside-out tornadoes.

She’s also the Director of the Mpala Research Centre, where scientists from around the world conduct research that “benefits the surrounding communities, the nation of Kenya, and global conservation efforts as a whole.” And she helped create this interactive website that is THE BEST:  You have to look at that. It’s the fruit of collaboration birthed by the best of intentions.

Or at least look at the livecam of the hippo pool. It’s the digital distillation of life in Africa. I just watched something in the antelope family approach the pool and then haul ungulate ass after spotting a leopard on the banks.

I’ve never met Dr. Kinnaird, never turned off my flashlight in the middle of the night in the Indonesian rainforest with her and her husband as they learned all that could be learned about the Asian hornbill. They must have learned an awful lot about insect bites and star lights too. Should have asked her about that.

What I did ask her was 10 questions. Most of them were written by my 7-year-old daughter around our paint-splattered kitchen table—her brainstorming exercise looked like cobwebs on a splintering wagon wheel—and most of them were about Kenya.

And Dr. Kinnaird turned each of our questions into trails to treasure. What, my daughter asked, is your favorite part of the food chain in Kenya? How would you answer? Would you reply with an in-depth response about your lion research that clearly explained how important and practical conservation work (and satellites) can be?

Somebody (maybe her, maybe not, but not me, what a shame) put GPS satellite collars on some lions in Kenya, and one of the many projects Dr. Kinnaird is involved with is the tracking of these lions:

  1. So that they can alert ranchers when the prides sneak too close to the cattle, thereby reducing poaching and “human/predator conflict;”
  2. To see what the lions eat, since those terribly old fashioned, oh how medieval, radio collars that countless people other than me used to place on lions didn’t work so well—by the time the researchers converged on a kill site the lions would have eaten everything tail bones and eye juices and all nyum nyum; and
  3. To determine whether the lions are crunching the thin-striped necks of the Grevy’s zebra. Turns out they’re not, which is great, because these zebras are endangered, and the Kenyan government might be obliged to “remove” the lions if they were found to be gorging on dead French president Jules Grévy’s namesakes. He was mauled past the point of death by lions in the bedchamber of…well, no reason to besmirch the hastily devoured.

To me, who has nothing but crunch in my granola head, conservation work doesn’t need to be justified. Doing anything besides conservation work should be justified. But her lion research has yielded real, material benefits for farmers, ranchers, local communities, the agricultural industry, young and emerging scientists in Kenya, and Kenyan policymakers. And tracking lions is only one of her many projects—at any given time more than 100 researchers from all over the world are based at the Mpala Research Centre she directs.

And so, a great big demonstrative wave of thanks is due to Dr. Kinnaird for so cheerfully taking the time to reply to our questions.


POPO AND DAUGHTER: Which of the villages in Kenya would be your approximate favorite? (My daughter’s choice of words—big smile.)

MARGARET KINNAIRD: I think I would have to say Moroni village. Moroni is a small, incredibly tidy village on the banks of the Tana River (between Garsen and Hola). It is inhabited by agricultural Pokomo people who farm the banks of the river.  When I was doing my PhD on Tana River crested mangabeys (an endangered primate found only along 60 kms of a stretch of the Tana River), most of my assistants came from Moroni village. I still keep up with them today. (And still give my primary assistant grief about having 3 wives and 18 children—he promised me he’d stop with one wife and 3 children!)

(Ed.- Is it possible to read this and not regret that you didn’t do a PhD on Tana River crested mangabeys?)

POPO:  Do you have a favorite traditional Kenyan story?

KINNAIRD: My favorite traditional story has to do with why dik-dik (tiny antelopes about the size of a Jack Russell) like to poop in one spot, creating big piles. Apparently they do so because they got so tired of tripping over elephant poops (believe me, they can be big!) that they wanted to see if they could trip up elephants by putting their little pellets in one big heap.

POPO:  Do you have any interesting stories about or personal experiences with the secretary bird?   (This was our favorite animal on MpalaLive. The way their legs dangle when they fly!)

KINNAIRD: I am actually, among other things, an ornithologist and spent many years studying hornbills in Indonesia. So, like you, I also adore secretary birds. I have 2 fun memories of them. One took place back in the 80s when I was working on bee-eaters with Cornell U. at Lake Nakuru National Park. Back then, there were no rhinos in the park and very few lions so I did all my research on foot. One day, while watching bee-eaters forage, I headed into a thicket of grass only to find a secretary bird on the other side pummeling a puff adder to death with those lovely long legs. I felt the bird had saved me from being bitten by a very lazy but poisonous snake! The second time was with a good friend in Samburu Reserve watching a secretary bird capture then consume a long, thin green snake. The bird kept swallowing the snake only to have it slither back up and out of its bill. It must have taken 1/2 dozen goes at swallowing before the snake actually disappeared and the secretary bird moved on.

POPO:  What scene from Kenya would you choose to put on a postcard to send to a friend in America?

KINNAIRD: Because I look out onto the slopes of Mt. Kenya every day, I would choose a post card showing the peaks of Batian, Nelion and Point Lenana. The perfect postcard, however, would have a family of elephants in the foreground!

POPO:  Is there a quality you associate with the Kenyan people that you wish came more naturally to you?

KINNAIRD: Kenyans—in spite of all their hardships—always, always appear happy. They are very playful and seem to not let things get them down (although, of course, that could all be superficial). One of my favorite things about many Kenyans is their tendency to wave and quite often with both arms held high.

POPO:  What does it sound like in the Savannah at dawn or dusk?

KINNAIRD: Ahh – very, very noisy. At my house, the white-browed sparrows wake at 5:30 (we call them the ‘chatty cathys’ of the savanna). There are only 5 in our front Acacia trees but they make enough noise for 50. They are followed by the crested francolins (also known as ‘Africa’s alarm clock) and the spotted morning thrush (who has the most melodious call) and during the dry seasons, chirping Vitteline weavers.  But the sound that I relate to the most is the cluck, cluck, cluck of our friendly Von der Decken’s hornbills. If my husband and I are not out of bed by 6:30-7 am, they are tapping at the window, letting us know the day is passing us by.  Dusk is often a repeat but is joined by the whir of sand grouse flying into our salt lick, the ‘squeaks’ of the more than 30 dwarf mongooses that come on our porch every evening and the death-like screech of scrub hyraxes!

(Ed. – You can hear the bird calls/animal sounds by clicking on the animal’s page in the MpalaLive field guide. Underneath the gorgeous drawings of each animal are a few basic facts: type, size, daily rhythm, diet, conservation status. And just beneath that is the thing you click on to hear its sounds. Also—this is so cool—you can click the top of these neat little “flip cards” to see additional information on the animal’s track and scat and read a trivia question about it.)

POPO:  You have to leave Kenya tomorrow forever and can never come back (although you’ll still be able to spend time with all the people you’ve met there).  Where would you go on your last day there?

KINNAIRD: You ask a very poignant question because the Mpala Research Centre is changing governance and my contract was not extended. I’ll be leaving sometime between Dec of this year and May of next. I am very, very sad to go but that is how life sometimes works. I would love to go to Lake Turkana – a place I have never been but have always wished to go. Its stark beauty is beyond words.  If I couldn’t go there, I would sit from dawn to dusk at Mpala’s hippo pool, one of my favorite places on earth.

(Ed. – This answer broke my indelicate heart. I wish I could convincingly argue that this is NOT how life sometimes works; alas… I’m also moderately ashamed to admit that I hadn’t previously heard of the world’s 4th-largest salt lake, which is indeed starkly beautiful beyond words, has a cauldron that looks out of place on Earth, and is possibly the cradle of mankind.)

POPO:  If you were to have a lunch meeting in Nairobi with a friendly person to talk about the most pressing issue related to the ecology of Kenya, what Kenyan food would you eat and what would you discuss?

KINNAIRD: If I were eating Kenyan food, it would be ugli (it’s like grits but cooked down more), githeri (a yummy mix of beans and corn and in some parts of Kenya potatoes too) and sukuma weeki (which translates into ‘push the week’ because kale is what most people eat when not much else remains—I hated the stuff as a kid but the way Kenyans make it is divine). The discussion would undoubtedly be about the illegal killing of elephants for their ivory.

POPO:  Favorite camping memory as an ecologist?

KINNAIRD: In Amboseli when I unzipped my tent early one morning after hearing my camping companion unzip hers and gasp. We were both straddled by elephants. All we could see were huge legs! I don’t know why but we ended up in unstoppable fits of laughter. The eles gracefully pushed on without harming a thing.


Kenya! If every person that we interview for this project is as illuminating as Dr. Kinnaird, I’ll be too alive for this body. By the time my daughter and I finished reading her answers I felt activated, with a feeling of enhanced vibrancy that didn’t subside until long after I wrote this:

Mpala, Pokomo, Moroni, Point Lenana,
And points unseen—the salt flats of Lake Turkana,
Where the first people pushed the week
And hid from the sun in piles of dik-dik pellets.
Cluck cluck cluck for millions of dawns,
Until finally a friendly tap tap tap drives out generational yawns
And they emerge, arms held high and waving at the satellites,
Laughing at the eles in Amboseli mashing up githeri
And comforting the poor grevy’s:
“That’s not death, rafiki, it’s just a scrub hyrax.”


Up next as my daughter and I seek to learn about people and places around the world will most likely be Sulawesi and then perhaps the Great Barrier Reef.



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2 Responses to Satellites and Mpala: Interview with Margaret Kinnaird

  1. Tracy August 26, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    Looooooove, Joe. Awesome.

  2. Dad May 28, 2016 at 9:40 am #

    I just read this and am overwhelmed with fatherly pride!!!!!!!

    Shae’s questions were right on!

    I am sitting in Banf hotel drinking coffee waiting on your mother before we go to Columbian ice fields


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