Ethan Kinsey Safaris

Adventures in East Africa

Posts tagged learning
Guide Training May 2012

A couple of years ago when I started blogging, I started a blog called Encounters in East Africa to write about some of the exciting little things that we encounter while training guides and on safari. This blog quickly got overwhelmed by another one called Safari Ecology and in all honestly I couldn’t find the time needed to write for three blogs.

Having just spent another 4 weeks with guides in Tarangire National Park, I thought I’d share some of those little things on my adventure blog. Tarangire ranks very high on my list of favorite parks and often I’m asked why I don’t prefer Serengeti for guide training. Of course I’ve been coming here since my first word “dudu” (Swahili for insect) meant any animal including elephants. It’s a classic Acacia savannah habitat and has amazing diversity. It also epitomizes why East Africa is such a unique destination.

A beautiful animal- the Fringe-eared Oryx. The population has declined by over 90% in the Tarangire ecosystem.

When it rains in East Africa, mammals head (migrate) for volcanic grasslands. Soils high in phosphorous and calcium give them the nutrients they need to produce milk for their young. Often these grasslands have very limited water in the dry season so animals then return to permanent water supplies. This results in massive migrations of wildlife. In southern Africa, the older less nutritious soils tend to produce palatable grasses in the growing season, so animals disperse to these areas only to return to floodplains in the dry season, again for water but also for the nutritious grasses found in the flood plains- often described as sweet grasses. I find this distinction between sweet and sour veld quite hard to make in East Africa but it does happen to an extent in some parts of Tarangire. With dispersions and migrations happening in the same place, it’s a great place to study savannah ecology.

The Tarangire ecosystem encompasses the Maasai steppe, which represents an ecological transition zone between Somali-Maasa

i arid habitat and the more typical Acacia savannas. It is so productive in insects during the wet season that even Northern Wheaters from Alaska fly here in their winter to feed on insects. It is a fantastic place to fatten up for their flight back home. The Maasai steepe is virtually unprotected except for some small initiatives that are successfully working to protect pastoralists and hunter-gatherers’ rights while maintaining these important calving and feeding grounds. It’s a great example to use when discussing human-wildlife conflict and land conversion.

Simulated accidents to give real-life scenarios.

Jo Anderson on Behavioral Ecology... or Jo, were you teaching economics? I saw cost-benefit analysis somewhere in your notes.

Contemporary Conservation Issues in Tanzania (and the role of the individual in making a difference).

Gina Kirkpatrick brings light boxes and prisms to understand light and the foundations of understanding color.

These brilliant blues found in feathers are NOT the result of pigments but the result of a phenomena called Tyndall scattering. The feather should actually be brown because of the melanin in it, but air pockets in the outer layers of keratin refract shorter wavelengths of light- i.e. the blues. 

Talking about melanin- if you have deficiencies you turn out a bit whiter than the rest. Extremes are albinism, but less extremes are referred to leucism.

Aposematic coloration of a blister beetle on a beautiful Purple Mallow (Hibiscus cannabinus). Some animals warn you.

Theory can help to explain and give insight to real life observation.

The 4 shaping factors in savannas.

Read more.


A crepuscular owlet. This little fellow has false eyes on the back of his head that might confuse birds that mob him to thinking that he's watching them. Little brother is always watching you.

Great photo by Pietro Luraschi. The tip of an extraordinary organ.

Fungi- a Kingdom more closely related to Animals than Plant, yet a major player in the role of decomposition and completing the nutrient cycle.

Precocial is the opposite of altricial. These are not discrete but a continuum. Animals born more able to help themselves are more precocial than animals born that need parental care. One could also learn what nidicole or nidifuge is... A nidifuge leaves its nest when it is born instead of staying for a while- more extreme precocial behavior.

When frogging beware of frog predators... this Black-necked Spitting Cobra would much rather display than expend the energy on spitting venom or biting.

Read more on snakes.

The Commelinas- not just a pretty flower we used to pick to feed our rabbits.

Read more.

What bird is that? After 4 weeks our list was 175 species strong.

Identifying tracks.

An Ant-lion. These amazing insects spend months to a couple years in a nymph stage digging little conical traps in the sand to catch ants.

Practicing using the Key to 100 Trees of Tarangire National Park.

Yes we also watched large mammals.

A guide explains the down feathers that Sunbirds have chosen to line their nest.

Observation followed by a lesson.

First we identify using the key in Zimmerman's Birds of Kenya & Northern Tanzania. Then we put the Identification in Context- we discuss behavior. Next we explore the role in the environment.

It is a Slender-tailed Nightjar.

Nightjars are nocturnal insect hunters. Looks like a small bill? Open wide (see picture below

A big mouth is like a big net- the easier to scoop you out of the sky. Hairs on the side of the mouth are also very sensitive and help it to aim its mouth.

The Hairy Rock-fig (Ficus glumosa) gets a hold.

Elephants push down trees to get at the leaves. This is a Desert Date Tree (Balanites aegyptiaca)

This tree normally has green thorns up to 3 inches long... but why waste energy on producing defense when your already out of giraffe-browse way?

Read more.

Harvester termite soldier and Sungusungu ant in battle. The Sungusungu won. (Videos coming soon on

Learning, A Lifelong Adventure

As the low season has wound down and the dry season is in full-swing, I feel the need to share a little with you about what I’ve been doing since my last ‘proper’ safari. April and May, the two wettest months of the year have become a time to pursue a deeper understanding of the environment. I just came back this weekend from a night out in Tarangire National Park with savannah academics (fanatics) exploring a savannah very different to the one they research in. Maybe you can imagine the fascinating discussions and debates about how it all works, comparing South America’s savannahs devoid of large mammals to South Africa’s savannahs, compartmentalized by roads and fences. What a contrast sitting in Tarangire watching a herd of 300 buffalo come to the river to drink, a few hundred wildebeest and zebra grazing together, and then of course watching herds of elephants uprooting saplings. All of these are incredible shaping forces in savannahs.

Check out the individual variation on this Maasai Giraffe- a herbivore with the power to make plants panic.

We set off in the morning on a game drive, but not the normal type of game drive, because our focus was actually plants. The nine lions in the riverbed were only going to be a distraction today. Today we would look at leaves and growth forms and discuss plant predation. So few people realize how herbivory is in actual fact predation or serious assault on plants. So much so that plants have had to fight back and no more obvious than in East Africa with its high abundance and diversity of herbivores. Just look at the degree of armament on the Acacias, or taste a leaf and discover how bitter it is. Most plant leaves are packed with chemical defense- hence their medicinal purposes or toxicity. Chemicals like strychnine and cardiac glycosides among others defend some plants against their enemies.

The excitement in the vehicle as we drove along the front of a bushfire is something I’ve only experienced when guests see the more difficult to spot predators, but in this case, it was literally the flames. Fire is one of the most important savannah shaping forces there is, and of course most plants that live in savannahs are adapted to withstand fire. Leaves might be boring to most people, including Colin’s kids who resorted to making dust angels (like snow angels) face down, so I’ll stop talking about leaves and fire and if you’re really interested check out our new blog.

Some kids make snow angels...

Over the past 5 years a major part of what I do especially during the lull in tourism is guide training. I’ve done a bit for A& K, Thomson safaris and Adventure Camps, but the majority of it has been for Asilia Lodges & Camps. This year was the 3rd year that I set off with 10 trainees to spend 6 weeks in the bush. Our focus?- well, everything.

In the middle of the 6 weeks. (Photo by Laverne)

Our daily program was as such:

6 am: Tea

6:15: Game drive

9:00: Breakfast

10:00 Classroom

1:00 Lunch

3:30 Game drive

7:00 Dinner

7:30 DVD

At the end of the 6 weeks we took a week long break before heading back to Tarangire with all of the guides, and a few other people to help conduct training.

The Asilia Guides.

A special thanks to Colin Beale, Markus Coerlin, Robin Peterson, Moyra Earnshaw, Allan Earnshaw, and Jackson Looseiya who tirelessly led workshops.

Guide Training 2010

The wet season in Tanzania is extremely quiet of visitors in the bush. Large mammals disperse from many of their dry season home ranges and the wild sorghum and red-oat grass gets higher than a man’s head. The heavy rains wash away the harsh dry season as the mood changes. I’m lucky and spent six weeks this season teaching in the bush with a group of trainee guides.

I started training Asilia’s guides in 2007 when I was managing and guiding from Suyan Camp. Initially it was simple training to waiters and tent attendants to give them some knowledge of birds, plants, and insects in the camp. The idea grew into a three-month course for ten guides who are currently guiding from their various camps. Its success initiated two-week on-going

training courses in November and May every year. Working with professional teachers on methods and the syllabus, I refined the course into a six-week course ending with two weeks placement in a camp with a mentor guide.

Our guide course started with three weeks back in Piyaya. The rains had brought the wildebeest back out onto the plains and our game drives were filled with lion (over 20 individuals) and cheetah (11 individuals) sightings. We completed the practical three weeks in a camp in Tarangire National Park. The diversity that we encountered in this course rivals any other course in Africa. Our carnivore list included leopard, lion, cheetah, caracal, serval cat, wild cat, genet, golden jackal, black-backed jackal, bat-eared fox, aardwolf, spotted hyena, honey badger, zorilla, white-tailed, dwarf, slender and banded, and Egyptian mongoose. The antelope list included most members of every tribe including Fringe-eared oryx, and Tarangire brought our bird list close to 200.

Some excerpts from the training diary:

“… after climbing my favourite kopje as the sun set looking for leopard spoor and a resident barn owl and talking about geological formations we spotted four 3-4 year old male lions hiding in some hibiscus looking out on the plains. We could only approach to about thirty meters before they showed signs of preparing to run…”

“… we set off early in search of the four lions to see if they’d hunted, but were distracted by a hyena chasing an abandoned wildebeest calf. We watched the kill and then from about half a km away a lioness came running over to steal the kill. She proceeded to feed on it. We followed her back to the pride which was guarding two wildebeest they’d killed in the night…”

“…this afternoon we set off late looking for cheetah. We spent some time scanning the plains from a hilltop and spotted the shape of a cheetah a long distance away. We approached to find two cubs eating a Grant’s gazelle while their mother panted…”

“… this morning one of the trainees spotted a White-faced Scops Owl in the Whistling thorn. It was wonderful after having talked about camouflage and mimicry, to watch the owl make itself as skinny as possible, close its eyes and use its ear tufts to look like a stump…”

“… a Peter’s Foam-nest Frog hopped into the classroom. After picking him up and putting him on the table it changed colour from dark bark-brown to a cream…”

“… stopping to watch hundreds of open-billed storks flying out of Silale swamp as the sun was setting we almost missed the leopard with an impala kill in a Desert-date Tree…”

“… we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by a herd of elephants that were distressed for some reason. It was a great lesson in staying calm as they mock charged from more than one direction…”

“… spent this morning identifying trees and flowers. There are at least five different morning glories, the purple mallows showing both yellow and purple shades, the pink ink flowers, the yellow Aspilia mossambicensis in stands- one of the Maasai keeps stopping and saying, please enjoy the landscape…”

“ after watching a DVD on social insects we spent the next day reliving the content of the DVD as we found the progression of sociality from solitary wasps to mud wasps, to paper wasps to bee hives, ant colonies and termites…”