Feature: Kenyan scientists recount thrills of participating in first wildlife census

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NAIROBI, Sept. 15 (Xinhua) -- Mohamed Omar's moment of reckoning arrived in early May when he learned that he would be among an elite team of scientists selected to conduct the inaugural wildlife census in Kenya.

The affable marine scientist, based at a research station in the coastal city of Mombasa, had for decades developed a strong affinity for iconic species like sea mammals, birds and fish, which are an integral part of Kenya's heritage.

"It was a watershed moment in my career when I learned that I will be participating in the wildlife census and looked forward to the thrilling encounter with the land and water-based species," Omar told Xinhua during a recent interview.

In addition to traversing the vast mangrove forests on the Kenyan coast to take an inventory of marine species, Omar and his team took boat rides to take stock of water birds and sea mammals, amid thrills and some trepidation.

He said that some of the challenges the team of scientists encountered during the three-month wildlife census included harsh weather, rugged terrain and the possibility of being mauled by hostile sea mammals.

"The threat of attack by hippos and crocodiles was real as we crossed over the swollen Tana River. Sometimes the weather could change drastically complicating the aerial and ground count of the animals," said Omar.

Nevertheless, the astute scientist said that he will forever cherish memorable moments during the wildlife census that includes spending nights in pristine forested landscapes and enjoying the serenity.

He said that engaging local communities who acted as tour guides and had a vast knowledge about the geographical spread of the iconic species ensured the exercise was smooth.

Najib Balala, cabinet secretary for Tourism and Wildlife on May 6 launched the country's first-ever wildlife census in the coastal county of Kwale with the objective of establishing accurate data on aquatic and land-based species.

The exercise that was completed in late July involved counting over 30 species of mammals, birds and fish across diverse ecosystems whose geographical size was about 59 percent of Kenya's total landmass.

President Uhuru Kenyatta said during the launch of wildlife census results in late August that the exercise marked a critical milestone in efforts to conserve iconic species amid myriad threats.

"The census report provides the required information to guide future conservation and management of our wildlife resources, in a manner that minimizes human-wildlife conflict and also promotes sustainable development," said Kenyatta.

According to the census report, Kenya had 36,280 elephants, 897 black rhinos, 842 white rhinos, 2 northern rhinos, 2,589 lions,5,189 hyenas and 1,160 cheetahs.

Geoffrey Bundotich, senior scientist of Mountain Conservation at Wildlife Research and Training Institute said that taking an inventory of land-based iconic species was grueling but determination and sound planning paved the way for the successful conclusion of the exercise.

He said that one single incident that remained etched in his memory was a flight over the vast northern Kenyan plains where he spotted a pride of lions taking a leisurely walk.

According to Bundotich, it was uncommon to spot lions in the dry northern Kenyan outposts hence his excitement watching them from the skies as they made discreet moves towards a potential prey.

Kenneth Kimitei, senior ecologist of Tsavo-Mkomazi Landscape at Nairobi-based African Wildlife Foundation said he still retains fond memories of flying 300 feet above the ground to count iconic species at Kenya's largest wildlife sanctuary.

"We found animals at water points and close to greener pastures," said Kimitei adding that the inaugural wildlife census will inform future plans to protect endangered species. Enditem

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