Little Criminals

A true story of a lonely plant ecologist and his mischievous neighbors

mt. kenya
©iStockphoto.com/Dmitry Kuzik

When you study large mammals, you have plenty of company: other scientists attracted to the same animals, visitors (and sometimes filmmakers) interested in your work, and the animals themselves, who become known to you as individuals and sometimes friends. Getting on personal terms with a plant is harder. Add to that a cold and inaccessible study site, and as I found out, you are sure to have a lot of time to yourself.

I spent four years living in a tent at an elevation of 14,000 feet in Mount Kenya National Park, trying to decipher the secrets of tropical alpine plants. The locale was spectacular. Mount Kenya is an ancient volcano that was born two million years ago, before Homo erectus roamed the plains. At that time, it was one of the tallest mountains in the world, its bulk a great barrier in the path of the seasonal monsoons. Soon its slopes were clothed with thick, wet forests above the arid plains. Above tree line, snow fell profusely. Great glaciers carved deep valleys. Over the millennia, the upper 6,000 feet of the cone were ground away by glaciers, revealing an impervious lava plug that, at 17,000 feet, now stands like a fortress thousands of feet above the valley floors.

My camp was nestled on the wall of the Teleki Valley, in the shadow of Mount Kenya's central peaks, Batian and Nelion. Every morning these peaks hid the sun until midmorning, and most evenings were bathed in a glorious, rosy alpenglow. In all the years that I lived there, I never tired of this scene.

The campsite was not quite ideal, however. The end of the passable road was 4,000 feet down the mountain—if it hadn't rained lately. With rain, the road became slippery and deeply rutted and ended from one to fifteen miles farther away. Either way, I still had a considerable hike to reach the campsite—through a forest in which buffaloes and elephants often treed hikers and up a massive quagmire appropriately called the Vertical Bog. With time and conditioning, the trip became more of a three-hour bore than a six-hour trial, but there was often a race with the afternoon shower to enliven the trip.

Botanist Olov Hedberg has described tropical alpine climate as “summer every day and winter every night.” Hedberg is Swedish, which may explain his definition of summer. Granted, if the afternoon sky was cloudless and the air was dead calm (an occasional combination), I could work comfortably in the intense high-altitude sun in a T-shirt and shorts. But a little shade or a light breeze was all I needed to remind me how cold the air was. On a partly cloudy day, I spent my time alternately disrobing and bundling up.

One of the few wild animals mentioned in the Bible, hyraxes are found in Africa and the Middle East. They are the size and shape of woodchucks and marmots (not quite as big as a bread box), but unrelated to them.

When I was not doing this quick-change act, I was studying the giant lobelias of Mount Kenya. Very different from their garden relatives, these giant lobelias resemble artichokes the size of basketballs. After growing for several decades from a seed the size of a pinhead, each plant produces a ten-foot-high stalk with 5,000 flowers and a couple of million seeds. Then it dies. I had come to Africa to discover why.

By and large, I was content with my solitary life. I generally enjoy being alone and have always been able to amuse myself. However, when I began giving plants individual names, I knew I was in trouble. Into this life came an invasion of four-legged munchkins.

Hyraxes are curious animals. One of the few wild animals mentioned in the Bible, hyraxes are found in Africa and the Middle East. They are the size and shape of woodchucks and marmots (not quite as big as a bread box), but unrelated to them. Long suspected of being the closest living relatives of elephants and manatees, they have recently been linked by some authorities to rhinoceroses instead. Having come to appreciate their devious intelligence first hand, I am firmly in the elephant camp.

Rock hyraxes live in colonies, and the jumble of boulders left by retreating glaciers provides ideal homes and refuges from predators such as eagles and leopards. I chose to erect my camp in the middle of just such a boulder field, which put me in the middle of an active hyrax colony.

Hyraxes eat a wide variety of plants. But unlike most herbivores—which bite off leaves with their front teeth—hyraxes turn their heads to the side and use their molars, with one eye in the dirt and the other to the heavens, as if on the lookout for a swooping eagle. The reason for this contorted position is that hyraxes don't have normal incisors. Instead, they have two tusklike teeth in the upper jaw, with which they can inflict vicious wounds and pick up objects, but not bite off leaves. In the lower jaw is a set of four teeth, each of which has two narrow slits. Hyraxes use these lower teeth to comb through their hair, grooming themselves.

At my camp lived a colony of about a dozen adult hyraxes with their most recent litters. There was a single male, a battle-scarred veteran named Rick. His harem was composed of females of several ages, and my favorite was a young adult named Elizabeth. She was always the most curious and adventuresome and was as cute as a hyrax can be.

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