We were driving back from a long day visiting schools, and stopped to look at some zebras. They seemed skittish, and for good reason: soon a pack of wild dogs revealed itself. The dogs didn’t seem too concerned with the zebras (although wild dogs are incredible hunters, they usually opt for smaller prey), but then again, the dogs didn’t seem too concerned with anything at all. There were at least a dozen in all, over half of which decided to spread out across the dusty dirt road and trot slowly, nonchalantly in our path. I felt my mouth twist into a goofy grin as they practically surrounded us; we were in no danger, but the pack exuded control. They took over the road as if they owned it, and as far as I’m concerned they did.

The wild dogs here were nearly wiped out by rabies and human conflict, and are still severely endangered. While they are making a comeback, even now to see them is a rare treat. They might not be well known in America, but I say these efficient, coolly confident predators are grossly underrated.

In the wilds surrounding central Kenya’s Mpala Research Centre, you’re likely to see some elephants every time you hop in a car. Zebras, giraffes, and impala are to be expected (along with quite a few other hoofed species); I’ve seen a leopard, three cheetahs, a hippo herd, and I-don’t-know-how-many baboons—and that’s just the mammals. In terms of number of animals per unit land area, Mpala dwarfs every other locale I’ve personally experienced, including several US National Parks. But despite the sheer quantity of wildlife I’ve spotted in the last three weeks, each sighting still feels magical.

Back at Princeton we may see the occasional deer or the more-than-occasional squirrel, but there’s never any doubt that humans are in control. Campus itself is a rigidly constructed labyrinth of concrete and well-maintained (and well-contained) grass. To leave campus and travel through New Jersey is to witness industrial wasteland. It’s a human’s world, and our species feels itself supreme.

I find that worldview so boring—not to mention the height of hubris. Mpala shatters this conceit; how can I feel big next to an elephant? Dominant next to a leopard? And wildlife can help us, too. For example, zebras tend to graze on the top layer of grass, leaving behind the bottom layer. This bottom is healthier for cattle. Of course, not all interaction is so positive: for local communities, these animals are harder to love as they trample homes and kill livestock. I am here working on conservation with local schools, and I must be careful not to paint these animals as warm and fuzzy: the reality is far more complex.

I think that’s what’s so appealing; the very complexity of it. The Research Centre is full of scientists studying different animals, plants, and soils. Everyone seems almost giddy describing their work; there is fascination with what we do know and eagerness to explore what we do not. Back in the West, it seems to be that we’ve lost this wonder of the unknown.

That wonder need not be confined to one planet. A few nights ago it was less cloudy than normal, and—thanks to Mpala’s relative lack of light pollution—I got my best-ever, starriest view of the night sky. Upon noticing what looked like a long, thin band of clouds, my jaw dropped, my eyes widened. The “clouds” were a faint haze drifting from the galactic center, representing a futile attempt by my eyes to resolve billions and billions of densely-packed old stars. I’d seen photos, but this was my first direct visual evidence that there really is something called the Milky Way.
In theory, this band can be seen from most of Earth’s surface, but light pollution has robbed the sight from most Americans. As far as I can remember, I had never seen it. As an astrophysics major, I’d studied stars and galaxies and thought about our place in them. I’d seen loads of pictures, some from highly advanced telescopes, and I’d thought I’d observed a decent number in the sky. But the dim light of the galactic center laughs at your naked eyeball; I was so overwhelmed I literally had to sit down. We live on the Milky Way’s outskirts, and the distant glow only hints at how much is out there. The stars we can make out distinctly are just the tip of the iceberg.
There is a world of difference between seeing a photo of something, or understanding it at an abstract level, and actually beholding it in person. Even watching a zoo animal is not the same as seeing it cage-free; the creature is robbed of its context. At Mpala, for the first time, I can begin to see our whole Earth placed in context. Reality is huge, and that is endlessly exciting.

~ Dayton Martindale '15
Photos by Alex Wheatley '16