NANYUKI, Kenya — Princeton University graduate student Tyler Coverdale and Ryan O'Connell of the Class of 2017 clap as they walk around the tall bushes surrounding the sprawling experiment site. Not in applause, or for self-motivation — but to alert any buffalo, elephants or other animals that might be foraging for food or seeking shade from the intense equatorial sun.
This is the nature of working at the Mpala Research Centre, a multidisciplinary and multi-institutional field laboratory that sits on a 50,000-acre reserve and ranch in Laikipia County in central Kenya. For faculty, students and postdoctoral researchers, Mpala provides an expansive natural terrain, nonetheless used by humans, that is ideal for large-scale field experiments in ecology, biology, geology and other fields.
It's a place where people coexist with lush riverside woodlands and arid grasslands, and where iconic African animals roam freely. "Every day you're seeing endangered species," Coverdale said. The surrounding landscape is dotted with trees torn and broken by hungry herds of African elephants, as elsewhere females and foals of the endangered Grévy's zebra — the world's largest wild horse — slink safely into the dense vegetation. "These are mostly animals where only a few thousand of them are left in the world, and a couple hundred are at Mpala," Coverdale said.
Princeton recently expanded its long involvement with Mpala by assuming the role of managing partner, working in close partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, the Kenya Wildlife Service and the National Museums of Kenya to support the facility.
Dan Rubenstein, Princeton's Class of 1877 Professor of Zoology and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, first came to Mpala in 1990, just after the University's connection with it began, and is on its board of trustees. In 1989, George Small of the Class of 1943 approached the University about establishing a research center on the large ranch he inherited from his brother. Since then, numerous faculty members and students from Princeton and other institutions have come here to conduct research and learn in an environment unlike any found on the typical American college campus.