When Cody Willnerd was offered the opportunity to be one of the first researchers to study a 5,000-year-old tribe in Kenya, he did not hesitate to say yes.
And, if the University of Nebraska senior had known about the harsh heat, bacteria filled water and dangerous conflict before going – he still would have gone.
“It’s one of those things that while you’re there you kinda hate it,” he said. “But as soon as I came back here I really wanted to go back.”
Willnerd, an environmental science major with environmental education and national security minors, joined a research project through George Washington University’s Koobi Fora Field School. He obtained grants through UNL and is using his research as his senior thesis.
His purpose is to understand how the Dassanech tribe interacts with other tribes, Kenyan Wildlife Service and the local wildlife in Sibiloi National Park.
“This really was a pilot study because I was the first one to ask these specific things for research,” he said.
The Dassanech are pastoralists meaning they breed livestock for their livelihood. They’re rather isolated – but the outside world is starting to modernize them. This includes better nutrition and medicine.
“There’s been a decrease in infant mortality which has caused a huge increase in population,” he said. “Now they’re having issues where they’re not finding enough grazing lands and illegally moving into national park lands.”
The closest national park is home to popular savannah animals like lions, cheetah, zebra, hippos and crocodile. Much of Kenya’s economy is made through tourism. However, with dwindling habitat, the iconic animals are in trouble.
“Certainly there seems as if there is fluctuations in the number of wildlife and with our general trend downwards in the number of wild animals,” said a Kenyan National Museum employee who spoke with Willnerd.
There’s also a major shortage in water, with tribes reduced to drinking wells that all tested positive for bacteria. It’s become a classic battle of people supporting their families against the lives and habitats of endangered species.
“They don’t understand their actions and they don’t care,” he said. “But at the same time, they have their own struggles.”
Willnerd learned much more about these problems after spending six weeks living among them. He saw how the tribes battled for land and water and felt the danger that loomed overhead from the neighboring tribes.
“It was cool to be a pioneer in this area of study and try to figure out what’s going on,” he said.
Willnerd’s academic advisor, Christine Haney suggested the experience because she knew he could rise to the challenge.
“He thinks outside the box, and he can definitely adapt to these extreme situations and circumstances,” she said in an interview with the Daily Nebraskan.
Currently, Willnerd is combing through his interviews to present his thesis. He’s hoping his work can be used to do further research on the subject – and maybe someday find solutions.