#WorthMoreAlive: I like that we are talking about elephants, rhinos and wildlife conservation in general…

For about a month or so leading up to the April 30th ivory burn at the Nairobi National Park, wildlife conservation discussions have been trending. Local media houses have been assigning some much needed and deserved, airtime and attention to this important conversation. With increased coverage, came increased interest about human wildlife conflict, poaching, Eco-tourism and development. Kenyans started asking questions, giving opinions and suggesting solutions to identified challenges. I have always held the opinion that only a select few care about the Kenya’s wildlife heritage, so it was quite refreshing to watch as people actively partook of the conversation online. As the historic date drew near, the conversations began revolving around the ivory burn. Was it the best option? How was burning the ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products going to help stop poaching? Was it an exercise in futility?

When President Ian Khama of Botswana unveiled an elephant sculpture made of ivory in July 2015, it stirred up the conservation circles somewhat. Some thought it a brilliant idea that Botswana had decided to put up this monument, while other were of the exact opposite opinion. Botswana’s Minister for Environment is quoted as saying, “It serves as a reminder to people who pass through this building each day that conservation of this iconic species is our collective responsibility. Complemented with a conservation awareness message, we are saying that one live elephant is worth so much more than all the art made of ivory. The statue is a lasting memorial to raise local, national and global awareness of the devastating impact of illegal ivory and the determination of Botswana and the global community to put an end to it.” After about a fortnight of ensuing debate, the noise settled. The towering monument still greets guests at Sir Seretse Khama International Airport.

Ivory elephant

BOTSWANA , Gaborone 16 July 2015, Botswana president let Gen. Seretse Khama Ian Khama officially unveils the live size Elephant Sculpture of ivory at the Sir Seretse Khama International Airport in Gaborone on 16 July 2015. The ivories come from the elephants which died naturally. (PHOTO/MONIRUL BHUIYAN)

This week, almost a year later, the photo of the monument started popping up on my Facebook timeline with captions like, “This is very creative, maybe Kenya should do this instead of burning the ivory.” One particular post had over five hundred shares. The reactions were as varied as they come. Majority felt enlightened and immediately endorsed the idea; maybe a museum of sorts would work? Others said no. Then there was a group that said, “Why bother? Everything in Kenya is stolen. Soon, the only thing that will remain is the glass surrounding it.” Ha! There is always that breed of people, you know, ones who seem to have resigned to some sort of self imposed fate. Before putting my thoughts down on several posts, I just took a moment to be grateful the WE are actually talking about this! In mass! Now, we just need to arm ourselves with the right information.

It is now hours after smoke filled the skies at the Nairobi National Park as President Uhuru Kenyatta led his Gabonese counterpart Ali Bongo and other dignitaries in lighting up the 105 ton heaps of ivory, rhino horn and other illegal wildlife products. The debate is still as hot as the fire that still burns what is estimated to include the remains of 8000 elephants and 345 rhinos. Why burn? Why not a museum?

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I must admit, up until three and a half years ago, I was completely oblivious of the plight of elephants and rhinos in Kenya, and indeed Africa. As I took up an internship position at an elephant conservation NGO, I told myself that it was only temporary; that I would soon get bored an take up something better. I did not anticipate falling in love with elephants as I watched BBC’s ‘Secret Life of Elephants,’ sobbing as Maasai girl’s two calves nudged their dead mum to wake up. The roller coaster of emotions being extended to the field, looking in awe as they walked majestically into the sunsets or, in more tragic situations, staring at one lying in a pool of blood, half its face chopped off. I was never quite the same. I started caring. I caught feelings 😀

My interest grew with every passing day, discovering and learning about why we bother about saving elephants. Today, I speak from a point of information, and most importantly, I reckon, real experience. There are people who will speak about the economics of poaching, a really important aspect no doubt, but I like to appeal to the heart. Pick up a documentary that will show you uncensored footage and photos of mutilated bodies of elephants/rhinos lying in a bloody pool. Watch elephants mourn their dead. Then take a trip and see them, alive, in their splendor. If you still feel nothing…if you are still giving that ivory monument a moment of thought…Doing what Botswana did, I think, just makes ivory look attractive. It breaks my heart, but to other twisted people it displays class. I see no difference between that and a carved piece of ivory in a living room in China. I prefer a live elephant thriving in a national park, living to its old age. Now that’s a worthy monument.

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Elephants at the Samburu National Game Reserve Photo: Daryl Balfour

We, Kenyans, have come of age, having such discourses. I hope the media does not stop with the coverage after the burn. Pray, we need to keep talking about this within our circles, engaging each other on how to make things better. Read about all the organizations working on the ground and read about what they are doing. I feel that if we, Kenyans, start caring enough we will hold our leaders accountable for things as corruption and consequently, poverty and other factors fueling poaching. We need to stop thinking about ivory conservation and re-ignite efforts aimed towards wildlife management and conservation. To purpose never to have a day like this one, because there will be nothing to burn. In a nutshell find a spot, in your own capacity and #Stopthekilling#StopTheTrafficking and #StopTheDemand for ivory and other wildlife products. The burn alone might not achieve the desired results, but with collaborated efforts between governments (this means you and I, as it does elected leaders) and conservation groups, as well as embarking on conservation education, I am confident of success. The economist will chip in. You will get involved. It will be a concerted effort, everyone doing what they can. This way, we will proactively work towards ensuring future generations SEE these species in their full glory, ALIVE, not lifeless, as a heap of ivory. That, in my opinion, makes more sense than an ivory museum. Otherwise, people will keep killing and we will keep confiscating and building ivory towers. It is pointless. As someone rightly said in one of the Facebook posts,

“Ivory for any other purpose than being on a live elephant is repugnant.”

Elephants and rhinoceroses may be large, heavy and thick-skinned, but they are being threatened with extinction in the wild by poaching for their ivory or horn, and by human impact on their habitats. You need to join the fight and help secure their future.

Pssst! I’ll start you off with sites you need to visit 🙂

  1. http://www.savetheelephants.org, Save the Elephants on Facebook
  2. The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
  3. Tsavo Trust
  4. Amboseli Trust for Elephants 

The Blood Moon

Interacting with different cultures fascinates me. I am always eager to take in as much as I can from the people I am visiting. Their traditions and way of life. I am nosy. LOL! But I am also a trained journalist, so I guess its a skill too. This post is however not about me(…the number of times I said ‘I’…whoa!)…

The full moon always scares us elephant people. In fact, while others call it lovers night, we call it blood moon. On days when there is a full moon, security around parks is heightened; rangers are on high alert and radios are fully charged. Poachers love the full moon. Easy spotting of their target and easy get away. They work so fast. Then all we find is blood and flesh, in place of the elephant face. Always seeking to be one step ahead, they now use the more advanced night goggles and poach whenever they want. Full moon or not. We are on to them.

Wednesday 8th October 2014, a blood moon is scheduled to be seen at different times the world over, well, almost. A different kind of blood moon. The lunar eclipse. I am seated at the edge of the Ewaso Nyiro marveling at the beauty of the illuminated full moon. Tonight it looks different, very very bright with a somewhat orange hue surrounding it making it stand out against the perfectly blue sky. Its breathtaking. A night guard at the camp joins me and says,

“Niliambiwa leo mwezi itakuwa nyekundu”-I am told the moon will be red tonight.

Blood moon

I ask him if he knows why, then I go ahead and try to explain the earth blocking the sun’s rays and what not. He looks at me blankly. Partly because I can’t find certain words in Kiswahili. So I google (21st century lifesaver 😀 ) a lunar eclipse image and show him. He nods, but he still doesn’t understand how the earth can block the moon yet the moon is on the sky that’s on the earth’s rooftop. Its hilarious. Never thought of it that way.  There are many myths surrounding the lunar eclipse around the world, I was excited to hear the Samburu version. Another guard joins us and together they tell me what the lunar eclipse means to the Samburus.

Lunar eclipse

“No one sleeps when the moon turns red. We believe the moon is God’s eye at night. When it is red, it is dead. All the women and children wake up and sing to the moon. They sing a “Surwa surwa” song. A song asking it to wake up and shine bright. The men also wake up and chant prayers to God. We sing healing songs too.”

This can go on for hours, until the moon shines bright again. It is healed.

I laugh at how interesting and fascinating all this is. Very different from my culturization.

“The born-towns don’t value the moon as those in the rural areas. All the electricity blinds you. You almost never notice how bright the moon is. How marvelous it is.  For us, it is a major boost to our night life. We will notice when its not as bright as it should be.”

I agree. Look up more often Born-towns 😀

PS: Surwa means blue in Samburu. There is some science about the blue and red of the Lunar eclipse here. What a coincidence that the the Samburu song was asking the moon to ‘go blue’ again!!

Why do snakes exist?

I was recently up at the Samburu National Reserve on a work trip. Our research camp is set on the banks of the Ewaso Nyiro which separates The Samburu National Reserve and The Buffalo Springs National Reserve. As you can imagine, this is quite a bush set up, we don’t want to totally change the landscape as we are on wild animal territory. It is their home after all and have full rights to be here. The Samburu team are housed in tents and other temporary structures which a visitor would find very unsettling seeing that the wildlife here roam through the camp quite often. More often than not, elephants, some of whom we know by name like Yaeger and Sarara, graze and browse unmoved as people go about their work. I  have never gotten used to the dazing effect, watching such a huge animal mind his/her business. Sometimes, if you are lucky, you get to look at them in the eye, and the feeling is indescribable. You have to experience it yourself.

On one of my first visits up North, I was held captive, pleasantly so, by 3 young male elephants who were casually grazing right next to my room. I panicked and called the camp manager who told me to relax, that they would be on their way as soon as they were done. “Elephants don’t attack unless provoked,” He said. So I sat there, listening to them tug at the grass with their feet and the silent seconds when they would use their trunks to put it into their mouths. I was tempted to open the door and watch them eat, but  decided against it. Instead, I took a chair and climbed to reach up one of the windows. I looked outside and at that particular moment, one of the bulls lifted his head and our eyes met! I almost toppled over, but I held on long enough to take in this moving moment…and as fast as it had happened, it was all over. I don’t think I will ever forget this, ever! It gave a deeper meaning to my work. Sounds silly, I know.

So, as I was saying, I was up there recently and one particular incident has tugged on my heart since. A young girl, about 5 years old was bitten by a snake on her wrist. She was brought to our camp in the dead of the night so we could drive her to the nearest hospital at Archers post. She didn’t last long, hours later, she was dead. I shed a tear, I haven’t felt that sad in a long time. I don’t know what angered me most; the fact that the parents had waited for hours before taking her to hospital, choosing to use some traditional curative method in preventing the poison from spreading, or that snakes…snakes bite people for no particular reason. I mean, lions would kill you then eat you, because they were hungry. Hippos kill you when you get in between them and the water and so on. But snakes bite or spit on you, then slither away. I don’t understand and if I read my Bible in Genesis, they are the devil himself.  It makes quite a lot of sense then, that I can’t stand them, I hate them and they are my biggest fear when I’m in the bush.

A day later we hear of another kid, this time older, who also dies from a snake bite. That night a small cobra was ‘sitting’ resting near the dinner table. I am told as I wasn’t present, that people just looked at it and continued eating unperturbed. It seemed full, they said. Some suggested that they murder it but the others, mostly the White counterparts (not to sound racist or anything close) said it should be left alone. I inquired, and was told it is one of the deadliest snakes and kills with within minutes if no antidote is available. Later on, one of my colleagues meets a huge snake as he was walking to his tent. It was long gone when he came back seconds later with a group of men to finish it off. A search in the nearest bushes yielded nothing.

When one of our American friends heard what had happened, she was pretty upset. She said we had no right to kill the snakes because we were the trespassers here. That we should let them be. I know she makes sense about the territories and all, but what to do when you find yourself living in the same space with them? Should we wait till a snake bites someone then kill it? Even then, have we any right? I don’t know, maybe its my fears talking…but I don’t see how a snake can be conserved for future use 😦 Future use to kill? Ah. I know there are snake lovers out there as well as there are elephant lovers and one would argue that no love is greater than the other…actually I would in favour of elephants 😀 them being keystone species and all; but why do snakes exist? Why the can’t they sense good intention just like elephants and just leave humans alone? I wish God would just call off this snake curse 😦

I am not blind to the deaths elephants have caused, or the yields they have mercilessly trampled on as they ate to their fill…sigh! I guess I am just confused as to why the world ain’t perfect.

What do you think?

 

Elephants – why bother?

…Well said. Beautifully written. This is why you should care that elephants may go extinct!

Mark Deeble

Elephant baby at waterhole

A few months ago, at a dinner in New York, an aquaintance got into a conversation where a guest asked, “Why all the fuss about elephants – they mean nothing to me personally. Why should I bother whether or not they go extinct?”

The comment, and the attitude it reflected, has concerned me ever since. I don’t know if it was made out ignorance, arrogance, an attempt to provoke, or the desire for genuine knowledge. I prefer to think it is the latter.

So I asked myself, why should they bother? What should elephants mean to someone who has never had the good fortune to meet them?

The scientist in me was the first to answer, for diversity in ecosystems reflects a more vibrant, interesting, and robust life-support system for the planet. Elephants play an important role. They are key-stone species, terrestrial-ecosystem architects, and gardeners without parallel.

In tropical rain…

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A year of saving elephants

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One elephant dies every 15 minutes. Do the Math. It’s serious!

If someone had told me that I would still be here a year later, I would have smacked the words back into their throat, literally. 

Flashback 20 years…

Anne Ofula was on the KBC TV screen. Her braids were held up in an elegant bun, her eyes happy. Then there was that dazzling white smile, the red lipstick carefully painted on the perfect curve that were her lips. She was the second most beautiful woman I had ever seen, my mom came first of course 🙂 I watched with great fascination and interest as she ‘introduced’ the next programme. They always ended up narrating the whole programme anyway, remember? So just like that, I knew what I wanted to be when i grew up. I wanted to be her. Whatever she was doing, I wanted it, and that  lipstick too! Mama tells me I would stand in front of the mirror after school, practising. She sometimes narrates of instances when she would be secretly listening and hear me sign out as Anne Ofula instead of Trezer Oguda. That mirror act was my thing and by default, albeit unknowingly to Anne, it became our thing. By the time the future was here, I would be ready.

Present day…

A degree in media and communications, several training opportunities and CVs in quite a number of Kenyan media houses later, I am here. No, not on KBC. I am behind my desk, in this small, beautiful cottage of an office at the Marula Manor grounds in Karen, Nairobi. Its not a newsroom. It is the media and communications desk at Save the Elephants.

Conservation communication is quite a shift from what the grown up me had envisioned as I threw my graduation cap up in the air, that hot June afternoon. However, when I was called in for the internship position in February last year, I took it, “just for the time being.” It was something, and it had been six months on the freelance vibe. I needed it, and the money. The first time I stepped into the office I told myself, “Oh, this is going to be boring!” There was a silence in the room and they all looked so sciency 😀 My loud self could not survive in these harsh conditions.

A year on, am glad I stayed. Well, it has not been all rosy; in between floating during the meetings where it’s all policy and science paraphernalia (…it gets easier and quite interesting with time though) and having to sit still for hours hunched on a computer and know that the boss is god here. I have cried out my frustrations, more times than I remember privately and publicly.  But now, now I can confidently say I am sharper, YES, sharper (…the sciency parts are still there and I do sometimes wander away to the sandy beaches and all, but not all the time). I am involved. I know a lot more, not just about elephants and their conservation but also about policies and what it really means to Save Elephants. And there is more to learn. My deskmate at work has made sure of this. I have grown-career wise and wholesomely, made friends in colleagues and most importantly, I have gatecrashed high profile weddings at these beautiful expensive grounds.

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The amazing office chics 🙂

Needless to say, my loud self survived and still does. I even have recruits!  I have grown to love elephants and attributes that bear an immense similarity to us humans. Elephants are plus size models. They are the most elegant species you’ll ever encounter. I have had a chance to be amazingly close to a herd of 150 elephants taking beautiful shots and making films. It leaves you speechless (sometimes because you dont want to scream out of fear and have them turn aggressive; you don’t want to YODO- You only die once-under their mighty trample) but also because they are a sight to behold..

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Among the elephants

They make seemingly gentle steps, but the impact on the ground for miles is amazing. Their ability to not just feel but show emotion….aaaaaah! Lets save elephants! They are our heritage and pride. Stop poaching now! Hands off our elephants! Ban the ivory trade now!  Enough, of the campaign-but seriously, Save their souls 🙂

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Samburu elephants in their matriarch led family
PHOTO BY DARYL BALFOUR

So what is the moral of the story? I don’t know…maybe I needed us to celebrate my one year anniversary. No? Ok. Then verily verily I say unto you, God does not make mistakes. He knew I was going to stay here a year, and who knows how much longer. See the Bible says in Proverbs 19:21 “Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the LORD’s purpose that prevails.” And that is why my ‘to be here temporarily’ plans failed. The most amazing thing is that I am my own star here. God made sure that everything I touch turns to Gold. I am good at this! God wouldn’t let you fail where He’s placed you. You will thrive! When its time to move, you’ll move. I believe I am still in His purpose and if the journey to the fulfilment of that purpose requires me to save elephants, then that’s exactly what I am going to do. I am going to take full advantage of it. I only have one request…to my boss. Thou shalt read this post and know that I want to be here, so thou shalt award me a salary increase according to the company’s riches here on earth. We are blessed. 🙂

NB: Dear Anne Ofula (RIP)…I still occasionally sneak into the bathroom where the interior designer conveniently hung a three quarter length wood edged mirror and do ‘our’ thing. Who knows where all this practice will lead me. lol!