#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?

Gamzo on Ivory burn.jpg

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 
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A lesson in dreaming

I treasure children. I love their innocence and all they can get away with in the name of being ‘children’, because when a grown up does them, they are branded childish. I love the genuinity(is that a word?) in their eyes; the windows to their souls. I can tell, earnestly, when they are happy, sad, bored or whatever other feeling. Being around kids is refreshing. I started accompanying the education team for documenting purposes, film and photography. Then, unofficially, hype man (woman) was added to my TOR-Terms of Reference. So whenever the kids look bored or are unresponsive, I am there to do an equivalent of ‘ikibamba sana wapi nduruuuu’! Anyway, so this one of those times, the Save the Elephants education team, is out in Chumviere, somewhere between Isiolo and Archers post. To get to Chumviere Primary School, you will need:

  1. A strong purpose
  2. One of those cars used by drivers in the Rhino Charge events
  3. Water
  4. A state of the art backbone.

There is a British Army barrack just off the tarmac. It is the only modern building you’ll see until you get to the school. The terrain is mostly rocky and thorny, and when its not, its very dusty. There are ‘manyatta’ villages scattered every few kilometers. Sometimes, you will see an old woman with her donkey carrying a jerry can or two of water and boys tending to goats. They stop to look at you and/or your car and the young boys run after you waving excitedly. If they see a ‘mzungu’ they will shout proudly “How are you?” and run away giggling at the response, “Fine.” Only, the mzungus are sometimes too eager to show off their Kiswahili skills, they shout back a “Jambo!”

We get to the school and its just perfect. Well, not perfect PERFECT, but it certainly beats my lowly expectations. I spot a water tank somewhere, and then classrooms built of wood and oiled black. The Kenyan flag is flying high on a high metal pole planted in the middle of a circle of well-arranged white stones. A few meters away, a stone walled toilet brightly painted blue and white. Some writings on it, I can’t quite make them out. After a briefing at the headmaster’s office, we head to the Standard Six class. There are about 20 of them, more girls than boys this time. There have been incidences of banditry and cattle rustling, and most of the boys had to go help their fathers with the herds. The girls stayed back with the women folk. Staff introductions and the lessons begin. “Living in Harmony with Elephants,” they are dubbed. The education team goes round schools built around elephant corridors and carries out lessons to find out the students attitudes towards the elephants and how Save the Elephants can help in areas of conflict.

The team concludes part one of the lesson and one of them whispers in my ear “enda uwachangamshe kidogo before we start part 2”) Ha! So I step up and ask each of them to tell me their name and what they would like to be when they grow up. Cliché, I know, but I love to hear that kids still dream in this day and age. I tell them to smile while at it because it makes it even more interesting, and I like to see happy faces (…also, we need to get really happy photos for social media and the website) I get a couple of answers; from doctors (of course) to teachers, pilots and even rangers, but nothing could have prepared me for this one. “My name is Raphael, he says, “…and I want to be a farmer.”

Source: Internet

A young farmer

I say a ‘wow!’ Careful not to sound too surprised. I tell him to keep working at it. I expected all the other answers. Almost all of them had seen someone in that career once. Pilots, they had seen flying planes over their schools. They have been through enough hard times to see soldiers and men in uniform around, so being a soldier or pilot don’t sound so farfetched.

Why you ask, did the farmer amaze me so? Picture the terrain I have just described. Nothing grows there except thorns and other random weeds. The livestock eat whatever they can find. On a previous visit, lunch was githeri (A mixture of hard boiled maize and beans-a Kenyan delicacy) No one wants to eat this everyday though, but to some of these kids its life. A hope. For Raphael, being a farmer represented people and green lush farms that he’d only seen in books. A farfetched one, but a dream nonetheless. It made me happy, that he wished to explore the world beyond Chumviere. He knew that to fulfill his dream he had to work hard to get out of Chumviere where farming doesn’t happen and who knows, come back and supply green leafy vegetables home.

Aaaaah! A lesson in dreaming.

“The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough. -Ellen Johnson Sirleaf

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?