Why Nairobi lions are heading to residential areas

On March 18 this year, Cheru, a male lion, ‘escaped’ out of Nairobi National Park and wandered onto the chaotic Mombasa Rd, one of the major arterials that is almost always congested with traffic. He clawed a man- and then let the man go free- and was then captured shortly after by Kenya Wildlife Service and returned safely back to the park, which sits at the border of the bustling metropolis.

In the month prior, 6 other lions had reportedly escaped from the park and were found in the informal settlement area of Kibera and near Langata, near Karen- both residential areas. Many took to social media to express their panic and to also assist the KWS in tracking down these wild cats. Many pleaded not to shoot the lion as had been done once before, which had left orphan cubs in its wake- but instead, deliver him back to the park alive.

It wasn’t until March 30, when another lion, Mohawk, escaped from the park which led to its death. The 13-year-old male lion of Nairobi National Park and a popular tourist favourite, endured torment and heckling by crowds for hours in Kajiado county where he was found. The 13-year-old lion was cornered and surrounded by a large rowdy mob of roughly 400 people, for up to 6 hours, stoned and taunted, and became highly stressed, which drove him to swat a man on a motorbike- prompting a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger to shoot him 9 times.

The first KWS team that was dispatched to contain the situation, interestingly, only had rifles. The second team were on their way with tranquilisers, but Mohawk was shot before they arrived. The fact that rangers arrived 6 hours after the first report of Mohawk’s location came in raises further questions- Kajiado is only 30kms away from the Nairobi NP headquarters, and even with traffic, southbound, they would have arrived far faster than the time that they did.

Lions escaping Nairobi NP has not happened like this before with such frequency and in such numbers. The park, gazetted in 1946 by British settlers, is the oldest national park in Kenya, but sadly one that is under threat due to the need to manage the rapid development of this fast-growing nation. A railway is currently being built through the park to improve trade routes from Mombasa to Nairobi and neighbouring countries. The noisy construction work is assumed to be driving lions out through an open migratory corridor in the south. The livestock that they find in the villages also draws them out of the park. It may only be a matter of time before another lion escapes, which could ultimately lead to its unnecessary death.

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1.29 million voice their opposition to the ivory trade in a petition to the EU

 

1.29 million people around the world have voiced their absolute opposition to the ivory trade in an online petition aimed at the EU, ahead of the major United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) conference this month. At this roundtable, politicians, wildlife experts and conservation groups from 182 member countries will assemble to discuss, amongst many other things, which species will fall into Appendix I- that is, which species will be classified as endangered.

While populations of the African elephant are rapidly plummeting and are expected to become extinct in 25 years, they are not listed in Appendix I in all countries. If they are, they will be afforded the highest protection across the board, and the ivory trade will be outlawed worldwide. Currently, however, the EU, WWF and a number of African states are voting to enable the trade which will trigger both an increase in the supply and demand in ivory.

These proposals come at a time when the recent findings of the Great Elephant Census have revealed there are far fewer elephants than originally thought. In the 18 countries that participated in the survey, the count shows 352,271 elephants. Namibia refused to participate in the count, and South Sudan and Central African Republic could not be assessed due to the current instability and conflict, though with the estimated these 3 countries, the total African African elephant population sits at less than 400,000 (Namibia, 20,000+, South Sudan, less than 2,500, Central African Republic, less than 3,000).

Looking back at historical figures of populations, the chances of the African elephant becoming extinct within a couple of decades is becomingly frightening realistic. In the late 1970s, when Ian Douglas-Hamilton, the renowned Kenyan elephant conservationist, counted 1.3 million. He recounted again in the 90s and found that elephants had halved in number to 600,000. The recent Census, led by Dr Mike Chase, has revealed the population has fallen by 30% in 7 years and we are now sitting at under 400,000 elephants. Governments must look hard at these glaring numbers and understand what this means.

The countries that back the trade have populations that are increasing, and have purported that the trade can provide lucrative economic returns in order to better manage elephant populations. This case however, fails to take into consideration that the elephants are free to roam across borders. The proposal also adopts the premise that you need to kill some to save some.

At a time when elephants are hanging dangerously on the precipice of extinction, now is not a time to gamble with policies that could push this species off the face of the earth within 25 years. Allowing ivory sales under any circumstance will reinvigorate the demand-supply mechanism and trigger more poaching, more elephant deaths, as it has happened in the past.

The ivory trade forms a significant part of the US$20 billion illegal wildlife trade and results in the loss of an elephant every 15 minutes. We need to share intelligence, improve the judicial systems on wildlife protection laws, strengthen training of law enforcement agencies, and increase the drive to crackdown on people along the chain, from poachers to traders through smarter undercover operations and forensic science. We need to talk about this issue as it relates to human development- about people, society, in order for it to gain more support at world roundtables. None of this is new news- but for any of this to make a difference, it needs to backed by unified political will and support from all governments, worldwide- and the CITES conference is the best platform to show this.

As the next conference of this kind will not take place until another 3 years’ time, it is the best opportunity for countries to make a concrete change in international law to save the African elephant from extinction. We’ve lost 100,000 elephants in a 3-year timespan before. There just isn’t any time to lose and immediate action must be made.

To join 1.29 million others on the Avaaz to sign the petition and tell the EU that the ivory trade must be banned entirely, in all countries and circumstances, please click here.

Near Threatened Existence

Does the water burn? Yes.

Like Lake Natron, one of the key breeding areas for the lesser flamingoes, this lake has a pH level of 10.5. These waters are so alkaline that it can burn the skin and eyes of creatures that are not adapted to this environment.

Some of the most famous photographs of flamingos from this kind of lake are probably those by Nick Brandt, who had photographed these birds that had seemingly ‘turned to stone’ by these caustic waters. They hadn’t, of course, because these birds are one of the few organisms in the world that can actually flourish in such extreme conditions. What he did, however, was find many dead flamingoes around the shore, of which there were many. He couldn’t find out what had caused such mass deaths. He then meticulously bent and shaped the corpses into live positions, and place them on the water in their petrified positions. That’s one way to celebrate life, I suppose… but the images he captured? They are brilliant.

Finding many dead flamingoes around the shore was also something I witnessed at Lake Bogoria. I saw hundreds of lifeless flamingo bodies swept onto the shore- a terrible sight, like a scene from a horror movie- wings caught on acacia thorn branches and hanging upside down in contorted positions above the calm waters, limp carcasses strewn along the shore, rotting in the 40C sun, while the smell of sodium carbonate permeated the air. Same phenomenon as what Nick Brandt saw? Probably. The head warden of this park couldn’t explain why. Water levels? pH level disruption? Contaminants? No-one really knows. 

What we do know is that perhaps the biggest threat to lakes of this kind is soda ash extraction, which I have posted about before. In Tanzania’s development plans, they are set to build plants around Lake Natron, where over half of the world’s lesser flamingo population are born. Like Lake Magadi, soda ash projects contributed greatly towards the economic development, though sadly, the population of these birds there is now minimal. The environment around Magadi exudes a commercial and industrial feel, and Orwellian multi-level dormitories for the factory workers are scattered in the surrounds. This is no place for any bird, let alone a threatened species.

There are many factors impacting on the lesser flamingo and its habitats. IUCN ranks them as near threatened. Here’s hoping that Brandt’s photos do not foreshadow things to come for this fragile bird. 

 

Ground control to Major Hornbill

As its name suggests, the Southern Ground-Hornbill stays on the ground for the most part. They’ll fly when required, flashing white feathers underneath the black ones, but when on solid terrain, they’re often looking for frog, lizard, and snake snacks, or if lucky, they’ll embark on a small sprint to catch an African hare.

Though if there was a race going on for these large birds, it wouldn’t be for a tasty meal- it’d be for their own survival. 

Severe habitat loss due to agriculture, and human-wildlife conflict, has led to a sharp decline in their numbers. Some tribal cultures believe the birds bring evil, and will be shot upon entering a community’s property. On the other hand, some think they repel evil. Either way, it’s important to be aware these beliefs exist in order to find ways for humans to live peacefully alongside them, for no bird deserves to be shot upon entering a piece of land.

The decline of the species isn’t helped by the slow rate at which they have chicks- every 9 or so years, it is estimated. 

There are only 1500 in South Africa, and around the rest of Africa it’s estimated their numbers are plummeting. Their IUCN vulnerable status lends a bit of weight to push conservation efforts along, but whether things will move substantially enough, and fast enough, is something that remains to be seen.

These long-eyelashed birds are often overlooked on safari, but the next time you see them, be aware that we may be one of the last generations to see them in the wild.


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Keeping the savannah clean- but they’ve only 100 years left on this planet

bee-elle-6049Botfly larvae, rotting skin, anthrax and rabies- you name it. They will clean it all up. If it weren’t for them, the savannah would be ridden by all sorts of bacteria and disease. But we might lose them all in under 100 years.

The largest vulture in Africa is the Lappet-faced, pictured here. They will aggressively swoop, pounce and caw at anyone getting in their way- including hyena and jackals- of a tasty meal of rotting flesh. Anyone except for humans, who are, ironically, the very reason why they are on the verge of extinction.

Vultures are reportedly the most threatened bird group in the world. About 2/3 of deaths of vultures are by poisoning by pastoralists protecting their livestock, and ivory poachers who don’t want vultures circling above their activities, which will give away their location. About 1/3 are killed for traditional medicine, which some locals believe can provide man with Superman powers. The remaining deaths are caused by them flying into power lines and wind turbines.

Back to the main reason for their deaths. A cheap, generic brand of Furadan, a pesticide, is being used by pastoralists to lace carcasses to lure in the lions to protect their livestock. Lions eat the poison, lions die, vultures eat the lion, vultures die.

A cow can fetch up to US$30- an understandably prized and necessary asset for pastoralists. But if proper management plans are not implemented immediately to address these issues, this will spell the end of vultures within the next century. If that happens, anarchy will ensue: ecosystems will be ridden with disease, the balance will be upset, and many other creatures will be killed in its wake.

Measures must be ramped up and implemented now to ensure humans can live peacefully and sustainably alongside wildlife. For this much is clear: Africa cannot live without vultures.


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Little pig, little pig, let me in. Not by the hair of my tusky, tusk tusk

The warthog, with 2 large upper tusks and 2 sharp lower canines, sleep in and flee to burrows, and back in bum first so they can guard the entrance with their tusks.

While they were made famous by the Lion King and given a name that means ‘stupid and foolish’ in Swahili- they aren’t foolish at all. These intelligent and highly adaptive creatures will change the time of their eating patterns if they assess that there is too much risk in areas during day/night; can last months without water, though will flock to water and enjoy a mud bath for a cooling session; and they live in all sorts of terrain, woodland, savannah and grasslands. Their solid adaptability makes them a resilient species with a high survival rate, with healthy population numbers around the continent- although it may not save them from the human and his/her gun while they continue to be targets of trophy hunting.

Generally flighty, they prefer to run away from danger than to fight, and can usually be seen dashing about with their tails held high like little waving flags, signals for others to follow them and/or that there is danger about. These ones saw no danger here, however, and were happily grunting and grazing on the green grass surrounding Lake Nakuru on one fine day.


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Vervet monkeys deserve a chance

A nonchalant vervet monkey peers down from his throne on a branch.

They have different alarm calls for different predators- including for humans too, I’m sure, that they use sometimes when I walk beneath them in forests. Although it is a sound for alert and caution, I find them remarkably peaceful as they echo and reverberate through the treetops, cutting through air.

In an experiment with species in the wild, researchers found that monkeys would change what kind of food they selected when in a new area based on what they saw others eat, even if the food they were used to eating was readily available. This high-level use of social cues and adaptability gives clues on how these species survived and evolved over time.

They usually hang out in trees in troops of about 5-50 other friends and family, but will come down to the ground to look for food, or to steal food from cars, picnic baskets, restaurant tabletops- anything. Their highly playful nature is entertaining to watch, however, not everyone sees them this way. Many locals have found them a recurring nuisance as they’ve been known to raid crops. The issue is addressed by trapping, poisoning or shooting them.

They may be common, and sometimes a nuisance, but they are as much a part of the African landscape as all the other creatures, and it is essential we find ways to live harmoniously with wildlife. From monkeys, to rabbits, to lions and elephants- because all lives matter.


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Why poachers are winning the fight

Of all the monitoring going on, by radio collars, drones, helicopters, satellites, and even mathematical algorithms to predict where a poacher might be headed, all the highly-trained manpower down on the ground to protect these precious animals, and after all these decades, you’d have to wonder how poachers are winning.

AK47s, night-vision goggles, helicopters. You’d think I’m describing the kit of maybe a well-funded terrorist, or at least an anti-poaching outfit. Nope. This is the stuff that some poachers have.

Poachers come from all segments of society and are funded in different ways. Some have a little, some have a lot. At the end of the day it’s an opportunistic role, and chances are, they are well connected. Not just with the black market, which is a given, but with linkages back to professional money launderers.

The whole poverty-and-desperation-leads-to-poaching nexus doesn’t seem to hold true anymore, because there are far more accessible alternative livelihoods that communities can and have pursued.

It’s a well-organised crime, as organised as some terrorist groups, and something that needs to be treated and fought with the same level of intelligence as you would fighting ISIS.

It has to go beyond more monitoring or more brave, armed rangers on the ground- although they work tirelessly and do incredible work. It has to go beyond the efforts of civil society, for that’s not enough to win the war. We need the right policies from the top, public-private collaboration in order to utilise the grit and efficiencies of companies, combined with political will and enforcement from the state.


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When a matriarch dies, the whole herd is affected

When a matriarch is killed by poaching, the older daughters of the herd step up to fill her place. Although they have big shoes to fill, they do so swiftly, something beautifully and naturally wired within them.

Alloparenting within a herd is instinctive for elephants. Sometimes cousins will lend a hand- or trunk- to take care of a little one, accompanying them into the bushes to have an explore, or ensuring they don’t stray while the herd moves together. Perhaps more importantly, they will guide them to ancient migratory routes, or to sources of water during times of drought, or how to handle predators.

However when the mother is killed, and there are no older elephants to follow, and worse, no herd to follow, the orphan is left alone. The lucky ones may be found and picked up by organisations such as Save The Elephants or the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, but the unlucky ones, of which there are many, are left alone to die.

The price that is paid for ivory extends far beyond that of the matriarch that is killed- the orphan is at high risk of premature death and there are lasting effects on the entire herd and their ability to survive.

With only 470,000 elephants left in Africa and 100,000 killed in 3 years, their expected time of extinction is a couple of decades. We just cannot afford to lose any more.


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Elephants approaching humans to ask for help

In the last few weeks we’ve heard about an elephant in Zimbabwe being shot in the head, and more recently about Tim from Kenya being speared in the head. The former was the result of a botched attempt at murder by a poacher- the latter, frustrations due to human-wildlife conflict. Both elephants reportedly approach humans that they were familiar with to ask for help.

That these stories are making the news on mainstream media is a relief, as it’s a sure sign that it is deemed relevant for mass attention. What is not a relief, however, is that elephants are continuing to suffer badly from the cruelty of humans.

Education, awareness, and political commitment can help to change behaviours and attitudes. Policy reform, adequate enforcement, and community programs can ensure this work is carried out properly and sustainably.

There are 470,000 African elephants left. Zero deserve to suffer. And zero deserve to die by the hand of humans.


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This is Amboseli

This is Amboseli: the land of elephants.

The green swamps and marshes that exist alongside white dusty plains and dry salt pans make this place wonderfully diverse. The fact that elephants live here simply makes it magical.

Beyond here is the tallest mountain on the continent, Mt Kilimanjaro, who oversees not just the elephants, but all of Africa.

In the middle of some of the largest expanses of wilderness in the world, and near hundreds of some of the largest creatures on earth, I was drawn to this tiny stalk. It stood motionless, fragile- easily crushed by the next elephant that came chomping through the grasses. Though small, it was growing- and blooming- and had as much of a place in amongst these giants than the next acacia tree, kopje, lion, martial eagle or elephant. From small to large, everything in nature is perfectly connected and in balance.

The stalk reminds me of a Truffula tree from the film The Lorax. One of the quotes sprung to mind. The author had intended it to apply to the environment and all the creatures that we share this earth with. And how right he was. It’s in our hands to protect it.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot
Nothing is going to get better
It’s not.”
-The Lorax


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A few decades, 1 million elephants gone

The Melbourne Cricket Ground, where the Commonwealth Games were once held, seats 100k; Levi’s Stadium, where the last Super Bowl was held, 107k; FNB Stadium in Johannesburg, where the 2010 FIFA World Cup was held, seats 95k.

Imagine any of these stadiums being full of individuals- and then all of them being murdered: either by poison or shot, never knowing what hit them, or why. Now imagine these individuals being elephants. That’s the real number of African elephant deaths by poaching in 3 years.

I do not hesitate to use this word, murder, because that’s what it is. Poachers show a reckless indifference to life; have the intent to kill or inflict grievous harm; and there’s a high probability that their act will cause the death of another. These elements constitute murder. Formally, we can’t use the word ‘murder’ because nothing is ever heard or tried in court. And so soft words such as ‘killing’ and ‘poaching’ continue to be used as a default.

Back to the statistics. Imagine 10 of these stadiums filled with individuals, and you’ll get the number of African elephants that have been killed due to poaching in 35 years. 1,000,000 innocent lives, gone. This is the grand scale of death we are talking about. The magnitude of the issue should in no way be underestimated- they will be wiped off the face of the earth within decades if real change is not made soon. We need to stop the killing before the suffering and injustice continues.


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