Tag Archives: Conservation

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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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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Meet the most poached animal in Africa

Ian Douglas-Hamilton, the great renowned Kenyan elephant conservationist, counted the number of African elephants in the late 70s. He found that there were about 1.3million. He recounted again in the 90s and found that elephants had halved in number to 600k.

Where are we at now? 470k. 

The Great Elephant Census, which is currently being assessed as we speak, so far reconfirms the same bleak trajectory.

While results so far show that elephants are slightly growing in number in South Africa and Zambia, and flatlining in Botswana- which could have something to do with the EU & other states thinking that these increases in numbers justify once-off sales in ivory- let’s look at the larger picture. 

Tanzania: half of their elephants gone in 6 years

Mozambique: half, in 3 years

Total population of forest elephants, more than half gone in about decade

So, returning to the original global numbers.

1970s: 1.3 mil 

1990s: 600k

Today: 470k

It’s no new news that this is a grim picture. Though sometimes I wonder if we’re just watching a big failure taking place, and making, largely, no impact.

I’m a firm believer in maintaining a healthy level of optimism but this has to be balanced with reality. And as many who have worked very intimately with elephants have noted, it can be hard to keep positive when you witness disappointment after disappointment. 

Hopefully the final results of the consensus can be presented at CoP17 in September to show that elephants cannot be gambled with this to-ing and fro-ing of their classification in CITES and these far too risky policies on the ivory trade.  

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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One shipment of 500 elephants to go, please

This time, the shipment is not for a circus, some foreign zoo, or to assist with diplomatic relations and/or to boost a nation’s GDP.

This time, it is to help save them.

500 elephants in Malawi are to be transported to a sanctuary to protect them from poaching and human-wildlife conflict. How? Dart them, winch them into a truck, and drive them for about 300km/185mi to have them delivered to a new sanctuary. This will be the largest elephant relocation in Africa’s history and will take over 12 months.

Slowly, but surely, they will move. And hopefully slowly, but surely, they will survive in a world where humans think that they can treat animals as a commodity.

Malawi is a small country and has 1.5k out of 470k elephants in Africa. But do not underestimate the country for its size- because although it is a tiny land-locked country, they have sufficient funds allocated for protecting elephants, plus the commitment of the government, who have a cooperative relationship with African Parks, an INGO that manages these reserves. That’s two golden nuggets right there- and probably enough to see it all the way through from start to finish.

And so the move begins.

Travel safely, safari njema, beautiful elephants, and hopefully, you will all flourish on the other side.


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What do chillies, tobacco smoke, bees and fireworks have in common?

Elephants don’t like them.

Recently it’s been found that if you fill a condom with chilli powder, mix with sand for bulk and rocks for weight, and then launch the thing at the elephant, they’ll turn and walk away. It won’t hurt them, but with their sensitive sense of smell, they’ll apparently cough and sneeze as the chilli is just too irritating for their liking. I’m still unsure why condoms were selected as the chill grenade casing, as empty rubber scattered all over the place would be a pretty disgusting sight.

Back to the point.

So there we have it: accessible and affordable ways to deter elephants from eating and damaging farmers’ crops.

That’s one small step towards reducing human-wildlife conflict, and one giant leap for helping to save elephants. Progress!


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The Forgotten Ones

Giraffes becoming extinct? Yes.

The news comes as a surprise to many- after all, they’re ‘always around’, and on safari, not many usually stop for yet another giraffe that comes walking by. Which may be part of the reason why their plight has been overlooked and largely unnoticed. These beautiful creatures are in serious and rapid decline, with populations having fallen by 40% over the last 15 years due to habitat loss and poaching for their meat.

There are 9 subspecies of giraffe, two of which are classified as endangered by IUCN. The other 7 are classed as ‘of least concern’. Well, there’s a concern alright. Reportedly they still have this classification as nobody has bothered to conduct any proper monitoring and evaluation for some time. And until something is done, the population, which is sitting at 90k as we speak, will continue to plummet as sure as the sun sets every day.

Here’s to the giraffe- head always held high, elegant, and more now than ever, truly a limited edition.


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