Tag Archives: kenya

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. 

 

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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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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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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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Tsavo Man-Eaters strike again

The sons and daughters of the man-eating lions of Tsavo strike again.

Well- not really. Just a swipe.

We’ve heard about how in 1898 they killed and ate 135 Indian railway workers as they toiled on the Ugandan Railway. Today, as the railway is currently being replaced, the Chinese workers have been told to work with caution as a KWS ranger last year was attacked while guarding a section of the railway. Could it be a descendant of the famous Man-Eaters of Tsavo?

For those who like learning a little about history through movies, check out Ghosts in the Darkness starring Val Kilmer, a nice film that tells the story of probably the most notorious lions in history. For those who want to see these unusually large and short-maned beauties in the flesh- although they’re stuffed- they’re sitting there waiting to ea- I mean greet you at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. If you want to see their descendants, why not head to Tsavo, hang out with the railway workers and try your luck. 🙂

May these famous Man-Eaters forever remain notorious in our hearts, and may we learn from this that lions are not to be messed with.

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.  

The ones that say yes to the ivory trade

The Global North takes a step backwards in the fight to save the elephant in the Global South: The EU is proposing to permit some countries to manage their populations by allowing the ivory trade to go on.

Let’s break it down.

The EU says that ivory sale proceeds should be enabled to help manage populations.
Is that right?

Yes.

Hold on, wait- what? Isn’t that a paradox- kill them to save them?

Yes. Strange logic.

So why is the EU important on this issue? After all, shouldn’t this be an African-owned decision?

They’re reportedly the largest exporter of ivory and they make up a massive chunk of the voting bloc and so they have a powerful say in what happens to the elephants, basically

Is it surprising?

No. EU member countries have done similar things before. E.g. they thwarted efforts to place a global ban on trade for polar bear products.
So why is it important to move the African Elephant to an Appendix I listing on CITES for all countries?

Species in this category are classified as critically endangered and are given the highest forms of protection, including bans on trade of products made from them. This means there will be a complete and comprehensive ban on the international ivory trade. I.e., outlawed.

What’s the upcoming COP17 conference have to do with this?

At these meetings, member parties vote for what species goes in or out of the classifications. It’s the last chance over the next 3 years to make a concrete change in international law to protect the African elephant.
There is just no time to lose- their anticipated extinction is in 25 years from now.

Note:

African Elephants are currently in Appendix I except those in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

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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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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