Tag Archives: wildlife

Making space for giants

On April 30, 120 tonnes of seized ivory will be piled high and lit in a pyre at Nairobi National Park. These tusks are of course only a fraction of the ivory that comes from the 33,000 elephants that are killed every year.

The ivory burn is set to take place while movers and shakers from the continent will come together at a summit for The Giants Club, an initiative started by the presidents of Kenya, Uganda, Gabon and Botswana to save the African elephant from extinction. Hosted by Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta, celebrities, global business leaders, senior conservationists and elephant-protection experts will be coming together over April 29 and 30 in Nairobi to discuss the way forward and to forge new plans to reach the goal of protecting at least 10% of Africa’s elephants by 2020.

This summit will strengthen the home-grown, African-led drive to stop the trade. May this create another boost to escalate the efforts from the continent to protect these giants, and hopefully complex issues including corruption and lack of enforcement can be addressed so that the murder of elephants can be stopped once and for all.

Restoring the balance

The wide wing spans of lappet-faced vultures mean that they can glide through the air for long periods without needing to beat their wings often, except for when they take flight, as this one was about to do.

These Old World vultures are known to aggressively pounce in and intimidate others around a feast of carcass. Fighting for food was never meant to be easy. But when it’s time for these birds to roost, they are usually seen peacefully perched at the top of tall acacia trees, where they build broad flat nests. And during sunset, when one sees tens of vulture silhouettes atop these iconic trees of the savannah- these massive birds can be seen as powerful and majestic, as they well and truly are.

While the role of the scavenger is well known to be crucial, they seem to have an unfavourable reputation, similar to other scavengers like the Marabou stork and the hyena. Every creature plays a significant role in the ecosystem. Here’s to the vulture, and its contribution to the natural balance of things.

A visitor from the forest

In the mornings in Kampala, I was usually greeted by the endearing cackling of eastern plantain eaters, a squawk or two from some egrets and maybe a call from a local marabou stork that had perched itself on the top of the roof. However when the Ross’ Turaco comes to visit- you know it is going to be a special day.

My blinds are drawn wide open as usual, and I am getting ready for work. I sense someone is watching- but who today? There is a curious Ross’ turaco, sporting a clearly distinctive hairstyle, peering back at me.

Usually found in forested woodlands in dense foliage, this bluish-purple bird is a sight to be seen. Photographing in dark areas is already difficult- let alone a speeding subject in dark conditions, which makes it even harder. So it was truly a treat when I saw this one perched in the morning light on an open branch, right outside my bedroom window.

With a couple of toes that are pointed backwards to ensure better gripping around branches, these beautiful and vibrant birds scurry along branches, seemingly sometimes, as though they have 4 legs. They almost sound as if they do too- their deep calls are likened to a monkey’s. They love fruit, and I left some banana slices out on the balcony railing that day, though it didn’t appeal to their palate it seemed. They probably flew back to the faraway forests before long, away from the maddening crowds and the chaos of the city. If I were a bird, I would do exactly the same.

Here’s to the birds who remain mostly hidden in the canopies of dark jungles and forests, fraternising with the mountain gorillas- but sometimes do show themselves. And when they do, we can see what beauties they truly are.

In the name of sport

A female bushbuck by the lake during the last light.

These antelope hang out in greener pastures, literally, in and around forests, bushland and water sources.

They are also frequently hunted for sport. Everything about how to successfully gun down one of these creatures is well documented: recommended calibre, ammunition grade, gun scope, shooting distance, shot placement. It is nothing more than a game and a scientific approach to destroying life. Whether the IUCN rank them as endangered or not, it’s an antiquated sport that robs innocent animals of their lives in the name of entertainment. How would we explain this to the next generation?

Trophy hunting needs to be banned because all lives matter.

What’s in a laugh?

So what’s in a laugh? Well, nothing funny at all for the hyena. More often than not, in mainstream media, depicted to be cackling in a somewhat evil manner, portrayed in a negative light due to their scavenging ability. However this laughter is no sign of fun- they are in fact a sign of distress or nervous excitement, and usually made during fight or flight mode- typically when chasing a larger predator, or are being chased themselves.

If the range of vocalisations can indicate how highly intelligent, social and complex a creature is, then the hyena has it in spades. Much like the elephant, they have a range of different vocalisations to communicate various messages, including who they are in the social structure of the matriarchal clan, how they’re feeling, where they are, who to band up with, who to fight, and much else besides. And on another level, their whooping calls, are to me, the most comforting sounds in the night- and will invariably send me off to the best sleep. So here’s to the beautiful hyena. Misunderstood, misrepresented, but amazing.

Stop! Hammer time.

Or Hamerkop time. With a head shaped like a hammer, this bird might possibly be one of the very few creatures that has more than half a dozen names. Due to their uniqueness, they have been difficult to classify. While they fall into the pelican and cormorant group, they solely occupy its own family and genus and have a class of their own- how’s that. In addition, it is the closest relative to the beautiful, unique, and somewhat intimidating, Shoebill Stork. Well, they do say the most divergent beings are invariably the more interesting ones…

In mating rituals, the hamerkop are known to run around each other in circles in groups of 10 or more; they will falsely mount each other in these rituals, sometimes even in the wrong direction; and they have a particular liking to building massive nests, up to rituals, sometimes even in the wrong direction; and they have a particular liking to building massive nests, up to 2m/6.5ft deep and wide, regardless of whether they want to breed. Though they will be loyal and have 1 partner for life.

Here’s to being unique, divergent, and not having to fit into any one category, as the Hamerkop does naturally- and very well indeed.

“Today you are You, That is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than you.”

-Dr Seuss

Mohawk

It is with great sadness that I write about Mohawk, a male lion that was shot just over 48 hours ago after he escaped Nairobi National Park. He endured torment and heckling by crowds for hours in Kajiado county before a Kenya Wildlife Service ranger shot him 9 times. The 13-year-old lion was cornered and surrounded by a rowdy mob for 6 hours, stoned and taunted, and became highly stressed, which led him to swat a man on a motorbike- prompting the rangers to fire.

The first KWS team dispatched, interestingly, only had rifles. The second team were on their way with tranquilisers, but Mohawk was shot before they arrived. Moreover, for them to arrive 6 hours after the lion was first reported as being found 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. Noisy construction work on a rail project that will cut through the park is assumed to be driving them away through an open migratory corridor in the south. I posted previously about Cheru, another male who had escaped only weeks ago- but I did not expect that a lion would soon lose his life doing so, simply to get to a quieter area.

There had to have been a better way. If any animal is stressed, it will react. Controlling the group, and educating society on the need to stay away from a wild creature, and not provoke it, is paramount to ensure safety for all. This death didn’t have to happen. But it did, and by it, we are all diminished.

The unspoken topic: Corruption

A quick reminder of the facts: Tanzania lost 60% of their elephants in the last 5 years; Central Africa, 64% in 10 years. Although market prices for ivory have halved, the demand for ivory, driven by the rising middle class in Asia, continues unabated. How is the ivory getting there? Mostly through the insanely busy port of Mombasa- one of the key mouths of trade for the continent. Neighbouring land-locked countries are channelling the tusks there by road, unfortunately with relative ease, and successfully loaded into cargo holds. From 2009-14, 170 tonnes of ivory were seized by international authorities. That’s 230,000 elephants.

Although Kenya has made the trade illegal, the ivory is still getting through. Why? A much-avoided issue, and obviously so, in bilateral and multilateral dialogue is this: corruption.

It’s there, it exists and it takes decades for it to trickle out of a government’s way of operating. While the policy is in place, weak governance creates a whole lot of gaps in implementation- gaps that act like wide open doors for the mass movement of tusks and surely keeps the trade alive.

If we wish to halt the trade, we need to halt corruption. Many countries have shown positive results in the pursuit. Sadly, it takes a long time, usually a few changes of office. Perhaps this won’t happen fast enough before the elephants vanish altogether.

Travel companies lead the way for elephants

114 travel companies have recently signed a pledge to stop promoting travel associated with elephant tourism entertainment, including major players in the industry such as Intrepid, The Travel Corporation, Thomas Cook and Contiki. All have signed a pledge to stop promoting venues where elephants are used for activities such as trekking, rides, and performances.

‘Breaking’ or ‘crushing’ is a training process where elephants learn to submit to humans and to perform unnatural behaviours and includes applying physical restraints such as heavy chains and shackles, punishment with sharp bullhooks, and deprivation of food and water. Thereafter, these tools become a part of their everyday life. While many carers in the tourism entertainment industry do genuinely care for elephants, the breaking process in itself is severely torturous and breaks the elephant’s physical and psychological wellbeing for life.

I have witnessed a calf in a steel cage no more than 2 x 3m in size, concreted floor, with no carer around. The calf wrapped his small trunk tightly around my arm through the cage bars and would not let go- a sign, no doubt, about his dire need for care and company. The owner told me the carer was ‘away on sick leave’. Every carer knows young elephants are not to be left alone.

It is well documented that these highly social animals have the intellectual capacity to process many complex constructs, thoughts, and emotions; and that calves need to constantly be around their mothers, and are known to die easily from stress. The private sector and travel multinational corporations have the power to change the way the market behaves. May these recent pledges be a sign of more to come and draw us closer to a day where no elephant shall ever have to be beaten, or fall victim to a bullhook, ever again.

Face plant!

Face plant- and a deliberate one at that!

These bulls were scent marking their territory, for the usual reasons: to establish dominance, advertise to females, and warn other competing males to stay away from their territory.

Preorbital glands beneath the eyes, when rubbed, release pheromones and other secretions onto the ground, grass and twigs. Pawing on the ground also releases secretions from glands between their hooves. Rolling around afterwards is common, as is scraping their horns against dirt and other vegetation, to the point where the grass is flattened or worn away. This area becomes a ’table’, an area usually chosen in the centre of their territory, and where the bulls will rest and chew cud afterwards. Their turf, their land.

Here’s to the amazing, less-often photographed, but beautiful, beast of the wild.

Ashen plains

Behind this giraffe and this idyllic scene is Olkaria, a massive geothermal power plant at Hell’s Gate National Park. Behind the escarpment, big plumes of white steam, like billowing cumulus clouds, rise from the horizon and blend in with the sky.

Geothermal production in Kenya is massive- accounting for 5% of the world’s output- and is on the rise. The country sits on a fault that has small rips in the earth, exposing 300C/572F heat through its thin crust along the Rift Valley in the form of steam. The geothermal plants, owned and managed by KenGen, produce an abundance of cheap, clean electricity to power the burgeoning East African economy that is Kenya.

The Rift Valley is also where the majority of the pastoralist Maasai tribes live. One day, in an area along the Rift, a Maasai elder hands a document over to us about 100 pages thick in English. The air is hot, goats are bleating, and children mill about- just an ordinary day. He asks if we can help him to read it. After flicking through the first section, it’s government speak for: we want to build on your land to build a geothermal plant.

It’s never easy to balance the need to tap into clean energy sources while ensuring that people and wildlife are not displaced, livelihoods are not disrupted, and the sacred lands of the Maasai remain intact. The area around the plant looks otherworldly- barren, greyish white from all the sulphur, ash, and dust. While renewable energy is a sustainable way to power countries, it’s a fine balancing act to ensure that precious areas of wilderness also remain protected, for both humans and wildlife.

Trophies

The water-loving buck taking a drink from a loved water source.

The water also acts as a good refuge when they’re attempting to escape predators who aren’t as fond of water, including lions and the like. Otherwise, amidst long grasses, woodlands and scrub are where they’re most likely to hang out.

This beautiful waterbuck looked up mid-drink. I’m on the ground, metres away from him. And as we connected, what was startling clear was that it would never want to hurt me unless it was necessary for its own survival. And perhaps that’s the difference between animal and human.

These antelope are commonly trophy hunted in many game parks around Africa. They each come with a price tag and a recommended rifle caliber. Why anyone would want to kill such a beautiful animal- especially for a decoration on the wall- is beyond me. May we come to respect all animals in time.