Africa's Wildlife (7)

Two elephants in the Amboseli ecosystem have been fitted with tracking collars. The collars transmit a satellite and radio signal using global positioning system (GPS) technology to map out the elephants’ migratory routes and identify how expansively the elephants travel in search of water and vegetation. The fitting of collars was conducted by a team of scientists, researchers and veterinarians from the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in collaboration with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

“Elephants need space and resources in order to be free, viable and to fulfill the flagship role they play in the environment in this region. Seen in human terms, the information we gather will give us an elephant’s eye view of optimum lifestyle standards for these giant creatures,” said Azzedine Downes President and CEO IFAW. “We will be able to make a case for the connection of their favored habitats by securing critical corridors and securing the areas that are essential for sustaining Amboseli’s rich wildlife heritage, especially the elephants.”

More than 1,400 elephants live in the Amboseli ecosystem, spending 80 per cent of their time outside Amboseli National Park. Since 2012, IFAW in conjunction with KWS has collared 12 elephants in Amboseli. The information gleaned from the 12 collars indicates that the elephants have traversed over 17,000 square kilometers from Magadi and Suswa in the west to Tsavo West in the east. Some elephants, particularly the males, have also been seen to cross the Kenyan border with Tanzania. The findings also indicate that some of the collared elephants have been identified to frequent and forage close to electrically fenced farmlands showing that collaring can be an effective tool to monitor the movement of crop raiding animals and help put an early warning mechanism to reduce conflicts associated with crop raids.

Sospeter Kiambi, the Elephant Program Coordinator at KWS noted that, “In addition to understanding the spatial and temporal habitat utilization by elephants from satellite collars, advancement in technology has allowed the use of satellite collar information to improve on elephant law enforcement, through immobility alerts and geo-fencing. Applying these new technologies gives wildlife managers an edge over poachers and human elephant conflict (HEC) which is increasingly getting critical to the conservation of elephant in the Amboseli ecosystem.” 

The IFAW-KWS study is part of IFAW’s Amboseli Project, which includes enhancing KWS’ law enforcement capabilities, leasing critical corridors and dispersal areas in community land, creating conservation awareness and local capacity for ecotourism ventures, and mitigating human-elephant conflict.

Imagine if President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Ali Bongo of Gabon, Ian Khama of Botswana and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda formed a club known as the ‘People Club.’ Imagine if this club sought to ensure that millions of poor people in these four countries were empowered economically through new jobs, new markets for their products or new capital for their enterprises. After all, 2.5 billion people in the world remain mired in poverty with millions of these in Africa.

Imagine if the foremost goal of this ‘People Club’ was as follows:

“The People Club is an exclusive forum that brings together African Heads of State, global business leaders and livelihood enhancement experts to secure and enhance livelihoods for Africa’s increasing number of poor people especially those who live near elephant populations.”

In order to make a bold statement about the need to slay poverty once and for all, imagine if the four presidents then burnt things that are vivid and symbolic depictions of abject poverty in Africa. Things like farming subsidy policies that keep fresh vegetables from the US market; symbolic bank statements containing the billions that have been stolen from Africa and stacked abroad; court rulings from across Africa that confirm prosecutions of corrupt officials who embezzle millions from public coffers; statistics papers that show how tribalism trumps competency in public appointments, and many such contributors of poverty on the continent.

The US 2014 farm bill paved way for subsidies that have been harmful even to America itself. Between now and 2018, when the Football World Cup will be played in Russia, US peanut farmers will have reaped as much as $1.9 billion in subsidies. This is more than the approximately 1.74 billion that Kenya spends to pay its teachers. While no one should begrudge the US for spending its money as it wishes, this isn’t a level playing field for African farmers to compete with their American counterparts holistically.

Indeed, American farmers were incentivized to grow crops like peanuts so much that last year in 2015, the United States Department of Agriculture ended up with a surplus of 16,000 metric tons of peanuts. How on earth is a peanut farmer in Kenya or Malawi supposed to compete with that?! You may say that the Nairobi Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation in 2015 addressed this issue. Sure enough, the Nairobi Package called on an end of all farm export subsidies. The challenge now will lie in educating the masses about both the new global trade opportunities and lingering challenges.

Imagine if the public burning by the four presidents dramatized unfair global trade practices so much that ensuing public pressure ends up impacting local national elections. Wouldn’t that deal a decisive blow to poverty (to an extent) by enabling farmers in Togo and Namibia to sell their agricultural produce to a much wider market? It might also open the floodgates of capital to flow into Africa’s agriculture and make it more technologically savvy.

Imagine if this public burning was preceded by a ‘People Club’ Summit that resulted in commitments that these four countries would have to adhere to. Commitments like: Ensure that at least 25 percent of tourism revenue goes back to communities living next to national parks and game reserves in the form of employment opportunities, investments or loans. This way, local communities would have a seat at the table and not just benefit from the tourism revenue crumbs that fall their way. Kenya’s Tourism Act of 2011 is sadly silent on such innovative ways of investing in communities.

Interestingly, Kenya has in the past enacted innovative legislation that impacted the tourism sector significantly. The 1972 Hotels and Restaurants Act, Cap 494 established Catering Levy Trustees that collected a 2% training levy from hotels and restaurants towards Utalii College’s financing, training and operation. Without the said legislation, we may never have been the proud owners of East and Central Africa’s premier hospitality training institution. Because of the more than six billion it has received from the Levy Fund, Utalii College has been able to produce at least 50,000 highly trained students whose human resource has catapulted Kenya’s hospitality sector to the next level.

Imagine therefore that there was legislation entrenching community-centred investment into the law of the land. Legislation that would greatly minimize human-wildlife conflict by aligning wildlife and communities on the same side as allies, not adversaries competing for finite resources.

Imagine if yet another commitment from this ‘People’s Club’ Summit called on billionaires like Richard Branson to provide venture capital funds not just for enterprising individuals from national park adjacent communities but also for ventures that specifically ensure the sustainable wellbeing of both communities and wildlife.

**************

Everything you have just imagined happened in Nairobi in the last week of April 2016. The only difference between what actually happened and what you have just imagined lies in the fact that instead of people, elephants were the focus of the Summit. I support this focus 100 percent.

I only add the there should be similarly renewed focus on the poor people of these countries, especially those who live near the amazing gentle giants. They deserve not just a regular meal on their tables, but also a reliable, wildlife-enabled means of producing this meal. Wildlife-enabled in the sense that the millions earned from wildlife end up not just in wildlife conservation efforts but also in human wellbeing efforts.

As we keep our hands off our elephants, let us join them to kick poverty out of Africa.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015 00:00

The Buffalo Soldiers of Boni, Kenya

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The night was pitch dark and the road was chronically bumpy. Unlike me, my brother Msonobari is a fast driver and was hurtling down the murram road as if he was practicing for the Safari rally. I was leaning on the cold window, half-asleep. We had eaten lunch six hours earlier at Malindi and the roast chicken that I had gobbled was already gone, leaving in its trail hunger pangs that were keeping me from sleeping soundly.

The loud screech of our Subaru Forrester chased away the sleep that had started accumulating in my eyes. Right in front of us were dozens of what appeared to be flashlights. But what surprised both of us was the fact that the flashlights were moving across the road on their own, with no human beings behind them whatsoever.

For a moment, I was sure that I had finally come face to face with the famous coastal genies. But before I could voice this fear or even utter a prayer, my brother let out one emphatic word – ‘nyati!’ Buffaloes!

Indeed, the ‘flashlights’ were but bright eyes that belonged to a herd of buffaloes that was crossing the road. I had seen buffaloes before in Maasai Mara National Reserve and Nakuru National Park. Their resemblance to cows robbed them off the wild attraction of leopards, lions and even gazelles. But seeing them in the dark with their eyes shining bright like a diamond was a sight to behold. I was both scared and excited as was my brother. Although he is a photo freak, he didn’t dare roll down the windows to take photos. Instead, we both watched in silent awe as the buffaloes took their time to cross the road.

We were between the Lamu County towns of Witu and Mkunumbi in an area that is not a national reserve but the buffaloes respond to nature’s push and pull, not gazetted boundaries. The nearest national reserves from this area are Dodori and Boni. Both are 38 years old, having been gazetted in 1976. They are neighbours and consequently host mostly similar flora and fauna.

One of the animals that grazes here is the coastal topi, a medium-sized antelope. It is famous for its graceful pose on top of termite mounds as it scans the horizon with a steadfast gaze. Clothed in its red-brown coat, with black patches spotting its face and legs, the topi adds immense color to the Boni and Dodori Reserves.   

Also living in this region is the hirola, a lesser known sibling of the topi. The hirola is considered to be the most endangered antelope in sub-Saharan Africa. Less than five hundred remain despite having more than 14,000 in the 1970s. The future doesn’t look bright for them, partly because of stubborn insecurity in the area. Between June and August when militia gangs launched several attacks in Lamu County, they would retreat to Boni forest.

In early August, I drove as fast as I could past the forest as I fled from Lamu. When I looked nervously at the silent forest, I thought of the topi and hirola and felt quite sad that they were now caught in the middle of a senseless conflict.

I also thought of the Boni people, who have lived in the forests for centuries, all along co-existing harmoniously with the wildlife. What would happen to them now?

As I passed by the location where my brother and I had met with the buffaloes, I found myself wishing that Bob Marley’s song would literally come true.

 

‘I wish that the buffaloes would become soldiers that can protect the forests and the animals that call it home,’ I muttered to myself as I glanced at Boni forest winked at it, praying that all would be well.   

Tuesday, 18 August 2015 00:00

The Silent Roar of Africa's Lions

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On Friday March thirteenth this year, a lion’s roar was heard in Melbourne Australia. The silent roar was heard during the global march for Lions at Melbourne’s Federation Square. The roar didn’t come from an actual lion but from Greg Hunt, Australia’s Environment Minister.

Speaking at the march, the 49-year old Hunt announced a ban on so called lion hunting trophies from entering or leaving the country.

He explained the motivation behind this ban.

“It is about raising the most majestic of creatures for a singular purpose and that is to kill them, to shoot them for pleasure and for profit.”

He tore into the cruel practice, “It is done in inhumane conditions. It is involving things such as raising and then drugging and in many cases, baiting. It is simply not acceptable in our day, in our time, on our watch.”

Why would anyone shoot and kill the king of the jungle for the sheer thrill of knowing that they have killed a lion? This question contains the answer – for the sheer thrill.

Someone gets down on one knee, closes one eye and points the gun at a fully grown lion about fifty metres away. Or someone stands behind a glinting gun tripod and directs the powerful gun on the tripod towards a lion that is minding its business less than one hundred metres away. 

The lion has a distant gaze in its eyes, instinctively searching for gazelles, buffaloes, antelopes or any other herbivorous game that it can hunt. What it doesn’t know is that it is at that moment, it is being hunted and is about to meet its maker. As bullets rips through its priced golden hide opening the taps of its warm blood, the lion’s alert distant gaze transitions into an empty stare that soon becomes lifeless. The hunter’s eyes are blazing with that sheer thrill that has cost him thousands of dollars. 

Hunters can pay as much as 30,000 dollars to hunt a fully grown male. Considering that a budget safari costs in the region of 300 dollars in countries like Kenya, it would take 100 tourists to generate a revenue of 30,000 dollars for safari operators. It’s no wonder lion-hunting remains as strong as ever in countries where it is allowed.

One thousand lions are shot in South Africa each year for the sheer thrill of hunting. One thousand lions! They are part of hundreds of lions that are raised in about 160 ranches. For several years, these lions are essentially raised in order to be killed.

Factory farming, hunting farms, trophy hunting, canned hunting, lion ranches, lion breeding... Professionals in this sector insist that these phrases mean different things. That may be so but what they mostly share are bullets and arrows that rip through lions for sheer human thrill.

The South African Predator Association explains on its website that ‘a male or female lion is hunted for its trophy, which is the skin that gets either tanned or mounted as a full size lion. The farmer/breeder remains with the carcass that is the flesh and the bones.’

The National Geographic quotes Pieter Potgieter, chairman of this Association, ‘For every captive-bred lion hunted, you’re saving animals in the wild.’ This argument is premised on the notion that hunting captive lions saves wild lions from illegal hunting. But some conservationists counter that South Africa’s captive lions, which number approximately eight thousand, are eight times as many as free, wild lions.

Ban captive breeding. These are the three words that conservationists in South Africa and beyond are echoing. But given the sea of dollars that underpins captive breeding are these three words just wishful thinking?

In this age where the gaming industry has grown by leaps and bounds, shouldn’t lion-hunting thrill seekers shoot digital lions instead of actual, live lions? If they are not digitally inclined, Africa is full of ‘thrill hotspots’ like hiking Mt Kilimanjaro, bungee jumping in Victoria Falls, watching the amazing spectacle of wildebeest migration in Kenya’s Maasai Mara Game Reserve, sailing along River Nile, savoring the regal gorilla’s in Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park and many more.

The king of the jungle once roamed aplenty across Africa.

But not anymore.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) notes that over the last few decades, lion population has been cut down by nearly half. There are now fewer than 40,000 African lions left in the wild. IFAW further notes that at least 5,663 lions were traded internationally for trophy hunting purposes. More than half of these lions were imported to the United States. The world’s sole superpower should follow the footsteps of Australia and ban such imports.

 

Trophy hunting is just but a fancy way of describing one awful word and act – slaughter. The slaughter of Africa’s lions should stop.

Monday, 17 August 2015 00:00

Africa's Central Tears

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Twigs litter the moist footpath. They have fallen from the many, many trees that are everywhere. A few metres ahead, a river bursts into view, its gentle whistle suddenly becoming a loud rustle. Apart from the sound of her feet crushing the dry leaves beneath and the river’s roar, Vivi can’t hear any other sound.

The chirp of the birds is lost to her ears although birds are nesting in the trees that are staring down at her. Among them is the Dzanga robin, the little colourful bird that can only be found here and nowhere else in the world. As she stares at the rare robin’s bright yellow belly, Vivi has no idea that this bird can only be found here in her forest.

Her hair is short, her eyes brown. Her complexion shares the same colour with the ebony tree she is leaning against. The celebrated tree is so huge that its trunk can easily fit five versions of Vivi. Such trees are a major reason why forestry is the second leading employer in Central Africa Republic, behind only the government.

A few metres away are several African tulip trees. Their bright orange flowers are one of Vivi’s favourite forest sights. A stone throw away from the tulip trees is yet another favourite sight that always captivates her.

About one hundred elephants are stumping at Dzanga Bai, a marshy clearing in Dzanga Sanga rainforest. They seem to be having a jolly good time as they swing their trunks in the moist air and stump around. Patches of mud are plastered all over many elephants, a result of the mud bathing that they love to indulge in. A mother chases her muddy calf. Catch me if you can! The baby dares mama before stumbling in the slippery mud.

There are several big guys whose sheer size gives them an air of invincibility as they stroll along majestically. Their massive ears are flapping back and forth, as if swaying to some invisible rhythm that only the giant elephants can hear. But much grander is the Dzanga Sanga rainforest that surrounds the marshy clearing where the gang of elephants is having a morning party.

On May 6th and 7th 2013, the joie de vivre of the forest elephants was shattered by the sound of bullets as Sudanese poachers stormed Dzanga bai and slaughtered at least 26 elephants.

When Vivi’s father told his daughter about the unprecedented slaughter, she broke down. Although she is from the nearby Bayanga village, she has never really been to the Dzanga bai clearing that elephants, bongo antelopes, forest buffaloes and other wildlife love to hang out at. But her father has told her so much about the forest and its creatures that she feels like she knows it intimately.

Dzanga Sanga is such a biodiversity hotspot that it should be attracting millions of eco-tourists and not dozens of deranged poachers. It’s a magical place that should put lots of bread on the table of Vivi’s dad and all other people who live adjacent to it.

As little Vivi cried for the slain elephants, she could have been crying for the unexploited potential of this vast Dzamba sanga rainforest. Potential that lies in ensuring that it remains a secure refuge for the wildlife and a providence basket for the local people.

This potential remains largely untapped. Partly due to unequal historical global dynamics that greatly disadvantaged many African countries. Thomas Sankara, the transformative president of Burkina Faso touched on such dynamics when he said in October 1983 that, ‘to state it more clearly, we buy more from abroad than we sell. An economy that functions on such a basis is headed for increasing ruin and catastrophe.’

But also, Vivi’s past and future remain mired in poverty because many African leaders have had the bizarre habit of shooting their continent in the foot.

The United Nation Development Programme’s 2014 Human Development Index ranks Central Africa Republic in the 185th slot. Pourquoi? Why?

République centrafricaine as Central Africa is known in French, is almost three times the size of Netherlands. But its Gross National Income is 116,000 times smaller than Netherlands. Tragic as this fact is, the bigger tragedy is a widespread acceptance by many African leaders of this as normal. But the even bigger tragedy would be for Vivi to grow up accepting her poverty plight as normal.

Vivi lives next to one of the world’s most incredible biodiversity hotspots. This proximity to natural wealth should translate to a measure of wealth for her family.

 

Vivi adores the bright flowers of the African tulip tree. The bright future that this flowers symbolize should not remain in the distant future.

Friday, 14 August 2015 00:00

Benin's Crying Lions

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When a King sheds tears, an entire country weeps. These words underscore the plight of Benin’s environmental kingdom. The West African lion has roamed Benin’s rugged terrain since the days of the Dahomey Kingdom centuries ago. But its iconic roar has been stifled so much that West African lions are now classified as regionally endangered.  Although this is symptomatic of the lion’s perilous situation in Africa as a whole, the situation in West Africa is particularly dire.

Tucked away in Benin’s north-western region is Pendjari Biosphere Reserve, whose size of 4,510 square kilometres makes it bigger than Cape Verde. The reserve comprises of one National Park, two Hunting Zones and a buffer zone.

The reserve’s mammoth size has given the lion a large area to race and hunt. However, the hunter sometimes becomes the hunted both legally and illegally. Every two years, six lions can be legally hunted in Pendjari. While Burkina Fasso’s quota is more at twenty lions, Niger doesn’t allow any hunting at all.

Although there is no clear evidence that legal hunting contributes to the lions’ woes, it doesn’t help things either. It is a fact that hunting subtracts instead of adding and can arguably be used to control burgeoning populations of a given species. The question therefore is – does the West African lion need addition or subtraction?

Etotépé A. Sogbohossou from Benin has conducted extensive research on Benin’s lions. In one of her findings, she concludes, ‘our results suggest that the Pendjari lion population is affected by perturbations, such as trophy hunting.’ Indeed, the kings of the jungle in this region have already become lonely creatures with densities of only five lions for every 100 kilometres.

When it comes to poaching, information about its extent and impact remains hazy. Unlike poaching, climate change is leaving clear impacts in its destructive trail. The Pendjari River, after which the biosphere is named, has seen better days. Although it can flood during rainy seasons, its waters dwindle drastically during the dry period of February to May.

When climate change pushes natural seasons to extremes, both humans and wildlife are adversely affected. Lions and their cat cousins stroll to the banks of River Pendjari and find speedily receding waters.

Another lion pride may respond to its thirst by jogging to other water points in the reserve like Bori, only to find that they have dried up. When this happens, their disappointed roars are stinging indictments of nations like USA and China two of the biggest green house gas emitters in the world. When their emissions accelerate a changing climate that denies Pendjari’s lions sufficient water, then there is a big problem.   

A local source of tears for Benin’s lions comes from their nomadic human neighbours who graze their livestock in the biosphere. Apart from increasing competition for dwindling natural resources like water, encroaching livestock also heighten the possibility of deadly human-wildlife conflicts.

Benin has nonetheless made commendable strides. Elephant population increased from 900 in 2003 to 1,600 in 2006. Antelopes had an even bigger party, exploding from 2,000 in the year 2,000 to 9,000 in the year 2005.

This antelope multiplication means more food and less tears for the lions. This is a trend that must be maintained and extended beyond the food arena so that lions can quench their thirst from plenteous water and roam freely without the danger of meeting a poacher’s bullet or even a legal hunter’s bullet that nonetheless takes away its life.   

Friday, 14 August 2015 00:00

Africa's Central Tears

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Twigs litter the moist footpath. They have fallen from the many, many trees that are everywhere. A few metres ahead, a river bursts into view, its gentle whistle suddenly becoming a loud rustle. Apart from the sound of her feet crushing the dry leaves beneath and the river’s roar, Vivi can’t hear any other sound.

The chirp of the birds is lost to her ears although birds are nesting in the trees that are staring down at her. Among them is the Dzanga robin, the little colourful bird that can only be found here and nowhere else in the world. As she stares at the rare robin’s bright yellow belly, Vivi has no idea that this bird can only be found here in her forest.

Her hair is short, her eyes brown. Her complexion shares the same colour with the ebony tree she is leaning against. The celebrated tree is so huge that its trunk can easily fit five versions of Vivi. Such trees are a major reason why forestry is the second leading employer in Central Africa Republic, behind only the government.

A few metres away are several African tulip trees. Their bright orange flowers are one of Vivi’s favourite forest sights. A stone throw away from the tulip trees is yet another favourite sight that always captivates her.

About one hundred elephants are stumping at Dzanga Bai, a marshy clearing in Dzanga Sanga rainforest. They seem to be having a jolly good time as they swing their trunks in the moist air and stump around. Patches of mud are plastered all over many elephants, a result of the mud bathing that they love to indulge in. A mother chases her muddy calf. Catch me if you can! The baby dares mama before stumbling in the slippery mud.

There are several big guys whose sheer size gives them an air of invincibility as they stroll along majestically. Their massive ears are flapping back and forth, as if swaying to some invisible rhythm that only the giant elephants can hear. But much grander is the Dzanga Sanga rainforest that surrounds the marshy clearing where the gang of elephants is having a morning party.

On May 6th and 7th 2013, the joie de vivre of the forest elephants was shattered by the sound of bullets as Sudanese poachers stormed Dzanga bai and slaughtered at least 26 elephants.

When Vivi’s father told his daughter about the unprecedented slaughter, she broke down. Although she is from the nearby Bayanga village, she has never really been to the Dzanga bai clearing that elephants, bongo antelopes, forest buffaloes and other wildlife love to hang out at. But her father has told her so much about the forest and its creatures that she feels like she knows it intimately.

Dzanga Sanga is such a biodiversity hotspot that it should be attracting millions of eco-tourists and not dozens of deranged poachers. It’s a magical place that should put lots of bread on the table of Vivi’s dad and all other people who live adjacent to it.

As little Vivi cried for the slain elephants, she could have been crying for the unexploited potential of this vast Dzamba sanga rainforest. Potential that lies in ensuring that it remains a secure refuge for the wildlife and a providence basket for the local people.

This potential remains largely untapped. Partly due to unequal historical global dynamics that greatly disadvantaged many African countries. Thomas Sankara, the transformative president of Burkina Faso touched on such dynamics when he said in October 1983 that, ‘to state it more clearly, we buy more from abroad than we sell. An economy that functions on such a basis is headed for increasing ruin and catastrophe.’

But also, Vivi’s past and future remain mired in poverty because many African leaders have had the bizarre habit of shooting their continent in the foot.

The United Nation Development Programme’s 2014 Human Development Index ranks Central Africa Republic in the 185th slot. Pourquoi? Why?

République centrafricaine as Central Africa is known in French, is almost three times the size of Netherlands. But its Gross National Income is 116,000 times smaller than Netherlands. Tragic as this fact is, the bigger tragedy is a widespread acceptance by many African leaders of this as normal. But the even bigger tragedy would be for Vivi to grow up accepting her poverty plight as normal.

Vivi lives next to one of the world’s most incredible biodiversity hotspots. This proximity to natural wealth should translate to a measure of wealth for her family.

 

Vivi adores the bright flowers of the African tulip tree. The bright future that this flowers symbolize should not remain in the distant future.