I am in the middle of an interview when David and Oria move the vehicles around in a protective circle, like a wagon train from an old cowboy movie, and we get in to watch the action. As a herd of 40 or more elephants comes straight towards us, a large bull in musth (when they are ready for romance they drip a strong smelling secretion from the glands at the side of the head) comes striding across the river.
Bulls in musth can sometimes be aggressive and unpredictable so it’s quite intimidating when one comes marching into the herd less than 20 feet from me. The great deep rumbles and the excited trumpets sound all around me and there’s a lot of charging around and elephant bumper car action going on. The ladies get excited when the big man in town arrives, David tells me. But it all ends peacefully and the herd heads off into the bush.
They have another surprise for me. As the sun starts to go down, I head up to a hill with a spectacular 360 degree view flanked by a dozen Samburu warriors, some of whom work at the camp, singing traditional songs.
As the last light of day slips away, they present me with an 8ft spear and ask me to become an honorary Samburu warrior with the name Lenasakalai, a legendary warrior who protected the Samburu people.
“Please go back and fight for the elephants for the Samburu people” says Bernard Lesirin, a young warrior and top guide at Elephant Watch. They then begin their dancing, jumping straight up into the air and all around me. If the cameras weren’t on me, I would join in.
They light our fire literally by rubbing two sticks together in the traditional way and as a thousand stars and the Milky Way appear above my head, accompanied by the hypnotic chanting of the warriors, I feel like I am being taken back in time. Until the ring of a cellphone in one of the warrior’s pockets reminds me that here the past and the present intermingle.
We then retire to the Elephant Watch Camp, a beautiful tented camp shaded by large trees overlooking the Ewaso Nyiro River. As well as paying guests it is frequented by vervet monkeys, who are quick to steal any food left unclaimed even for a second.
It has a very organic feel to it and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, our host, had even brought in a Shanghai-style Chinese chef, Mr Tang, to make me feel at home. They have built me a custom made bed with my name spelled out in wood, made from fallen trees around the camp.
This is still the bush and Pete warns me to shake out my shoes before putting them on to check for scorpions. I’m a bit disappointed that I never actually find one!
I leave exhausted, having packed a week’s adventure into a single afternoon with a warm glow and perhaps a little sadness that if we are not careful, these ceremonies and the traditional Samburu way of life, like the elephants, may not be around forever.
From Ol Pejeta we head to Elephant Watch Camp in Samburu National Reserve, a unique place to get up-close-and-personal with elephants. We leave from Kamok, the “Ol Pejeta International Airport”, where the control tower is a giraffe and planes have to buzz the airfield first to clear the zebras and impalas before landing. Bit of a contrast from London’s Heathrow and not exactly the Virgin Clubhouse.
Samburu National Reserve is drier and much hotter, characterized by dried out riverbeds with very little green vegetation except around the fast moving red mud of the Samburu river. We have a fantastic welcome from the Save The Elephants and Elephant Watch staff, many resplendent in their traditional and colorful Samburu warrior garb.
This time I skip the duty-free and mount up into the open top and side Land Cruisers and bump down the dirt road. The animals are harder to spot in the scrub, but tiny antelope, called dik-dik, are everywhere. These beautiful miniature deer are so delicate they look like every step would break them and I learned they mate for life and if one of a pair dies it’s partner will never mate again.
Straight from the airstrip we head for the riverbank. Our guide is David Daballen from Save the Elephants, a soft-spoken Samburu who has studied elephants for the past 12.5 years; his mentor is Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the African Elephant.
As we round a corner, there it is — the dark gray bulk of an elephant, then another, and another, and another! Slowly we position ourselves right in the middle of a herd of twenty or more, sheltering from the midday sun beneath the trees, methodically stripping at branches for food.
Suddenly I realize that between 3 medium-sized elephants is a tiny baby lying down resting, her sisters towering over her, positioned in a protective triangle.
I can already see how these animals watch out for each other and are a close-knit family. I just can’t believe I am sitting in an open vehicle a dozen feet away from wild elephants! They flap their ears gently and sniff the air with their trunks like a periscope, but they know David’s vehicle, his scent and the sound of his whispering voice and are completely unconcerned by our presence.
David knows every member of every family in the reserve, as well as their family history. Poachers killed this one’s mother two years ago, another member of the family had to then step into the role of matriarch at a very early age and the responsibility of leading the herd to food, water and out of harms way ways heavily upon her, she looks a bit depressed. At first I think the emotions are exaggerations, perhaps too much, but the more I learn and observe, the more I realize how much they share with humans – lifespan, adolescence, family bonds and emotions – as David explains this I can see it there in front of me by the way they are interacting with each other.
The life histories are disturbing. So many of these animals have been lost to the poacher’s bullet, and yet they still trust us, allowing us to be a part of their lives.
For lunch we have a picnic at the riverside and we are just finishing up when the elephants decide to gatecrash our party!
More to come on that…
While in Namunyak, Northern Kenya, I come across a sight I will not soon forget…
I’m told the main destination for illegal ivory is China.
I arrive at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy — an impressive place.
It’s a private, non-profit wildlife sanctuary and home to Kenya’s highest concentration of wildlife. It’s also the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa, making Ol Pejeta a key player in protecting one of the world’s most endangered species.
Together with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), they have created an elaborate security system at the Conservancy, which combines rhino patrols, armed teams, tracker dogs, aircrafts, cattle herders and local communities, and even an electrified fence that surrounds the entire perimeter of this 90,000 acre sanctuary!
Rhino patrolling is no joke- it involves walking for hours on end, several times a day, until every last rhino is spotted at least once every three days. The rhino patrollers know each and every rhino by name and sight, and if they can’t find one during their daily patrol, then they use a plane to patrol the entire conservancy until all rhinos are accounted for!
However, poaching has become such a serious problem in East Africa, that last year alone, Ol Pejeta lost five of their 88 rhinos to poachers, which has been their greatest loss in twenty years. Ol Pejeta and the KWS have had to step up their game to defeat poaching, and some members of the security team undergo intensive training programs to sharpen their surveillance skills.
As you can imagine, protecting rhinos from illegal poaching is not only time intensive, but also expensive! Richard Vigne, the CEO of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, believes that the public and local communities should play an important part in protecting rhinos and wildlife in general. That’s where tourists, like me, can help out in a big way.
Ol Pejeta opens its doors to visitors who come for safaris or to volunteer with rhino patrolling. The revenue generated by tourists and volunteers is what fuels Ol Pejeta’s conservation efforts, and in essence, what keeps black rhinos safe.
Did I meet any rhinos, you may wonder? Stay tuned!
For several years now, I’ve been working with WildAid to promote wildlife conservation and to reduce the demand for products derived from endangered or threatened species. It’s encouraging to see how many people have been supportive of the campaign to reduce pressure on the world’s sharks by saying “no” to shark fin soup. Since becoming involved in this campaign and learning more about the threats to wildlife, I wanted to go and see what’s happening to some of these animals myself and so I’m heading to Africa for the first time to learn about elephants and rhinos, two species in peril as a result of demand for ivory and rhino horn.
After finishing up the great experience of commentating on Olympic basketball for CCTV, my journey begins at London’s world-renowned Natural History Museum, a beautiful building dating back to 1873, with one of the world’s best collections of fossils and animal specimens – approximately 70 million items in total. I wanted to learn more about our planet’s wildlife, both past and present, and better understand the root and the implications of extinction.
My guide is Dr. Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London, who spent time studying in China. We started in the Dinosaur Hall – beautiful and impressive. It would have been amazing to see one of these animals alive. Next to these guys, I’m feeling pretty small. Their extinction is thought to have been caused by an asteroid hitting the earth, causing a massive dust cloud – unavoidable and natural.
We saw the skeletons and exhibits of many animals that are now extinct. I learned that, in the grand scheme of things, extinction can be a natural process, a part of animals and plants adapting and changing – all part of evolution. But every so often there is a mass extinction event like the asteroid strike, which scientists believe wiped out the dinosaurs.
Many scientists believe we are now in the middle of the sixth great mass extinction, but for the first time, it’s being caused by an animal – human beings.
Now for many species facing extinction or near extinction, the threat is being caused by human activity – deforestation or the conversion of habitat to agricultural land, introducing foreign species that wipe out local species, and from over hunting.
Scientists estimate the current rate of extinction is perhaps 1,000 times greater than what would be considered natural. And the scale and pace of the changes is so extreme that animals don’t have time to adapt and evolve.
Seeing all these animals made me realize the amazing diversity of this incredible planet we inhabit and how shortsighted we are if we let more creatures disappear on our watch and by our hand.
The tour continued with wooly mammoths, giant ground sloths, and the Giant Moa bird. From what we know, it seems many large animals like this lived all over the world. Today, Dr. Turvey tells me that the only places you can really see animals of this stature and witness great wildlife diversity are in Africa and a few isolated parts of Asia. I learned that elephants and rhinos once thrived in China, but today we only have a few elephants and rhinos are long gone.
Both elephants and rhinos are being hunted at record levels for their ivory and horns. I was really shocked to learn that even dead rhinos aren’t safe. Across Europe, organized criminals have been stealing rhino horns from museums to supply the Asian market for rhino horns. Now, museums are replacing the horns on exhibit with fake ones. Sam told me, ironically, many of these museum horns may have been treated with preservatives so anyone trying to use these stolen horns may actually be poisoning themselves.
It’s sad that even our museums aren’t safe from the demand. If people are resorting to stealing rhino horns from museums to meet the demand, this doesn’t bode well for rhinos in the wild.
We’ll find out more in Africa.