Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s oldest national parks and South Africa’s flagship. It covers an area nearly the size of Israel and is home to roughly half the world’s white rhinos. It is manned by thousands of staff, who study and protect the animals, and look after the 1.4 million tourists who visit every year.
Kruger is home to between 9,000 and 12,000 white rhinos and approximately 600 black rhinos. Given the size of the park and the number of animals, it’s a difficult task to monitor the wildlife, even for the 2,500+ staff members.
The black rhinos are harder to keep and breed than the whites. They are more temperamental and solitary. From 100,000 in 1960, their numbers in Africa dropped to a low of 2,400 in 1995 before climbing back to 4,880 following a sales ban for rhino horn in China and other parts of Asia and increased protection in Africa.
We meet with the Director of Public Relations for South African National Parks, William Mabasa, who tells us the greatest challenge currently facing the park is poachers from both South Africa and Mozambique. Here elephants have been untouched, but rhinos are being hit constantly. Things have gotten so bad that now the South African army has been called in. But, finding poachers is still like looking for needles in a haystack.
Between 1990 and 2005, rhino poaching in South Africa averaged 14 animals a year according to trade monitoring group TRAFFIC and the populations were growing steadily. But in recent years, rhino poaching has risen again, with 440 animals killed in 2011, and this year’s figure expected to top 500.
On our very brief visit, we learn of seven rhinos recently killed in a reserve near Pilanesberg and four more in Kruger. Peter Knights of WildAid again apologizes for having to put me through the unenviable experience of seeing the results of this poaching.
We visit the body of a black rhino with Kruger’s Crime Scene Analysis team, searching for clues, like bullets or discarded debris, and collecting DNA samples so that if the horn is found, it can be traced back to here and not claimed to be an old horn.
The smell is so intense that I have to step away. This magnificent beast has been reduced to carrion for a horn.
On the way out of Daphne Sheldrick’s Orphanage, we turn a corner and come face-to-face with a large black rhino wandering loose. He snorts and comes to challenge us. It’s very intimidating.
Then his keeper arrives and starts tickling him and soothing him and he rolls to the ground in response. I am able to tickle him behind the ears. Another adopted orphan. A two-ton baby named Solio.
We leave Kenya stunned by the natural beauty, charmed by the welcome of the people, impressed by the elephants and their social interactions, the feeling that maybe we have more in common than I had thought, and shocked by the ferocity and brutality of the war being waged for their ivory.
From my conversations, it is clear that Kenya needs to pass legislation, which has languished in parliament for years, to increase the penalties for poaching. Currently, you can get a more severe punishment for stealing a few goats than for killing an elephant.
But they also need help from the international community, not just to support conservation work and enforcement efforts, but also to end the demand. This is a war that needs to be defunded and I hope we can raise public awareness to achieve this. As the WildAid slogan goes, “when the buying stops, the killing can, too.”
I have been heartened by the support that conservation work has received from both the people and government of China and I know we can do even more to help with increased enforcement and collaboration.
Back in Ol Pejeta, I visit some of the local community projects funded by the wildlife tourism. A school that now has a library and bank of computers some of the kids use to study (and play video games, I’m told).
The school teachers thanked me for coming and for all the good things China is doing in Kenya, like building a new road, but also appealed for our help in stopping the ivory poaching.
It’s clear that through the jobs provided by tourism, as well as the benefits to the local communities, wildlife is a very valuable resource for Kenya and many other African countries. Poaching robs communities of these benefits. When you buy ivory anywhere in the world, you are contributing to this theft.
Next stop, South Africa.
Back in Nairobi, we visit the headquarters of the Kenya Wildlife Service where I meet the Director, Julius Kipng’etich. He shows me a monument to rangers that have fallen in the line of duty. It’s a sobering moment as a reminder that this really is a war with casualties on both sides. There are no monuments to the poachers of course, but many have been killed in the process of stealing Kenya’s ivory.
We are taken to the “ivory room” in an underground vault where confiscated wildlife products are stored. It’s a veritable Aladdin’s cave of wildlife remains.
On the one side, a huge pile of skins, and on the other side, a stack of thousands of ivory tusks from miniature to enormous, with some covered in dirt as they had been buried to escape detection. Each one is marked with a weight and location. A sad testimony to the trade. If this was what was found, how much more was shipped out undetected?
They tell me that 3 tonnes of ivory have recently been stolen from Zambia’s stockpile and certainly this is like having gold bullion in a vault — very tempting for theft or corrupt activities. I’m told they will probably burn the confiscated ivory at some point.
After the graveyard of the ivory room, we meet some of the survivors at Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage, on the edge of Nairobi National Park.
More to come on that…
We then visit the Save the Elephants field station. A crushed pick-up sits outside as a monument to what can happen if you get on the wrong side of an elephant. Every panel was crushed as it was rolled over during a clash between two bulls.
Living next to elephants isn’t always easy — in some areas, crop raiding is a real problem. But here, where people rely on goats and camels rather than crops, there seems to be a peaceful co-existence.
En route, we see a mother lioness and two cubs sitting probably eight feet from our open vehicle. Peter Knights tells me as long as you remain in the vehicle, the lions will show no interest in you — step out and they’ll either run away or run after you. I’m a nice “medium rare” from the equatorial African sun, but I’d rather not be on the menu today!
As we watch, I notice movement behind me and see an elephant sniffing the air and then trumpeting and spreading its ears to make it seem much larger. We move out of the way and then the elephant shows who’s boss and clears the lions out shaking its head at them. They scamper off, occasionally turning back to consider trying their luck, but discretion is the better part of valor.
Sir Iain Douglas Hamilton tells me they know all of the elephant families and track their movements using radio collars that would break our backs, but are lightweight for the elephants. Using Google Earth, they are able to track an individual animal’s movements and identify corridors between parks, which can then be protected. At another site in the Maasai Mara, they have a male elephant named after me. I tell Iain I was a Rocket, not a Bull, but I am looking forward to being able to track my elephant namesake. I hope he stays safe.
Finally, we head out to record a Public Service Announcement with the elephants. They obligingly march right past me in the vehicle as if they know we need their help to get the message out to please not buy their ivory.
Next, Bernard takes me to visit the local Samburu village.
We arrive to a greeting from the women of the village looking stunning in their traditional dress with an amazing array of beadwork around their necks. He explains that they accumulate jewelry as unmarried women and then distribute it to their families as they are married. The women with the most jewelry are the most eligible. They serenade me with their amazing voices as we enter their village.
There, I meet the village elders. Branded baseball caps meets African traditional wear. It’s a blend of traditional and modern. They make me feel welcome and the eldest blesses me with a chorus of his fellows and as he speaks we are instructed to curl our fingers in acceptance of the blessing and I pat my forehead in acceptance of his benevolence.
Elephant Watch and Save the Elephants have been working with this community for decades and their appreciation is clear. Support for education and other community projects comes directly from the tourism conservation fees.
Peter Knights of WildAid told me on his last trip he met a a fully-qualified Samburu doctor, whose training had been paid for by those fees. He asked the doctor what a poached elephant meant to him personally and the response was, “one poached elephants is 200 Samburu children without an education.”
In China, we rightly value education very highly. For most parents, our greatest aspiration is the best possible education for our children. I’m sure if people realized that buying illegal ivory undermined education in Africa, they wouldn’t want to buy it anymore.
Next, I get to scout the local basketball talent. I’m looking for some new signings for the team I now manage, the Shanghai Sharks. There’s a great exuberance and some talent and thankfully on my turn I make my shots to a roar of approval. By the fourth basket, we manage to break the rickety rim, so I’m going have buy them a new hoop. It’s great to see such enthusiasm and ball-handling on a dirt court.
Next, the children come to sing for me accompanied by a burlap sack elephant with a few vision challenges. The smaller children run off in fright, but the two-man elephant hands me a basketball from its makeshift trunk.
A wonderful morning and they could not have made me feel more welcome. I feel deeply honored. The Samburu have a simple life, but they live it with dignity, humor and what appears to be an inner contentment we have a hard time achieving in the “modern” world.
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…