Always There? Don’t Bank On It

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I had no idea until this week when the BBC aired Giraffes: Africa’s Gentle Giants  in their Natural World series. But in the twenty years since this photograph was taken in the Maasai Mara the continent’s giraffe population has fallen by 40 %. That’s roughly 36,000 fewer wild giraffes on the planet, out of a total remaining population of 90,000.

I’ll say that again: there are only 90,000 giraffes left in all Africa.  Some populations comprise less than 400 individuals. Seven countries have lost their populations altogether.

In his voice-over, David Attenborough calls it a ‘silent extinction’; it has happened without anyone much noticing. We have been too busy worrying, and quite rightly so, about elephant numbers. But then Africa still has half a million elephants, albeit a fraction of those slaughtered for piano keys, billiard balls, and objets d’art.

One man who has been noticing the giraffe depletion is Australian scientist Dr. Julian Fennessy. From their home in Namibia, he and his wife have been studying the resident Angolan giraffes for twenty years, learning things about giraffes that no one else has bothered so far to discover. It seems that we all have thought that giraffes will always be there. If Fennessy has his way, they will be. But it’s a big call.

In many regions of Africa they have been poached for meat, or their habitats destroyed. There appears to be a further problem. It has long been known that there are several ‘races’ of giraffe across Africa – Maasai, Rothschild, Reticulated amongst others. Now Fennessy is coming to the conclusion that some of these regional variants are actually separate species. He is carrying out genetic sampling across the continent in order to find out. If his theory proves correct, then this knowledge will be crucial when it comes to maintaining viable breeding populations.

To fund operations, he and his wife run the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the only conservation charity devoted exclusively to giraffes.  The BBC film also documents the Fennessy family’s part in the extraordinary effort by the Uganda wildlife authority to translocate 20 giraffe across the Nile in order to establish a new population outside an area earmarked for oil exploration, and one already predated on by poachers. For anyone in the UK, the programme is still on BBC iPlayer.

And why should we worry about loss of giraffes. Well, like elephants, they are the natural world’s gardeners. They help to pollinate trees, so ensuring fruits and seeds for a range of other wildlife. They also spread ready-to-grow seeds in their dung, so propagating tree cover which benefits the planet. And utility aside, just the thought of them makes people happy. Perhaps happy enough to help to support the Giraffe Conservation Foundation? Follow the link to see the kind of work they do.

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Post inspired by Paula’s theme at Black & White Sunday: Always there

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

#GiraffeConservationFoundation

Rhinos: strong but oh so vulnerable

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The poaching of rhinos for their horn is a truly abhorrent trade, and shows humans at their worst, not only in terms of wanton cruelty, but also for their gross stupidity in believing that the horn a) makes a nice macho handle for their dagger, or b) does a single thing for their sexual performance. I do not wish to be sexist, but we are talking of the male of the species here.

However, while we are blaming recent decades of poaching for big game loss, it is worth remembering that some truly monumental decimation took place in countries like Kenya under colonial rule, and by the kind of aristocratic settler who considered East Africa their own personal hunting ground; this to the exclusion of the people whose land it had been for generations, and who then became labelled poachers if they were caught hunting for the pot.

John Hunter, was but one of many white hunters who worked both on his own account as a safari leader, and as a game clearance officer for the government. He began his hunting career around 1910 after quitting his job as a guard on the Mombasa railway. In an article in LIFE magazine 12 July 1952 he begins by saying:

When I first came to Kenya the game covered the plains as far as man could see. I hunted lions where towns now stand, and shot elephants from the engine of the first railroad to cross the country. In the span of my 65 years the jungles have turned to farmland and savage tribes have become factory workers. I have had a little to do with this change myself; for the government employed me to clear dangerous beasts out of areas that were opened to cultivation.This was in a day’s work for me; yet I have always been a sportsman.

John A Hunter(1887 – 1963)

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His career tally for elephants killed is 1,400, but when it comes to rhinos, he holds the world record. Over a two-day period he was responsible for 1,000 rhino deaths, the slaughter taking place in the Makindu area of Ukambani, about a hundred miles south of Nairobi. The land, and rather poor land at that, was wanted by the authorities for the resettlement of the Akamba people. But the scale of the killing goes to show how plentiful these animals once were.

When John Hunter came to retire in 1958, it was to the small hotel he had built at Hunter’s Lodge, Makindu. I have written about the place in other posts; we practically lived there in ‘92. The story goes that successive owners had long given up trying to keep the roadside hotel sign upright. Always, the locals said, some avenging rhino would come and flatten it. Whether this was a real or a spirit rhino, no one said, but there were certainly no rhinos in sight when we were there.

Today in Kenya there are several private reserves where small numbers of black and white rhinos live out their lives with round-the-clock ranger-guards. At the time when the top photo was taken, the white rhino concerned inhabited, with several others, a secluded part of a Maasai-owned group ranch. It is hoped that initiatives such as these will keep the species viable, but it is by no means certain. It is anyway a dangerous job for the men in the photo below. These days poachers come well armed with automatic weapons. It takes great bravery and strength of character to protect the world’s wildlife out in the bush. So three cheers for the rangers wherever they are working on this, WORLD RHINO DAY. These men and women deserve all our  praise and support. It is only a shame that their diligent protection continues to be needed.

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Anti-poaching team in a private reserve in Northern Kenya

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copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

For a South African perspective on the state of rhinodom see De Wets Wild, always a blog worth visiting for its wonderful wildlife photos.

And for an Indian view, Sriram Janak’s wonderful blog.

Ailsa’s travel theme: strong for more strong stories

 

On watch at Elmenteita–the lake that blows away

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The light changes every second across the lake. From dawn till dusk there is always something to watch at Elmenteita in Kenya’s Great Rift. There are over 400 species of birds to spot for one thing – among them the endangered white pelican that breeds there. The main stars, though, are the surely the huge flocks of flamingos, both lesser and greater varieties, that turn swathes of the lake to rose-petal  pink. Even a passing glimpse  from the nearby  Rift highway  is enough to catch the breath. A pink lake – how can that be?

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We came here often while we lived in Nairobi, staying at Delamere tented camp on the lake shore – a quirky, step-back-in-time establishment within its own nature reserve. The camp, itself was wholly unobtrusive -16 large tents, each sheltered by a thatched canopy and set out beneath fever trees that, here and there, hosted a sturdy canvas hammock.

The tents were functional – two wood-framed beds, simple cupboards, rattan chairs all locally made. They came, too, with a plain little bathroom attached out back – running water, flush loo and shower – all facilities that would still be an unobtain-able luxury to millions of Kenyans. Inevitably, knowing this added to the discomforting ‘them and us’  awareness that accompanied us pretty much everywhere. 

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For us wazungu, then, Delamere Camp was an idyllic spot. I once spent a week here by myself while G was at a conference. There were no other guests for most of that time, external and internal tourism having been hit both by El Nino rains that had caused weeks of havoc, and by widely reported bouts of pre-election violence.  Manager, Godfrey Mwirigi, treated me as if I were his personal house guest.

I thus spent my days and nights being driven around Soysambu nature reserve in a safari truck with zoologist, Michael Kahiga as my expert guide, or taken on early morning bird walks through  the bush, or on late afternoon hikes up through the sage-scented leleshwa brush to Sogonoi cliff-top to watch the sun set over the lake with a glass of wine in my hand. This, the daily late afternoon pilgrimage to the sun-downer cliff, was a pleasing piece of  hospitality thought up by  Paul Kabochi, the camp’s ethno-botanist. I have written about him in an earlier post, but here he is again on the lake shore at dawn.

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On this solitary sojourn I was sorry to find that he was away setting up another camp. He is a man whose great fund of knowledge is sadly missed, and I would have been glad to have had another chance to speak with him.  Instead, I talked to Godfrey about tourism. He kindly ate his meals with me so that I did not have to  sit in the dining room alone.

Between times, hot water bottles and extra blankets appeared like magic in my bed, or indeed in the truck for the evening game drives. (Nights in the Rift can feel frosty). And all the time I watched and watched until my brain ached with sensory overload.

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The camp overlooked the lake and the remnant volcanic cone that has long been known by the Maasai as the Elngiragata Olmorani, the Sleeping Warrior.  During colonial times it acquired a further name – Lord Delamere’s Nose, this apparently in tribute to the impressive dynastic proboscis of the third baron Delamere who, in the early 1900s, and as one of the first pioneer colonists, acquired  19 hectares (46,000 acres) of shore-land around the  the east, north and west of the lake.

His brother-in-law, Galbraith Cole, son of the Earl of Enniskillen, farmed the southerly shores at Kekopey. He was a man who was later exiled from British East Africa because he shot dead one of his labourers for stealing a favourite sheep. He later sneaked back to Kekopey disguised as a Somali, and his mother, Countess of Enniskillen successfully pleaded his cause. At the age of 48, and looking out over the lake, he shot himself, unable to bear the constant pain of his rheumatoid arthritis.

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The descendants of these early settlers still live and retain most of their lands (including estates at nearby Lake Naivasha). In fact the only way to gain access to Elmenteita is to book into one of the exclusive safari lodges that now stand on the land that belongs to these old colonial families. This sense of British aristocratic exclusivity inevitably strikes a sour note. Doubtless these landowners will say they are custodians and that, without their dutiful care, the place would be wrecked by ramshackle trading operations and squatters, and the wildlife decimated.

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Even in my home town in Shropshire we are still ruled by such feudal argument. ‘Keep Out’ signs exclude the people of Much Wenlock from the ancient Priory parkland that is  now owned by one family. In Great Britain we take for granted (or are even unaware of) the power of the self-appointed, self-aggrandizing elite who own most of our countries’ lands.  I imagine, though, that many people would be surprised to know that super-squiredom is also alive and well  in East Africa.

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Before the British annexed East Africa in the 1890s, and all the (deemed) unoccupied territory became the property of the British Crown, and the locals obliged to stay forever  on the land where the British happened to find them,  land usage and territorial ownership was a much more fluid affair. For instance, up in the Rift highlands, and going back hundreds of years, the Kikuyu farmers had negotiated the legal acquisition of new land with the indigenous Okiek hunters, whom the Kikuyu judged to be the land’s original owners. Over the centuries this process of colonisation caused an occupational creep: as land became exhausted or overcrowded, so clan scions left their fathers’ homesteads and sought out fresh territories for their own families to cultivate. It is a similar story over much of the continent as the Bantu agriculturalists sought fresh ground.

As the boundaries of  allotted farm and pastureland nudged further into the Rift, so there was competition and conflict with the pastoral Maasai. The herders anyway believed themselves masters of the Rift, shifting up and down it as need for fresh grazing and water dictated. The farming communities with whom they traded and inter-married also at times presented an alluring target. This was inspired by the cattle herders’ belief that Enkai, the creator, had bequeathed all the cattle on earth to the Maasai. For young warriors intent on proving their courage and amassing cattle to augment family honour, armed cattle raids on their farming neighbours were a matter of necessity.

It is interesting, then, that colonial aristocrats such as Delamere, who established large stock ranches in the Rift, were inordinately admiring of the Maasai, seeing them as nature’s aristocrats. It is also tempting to put this down to a congruence of world vision: recognition of a mutual case of droit du seigneur? In fact in those early days, Delamere was the only white man for whom the Maasai would deign to work, although this did not stop them from making off with large numbers of his sheep and cattle.

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That the Rift was once Maasai territory is indicated by the many place names – Naivasha, Nakuru included – that are European renderings of Maa originals. Elmenteita derives from  ol muteita,  meaning  “place of dust” and, from time to time, this shallow soda lake does turn to dust.  At the best of times it is only around 1 metre deep. It shrinks and expands depending on the rains. But when not blowing away to dust, it extends over some 19-22 square kilometres.

The alkaline waters are rich in the crustacea and larvae that the greater flamingos feed on, and in the blue-green algae that the lesser flamingos syphon up through the top of their bills. The former have white plumage with a pink wash; the latter are more the colour of strawberry ice cream. Both honk, and grunt and mutter in a continuously shifting mass. All night you can hear them as you lie awake in your tent.

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A view to dine for: Losogonoi Escarpment and the lake shore

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But it is not only the bird life that make this place so special. The traditional ‘big five’ may be lacking in this part of the Rift, but it is still home to Rothschild giraffe, eland, buffalo, zebra, ostrich, impala, gazelle and a host of smaller game – aardvark, zorilla, porcupine, African wildcat. Since our time in Kenya much has changed at Soysambu. In 2007 the private Delamere Estate began operating as a not-for-profit conservation organi-zation called Soysambu Conservancy.

Delamere Camp has long gone. In its place is a new enterprise, the very expensive Serena Elmenteita Luxury Camp, a sort of out-of-Africa manifestation with bells on, the kind of set-up that intrudes a different kind of exclusivity on this piece of Kenya. But then of course there’s always the usual argument: that the provision of luxury on this scale does at least provide many, many jobs for Kenyans. Across the lake, however, something of the original Delamere Camp ethos has been re-created at the Sleeping Warrior Eco Lodge and Tented Camp – all within the Soysambu Conservancy.

In fact things have not been going well with the Delamere family. The sheer mention of the name has been enough to evoke great fury among many Kenyans. In 2005 and again in 2006, Thomas Cholmondeley, sole heir of the 5th Baron and Soysambu’s manager, admitted to shooting dead an African. The first case involved a plain clothes officer working for the Kenya Wildlife Service, apparently on the Soysambu farm to investigate a poaching incident. Cholmondeley says he thought the man was robbing his staff. Action against him was dropped.

In the second case, he caught a group of poachers with a dead impala, and said he was shooting at their dog when he fatally wounded one of the men. Later he claimed it was his friend, Carl Tundo, who had shot the poacher, and that he was covering for him. The whole sorry story was featured in the BBC Storyville film Last White Man Standing. Later the charge of murder was changed to manslaughter, and in any event Cholmondeley spent 3 years in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, Kenya’s toughest jail. To many, though, it was thought to be far too lenient a sentence. The high profile media coverage also  reminded  millions of landless Kenyans that certain individuals had in their sole possession unimaginably vast estates. The old skeletons of racism and colonial oppression came rattling out of the cupboard to fuel the general furore, as the poacher’s widow asked for justice.

And so what in the end are we left with – a beautiful place enmeshed in tales of human intrigue, slaughter and misadventure.

I know I was lucky to spend so much time there when I did, and to see it through the eyes of the Kenyan naturalists who were my guides. I hope that many of them still work there – for Serena or Soysambu. They taught me how to watch out in that landscape: to recognize tracks of genet cat and mongoose, to poke through the little piles of dik dik droppings that marked this tiny antelope’s territory, to identify a black-breasted apalis or shy tchagra, to listen for the calls of the red-fronted tinkerbird, to know that an infusion of bark from the muthiga or Kenya Greenheart tree is good for toothache and stomach upsets, and most especially not to fall into aardvark holes as I was walking through the thornscrub.

Finally then, a few glimpses of Soysambu’s beautiful creatures.

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Photos from bottom up:

Superb starling comes to breakfast

Waterbuck females

Dik Dik (one of the smallest antelopes, slightly larger than a hare)

Saddlebill stork, impala in the background

Eland (the largest of Africa’s antelope) and ostrich

Burchell’s zebra

Rothschild giraffe

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© 2014 Tish Farrell

A Word A Week Challenge for more stories

Elecommunication: so many connections

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Elephants: “The animal which surpasses all others in wit and mind.” Aristotle

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Do you remember when you first discovered there were such things as elephants? And didn’t childish intuition tell you at once that these animals were among the world’s most wonderful creatures?

Over the last few decades scientists have proved that they are in fact wonderful – and in all sorts of ways, not least their ability to communicate over large distances. Then there is their highly developed matriarchal society. They are also one of the most intelligent species on earth. They are good at problem solving. There are many cases of their altruistic acts. For instance they have been known to help wounded humans in the bush, even going so far as placing exposed individuals in the shade, and then keeping guard over them against predators.

But proof apart, it is probably anyway beyond most people’s comprehension that some forms of humanity see elephants purely as a resource – killing them for ivory, or a trophy head to brag about to their shooting chums.

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The word elephant, I’ve just read somewhere on Google, comes from the Greek word elephas meaning ivory, so already we have a clue as to the literate world’s  (one hesitates to use the word ‘civilized’ here)  once primary relationship with elephants. But then this is not the only kind of man-elephant relationship. The killing of elephants is not always about the pursuit of luxury goods. Indigenous African peoples, such as the small-statured Mbuti hunters of the the Congo forests, have long hunted elephant for food, and also possibly scavenged dead ones. One beast, killed once in a while would keep a hunting band going for many days as well as providing large amounts of meat to trade with farming neighbours for other goods.

The fact that there have always been hunters like the Mbuti who will tackle an elephant, makes them in turn desirable allies and trading partners to less brave outsiders who crave only the ivory. In East Africa, from at least the start of the first millennium AD, Arab dhow merchants relied on locals like the Akamba people to bring ivory to the coast to trade. In the nineteenth century the Swahili slavers set off into the interior to grab for themselves a combination haul of humans and ivory, the poor human captives being forced, while they still lived, to carry the elephant tusks hundreds of miles back to the coast.

There are far older stories too.  The tomb biography of Prince Harkhuf of Elephantine records that four thousand years ago this Ancient Egyptian general headed at least four major expeditions into the African interior. One objective was to test the waters for a take-over of the neighbouring Kingdom of Nubia. But there were also valuable resources to garner: ivory, leopard skins, ebony, precious stones. One expedition went beyond the Mountains of the Moon, the Rwenzori Mountains on the borders of Uganda and Eastern Congo, and so into the territory of Mbuti hunters.

The tomb account includes a letter from Harkhuf’s Pharaoh, Pepi II Neferkare  who, on becoming Egypt’s ruler at the age of six, longed for nothing more than his own pygmy,  he “who danceth like the god”. The letter contains strict instructions as to the pygmy’s care, and especially on the voyage back down the Nile so that he does not fall in the river. Anyone who has read Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People, will know that the Mbuti are renowned for their performances of complex polyphonic singing and energetic dancing conducted in praise of their Forest Creator. Neferkare’s letter would suggest that the Mbuti were already well known to the Egyptians thousands of miles away, and the primary source of this relationship was mostly likely to have been the Mbuti’s provision of forest produce including ivory.

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But the biggest assault on elephant-kind has all to do with the arrival of the gun. A major killing spree began in the late 1800s in the Congo – then a private fiefdom of Leopold II of Belgium (think Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the Congo River stations set up especially to export ivory and wild rubber from the forest hinterland). In East Africa the slaughter began at a similar time under British colonial rule – first British and European aristocrats out to make their fortunes, then by hunters,like John Hunter,  employed by the colonial administration to protect settler plantations from elephant damage. The ivory hunters of course always sought out the animals with the biggest tusks. So much so, that when the likes of Denys Finch Hatton and aviator, Beryl Markham began scouting for ivory from the air, the big bulls of Tsavo were reputed to hide their tusks in the undergrowth whenever they heard a plane.

What was taking place, then, was a most unnatural selection. The biggest and best elephants had the biggest and best ivory. The gene pool of present day elephants has thus been ravaged by a century of mass killing. After the colonial era, the armies of civil war conflicts across the continent, continued the job started by colonial sportsmen and administrators. After the Idi Amin regime in Uganda when much wildlife was decimated, the tusks of the elephant population that gradually re-established itself were either puny or did not develop at all. And an elephant needs his tusks – not least for rearranging the landscape (clearing trees to favour grass growth) and mining for water sources and essential mineral salts.

And why did this killing begin? Because humans thought that ivory re-fashioned into billiard balls, piano keys, and objets d’art was more valuable than embedded in living, breathing elephants. Some people still think this.

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But back to the elephants and those extraordinary things that scientists have been discovering about them. For one thing, the infra-sound throat rumbles that vibrate through the earth can convey information to other elephants at least six miles away. It would appear, too, that they can pick up seismic movements over far greater distances than this. Researchers have observed that when it started thundering in Angola, thus signalling the start of the rains and fresh browse in that quarter, elephants one hundred miles away in Etosha National Park, Namibia, set off there. Apparently the tips of trunks, toes and heels are especially sensitive to vibration. Working Asiatic elephants have also been known to detect tsunamis and make for higher ground, thus saving any humans who happened to be riding on them at the time.

When it comes to communicating amongst the immediate herd or with potential predators, elephants have a whole range of calls and gestures, depending on the circumstances. These include ear-splitting screams and trumpeting, rumbles and grunts, crying and barking, head shaking and ear-flapping, trunk slapping, dust-kicking, throwing missiles, ear spreading, standing tall, and making mock and real charges.

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While their eyesight is not acute, and especially in bright light conditions, they have a keen sense of smell. An elephant will  thus continuously read its environment and, using the tip of its trunk like an antenna, decode all manner of messages by scanning urine, faeces, saliva, and the secretions from their fellows’ temporal glands (found on the side of the head mid way between the  eye and ear). Also, when it comes to acts of aggression from humans, elephants will remember these and continue to identify such aggressors by their smell.

And that’s the other marvellous thing. Elephants do remember. For much of the year the males and females live separately usually only congregating for mating purposes. The females roam in small family groups led by an old matriarch. Within that matriarch’s head is a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom that she uses to manage her daughters, granddaughters and their offspring, and so keep them healthy and safe. Elephants left bereft of their elders through culling or poaching, are known to flounder and panic without the old ones’ guidance. 

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As you can see from some of these photos, mostly taken outside the national park  in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, elephants are not only highly sociable, but also very tactile. They spend much time wiggling against each other and touching each other with their trunks. Even older elephants like to play, and there are a whole range of gestures that they use to invite general romping. As the work of Daphne Sheldrick has shown at her Nairobi elephant orphanage, an orphaned elephant will die, not so much because it is short of food, although the right infant milk formula is very important, but because it does not have a continuous show of affection and reassurance from family members.

Sheldrick has learned how to provide for this vital need by assigning a human keeper-parent to every baby; duties, apart from feeding and playing, include spending the night with their charges. When the time comes to repatriate adolescent elephants to the wild, the lack of matriarchal knowledge creates a considerable challenge to making a viable transition. This was well shown in the BBC series The Elephant Diaries.

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The Elephant Orphanage, Nairobi

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More sobering to learn is the fact that elephants, not only have a similar life-span to us, but they also do understand death. In the past, conservationists have found to their cost that elephants are utterly traumatized by witnessing culling events. Where elephants have been wounded by poachers, their comrades will stay beside them and try to lift them or feed them grass. Once an elephant has died, the herd may remain with the corpse of several days. The young ones have been seen to cry. The survivors will then cover the dead one with branches, leaves and grass. During colonial times, a Kenyan district officer once confiscated a poachers’ stash of ivory, only to find that in the night, the local elephants broke into the store and carried off the tusks.

There is, though, another side of the elephant-man story, and especially where they compete for the same territory. In a single night’s  foraging, elephants can wipe out a whole season’s crops in a farmer’s smallholding, and that means starvation for the family concerned. They will also kill humans if they consider themselves provoked. Bulls in must are quickly irritated and are especially dangerous at such times, as are mothers with small calves.  In poor communities poaching ivory can become an attractive proposition where local bigwigs and foreign buyers seem to be offering them a small fortune to do so. The only way to protect both elephants and would-be local poachers is to give communities reasons to protect elephants. That means a fair cut of tourist dollars to provide for schools and clinics and a a better standard of living all round.

There are many thousands of elephants still roaming African, but they are always under threat. Most nations’ wildlife parks are under-resourced when it comes to vehicles, equipment and manpower. Much protection of wildlife is in fact done by owners of private game reserves in conjunction with local communities.  In the meantime, we need to thank those African rangers, men and women, who daily risk their lives for often little pay, to protect their countries’ wildlife from human rapine. They are indeed true heroes.  We might also stop to ponder on whether some of the resource grabbers funding the poachers  might not have closer connections to our own lives than we care to admit.

Ailsa’s Travel Theme: connections

© 2013 Tish Farrell

For more about ivory poaching:

Dear Kitty. Some blog Ivory trade legal in the USA

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For more about elephants in general: Elephant Voices

Related posts:

Elephants, E-books and Enticing Reluctant Readers  #amwriting