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Mara Wildebeest

Mara Wildebeest

In early September Kenya’s Masai Mara game reserve is alive with animals on the hoof. Hundreds of thousands of wildebeest and zebra have arrived from Tanzania and for a few weeks their presence makes this little stretch of Africa the most fascinating and vibrant place on earth. It is an irrefutable reality that no man-made wonder can compete with the grandeur Mother Nature offers us, and there is no more spectacular confirmation of this fact in the natural world than the great wildebeest migration. I’ve now been witness to this sweeping movement of ungulates on several occasions, and I think I have a pretty fair understanding of why it happens and how it works. There was a time, not so long ago, when I had no clue.

I’d seen the frenetic river crossings on television before I ever visited Africa and was enthralled by the fundamental life and death struggle that seemed to tumultuously capture the spirit of the savanna. I was also amazed by the scope of it all … the turgid, mocha colored river twisting through steep banks, teeming with wildebeest under an endless sky. But I operated under the misconception that the animals entered the waters of the Mara initially when they crossed into Kenya, and took the leap once more when they returned to Tanzania. I should have looked at the map.   The Mara River doesn’t even mark the border between the two countries. It winds through rolling Kenyan hills in a southwesterly direction, slicing through a corner of Tanzania, and onward to Lake Victoria.   The migration animals actually encounter the river all through the Masai Mara reserve and transit it many times from July through the end of September, sometimes later in the year if the rains are favorable.

Wildebeests may not be the most physically appealing of Africa’s animals, but they are astonishing nonetheless. Their faces and eyes seem to be dull and expressionless. At first glance, they impress us as being entirely devoid of thought and feeling. But they somehow magically turn up right on schedule season after season, birthing their young in the same spot in February in the southern Serengeti and grazing their way across the Masai Mara between July and October. Their instincts have vectored them off in the correct direction to find the best grasses year after year since time immemorial. Nature has programmed them well, and they continue to thrive against all odds.

And the Mara River crossings … certainly the most dramatic spectacle available to anyone on safari. No two crossing events are identical, but here, generally and unscientifically, is how it seems to work.

The animals begin to mass on the plain, grazing, not far from the river. You can look away for a time, turn back toward the herd and you may notice that a handful of them have moved to the high banks of the river and are surveying the terrain both up and downriver. They seem to be deciding on the optimum place to ford, in complete defiance of my impression that they are incapable of thought or reason. Look away again for a few minutes … and a few brave quadrupedal souls are now near the river’s edge … staring one way and then the other. In the meantime, the larger mass of animals has moved toward the water, building pressure on the leaders to cross. They all seem to sense the danger, so they are naturally reluctant. Oftentimes the animals will be spooked for no good reason and stampede back up the banks and onto the plain.   Then the process begins anew. The mass of animals eases slowly toward the water and then drifts away again. The same unaccountable instinct that tells them to enter the water also seems to tell them that this may be the last thing they will ever do. So they are cautious.

A crocodile surfaces in the Mara while a wary wildebeest considers taking the plunge.

A crocodile surfaces in the Mara while a wary wildebeest considers taking the plunge.

Eventually, and inexplicably, one animal will take the plunge and the river becomes a bawling riot of splashing water and flying mud. Sometimes the crocodiles take the swimmers in mid-stream, but the crossing momentum, once initiated, is difficult to stop. There are recorded instances of river crossings lasting for hours and the casualties sometimes number in the hundreds.   If the wildebeest choose their exit point poorly or drift too far in the fast water, they sometimes drown or are mortally injured by the crush of animals exiting up the steep banks.   But the strength of the species is in its numbers and the vast majority of them successfully reach the destination. Those animals sacrificed in the river or on the plain unwillingly serve a critical purpose. They ensure the continuation of so many other species – crocodile, lion, cheetah, leopard, vulture, etc. – that collectively make the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem the most interesting place on earth.

Taking the great leap just upstream from the rapids.

Taking the great leap just upstream from the rapids.

 

Mara River crossing ... noisy, dusty and chaotic.

Mara River crossing … noisy, dusty and chaotic.

There’s no way to know how long the great migration will continue in its current form.   The human pressure on all sides of the Masai Mara seems to continue to build steadily without any immediate prospect of relief.   There always seems to be a new lodge under construction or a news story about a poisoned lion pride. It is rare to hear any reports that do not describe some activity that is detrimental to the health of the wildlife population. But for now, let us take whatever joy we can from the sight of this ocean of animals as they occupy Kenya’s rolling hills, and hope and pray the coming generations of humanity will respect nature enough to guarantee the continuation of the cycle.

Exiting the River can be the most dangerous part of the ordeal.

Exiting the River can be the most dangerous part of the ordeal.

 

 

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a-lr

My favorite elephant in the world.

 

The world’s appetite for ivory has, for years now, been the driving force behind the catastrophic decline in Africa’s elephant population. This problem is well documented and the struggle to stop it has been very public. What has been much less obvious is the accelerated rate at which the battle is being lost. A recently completed census revealed that Africa’s elephant numbers have declined by a full 30% over the past seven years. It seems that conservationists and wildlife lovers are overwhelmed with bad news on an almost daily basis, but this statistic is particularly unsettling. It confirms the possibility that the extinction of the species is, mathematically, not far distant. There are many angles to this tragedy, all of them ugly. There is the unfathomable but pervasive belief in parts of Asia that ivory trinkets are more valuable than elephant lives. There are the corrupt government officials who look the other way, turning a blind eye to the incessant slaughter and reaping enormous financial benefit in so doing. And there is the grinding poverty that forces people to illegal poaching to ensure the survival of their families. The challenges are huge, and there are no simple answers.

 
A couple of months back, there was another elephant story in the news that reflected the plight of the species in microcosm. Big Tim, the great patriarch of the Amboseli game reserve, was struck on the head with a large rock and pierced through the ear with a spear, the tip of which was embedded in his shoulder. Tim worked his way to the headquarters of the Big Life Foundation, a non-profit outfit dedicated to the preservation of elephants in southern Kenya. By all indications he had deliberately sought out humans who could assist him. He was sedated, treated, and up and on his way back to the Amboseli marsh in fairly short order.

b-lr

Big Tim in company with an elephant family en route to the marsh. Notice how he towers over everyone else.

Big Tim happens to be my favorite elephant in the world. I’ve been fortunate to spend many hours in his company over the years. He is huge. He is majestic. He is approaching 50 years of age, and his prodigious right tusk almost scrapes the ground with every step. It’s well documented that elephant families are matriarchal and males are expelled from the group when they reach sexual maturity. But Tim is always welcome to travel in company with the ladies and their families. He is unassuming, unpretentious and laid back. A scientist friend recently described him to me as “one cool cat.” Based on personal observation, I’d say that description is impeccable. The only time I’ve seen him even remotely perturbed was for the purpose of disciplining a younger bull who was stirring up a bit of a ruckus. He is the benevolent, slow-moving preserver of the peace at Amboseli. He is known and loved throughout Kenya. His portrait even adorns an entire wall in the baggage collection area at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi.

c-lr

Note the elevated area high on the right flank. This was where Tim was wounded with a poisoned spear.

Prior to this past February, I’d seen Tim most recently in November of 2014. At that time he was moving even more slowly than usual as he recovered from a poisoned spear wound high on his right side. After seeing news articles on this year’s attempt on his life, it occurred to me that the assaults and injuries he’s endured are in many ways emblematic of the attacks on the elephant species writ large. Some examples, like the random list below, are obvious.

 
• There have been multiple attempts on Tim’s life. Like the rest of his kind, his existence is at risk at all times and his enemies are relentless.
• The danger to the Tim and all elephants is exclusively from Homo sapiens. No other species poses a threat to him.
• The risks are particularly egregious where traditional wildlife territories conflict with human settlements. This has been the cause of Tim’s two most serious wounds.
• Elephants are poached for their ivory, and Tim’s tusks are among the biggest in all of Africa. This potentially makes him one of the most valuable targets.

But the most important parallel between Tim and all African elephants is illustrated with precision by his visit to Big Life headquarters just a couple of months ago. Tim had, not for the first time, been severely wounded by human beings. As a sentient creature, he was sufficiently cognizant to seek help from those who could best deliver it.

 

The salient point is this: As humans represent the primary threat to the existence of the species, so do they also represent the only hope for its salvation. It’s that simple. It’s a matter of will and commitment. In light of the disturbing numbers published in the recent census and for the sake of Big Tim and all of Africa’s elephants, I sincerely hope we are up to this most difficult task.

Big Tim of Amboseli ….

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petition photo

 

“Indifferent land, red with dust

Lost gray souls flee a world unjust … “

In January of 2013 my son and I visited the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust’s orphanage in Nairobi.  His adopted elephant, a beautiful 15 month old calf named Quanza, had just arrived back in her paddock after spending the day in Nairobi National Park with 25 other orphans.  Little Quanza was a recent addition at DSWT and had not yet learned to hold her own bottle.  But she was animated and comfortable in her surroundings, and the affection she obviously felt for her keeper was touching and reassuring to see.  That’s because the events that ultimately delivered her to the Sheldrick orphanage were a series of traumas that no living creature should ever have to endure.

 

Just three months earlier, on a dry plain near Amboseli and slightly north of the Tanzanian border, her mother and aunts had been slaughtered in a storm of gunfire by poachers as she stood trembling and bewildered near by.  Her cousins disappeared into the dust and were never seen again.   Within 48 hours the angels from DSWT were airborne to save the terrified baby.  Their miracle now stood before us in the paddock, exultant and healthy.  But it was impossible not to consider the reality than this animal belonged in the wild … with her mother and extended family.

 

The orphanage is a loving sanctuary, the nearest thing to heaven an elephant baby could ever experience.   But I have a dream … and that dream is to see many an empty paddock in the DSWT compound.  I’d like to see the occupancy rate drastically reduced … restricted solely to those youngsters orphaned by accidents or natural causes.   And that can only happen if elephant poaching becomes a thing of the past.    I dream for the human realization that elephants do not exist to be destroyed for purposes of entertainment, and their body parts are not designed to serve as decoration for our homes.  My friend, the great rhino conservationist Raoul du Toit, tells me that we’ll never completely eradicate poaching.  I suspect he’s right, but the fight must continue on every front … in Asia where the appetite for ivory is the strongest, on patrol in the shadows of Kilimanjaro and in the courtrooms of the world.

 

We tend to see the poaching scourge as an issue that primarily extends on an axis between the plains of Africa and the markets of East Asia.   But the problem is most certainly global, and its tentacles are embedded here in the United States as well.  Even with new and more restrictive regulations in place, ivory commerce is still permitted under federal law and elephant parts are still imported to gratify the senses of trophy hunters.  Considering the rate at which Africa’s elephant populations are being decimated, the time has come to ask the question … should any elephant trophies or tusks be allowed into the U.S.?

 

The continuing trade and transport of ivory in this country does indeed help drive the market, and it definitely impacts the lives of elephants on the African continent.  The head of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently wrote, “We believe a substantial amount of elephant ivory is illegally imported and enters the domestic market. Our criminal investigations and anti-smuggling efforts have clearly shown that legal ivory trade can serve as a cover for illegal trade.“  Criticizing those who violently destroy these great animals is a fairly simple matter, but there are substantive near term actions we can take here in the United States to affect the ivory market.   And the most logical and immediate of these is to shut down ivory commerce completely.

 

There is a petition for a 100% ban on ivory trading in the United States on the White House website as I write this.  It must be signed 100,000 times by the end of this month in order to earn a place on the President’s desk.  It’s incumbent on those of us who are passionate about wildlife to see that these animals receive all the protection we can give them.  As of 11 May, we’re over one third of the way through the month and we still have less than 10,000 signatures.  I respectfully ask that you take five minutes of your time and read, sign and share this petition.  It can be accessed at this link:

 

http://wh.gov/lGl3J

 

The elephants are surely worth the few simple steps it takes to add a signature.

 

These iconic animals cannot speak for themselves, but the facts and numbers do.  Reliable estimates place the African elephant population at between 250,000-400,000 animals.  If poaching rates continue on the current trajectory (35,000 of them killed each year), they risk extinction in the wild within 10-15 years.  Blood ivory is taking a keystone, ancient species to the brink of extinction.

 

Dame Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the orphanage now entrusted with the care of little Quanza and others like her, has stated unequivocally that ivory trade and trafficking should be universally outlawed.  This petition would help realize her dream … and mine.   Please join the fight by adding your name.

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Female black rhino in the Mara

Female black rhino in the Mara

A quick follow up to my earlier entry on the Dallas Safari Club’s auction of the rhino permit.  As I mentioned in my essay, it’s one of five permits offered annually by the Namibian government.  This event struck such a visceral chord and generated an overwhelming reaction, both pro and con … but mostly con.  I floated some rhetorical questions about the disposition of the other four permits … who bought them, who’ll hunt, etc.  But the Dallas auction caught our collective attention in a way that the other four permits never would.  Why is that?

 

The idea that the exclusive right to shoot one of the world’s most revered but endangered animals could be auctioned to the highest bidder is disconcerting in its own right, but the reality that the permit was sold for $350K is particularly horrifying.   The physical act of destruction is appalling to contemplate, but in this case the admixture of killing and money smacks of prostitution of the most insidious variety.  Simply put, it is an ugly piece of self-gratification at an obscene price.  And to add to the insult, the proponents of the hunt think they can assuage the concerns of rhino supporters by reassuring us that the $350K will further the cause of rhino conservation.  Talk is cheap.  When the hell has anyone ever demonstrated or even attempted to prove that hunting money really does advance the cause of species preservation in Africa?  I believe the DSC hope is that the money will be paid, the rhino will be killed, and in short order the whole event will be forgotten.

 

One of the great deceptions the hunters perpetuate is that they’ve actually accomplished something noteworthy by hanging a rhino head on the wall.  Black rhinos can be aggressive and dangerous, but they’re also very shy and wary.  The hunter in the field will have an entourage of armed trackers, and I submit that at no time will he ever be in actual danger.  Nevertheless, he’ll stand breathlessly by the carcass and pose for photos.  Maybe he’ll even have a video team along, capturing the whispers and tension of the tracking team as they close on the prey.  But the accomplishment is roughly the same as if he sneaked through a field in Wisconsin and eased up behind a dairy cow and drilled it with his high caliber rifle.   The glory factor is equivalent …. but friends and family back home don’t know that.  I tracked black rhinos on foot last summer in both South Africa and Zimbabwe armed only with a camera, and I was never in any real danger despite being just 15 meters or so away from the animals.

 

And to cap it all, we have patronizing comments like this from the auction winner.

 

“I deeply care about all of the inhabitants of this planet and I am looking forward to more educated discussion regarding the ongoing conservation effort for the Black Rhino.”

 

The hunter is attempting to make the case that he is demonstrating his care for the creatures of the planet by hunting them.  In other words, he loves them so much that he’ll pay astronomical rates to kill them.  Educated discussion, eh?  Nice.  He also says he wants to “experience” a black rhino.   If many more rhinos are “experienced” there won’t be any left anywhere.  He should pay a visit to the orphaned rhinos at Imfolozi whose mothers were “experienced” by poachers.  This guy will probably be elected to Congress.  He seems to have all the requisite skills.

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rhino 15 jan 14

 

As I write these words there is a full on brouhaha in progress over the Dallas Safari Club’s auction of a permit to kill a black rhino in Namibia. The Washington Post reports that the permit went for a cool $350,000. The Post further relates that the targeted animal will be an older, “retired” male who has become aggressive toward other animals. In other words, he’s a “rogue” in much the same way the Smithsonian’s rotunda elephant was a rogue (see my post below on that unfortunate incident). Apparently the government of Namibia allocates five permits per year for the privilege of shooting a rhino. The Safari Club has announced that the money raised for their permit will be used exclusively for rhino conservation.

I don’t think there’s much dissent on the current state of the species. Most estimates put world-wide black rhino numbers at less than 5,000. From what I’ve seen, even the most ardent hunters would agree that the animal is under extreme pressure. Rhino poaching efforts have become increasingly prolific in recent years with the surge in Asian markets, and the methods used for tracking and destroying them are becoming more sophisticated on a daily basis. In certain East Asian circles, mystical powers are erroneously attributed to the cartilage in rhino horn. It is thought to have viable cancer curing qualities and it is widely perceived to restore declining sexual prowess in males. A single poached horn can literally bring tens of thousands of dollars. The financial temptation to assist Asian poaching syndicates is, all too often, more than poverty stricken Africans can resist.

Plenty of emotion has been infused into the auction of the permit, both in the news and in social media. It turns out that person who won the auction has a name, that name has been circulated and the man attached to it is now being barraged with messages of protest. Much is also being written about the plight of the rhinos and the ethics of the auction. In fact, it seems everyone has something to say on this matter … and that includes me. Below are my random thoughts – I’ll write them as they come to me so they won’t be offered in any kind of sequence. I promise to deliver my opinions and commentary to the reader as dispassionately as possible.

• I’d like for the Dallas Safari Club to publish an accounting of the $350K to the public. I want to see to whom the money was paid, and have access to an audit trail that follows every dollar to its ultimate disposition.
• The auction winner is being inundated with e mails, phone calls and social media correspondence. He’s getting support, but not much. Most of it is protest, along with some well-reasoned discouragement, and a fair amount of honest pleading to give up the hunt. But trust me, he will shoot his rhino. The guy paid $350K for the privilege, and even though the messages will make him stop and think, I believe he’ll go through every rationalization and contortion in the book to make it okay to proceed. But after he kills the animal … I’m thinking he won’t feel so great about it all. I wonder what his thoughts will be on the long plane ride back to Texas. Will he reflect with pride on his accomplishment … or will he consider the words of those who worked so hard to dissuade him and feel some measure of shame or regret?
• Safari Clubs and big game hunters are genuinely interested in preserving species like the black rhino. I believe that. But their reasoning is different from that of the average conservationist. The conservationist wants the animal to live in the wild and thrive (or not) as nature dictates. The big game hunters and safari clubs want the animals to survive so they’ll continue to have a supply of them to shoot. I want to reiterate that these are only my opinions, but I’m every bit as sure of the Safari Club’s motives as I am certain that the sun will rise in the east tomorrow morning.
• The auction winner is catching a lot of heat for his purchase, but I haven’t seen much outrage against the Namibian government. Why not? If the Dallas Safari Club didn’t use the permit then I’m sure that some other entity or person would have. Five permits equates to five dead rhinos, right? What about the other four permits? Is it difficult to determine who’s in possession of them?
• The targeted rhinos are described as “aggressive” and dangerous to other animals. If that were the criteria for shooting a creature in the wild then it would be a permanent open season on just about every species, including humans. This is just more contorted logic to justify something that inherently makes no sense.

$350,000 buys a very nice house in most parts of the United States. It would feed a sizeable African village for many years. It would also buy about 35 luxury twelve day photo safaris in East Africa. But one man allocated that sum for a single squeeze of the trigger and the “privilege” of killing one of the world’s rarest large mammals. My dispassionate assessment is that there is no logic, no reasoning and no rationale that can make this action acceptable.

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Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

Bull elephant surviving without the business end of his trunk

My favorite character in the 1997 movie Jurassic Park is the quirky Dr. Ian Malcolm, ably played by the talented Jeff Goldblum.  Dr. Malcolm is a bit of an eccentric, a devoted proponent of some mystical concept he refers to as “chaos theory.”  The good Dr. Malcolm also has the annoying habit of being right just about all the time.  In one of the movie’s most pivotal scenes he is egregiously and presciently accurate.  He rejects Jurassic Park management’s insistent assertion that the dinosaurs they’ve generated are incapable of reproduction.  After a rousing debate on the issue, he solemnly and thoughtfully declares … “life finds a way.”  Discussion ended.

The eminent Dr. Malcolm was referring to life writ large, of course.  But life on the grandest scale cannot “find a way” without isolated incidents of improbable survival.  Life persists and, in fact, thrives in some of the earth’s most inhospitable regions.  In the seething, sulfurous thermals along the ocean floor faults, 700 degree Fahrenheit gas vents into sea water with temperatures barely above freezing.  In that boiling, methane-laced cauldron that never sees even a trace of sunlight, a variety of microbes have adapted and found a way to subsist.  In the most implausible of spots, life has found a way.  Our own remarkable species, much more physiologically complex, has existed for centuries in the icy world of the arctic and in the arid deserts on four separate continents.  We too, have “found a way” in some unlikely places.

From time to time I’m reminded of life’s resilience when I’m in the field taking photographs.  In 2010 I’d just finished a long and productive day in Ngorongoro Crater and was en route back to my lodge when I drove past a bull elephant on a steep hillside on the south rim.    This big guy caught my attention for a couple of reasons.  For starters, elephants don’t much like slopes.  Their great bulk and flat-bottomed feet cause almost insurmountable balance issues on precipitous terrain.  But the young bull seemed very much at his ease on the incline.  The second anomaly was the animal’s trunk, which was visibly and curiously abbreviated.  We stopped the vehicle near him to watch and learn for a bit.   After just a few minutes in the elephant’s presence his predicament became clear. He’d lost the end of his trunk at some point in the distant past.  He was most likely the victim of hyenas at a young age, maybe lions, or perhaps even an unfortunately placed snare.  Regardless, the primary vehicle for delivering food to his mouth was completely inoperable. But the elephant had “found a way.”  By braving the steep slopes he was able to use the elevation differential to his advantage.  With the grass on the hillside at mouth level he could access the bushes and tall grass that would keep him alive.  He was nearly full grown, and judging by his body mass, he was completely healthy.  I think the photo above offers compelling testimony to his will to live.

There was another time.  A couple of years earlier I’d been riding with my friend Chris McBride on the Kafue River in Zambia.  On three successive mornings we’d seen a young male lion stretched out on the riverbank about a mile above Chris’ camp.  He related the story of the animal as we cruised past on the third morning.  The lion was apparently a creature of habit, a daily fixture on that stretch of the Kafue.  Some time ago, – certainly not recently, he’d lost the better part of a back leg to a poacher’s snare.  As the lion hobbled into the forest, Chris’ wife Charlotte told us how she’d come to admire and respect this disadvantaged animal.  She’d reverently named him Triton after the trident wielding messenger of the sea.  Triton’s case was particularly sad.  His maiming was the direct result of human malice.  By some miracle, he was physically healthy, probably having adapted to a life as a scavenger.  On three legs he would never be a hunter.  And although he was magnificent by most any standard, he would never become the patriarch of a pride and live the social existence that seems to be so central to the lives of lions.  But he was alive… and that in and of itself was impressive.

Wildlife photography is, in many ways, the study of life.  Above and beyond the desire to capture images, it is this disproportionate fascination with the creatures of the earth that keeps people like yours truly in a perpetual state of planning and preparation for the next trip.  So I’ll end this with a note of respect for the bizarre character of Dr. Ian Malcolm.   Life does indeed find a way, and the struggles of our fellow creatures must be acknowledged, understood and appreciated.  And yes …. photographed as well.

Male lion on the Kafue

Male lion on the Kafue

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lr Eye of an Orphan

It’s long been my belief that rhino poaching is a painful abstraction for most of us with an interest in African wildlife.  We see the gruesome photographs of de-horned animals on the internet and read the news clips about the most recent transgressions against these magnificent creatures.  But then the cell phone rings or the bills arrive in the mailbox and we mentally shift gears to the next concern.  All this is perfectly natural.  Those of us who live in the United States are physically removed from this mindless violence by a broad expanse of ocean and the breadth of a great continent.  We can sign a couple of social media petitions against this cruel practice and feel a little better about it all for a little while, but ultimately the problem of rhino poaching remains a distant frustration.  Despite all our good intentions, it’s something we are unable to substantively influence in a meaningful and positive way.

But there are at least two ways to experience the hard reality of this execrable problem in a way that sears the mind and permanently touches the heart.  One way is to visit the physical remains of a recently murdered rhino.  Friends tell me that the immediate visceral response is a mixed feeling of rage, helplessness and overwhelming sadness.  It is, by all accounts, a life changing event … an ugly and compelling reminder that humanity can descend to almost unimaginable depths of greed and cruelty.

The second way is to witness firsthand the plight of the little ones left behind when their mothers are destroyed … orphans left vulnerable in the bush, doomed without human assistance of a labor intensive and very expensive kind.  The bomas at Imfolozi are presently home to four such little ones.  It was my privilege to join them at feeding time late yesterday afternoon.

Like all babies of all species, these four were precious and beautiful.  Clearly excited by the imminent prospect of dinner, they playfully crowded around their keeper, jostling for position and nuzzling each other in a comforting and affectionate way.  Three of the four were eventually moved to an adjacent pen for feeding.  I witnessed and filmed this chaotic and slightly hilarious evolution from a walkway above the paddock.  The babies attacked the formula and slurped until the containers were empty and capsized.  The fourth rhino was quietly fed in the original boma.  He was recovering from an injury sustained during the poaching incident and would have been unable to compete with his rowdy compadres in a mass feeding.

It is a rare opportunity to stand in the physical presence of a young rhinoceros, to stroke its forehead and feel its pushes and nudges.  And it is indescribably touching to be struck by the extent to which these youngsters need and want our love and attention.  Since these emotional commodities will never again be provided by a natural parent, the proffered human love is gratefully accepted.

The deep anger I’ve always felt toward rhino poachers has now been elevated to a higher level because of my interaction with these orphans.  And I’m more committed than ever to seeing the pestilence of “killing for profit” come to a grinding halt as soon as possible.  The cautionary words of my friend, AWF employee Nakedi Maputla, ring through my head … “Giving up is not an option.”  Amen, brother.

On that defiant note, I’d like to close this entry with a respectful request to the reader.  I ask that you take sixty seconds of your time and listen to an audio clip of the Imfolozi orphans at feeding time.  Their plaintive squeals tug at the heart.  I hope the clip motivates the listener to engage as actively as possible to end the inexcusable scourge of poaching … forever.

Orphaned Rhinos at Feeding Time … audio only

 

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Amboseli bull ... smaller than the one described here

Amboseli bull ... smaller than the one described here

On November 12th, 1955 a “rogue” male elephant in Angola committed a very grievous offense, and for that offense he lost his life. From the tip of his trunk to the extended tip of his tail, he measured 33 feet 2 inches. The circumference of his front feet was 5 feet, 7 inches … his rear feet were 5 feet, two inches. He was estimated to weigh 16,000 pounds. And that was his offense. He was the largest elephant in the world, which meant, of course, that he could not be allowed to live.

His outsized footprints had been discovered by a Hungarian businessman and big game hunter named Jose Fenykovi in 1954. After obsessing over the enormity of the animal for a year, Fenykovi launched an expensive hunting expedition for the sole purpose of finding the great animal. His efforts were completely and painfully successful. He wrote a very proud article about the glorious hunt, which was published in the June 4, 1956, edition of Sports Illustrated magazine. A summation of the key events of that auspicious day is offered below. Warning … they are not for the squeamish or faint of heart.

Fenykovi notes that the elephant was discovered at about 9 am, in company with a smaller, but still enormous partner. He describes the animals as “quite calm” and “lolling under some tall trees.” And why the hell would they not be calm? The huge elephant was probably 60 years old based on the physical description, and had probably never been seriously threatened at any time in his life. Even if he had sensed the presence of the hunters, it’s doubtful that he could have imagined the wrath that was about to descend on him. Then:

“Leaning my arm on the trunk (of a tree) I aimed at the chest of the largest. The bullet from the .416 Rigby raised a dust of dry mud from the skin of the animal, proof of a hit. At once I shot a second bullet in the same place, and I heard the discharge of my other .416, fired by Mario.” — SI, 4 June 1956

The bewildered animals then apparently fled into a forest, but not before Fenykovi and his companion “put two bullets into the smaller one.” Fenykovi described the ease of tracking the elephant by following the constant gush of blood from his trunk, “a sure sign that I had got him through the lungs.” The war party trailed the wounded animals by jeep through the disproportionate Angolan heat for several hours and spotted them again in the late afternoon. At about 6 pm the majestic animal was finally destroyed in a gruesome carnage of dust and blood. According to Fenykovi, at least 16 heavy caliber rounds were pumped into the animal before his suffering ended.

And how unbearable that suffering must have been. According to the article, the first salvo was launched at about 9 am. Despite the punctured lungs and the blood filled air passage, the elephant was able to flee through the heat and dust for about nine more hours before he was again located and administered the coup de grace. No mention was made of the smaller companion elephant except that he’d earlier veered off from his partner and fled in a different direction. I suspect that after the confirmed death of the giant, the smaller, critically wounded animal was deemed unworthy of further pursuit. One can only imagine his slow and agonizing end, certainly a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time … and in company with the wrong friend.

Being the good and generous soul that he was, Fenykovi determined that his prize should be placed on display in a large museum. And indeed that’s what happened. The remains of the animal are now the centerpiece of the rotunda display in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. It is impressive. The animal alone is phenomenal, but his placement on an elevated foundation makes him all the more prominent. His posture is slightly threatening, with tail up in alarm, trunk extended and ears flared. If memory serves, there is a placard on the display that names the hunter and the country that was home to the animal.

The link to the Smithsonian page below describes the elephant as “rogue.” But what exactly does this mean?

http://www.mnh.si.edu/onehundredyears/featured_objects/Fenykovi_elephant.html

To me it implies a problem elephant … an ill-tempered marauder who damages homes and crops, or kills and injures humans. But in all my reading on the internet, I found no evidence that this enormous animal had ever fit that description or fallen into that category. Fenykovi described the location of the hunt as remote, where no man had visited before or since … so how could he have been a problem for homo sapiens? He was also apparently socially peaceful, as further evidenced by the Fenykovi article. “Problem” or “rogue” elephants aren’t the type who “loll” calmly with other large males. They are enraged, testosterone inflated fighting machines who take on any and all comers.

So what’s the point? The animal is already dead, and I think most informed people would describe the current purpose of his carcass as “educational.” I have no real problem with that. But in light of the escalation in elephant poaching in Africa and the inordinate pressure on wildlife and habitat everywhere, couldn’t we educate a little further? As part of the display maybe an additional placard or two could be mounted … one with a brief description of the current poaching problem and another with a dispassionate analysis of how the great elephant was destroyed, and what the last few hours of his life must have been like.

I’ve admired the formidable Fenykovi elephant in the Smithsonian many times over the years. He is the first object seen upon entry, an imposing welcoming committee of one to what is surely one of the world’s great museums. I’ve often wondered about the series of events that delivered him to the rotunda, and now I’m almost sorry I took the time to look into it. It is a pitiful story indeed, and my view of him will be much more somber and respectful when I visit again. In fairness to this magnificent animal, I think his story should be shared in greater detail.

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Maasai giraffe at Arusha National Park, Tanzania.

Maasai giraffe at Arusha National Park, Tanzania.

On one my earliest trips to Africa I was fortunate to take up residence in an old style canvas tent in an acacia forest very near the Ndutu plain in northern Tanzania.  It was a lovely experience in every way.  The tiny camp was perfectly integrated into the woodland.  Lions could be heard in the darkness at the perimeter every night and the ubiquitous hyena was within a stone’s throw of the tent flap on most mornings.   The tents were in reasonably good condition – no leaks  – and pervaded with the stale, mildly offensive odor of aging canvas.  But they were cool and comfortable, with sizable mesh windows on all sides to optimize ventilation.  It was a disturbance at one of those tent windows in the wee hours of a chilly morning that resulted in one of my most memorable Africa experiences.

 

I was sleeping soundly near the front flap but was awakened at about 2 am by an odd pulling noise at the opposite end of the tent.  I remained still and listened for some time, maybe ten minutes or more, before rolling out of the bag to investigate.  The tearing sound was deep and rhythmic, and the back canvas wall undulated very slightly with each pulse.   As silently as possible, I moved into position and peered through the mesh to see an adult giraffe head pull up directly opposite me.  In the light of a full moon it was obvious that the giraffe was a young male.  He’d been doubled over, systematically ripping tall grass from the base of the tent for a late night snack.  And I’d caught him in mid-pull.  His face was directly in front of mine, just inches away through the mesh.  I doubt that he could actually see me because of the reflection of the bright moonlight on the cloth, but he certainly sensed my presence.  After a standoff of about ten seconds, he slowly raised his head and pulled his body upright.   He looked around, sensing that all was not quite right with the world, and methodically strolled away into the trees.  For reasons inexplicable, I’ve thought about that big guy many times over the years.  He was a shy, unassuming sort of fellow who is probably now living his life peacefully in the heart of Ndutu’s acacia scrub, striding gracefully through the dust, spreading his body wide to dip low for a drink at the waterhole, and standing tall in the glow of a late day crimson sun to chew on the branches of a thorn tree.  If he’s like most of his species, he will live his entire life without threatening or harming another creature.

 

A reasonable person would never suspect that these gentle, unobtrusive, and somewhat implausible creatures could ever be targeted by big game hunters.    Stalking and shooting a giraffe would be a simple enough endeavor.  In most parts of Africa these elevated creatures are at least somewhat habituated to humans.  Maneuvering into a firing position would be something that literally anyone could do.  So there’s no challenge for the “sportsman” from that perspective, and no “tracking” points to be earned.    As a prey animal, the giraffe is most certainly an outsized target … that is, extremely difficult to miss.  So there are no marksmanship bragging rights to be gained from plugging one.  And because they are such docile creatures, no hunter could ever convincingly claim “… and there I was, and the huge devil was charging me full on with teeth bared and claws extended!”  So it’s not possible to score any courage points off these majestic animals.  So why would anyone, under any circumstances, want to destroy one of them?

But destroy them they do.   And graphic photographs of well-armed, smiling hunters with dead giraffes coiled around them continue to permeate the internet.   I’ve seen several of them within the last few days.  The first reaction is always incredulity.  Did the hunter really shoot that animal?  In the name of all that is sane and reasonable … why?  And then there’s the elemental curiosity.  What sort of vapid, lifeless and desensitized brain must be required to take joy in the suffering and death of one of these colorful giants?  And there’s always deep sorrow for the animal, perhaps 15 to 20 years old and in its prime.    Its death an unfortunate consequence of timing, geography and senseless brutality.

This image speaks for itself.

This image speaks for itself.

At another level, the death of the animal represents some fundamental dichotomies of nature … the peaceful vs. the bellicose, the graceful vs. the graceless and the beautiful vs. the grotesque.  One can only hope that homo sapiens may one day advance to the point that its denizens are no longer capable of reaping obscene pleasure from the destruction of the defenseless.  But we are not close to that day at present.  The hunting business seems to be expanding, particularly in southern Africa.   There are breeding operations in South Africa that raise lions from cubs for the sole purpose of being shot by “hunters” when they become adults.  It remains legal to hunt antelopes of all types and that most beautiful of great cats, the leopard, is not exempt from this twisted form of human entertainment.  Most absurdly and pathetically, one of Africa’s most endangered animals, the rhino, is also legally hunted.

 

The gorgeous quote below is from John Heminway’s “African Journeys”:

 

“I believe there is no sickness of the heart so great it cannot be cured by a dose of Africa. Families must go there to learn why they belong together on this earth, adolescents to discover humility, lovers to plumb old but untried wells of passion, honeymooners to seal marriages with a shared sense of bafflement, those shopworn with life to find a tonic for futility, the aged to recognize a symmetry to twilight.  I know this all sounds a bit much, but if I have ever seen magic, it has been in Africa.”

 

May his words remain eternally true, but the heart of humanity must grow to respect, revere and preserve all species in order for this to happen.  I’m thinking that a newfound, well-deserved reverence for the giraffe would be a logical place to start.

A particularly beautiful species, the reticulated giraffe.  Mother and youngster at Samburu, Kenya.

A particularly beautiful species, the reticulated giraffe. Mother and youngster at Samburu, Kenya.

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Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

It’s been my habit for some time to set the television to record all programs that even remotely relate to Africa or its wildlife. So I generally finish the week with many episodes of Big Cat Diary, Wild Kingdom, and Nature in the queue for possible weekend viewing. Sometimes I’m able to see a few of the shows, most of the time I’m not. Too much to do and way too little time, which I suspect is the story for most of us.

During this past week one of the old movie channels aired the 1950 film “King Solomon’s Mines,” which was based on the H. Rider Haggard novel of the same name. The story was set in East Africa, starred Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr … and its plot was wrapped around the search for a mythical diamond mine in uncharted territory to the west of an undisclosed Swahili speaking nation. I thought it might be interesting to evaluate the film as a piece of history … to see and assess its treatment of wildlife and indigenous peoples.

kingsol

As it turns out, there was no reason to sit through the entire picture. The dismissive attitude toward the African people transcended the film’s turn of the century setting. The “natives” existed solely for the use of the westerners, and the tone of superiority throughout the picture was absolutely pervasive … it represented far more than simple Victorian era arrogance. It was clear enough to me that the 1950 producers of the movie also viewed the dehumanized depiction of the African people as the right and natural way of things.

The treatment of the animals was far worse. In one of the movie’s early scenes, a procession of adventurers and porters en route to the illusory mine crossed paths with an elephant family in the bush. The animals were peacefully stripping acacia bark when they caught sight of the intruders. The matriarch feigned a charge and the humans reacted in the expected way. The round from the elephant gun struck the matriarch high on the forehead and she instantly collapsed. The other family members immediately formed a protective perimeter around their stricken leader. In panic and confusion, they repeatedly attempted to lift her to her feet, but she was far beyond help and hope. The entire sequence, including the matriarch’s death convulsions, was captured in the film. In fairness to the makers of “King Solomon’s Mines,” I don’t believe the animal was destroyed for the sole and specific purpose of incorporating the footage into the movie. It appeared to be a filmed hunt that was spliced into the scene for dramatic effect. Regardless, its inclusion was unnecessary, gratuitous and disturbing.

The damaged elephant family, which was small to begin with (perhaps eight to ten animals), probably depended very heavily on the experience of the matriarch for its continued existence in the wild. The matriarch would have been her family’s corporate memory. She would have known the best places to locate nutritious food through the changing seasons and where to find water during the severest of droughts. One wonders how the family might have fared after the mindless destruction of its leader. Times must have been challenging indeed.

Difficult days continue to be the norm for far too many of East Africa’s elephant families. Poaching is on the rise in many parts of Kenya, as evidenced by the constant flow of new orphans into Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi. Each passing week brings new inmates to the compound … and all of them have been traumatized to one degree or another. Their stories, which are posted on the Sheldrick website, are powerful and moving. Here’s an extract from the profile of the young orphan named Sities:

“An unusual visitor walked into the Mgeno Ranch Headquarters, within the Tsavo Conservation Area during the morning of 22nd March 2010. This unusual visitor was a bellowing baby elephant, desperate for company and who sent all the Staff scuttling for safety, fearful that the baby’s mother might turn up to claim it. Eventually they ventured out, their sudden appearance frightening the little calf, who ran off a short distance, but then returned, desperate for company. Too young to know fear, being only about 1 ½ months old, the Staff tied it to a tree, and then called Dr. David Ndeereh of the Trust’s Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, who in turn alerted our Voi Elephant Keepers that an elephant rescue was needed.

It is suspected that this baby is a poaching victim, although human/wildlife conflict cannot be ruled out since the Ranch has a lot of livestock and herdsmen. The Trust’s De-Snaring anti-poaching team has been sent to scour the area to confirm any evidence of possible poaching.

The calf, a beautiful female, responded well to the arrival of the Keepers who fed her a bottle of milk and rehydration water before loading her into their Pickup and driving it to the Voi Stockades. Once there she remained close to the Keepers following them around, until the Rescue Plane arrived from Nairobi to airlift her back to the Trust’s Nairobi Elephant Nursery.”

Sities was a fortunate young lady indeed. For every orphan recovered there are surely dozens left parentless to meet a lonely and agonizing death in the bush.

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

If poachers and hunters represent the worst in our nature, then the dedicated souls at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust must surely reflect the last precious vestiges of nobility in the human spirit. It was my pleasure to visit their orphanage recently. And I have to think that even the hardest heart would be touched by the love and care the orphans receive. The elephants they so meticulously nurture are slowly re-introduced to the wild when their keepers deem them ready. Anyone who reads through the orphan profiles on their webpage would surely agree that they’ve already produced a number of miracles with some of the more severely traumatized animals (please see the story of orphan Murka).

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

More buddies ...

More buddies ...

Like most conservation organizations, the Sheldrick orphanage depends exclusively on donations for its operations and continued existence. Their need is immediate and pressing, however, because orphaned elephants must eat every day. And they must eat large quantities. I would encourage anyone who visits Nairobi to spend some time at this sanctuary and observe the orphans as they visit the mud wallow for their morning feeding. It’s much more than an opportunity to see these extraordinary young animals … now so fortuitously blessed with a second chance to live, love and thrive. It also validates the possibility that there may actually exist some small measure of hope for our own species. The orphanage’s website is here …

www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org

Young orphan with keeper.  Image taken from DSWT webpage.

Young orphan with keeper. Image taken from DSWT webpage.

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