OnSafari: Preservation

OnSafari: Preservation

2.CLThe easily accessible wild areas of the world are being overused. You hear this as often about Ngorongoro Crater as Arches or Zion. It’s a challenge to those of us who want to show people their grandeur, and it’s even more of a challenge to the conservators who want to preserve them.

As an African guide I search for those less used places that prove just as grand, so that my clients don’t become discouraged. That’s exactly how Kathleen and I approached our vacation to Utah’s parks. We hired guides who knew how to avoid the crowds but still find the treasures. We weren’t disappointed!

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White Blindness

White Blindness

leucismA video going viral was given leave to emerge into the public consciousness because of the news gap between Irma dissipating and Trump beginning to, again. It was of two stately white reticulated giraffe found in an unusual forest in Kenya.

The excitement provoked a massive use of smiley emoji not used so often, anymore. How ironic this isn’t really good news. So sorry, folks, white animals aren’t unusual. And it’s anything but good news.

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OnSafari: Unmasking Mascarenes

OnSafari: Unmasking Mascarenes

PortLouisI’m in Mauritius, defined by geography, pirates and free money. I flew in from its much larger and much poorer cousin, Reunion, and the contrast between the two couldn’t be greater.

The ideological and even moral divide between these two main Mascarenes Islands are as great as the political divisions around the world between the right and the left, and one is forced into concluding that in a relatively short time, only one will still be standing.

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Past Pirate Treasures

Past Pirate Treasures

SnakefrMauritiusSnakes? I know, for most people they command little love. We place the few humans who like them in remote categories generously tagged as “weird.” But where I’m going in a few weeks, they’re more precious than pirate treasure!

Next week I travel to the furthest eastern part of Africa, Mauritius. Everything about the island nation is unique, including its biology probably best represented by … a snake.

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The Hunting Horizon

The Hunting Horizon

neitheroneorotherAttitudes towards hunting are changing in the same way that they’ve already changed with regards to the LGBT communities. In remarkably short order hunting of all kinds may be curtailed.

This is a very widespread and expansive cultural change. It applies almost equally to sports hunting as to native society subsistence hunting and even to scientific culling. It is, in fact, the scientific community evincing the most dramatic change. The driver is climate change.

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Blame or Responsibility?

Blame or Responsibility?

CingorilladeathNeither Rin Tin Tin or Baloo are real, folks. The gorilla was and it had to be killed. The mother was negligent. And the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla display isn’t safe enough.

A good portion of my life has been spent teaching the dangers of anthropomorphization: Everyone involved from the zoo to the mother and child, to the authorities now conducting investigations are guilty of treating animals like people.

A human is more important than a gorilla. It’s unfortunate that situations like this force this distinction to be emphasized, because animals are one of the best conduits for leading us to better understandings of our planet’s ecologies. But like many good things sometimes it goes too far.

As a zoo director friend told me yesterday, “That gorilla can crush a coconut with his hand.”

Criticism of the zoo’s crisis response unit comes mainly from animal rights groups with exaggerated or incorrect arguments:

Harambee was not a “mountain gorilla,” of which there are fewer than a 1000 left. He was of the lowland gorilla species, of which there are 50,000 -90,000.

That’s still a critically endangered animal but it’s not the imminent threatened mountain gorilla that many are claiming.

Harambee was not captured in a West African jungle. He was born in the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. The vast majority of animals seen today in zoos have been born in zoos.

This is hardly the first time something like this has happened. The most recent was three years ago when a 2-year child fell into a pack of wild dogs in the Pittsburgh Zoo and was mauled to death.

Like with the current Cincinnati gorilla incident, the public was quick to judge the mother was mostly at fault in Pittsburgh. She sued, anyway, and the zoo settled.

Other recent incidents include a loyal animal keeper killed by the tiger she had cared for.

In all cases blame spreads pretty equally between the victim or the victim’s guardian, and the zoo. Zoos’ attempts at modernization have included better exhibits, but these exhibits probably compromise safety for entertainment.

But while the blame may spread around, the responsibility for an incident like this stops squarely at the zoo. They are the organizer, they invited the people with their children to come, and they must prepare for every conceivable eventuality.

Cincinnati did not.

I’ve written before that zoos have neglected safety for gate receipts and media. It was totally appropriate that Pittsburgh paid the family of the killed child thousands if not millions of dollars, even though they were not only to blame.

It’s an awesome responsibility zoos have assumed, and it begins by letting the visiting public understand the danger, and if that means a slightly worse view of the animal, so be it.

What is curious in this most recent Cincinnati case, though, is that it is so similar to the Pittsburgh case with the exception of the animal involved. This was a lowland gorilla. The Pittsburgh case involved wild (painted) dogs.

Wild dogs are actually more endangered ecologically than lowland gorillas, yet the outcry with this incident is considerable sharper.

I think that has to do mostly with the video. There was no video of the Pittsburgh incident. That suggests a large portion of our population doesn’t read, only watches.

That, by the way, is one of the distinctions between a person and a gorilla.

Traffic Problem

Traffic Problem

bouldersHuman/wildlife conflict isn’t limited to dangerously powerful elephants walking over an impoverished Tanzanian farmer’s watermelon field. Several days ago in a thoroughly modern city in The Cape one of the world’s most endangered animals suffered a serious blow from … car traffic.

There are few animals in the world as endangered as the African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus), sometimes called the Jackass penguin.  Just over 25,000 breeding pairs remain of a sustainable population of 1.2 million birds that existed only a half century ago.

This is a far greater catastrophic decline than that of elephants or lions, and it shows no sign of abating.

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COP21 Obfuscation Detritius

COP21 Obfuscation Detritius

COP21Today on Earth Day only one major head of State (from France) attends the signing statement at the United Nations of COP21, the breakthrough global climate agreement negotiated in Paris last year.

French President François Hollande is the star. He was instrumental in negotiating African developing countries into the deal, but there aren’t any African Heads of State here to sign with him.

John Kerry signs for the U.S. Obama is not here as he’s telling Cameron who’s not here, either, not to leave the EU.

Should we worry?

COP21 is good, but its worst part is another acronym, INDC, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, that was created at the behest of the developing world and negotiated principally by Hollande.

The premise is that development cannot be compromised in the poorer countries of the world.

As Bolivia and Ecuador explained in a joint statement during the negotiations, “These climate reparations would give to economies relying on progressive extractivism the necessary resources to transition to clean energy without having to sacrifice their social and redistributive policies.”

Translate: pay us not to burn fossil fuels. The implementation in nicer language will be written in each country’s INDC.

In other words, Kenya will forge head with additional solar, wind and other non-fossil fuel methods of making power, but primarily only if Britain, the U.S. and Japan – its principal aid givers – pay them to do so.

I think this is remarkably fair. But it’s politically dicey.

Most Americans (69%) now support efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, BUT … they do not believe (45%) that climate change is a “serious problem.”

What was that?

That’s the same position in 10 of the major 17 countries who pushed through COP21. Only in India, Germany, Canada (only barely, 51%), Mexico, Brazil, Italy and France does the public accept that climate change is a “serious problem.”

So that’s how dumb the world is, and that’s why Hollande is at today’s signing ceremony. France, he is saying, is not as dumb as America or China where (get ready to scratch your head) 71% of the public supports international treaties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but only 18% believe that climate change is a serious problem!

I would love for some data from Africa, but except for South Africa (56% support reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but only 45% believe climate change is a serious problem) polling in other African countries doesn’t exist.

You see if you stripped out the motive for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, then what replaces it?

In developing countries it’s pollution. Pollution is as much an issue in Nairobi as Beijing.

In the developed countries it’s … what? Support for fracking? I just don’t know.

Here’s another take. It’s likely today that most Africans, and maybe even most Americans, recognize that climate change is real. Whether you elevate climate change to a “serious problem” is the key.

There are so many problems in Africa with greater priority, like food and water and poverty, that even if it’s plausible climate change contributes to these, it isn’t as important so the moving goal post of “serious” might not be reached.

In America I think it’s more contentious: it’s political.

Alas for the straight-talker Trump and the clear-headed Sanders, our only solutions to sweeping away the detritus of obfuscation?

Conservation vs. Development

Conservation vs. Development

Mom.gorillaIs conservation just? Not always, according to a study in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park.

“Conservation [needs] to get serious about environmental justice,” a September study from the University of East Anglia claims, one of the world’s top universities for developmental studies.

This is just one of lots of recent intellectual fistfights between sociologists and conservationists. Conservationists, on the one hand, are presumed to want to protect the earth at nearly any cost. Sociologists, on the other hand, put people first and claim that contemporary conservationists don’t.

The argument surfaced at the beginning of this decade but by 2014 the New Yorker called the debate “vitriolic.”

Finally at the end of 2014 the highly respected scientific publication, Nature, allowed two scientists to publish an article about the fight: “We believe that this situation is stifling productive discourse, inhibiting funding and halting progress,” they wrote.

Stop whining. This is an important debate and nothing that I’ve seen is offensive or immature. Quite to the contrary: The East Anglia study continues this debate on the side of sociologists, and I believe appropriately so.

I know Bwindi pretty well. It is the Ugandan section of the volcanoes national park in which the mountain gorillas live. Like the other sections in Rwanda and the DRC-Congo, mountain gorillas have enjoyed a wonderful rebound from near extinction at the end of the 1970s.

The main reason is tourism. It will cost you a hefty $750 for one permit to be with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for one hour, and one of the 56 daily permits are often hard to get.

It’s less expensive in Bwindi, but that reflects the unsettled political situation in Uganda. But even in Uganda’s untroubled days, Bwindi’s operations were never on the up-and-up.

Bwindi was terribly corrupt. If you had trouble getting a permit, the right bribe to the right ranger would get you one, and if in fact the day was truly booked up, someone would find a way to take you to a gorilla research group which was technically off-limits to tourists.

The East Anglian study touches on this but in fact sticks mostly to the non-corrupt, stated policy issues. Their main criticism is that the original peoples of the area, the Batwa, have been intentionally excluded from the benefits of Bwindi’s growing gorilla population.

The main benefit to the growing gorilla population is tourism: revenues from the permit tax which supposedly go directly to the government; and jobs created in the tourist industry: staff for lodges and transport and guides.

The Batwa do not benefit from any of these. The Ugandan government has always been openly hostile to these progeny of “pygmies,” their land was never properly deeded to them so they were unable to participate in the leasing arrangements for the tourist lodges, and few if any tour companies hire them at any level.

Prior to the interest in conserving the gorillas, the Batwa’s lifeway was bush meat hunting in the forest – not gorillas, but mostly monkeys, and also duikers and other small forest creatures. This is now prohibited in the interests of gorilla and ecological conservation.

So without benefitting from the growth of tourism and conservation while being restricted from the forest which was their traditional lifeway, the Batwa have grown more poor and more estranged from modern society. Implicitly, of course, it’s presumed they become poachers.

“Successful” conservation policies lead directly to poaching.

The East Anglia study suggests that scientists should adopt certain principals of manifest justice that could delimit conservation goals, but which in all cases would ensure justice for the local peoples like the Batwa.

This no-brainer is often neglected, the authors claim, because conservation goals appear “to be driven by faith in a particular (utilitarian) model of justice that holds that conservation consequences justify their means.”

I’m glad to have this “vitriolic” debate: I’ve always believed in Africa that people must come first, that conservation is not anathema to that at all, but that stitching the two together is imperative.

Imperative to conservation, not to the peoples’ will and that’s the key. The people have the sovereignty. Conservationists do not. It’s clear who must sew the seam.

Vizuka Mara

Vizuka Mara

maraghostsOne of Africa’s most iconic prides of lions were poisoned last week in the Maasai Mara, and it’s now time to implement Richard Leakey’s dream to consolidate all Kenyan wilderness under a single federal government agency.

Eight of the magnificent “Marsh Pride” were poisoned by Maasai herders, according to officials who have arrested two men.

Animal poisoning in The Mara is not new, but this killing is receiving unusual attention since this is the pride featured in the BBC documentary, “Big Cats.” The pride has resided for my entire 40 years of guiding outside Governor’s Camp near the Mara River.

Many Maasai believe that protecting the Mara for wildlife/tourism is an unfair usurping of their traditional pastures. This conflict grows at the margin of seasons (which is now) when new rains sprout nutrient grasses.

The problem is not endemic to The Mara or Kenya but exists throughout all the rapidly developing lands of Africa. Ironically, the problem may be exacerbated by Kenya’s faster and broader development compared to many other African countries.

The situation unique to The Mara, though, is extraordinary. It’s a mess: an entanglement of personalities, politics and corruption the likes of which belong in a TV sitcom.

First of all, there really isn’t “A Mara.” Elsewhere in the continent there is “A Serengeti” or “A Sabi Sands” surrounding “A Kruger.”

“The Mara,” instead, is a collection of government and private reserves each separately managed and funded. The map looks like a gerrymandered set of 10 districts in my dysfunctional state of Illinois.
greatermaraconservancy
“The Mara” is not a Kenyan national park: the main responsibilities for it rest with the county of Narok in which the wilderness is located. This is an freakish historical legacy of the local Maasai unwilling to share power or land.

Richard Leakey tried to change this decades ago when he was the country’s wildlife czar. He failed miserably, succumbing at the time to a very powerful Maasai politician, Ntimama.

Ntimama is today a very old mzee out of favor with the younger, more progressive regime in Nairobi. But it was only a few months ago that the old man resurrected the land issue of which the Mara is front and center.

The rectangular portion which borders Tanzania to the south is the “government” county reserve, but even that is divided into three administrative sections. The area to the north of the county land is made up of nine private conservancies, more than doubling government land.

It was the development of these northern private areas in the last 25-35 years that contributed so substantially to the increase of animal populations including the great migration.

(A similar situation exists with private reserves like the Sabi Sands which surround South Africa’s Kruger National Park.)

Traditionally all of these lands were used as pastures for cattle and goats by the Maasai. Had none of the lands been protected, the cattle and goats and Maasai would likely have eaten themselves out of house and home by now, identical to what you see today in so many other parts of Africa where overgrazing ends in societal suicidal.

From the point of view of the people living there, though, that’s not such a bad outcome if what comes next are highways and factories. IBM is still in the throes of a fraction-of-a-billion dollar deal to build a high-tech industrial park in what was once Kenya’s Tsavo wilderness.

I doubt you’ll find too many young Maasai today who will lament herding cattle for pennies a day if the alternative is writing computer code and driving to work in a Benz.

Equally sad, private tourism stakeholders are just as mercenary as the Narok Maasai. There have been periods of vicious competition among businessmen, some foreign nationals, vying for the best spots. In this management mayhem developed the private reserve map we see today, with little scientific or management rational and little or no interaction between the competing areas.

That spells disaster. BBC has the exposure to wander between reserve boundaries unimpeded, and thus the “Marsh Pride” became very special. But I’ve known several young field researchers who would have loved to work in the Mara ecosystem, but who turned to Tanzania instead because the politics and restrictions of working trans-reserve were too difficult.

The private reserves do everything themselves: anti-poaching, rules for wildlife management and intervention (several of the Marsh Pride that were recently poisoned were then treated by vets), fees and marketing. But the land has never been actually transferred from Maasai ownership: it’s leased, and that’s the private reserves greatest flaw:

Maasai owners could only be encouraged to compromise their age-old historical life style as pastoralists if they could be paid enough. For a while, they were. The revenues from tourism throughout the 90s were greater than the revenues from cattle farming.

But with political instability followed by terrorism which effected Kenya so seriously from 2007-2012, tourism revenues fell precipitously. Although safari revenues in neighboring Tanzania have planed or shown a slight increase, this has yet to occur in Kenya.

In their heyday the private reserves became extremely sophisticated, bettering the government reserves in anti-poaching and educational efforts. Like all bureaucracies, though, their appetite for capital grew well beyond the simple lease payments to the Maasai owners. Since 2008 virtually all the private Mara reserves have fallen into arrears.

Stefano Chile, the chairman of the second largest private conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy, wrote to supporters recently that “our ability to pay and cover all these costs is seriously challenged.”

He said the conservancy needs $355,000 to become sustainable, again. The first appeal for donations launched at least a month ago has raised only $13,000.

Cheli is one of the most creative and long-time entrepreneurs in the East African tourism industry, perhaps best known for building Tortilis Camp in Amboseli. But in my estimation this is way beyond his or any other excellent tourism manager’s job.

For one thing were a campaign like this successful it would hardly be the last time private reserve officials came to us hat in hand. Which of the nine reserves would you decide to support? I have a hard enough time juggling contributions to two public radio stations serving my area. If appeals came from nine of them, a distinct impression is created that nobody knows what they’re doing.

Collectively that’s the point, they don’t.

Private wildlife reserves have been a very important part of Africa’s conservation efforts for more than a half century.

But nowhere else in Africa is a collection of hodgepodge private reserves so terribly organized and so terribly suspicious and competitive with each another as in the Mara, and trying to treat them as charities is overwhelmingly impossible.

What will work is the Kenyan government getting serious. The photographer Jonathan Scott reported on his blog two days ago that may be happening.

From my point of view there’s only one answer. The government must take over the whole kitandkaboodal. This will really freak out the private reserve stake holders.

But it’s time they listened to themselves: if wildlife conservation is the goal, then look at Amboseli. Look at the Aberdare. Look at the heroic efforts in Nakuru. Look at all the other wonderful national parks in Kenya.

Frankly, it’s time the Maasai of Narok, and the stakeholders of the private reserves were all sidelined, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service takes the whole thing over.

Richard Leakey’s dream was right then, and it’s right now: The Maasai Mara National Park.

Elephants Do Not Have Souls

Elephants Do Not Have Souls

EleRoverElephants do not have souls, and countenancing this myth is a sure fire way to accelerate their extinction.

The brilliant and stunning film, “Soul of the Elephant,” which aired on PBS’s Nature yesterday evening was rife with untruths and speculative science. It was as bad a nature documentary as a Fox News report.

The exquisite beauty of the film, the rhythmic narration and the beautiful background music including outstanding African-like acapella created a media poem of the finest sort. I wish it had been a feature film, because the main proposition that elephants are like people is something that can ultimately never be proved or disproved but as a fictional piece it would have been very strong.

Unfortunately, it’s untrue.

Before I list errors of fact, let me remind you why this is such a mission for me: Anthropomorphization in my view does more to harm African conservation than wars or poison. Films like this hasten the end of the African wilderness and its wondrous wildlife.

As I’ve written numerous times before, the almost exclusively western attempt to anthropomorphize Africa’s wildlife draws a red line with emerging intellectuals in Africa who are dedicated to the development of their social and political fabric in an extremely stressed part of the world.

It’s akin to America’s own political battle with the Citizens United/Campaign Finance controversy where corporations are treated as people.

If animals are considered people, inalienable rights attend them that make compromise if not impossible considerably more difficult with issues of land and agricultural development, highway construction, potable water reservoirs and innumerable other absolute necessities for human development.

But it isn’t just the outcome that bothers me. The proposition that elephant are “sentient beings, thinking thoughts, having ideas” and that they “think” — all of which is quoted directly from the film — is wrong. There is no science whatever to support this, only media poems.

The world of life is composed of a myriad of wondrous forms, each in my view essential to our fabric of existence. Biodiversity is the only goal we have left that can preserve our understanding of our own existence, but biodiversity resides in the notion that some living things “think” and some “don’t.” Elephants and virtually the vast majority of all other animals don’t either.

Man thinks.

Many of the Joubert’s errors are not egregious, but the plethora of them evidences their lack of scientific diligence. They created a wonderful poem, not a nature documentary:

They claimed there were once 5 million elephants. We’ll never know, because paleontologists have not yet collected enough evidence of prehistoric times to create population statistics. What we do know is that before the atrocious elephant poaching of the 1970s, there conceivably had been a population that “might” have approached a million.

Ivory harvesting by Arab traders began as early as the 13th Century, so it’s plausible that the apex of the population was prior to then. But even the 7 centuries of Arab harvesting on the scale that was possible back then could not have possibly eroded a 5 million animal population down to a million.

The exaggeration of numbers in the film continued to discussion of the Selina Spillway and that of Botswana itself. It was only this August, well after the film was near completed, that the first elephant count of the continent ever was done.

“There are no credible estimates for a continental population prior to the late 1970s. Thus for the continental (global) population, an extrapolation back to the beginning of three generations is plagued with high levels of uncertainty,” writes the Bible of Biodiversity, the IUCN Red List.

Exaggerating bad situations into catastrophes is a technique of terrorists and fools.

In one section alone Joubert claimed that “Seventy years ago a little baby [elephant] had less than a 10% chance of surviving.” That would have been in the 1940s, long before poaching ramped up and is an absurd proposition. Nearly as absurd as his claim that where he was filming “was a 5-day drive from the nearest town.”

I have often been in various parts of the Selinda Spillway. EWT will lead a Botswana trip there next March. There is no place that is more than 2-3 days from Kasane and possibly less from Maun. These are modern if rural towns.

Joubert concludes at some point that his love of elephants is best reflected by the “eyes that shine with a deep intelligence” which stretches poetic license to the limits, since many elephants eyes close perpetually after they reach their teen years.

I think what bothered me most about the film was trying to tell a story that didn’t exist. There was no baby elephant that was drowning. The film showed a baby elephant frolicking in the mud; it was not drowning.

It then cut to lions, that were not shot in the same vicinity. It then cut to the attack of a lion on a baby elephant. That was still a different set of lions and a different baby elephant altogether. The editing wasn’t even good enough to equalize the lighting that revealed deeply different seasons in the three different scenes, purported to be one.

I actually laughed when he suggested that the aggression the elephants were causing might have to do with the memory of the two dead elephants in the vicinity. The elephants were aggressive because he was too close! And imagine how many other pontoons and boats and canoes and cameras were there shooting him shoot!

It’s OK if it’s just a story. This is not a documentary. Elephants do not have souls. Elephants must be protected along with their environment, and Africa must have the freedom to grow and develop, and that is a puzzle that this film does everything in its power to prevent from being solved.