Lions going extinct? Or Maasai?

Lions going extinct? Or Maasai?

Maasai cow laced with poison kills entire lion pride.
Richard Leakey’s excellent wildlife consortium, Wildlife Direct, said today that “Kenya’s lions are on the brink of extinction.” Exaggeration or real warning?

Probably both.

The organization’s warning followed an incident in late April where three lions were poisoned in Lemek, a private wildlife conservancy north of Kenya’s famed Maasai Mara game reserve.

Wildlife officials arrested the alleged killer, a Maasai herder, who admitted the poisoning and showed wildlife officials the powder he used. He explained that the lion had been killing his cattle.

Lion have been killing Maasai stock for aeons. And in the old days Maasai morani would spear the lion to death and that usually did the trick. Today, pesticides have replaced spears. In this case, pending chemical analysis, wildlife officials believe the poison was carbofuran – widely available in Kenya because it’s used in the cut-flower industry.

Unlike spearing the marauding lion, pesticides laid out for the intruder end up killing the whole pride, and that’s what seems to have happened in this case. In the old days, the speared (usually) male lion traumatized the pride enough that they left the area. Now, there are no lions left to leave.

Killing wildlife in Lemek is a violation of two laws: a federal law against killing lions (that allowed federal officials, the KWS, to become involved) and a business contract with tourist camps in the area.

So the alleged culprit was arrested and arraigned, but later released. Not on bail, but because “a local politician intervened on his behalf,” according to Wildlife Direct.

Don’t get too angry.

Wildlife/human conflicts are on the rise throughout Africa and I don’t believe they are being properly handled. In Kenya a number of initiatives are underway, including KWS programs to educate herders and farmers on the importance of wildlife; in Tanzania more aggressive actions are being funded by organizations like AWF to actually fence portions of farms against intruders as large as elephant.

But as human populations develop and their needs become greater, and particularly during an economic downturn and following a drought, these initiatives can actually exacerbate not solve the problem.

Lemek is an excellent example. This is too far away from the real wilderness of the Maasai Mara, an extension of a “private reserve” because of presumed tourist interests. Many of Africa’s best camps are in private reserves, but I think these private reserves have become too far out.

This is really an area that should be left to stock grazing, and what the Kenyan government and wildlife officials should realize is that trying to expand it for tourism is a bad idea. It should be developed for agriculture.

Lions should not be protected in this area. They should be confined to areas further towards and actually inside the reserve, and if motivated to move out into these areas, they should be picked up or shot by wildlife officials before such messy and uncontrollable acts of poisoning grow widespread.

Protecting them in areas like these just increases the problem.

Is CITES a Rich Man’s Treaty?

Is CITES a Rich Man’s Treaty?

Must we choose between elephants and less traffic congestion?
The southern African countries are meeting today in Malawi to decide whether to withdraw from the CITES convention. They almost convinced me to support them, and then, they blew it.

The withdrawal from CITES (Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species) by part of the world where half the elephants live would throw the treaty into turmoil, even though that might not immediately threaten elephants.

I find myself slowly moving into the southern African camp after a life-time of supporting the East Africans. I have little doubt that relaxing the ban on ivory sales will increase poaching, and that will unequivocally negatively impact tourism in East Africa.

But I’ve seen more and more the destruction that elephants are doing, and the pitiful response of NGOs and governments alike to assist with the human sacrifice. More and more, CITES is looking like a Rich Man’s Treaty.

Yes, CITES protects Kenyan tourism. But what does that mean? Is it protecting revenue to develop the country and sustain its environment, or is it more just giving us rich westerners a better vacation?

The withdrawal from CITES was proposed by Botswana. The 15 nations in the trading and tourism organization Botswana is petitioning would be directed to urge their governments to take official action to withdraw, which will take a long time. But if that ultimately happened, CITES would be thrown into turmoil.

I doubt anything except hot air will come out of the convocation, but it makes us realize once again that just protecting elephant without protecting people begs fairness. Elephant protectors argue that the healthier environment and proper management of these jumbo forms of wildlife actually contributes to economic stability. Politicians, farmers and the poor feel significantly otherwise.

With as much coincidence and political adroitness as the Goldman Sachs hearing before a successful Democratic vote to move forward bank regulation in the U.S. Congress, Botswana and Zambian media last week were incessant in reporting about a family of elephant near Sesheke destroying crops and threatening farmers and villagers.

Sesheke is in the triangular border of Namibia, Botswana and Zambia just outside the famous Chobe National Park, which earns more tourism revenue for Botswana than any of its other protected wildernesses. Botswana argues that the human suffering in the area is simply not worth the tourism revenue, or that the tourism revenue won’t suffer that much if elephants are protected less, or both.

Botswana claims that it could earn up to $7 million annually by selling ivory that was simply harvested from naturally dead animals if it withdraws from CITES. Meanwhile, it spends $1 million annually just to manage the stockpile of collected ivory it can’t sell. These are significant amounts for a poor country.

But alas, the southern Africans aren’t doing their cause much justice this time around. The whole meeting grew farcical yesterday when it elected the Zimbabwean Ministry for Tourism its chairman. There hasn’t been any significant tourism in Zimbabwe for years, and nearly everything Zimbabwe does these days destroys tourism and its own development!

So the serious intellectual argument dissolves in farce. My wrenched little conscience starts laughing hysterically.

Ultimately, I just feel that the Africans have the preeminent position in determining not just the morality but the economy of this contentious debate, and I’m ready to give them the benefit of the doubt.

But if they make their spokesman and point man someone from a country with as destitute morality and economy as Zimbabwe, how on earth can I embrace their arguments?

Elephant Attack

Elephant Attack

Yesterday an American woman and her infant were killed by an elephant as they walked out of the Castle Forest Lodge near Mt. Kenya.

The name of the woman has not yet been released, but Kenyan authorities said she was the 39-year old wife of a teacher at Nairobi’s International School. The age of the infant was not given.

Reports by Agence France Presse said they were in a small group “casually walking” into the forest, and that the group included her husband who escaped unhurt.

None of the reports has been confirmed by U.S. authorities, but they are likely true.

The Castle Forest Lodge is a downmarket log motel not too far from Serena’s Mountain Lodge, one of Kenya’s five tree hotels. It’s located on the south end of the Mt. Kenya National Park, an area known to have many elephants. Expat workers typical of a U.S. high school teacher frequent the facility. One night with all meals costs $63.

One night with all meals at the nearby Serena Mountain Lodge retails at $260.

I am intentionally implying that the more you pay, the less likely you are to get trampled by an elephant.

The largest group effected by elephant deaths in Africa are not tourists, but Africans in their homes and farms who also do not have the insular experience of a well-run tourist facility. I am not implying that Africans or expats who pay less should be any less protected from elephants than my own Park Avenue clients.

There are some very nasty edges to the make-up of a tourist.

Hyaena Attack

Hyaena Attack

We love animals to death. The reverse is also true.

I have a multitude of reasons why we as conservationists and animal lovers must put at the top of our priorities a constant vigilance against anthropomorphizing. If we start to think of the marvelous diversity of life as being just like us, then we lose diversity. Ultimately, our arguments for conservation become diluted.

But the easiest reason to avoid anthropomorphizing is because it can kill us.

Last Wednesday in a brazen and viscous attack, two hyaenas mauled to death two residents near the quite busy and developed city of Machakos in Kenya.

You probably weren’t expecting me to tell a story about hyaenas, but this extreme emphasizes my point. Whether it’s Animal Planet or the Harrar Hyaena Man, there are plenty of examples of humans foolishly tempting hyaenas with humanity.

“We have never seen hyenas attacking human beings. We have always regarded them as cowardly creatures,” said Machakos resident, Mrs Beatrace Peter, to Nairobi’s Daily Nation as she hastened home at around 7pm on Saturday.

The hyenas attacked and mauled the two young men returning from a friend’s house around 7 p.m. It was hardly dark, and it was on the edge of the town. One of the boys was killed on the spot and the other died the next day in the hospital. Their screams attracted police that shot one hyaena and scared off the other.

I’m not suggesting we should rewrite the script for Lion King but I am suggesting that we guard ourselves against perspectives that attach human emotions like love, or human intellect to animals of any kind.

I am endlessly fascinated reading the science and trying to imagine which early hominid finally achieved consciousness similar to mine. I have never for a moment wondered that about my cat or dog, or the elephant I’m viewing in Tarangire, or even the chimp I see in Kibale.

The more subtle reasons for avoiding anthropomorphizing may, in fact, address more extensive, systemic flaws in our human culture that over long periods of time might inhibit our greater understandings of ourselves and nature.

But this story isn’t as deep. Shows on Animal Planet that stress and tempt animal behavior are simply wrong, scurrilous TV. Might just as well syndicate the Guatanamo tapes.

Elephant Suit

Elephant Suit

There is no question that it is becoming more dangerous for tourists interacting with elephants. But is the $850,000 award to an injured tourist in Kenya the right response?

Last November a Kenyan court awarded Wendy Martin, the wife of a British diplomat at the time serving in Kenya, 65 million Kenyan shillings in compensation for injuries she suffered in a 2000 elephant incident at the then new Il Ngwesi Lodge in northern Kenya. (This represented about half of Martin’s claim.)

It is a horrific incident, and you can read Martin’s own graphic and terrifying description from her own site: Wendy Martin’s own story It is remarkable that she survived.

Many don’t. According to Singapore’s Straits Times (April 8, 2009) more than 700 people are killed annually in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. We don’t have a reliable count of elephant deaths in Africa, but last year the BBC claimed that about a dozen tourists annually are killed as tourists by elephants in Africa. And according to the Save the Elephant Fund, there are probably hundreds of villagers annually killed in Africa. I think it is more likely in the thousands.

And that’s the point. I’ve written before that a convergence of otherwise unusual circumstances requires that we be overly vigilant right now with regards to elephant encounters. These include the economic downturn, the reduction of habitat, and the increase in elephant poaching. Kenyan law compensates each villager for “death or destruction” by elephant with 30,000 Kenyan shillings (about $250).

Why should Martin get $850,000?

On April 8, a Dutch tourist was killed in India’s Kazaringa national park while on a guided bird walk. His small group was accompanied by two armed rangers, who did fire at the charging elephant. The other tourists escaped, but he was killed. Based on Martin’s award, his estate is now contemplating a massive suit.

The question as to why tourists ought be treated differently in such litigation to local citizens suffering the same or worse outcomes is not a flippant or rhetorical one. Tourists are not expected to be familiar with the areas they visit. Their “adventure visit” is often contracted by numerous disclaimers, but at the same time by assurances that their hosts know what they’re doing.

In Martin’s case (according to recently released testimony), there could also be the specific negligence that knowledge of an errant elephant family moving onto the estate was known the night before the incident. Martin also claimed that she was “pushed” into going on the bush run somewhat against her own better instincts, and apparently the judge accepted this claim.

There is also the reality that one British tourist is worth to the Kenyan economy a geometrically larger amount than one Kenyan farmer.

Nevertheless, I think this is wrong. The British are currently very reluctant to release aid for building Kenyan roads, because they doubt the Kenyans are capable enough of building a good road, and that corruption is likely to divert the allocated funds. Why does the wife of a British diplomat expect the management of a new and somewhat experimental tourist facility would do any better?

Il Ngwesi where Martin visited was a new local community based tourism project. These projects represent a wonderful new direction that much investment has taken in East Africa in the last decade. Part of this dynamic, however, is that relatively unskilled and untrained local villagers assume much of the management and guiding of these establishments. That’s wonderful, too, but it’s clearly not as professional as a long-established bush camp in South Africa, for instance.

And this dynamic is well understood. Consumers attracted by the “ecotourism” component of a tourist offering must understand that the “guide” who meets them at the front door is not an elephant Ph.D. researcher or Zimbabwe certified bush guide. In the vast majority of cases the project “guide” has had little schooling and even less training with regards to foreign tourism. Consumers must be sensitive to the fact that enthusiasm might trump safety.

Most elephant incidents of which I’m aware — including my own clients’ near escape of a March, 2007, incident near Amboseli — do not have the several incriminating factors of Martin’s epic. Clearly this is one for the books, a precedent that may be defining the thresholds of responsibility and the monetary levels assigned them.

But one factual number tells me something’s not right: Wendy Martin’s horrible incident is not equivalent to the death of 3400 villagers. And right now, that’s where Kenyan law stands.