Friday, September 2, 2016

Lion with bad manners

It's a normal morning. Starlings are chatting outside. I am unusually late getting out of bed. Just some minutes past 7:00.
And then I hear him.
It is a sound that you feel inside, more than hearing. It reverberates in you. Is it an ancestral memory of my African hunter gatherer genes? Not sure. But the grunting has a wave length which you feel in your stomach.
I get quickly out of bed. Heartbeats are higher... I think my instincts knows he is near. And then... I see him. A huge black maned lion is just outside my house. We are 5 meters apart and more than us watching in each other eyes through the glass window, I think it is him penetrating me.
I feel extremely vulnerable. He starts walking away, so I get out and follow him on foot. We are less than 20 mt. apart. He ignores me, but, oddly, he does not go away. He circles the house...
Strange, I think...
I let him go around and I re-enter the house from the opposite side where he is.
I go in and I see him immediately, under the porch. He looks again in my eyes and he moves away, doing a new circle. Again. I go on the other side and I see him laying in front of a window door. I go nearer and I look at him. Now I have annoyed him!.
A deep roaring and a simple one pace mock charge convince me to retreat upstairs.
See it yourself:

We look at each other again and after a moment he nonchalantly walks away.
I go out and follow him, pretending he is not the boss. He keeps walking away, slowly and unmoved by my following.
I even shout a pathetic "toka" (move away), and he does not even look at me, he simply walks up to the hills.
Very rudely he did not even brought tea to me. A very badly mannered lion.

Monday, August 8, 2016

A safari experience to reflect on the Universe...

A couple of months ago we were profoundly inspired by a lovely family who came on a special safari with us.
Special because they are on a sabbatical with their two young children. Yes, a sabbatical year, invested in traveling the World, as an opportunity to better educate their kids.
Truly inspiring.

The young boy had an incredibly curious mind. At lunch we had a conversation which puzzled and almost embarrassed me... The boy was recalling how when on safari in Tanzania the previous days he said "look at the Thomson and the Grant gazelle: they clearly share a common ancestor", and the guide (yes, their professional guide...) replied "no, I do not believe in evolution, God made them like that".
The young curious boy was puzzled, even more so were his parents, I was told.
I did not know how to best go about this and inspire the curious mind of the lovely boy... So I shared the following story, borrowed from the great book "Kenya, A Natural History", by Stephen Spawls and Glenn Mathews.
Imagine we could shrink the entire history of Planet Earth in a single day.
Compress our 4.6 billion years, written 4,600,000,000 years, in 24 hours.
Let's see what happened in these 24 hours...
Until 5 am there are no Continents, they start to form between 5 and 6 am.
Life appears around 6:00 am, but is confined into water for the next 14 hours, until 22:00 (10 pm).
That is when plants make it into land. 45 minutes later, at 22:45 is the dinosaurs time.
Africa is born just 37 minutes before midnight and 7 minutes later, at 23:30 we, the mammals, appear.
10 minutes later, at 23:40 all dinosaurs go extinct.
The first hominims arrive at 2 minutes before midnight.
Kenya becomes independent 1 thousands of a second before midnight...

And this is just on our Planet scale.
Let's take a moment and look around (and perhaps "up"), instead of back at the past.
Are you ready for the journey?
Let's talk about us, homo sapiens. You are one of 7.3 billions. Written 7,300,000,000. Let's understand this big number and put it into some perspective.
(Read the full article by Steven Austad here) Bertrand Russel made the point that us human need a bit of astronomy to grasp big numbers. Let's try it out...
Ten years ago NASA launched an interplanetary space probe, appropriately named New Horizons. In these 10 years New Horizons has been traveling through our solar system, sending amazing images. New Horizons is fast, about 40,000 miles per hour. Distance covered? 3,000,0000,000 (3 billions) miles. Now next to Pluto, it took 4 1/2 hours for the image of it, sent from New Horizons at the speed of light, to reach Earth. At that speed it takes one second to travel from the Moon to Earth.
Do you know how long it would take New Horizons to reach the closest star: 90,000 years...
So our galaxy is big, quite big... But that star is just one of 100 billions (I will spare you the zeros) into our galaxy.
Uhmm, what does that big number mean?
Come back to Earth. Imagine relaxing on the beach and play with its sand. How many grains of sand could you hold in your hand? No idea, right? Well we, homo sapiens, have a curious mind and some researchers calculated the number of grains of sand for the ENTIRE planet Earth. All of its sand, dunes, beaches, deserts... Whatever that number, we would need 10,000 Earth like planets with their grains of sand to equal the LOWEST estimated number of stars in the Universe.
It helps putting things in prospective, doesn't it?
And if you still have the desire to actually see this in scale, watch this video...
Hold tight, you will fly to infinity...

This is, I think, what being on safari can be about... learning how we got here and what is around us. Human knowledge is growing, almost by the instant. What a great opportunity to be immersed in the African Nature to learn about our roots and our place in the Universe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Why burning valuable ivory?

I have been thinking about this topic for weeks...
My daughter asked me the question the other day, puzzling me.
I thought she knew better and I was appalled by my silly assumption and ignorance of her knowledge and perceptions.
So here are my thoughts...
I think I am decently qualified to talk about this very complex and very debated and controversial topic.
Why? I have a doctorate in Economics, with a thesis on "wildlife as a renewable resource: sustainable development and environmental conservation in Kenya".
One of the main chapters of my thesis was the explanation of CITES, the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species.
No worries, I am not going to bore you to death with academics thinking, data quotes, etc.

I will simply tell you my story, hoping it can help to better understand this very important discussion.

Let's start from what triggered my daughter's question: the burning of 105 tons of ivory and about 1.5 tons of rhino horn, in Nairobi, on April 30th.
I promised no boring data, but please allow me to put things in prospective.
That ivory and rhino horn belonged to 6,500 elephants and 450 rhinos.

It takes nearly 22 months gestation to get on elephant into this World... Those 6,500 elephants came from 6,500 mothers which collectively took nearly 12,000 years to give birth to all these magnificent animals...
How about that...

Numbers can be confusing, but they help putting things in prospective...
Let me ask you to imagine this: 6,500 dead elephants are 13,000 tusks. Line them up together and you will have a path 20 km. long. Now imagine the bleeding from these tusks and you walking the path, if you have a fast pace of 5 km an hour it will take you four hours walk... in a trail of blood...

What I am trying to make you understand is that  ivory comes from an animal which has been killed. A very intelligent mammal to whom humans have been inflicting pain, panic, stress, shock... and then death...
Ivory is not an item which comes out of a factory.
It comes from a killed animal, killed through a machine gun, or a poisoned arrow, or a snare, or impaled in a trap...
That is what I would like you to imagine when you look at the below photos:

Photos by Lucrezia Belpietro

not a pile of dentine, not some inert material set to blaze in flames...

Picture those 20 km line of blood ivory.
Then imagine the paths walked by these 6,500 elephants during their lives, their survival from predators (until they met human poachers), their gathering at waterholes, playing together with their babies...
Imagine their life-full lives, the African sunrises they saw... the moonlight walks they took...

Now we can talk about the economics. Now that you understand these flames are the flames of 7,000 large mammals which no longer roam the African savanna...

When I was a Westerner (was, as I am now Kenyan and find very alien to consider myself a Westerner...) I was adamantly convinced that the future conservation of wildlife was intrinsically linked to adding value to the animal. In which sense? Simple: make sure the use of wildlife is economically productive and wildlife will be preserved, as it pays off to do so.

When in 1989 Daniel Arap Moi, then President of Kenya, set on fire ivory in Nairobi, I was saddened by what I then considered a wasteful destruction. How blind and ignorant I was...
It was a brave gesture and strong statement: we are not interested in economic gains from the sales of ivory, we want to protect our elephants (which were in desperate need of protection, having been annihilated from 168,000 to 15,000 in the previous 15 years!).
Back then, with my very Western eyes, I was thinking: "Game cropping? Hunting? Why not, if done viably, with the aim to dedicate vast wilderness to a sustainable wildlife population".
Then I moved to Africa permanently... and I realized how presumptuous and impractical my thoughts were.
I have never witness systematic game cropping and hunting done properly and with sustainability as the ultimate end.

The 1989 ivory burn was minimal, a mere 12 tons, compared to the 105 tons burnt this year.
Yet it sent the right message.
CITES protected the elephant, ivory was not tradeable and the war on ivory poaching was won. Almost instantly (and thanks to the superb work of Dr. Leakey and his team of passionate Kenyans, making the amazing Kenya Wildlife Service).
Elephant population in Kenya was then on the raise, after 15 years of terrible decline.

Other African Countries kept "crying", pretending their elephant populations had to be culled. Why do I say pretending? Well they had to be culled because those Governments made the choice of not having enough wilderness areas for their elephants population, therefore declaring an otherwise shrinking elephant continental population, redundant!
Their argument "let us sell our legal ivory to finance our conservation work" was unfortunately accepted.

When a quota of "legal" ivory was allowed into the market, poaching skyrocketed.
No one with intellectual decency can deny the correlation between the spiking of poaching and the allowed ivory trade.
And it has been like that in every instance of approved sales or even perception that a legal sale would be approved.

That is why I am not writing what is the value in $ of those 13,000 tusks...
Ivory does not have a value.
It must not have a value.
If we accept that it has a value, we accept that is tradeable.
It must not be tradeable, otherwise the remaining 400,000 African elephants will be soon gone.

Let me ask you a question, and it a serious one.
I have written these thoughts because of my daughter's bewilderment on why precious ivory was destroyed.
Do you have a daughter? Do you have a son?
How would you feel if the Police Department would argue that they need to sell into the market the cocaine, heroine and whatever other nasty drug they confiscated, so they can finance their police activities?
You would ask if somebody in the Department is mentally ill, will you not?
Well, this is how I feel when we accept that elephants can be killed for their ivory so that we can finance their protection. It is simply insane.

By Luca Belpietro
Founder Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust