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White rhinos of Sabi Sands

Rhinos may be one of the iconic Big 5* but sightings are becoming harder to come by. My early safari experiences with rhinoceri were in East Africa where the temperamental black rhino still rains supreme, even though, due to poaching, they have suffered a catastrophic decline in numbers.

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

Rhinos are one of the Big 5 game animals sought after by hunters and photographers alike

I remember making a special trip in 1985 to Meru National Park to see, what were then, Kenya’s only white rhinos. Even then the northern white rhinoceros was all but extinct. The 5 or 6 rhino that we saw, which had been translocated there from South Africa, were all southern white rhinos – a different subspecies.

Enjoying a good wallow

Enjoying a good wallow

These animals were under guard 24 hours a day. As a result they weren’t afraid of humans. We were allowed to walk with them and pat them as they grazed. They were just like a small herd of cows. Just 3 years later they were all dead. Killed by poachers along with the brave men who guarded them.

On the road to extinction?

On the road to extinction?

I remembered this encounter when we came across five white rhinos on our first game drive in Sabi Sands. Four of them made up the main group and the fifth animal, a male, was grazing a short distance away.

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

A mother and her calf graze together in Sabi Sands

This particular group of the pachyderms seemed to be happy to continue feeding around our vehicles. Others that we met merely tolerated our presence and would move away from the vehicles if they had a chance. A healthy fear of humans may help these animals to survive a little longer although, in the end, nothing can protect them from a poacher’s bullet.

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

Some of the animals preferred to keep their distance from us

The rhinos in Sabi seemed to be much bigger than the ones I remember from Kenya but that may just be my failing memory. Adult males can reach a height of 1.85m (6 feet) and weigh up to 1.7 tonnes. Some of the animals we saw were close to that size. It was awe-inspiring!

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

The wide lip of a white rhino helps it to graze

All the rhinos that we found in the park were white ones. They came in a variety of colours depending on what they have been rolling in, so the name is a misnomer. The “white” comes from a mis-anglicisation of the Afrikaan’s word “weit” which means wide and describes the difference between the square mouth of the white rhino and the more pointed lip of the black. This adaptation helps the white rhinos to feed as they mainly eat grass, the only rhino to do so. (It’s black cousin uses its more pointed lip when it browses for leaves from bushes.)

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The white is the only sub-species of rhino that grazes

The southern white rhinoceros may not look quite as prehistoric as its Asian cousins but they can all trace their ancestry back 5 million years.

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

They have been around for 5 million years but can they survive the next few?

The white is the most populous of the rhino species left on Earth but there was a time, at the end of the 19th Century, when it was thought to have been hunted to extinction. In 1895, however, a small population of fewer than 100 individuals was discovered in Kwazulu-Natal. The 20,000 or so wild white rhinos that exist today are their descendants. Unfortunately, in spite of this conservation success story, the species is under threat once more, due to the current epidemic of poaching.

The white rhino is a conservation success story

The white rhino is a conservation success story

Poaching has been fuelled by an increase in demand from countries like Vietnam, where people use the horn as a status symbol (of their new-found wealth) or believe it has medicinal properties. Only when all humankind realises that rhino horn is no different to their fingernails and that it will not cure cancer or impotency, or whatever miracle use that has been attributed to it, will there be a chance of reducing demand. Let’s hope that realisation happens before it is too late for this iconic species.

Does this calf have a future?

Does this calf have a future?

Many of the facts included in this blog were obtained from the WWF website.

* The Big 5 (African elephant, rhino, Cape buffalo, lion and leopard) were originally the five animals that hunters most wanted to kill on safari. Now, they are often the animals that tourists most want to see.

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Worth more alive?

Last Saturday Kenya burned 105 tonnes of ivory and 1.35 tonnes of rhino horn. The ivory came from the tusks of 6700 elephants. If they had stood trunk to tail they would have formed a line 30 miles (50 kilometres) long. Has the Kenyan Government played into the hands of the poachers by pushing up the price of ivory, as some have claimed, or has it made a bold statement about its long-term intentions? The message it wants to send out to the world is that the elephant is #WorthMoreAlive than dead. Has it succeeded?

There can be no doubt about the publicity that the event has generated. It has featured in TV news bulletins around the world and it is all over social media. The burn has been praised by many environmental and conservation organisations but it has also been criticised by some conservationists who believe that a legitimate trade in ivory and rhino horn has an essential part to play, if poaching is to be stopped.

According to the BBC, the ivory burnt in Kenya had a reputed street value of £70 million ($100 million). Wouldn’t it have been better to have sold the ivory and spent the money on preventing poaching, as some have suggested?

The figures

Accurate figures about elephant populations and poaching are hard to find, with some interested groups picking numbers that reinforce their own particular views. Some reckon that around 20,000 African elephants are poached each year while others put the figure at more than 30,000. Either way, this is not a sustainable loss from the (generally agreed) population of between 450,000 and 500,000 elephants currently living wild in the continent.

It is thought that there were around 1.3 million elephants in Africa in 1979 when they were being poached at a rate of 75,000100,000 each year. This was clearly unsustainable and so CITES (The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) effectively banned the trade in ivory in 1989 by putting African elephants onto Appendix 1, the list of the most endangered animals and plants.

The number of elephants being poached fell significantly after this. The ban was weakly enforced originally, with governments and officials in many countries complicit in perpetuating the trade. Poaching levels did fall, however, although corruption continues to play a major role in the problem. I haven’t been able to find any figures for the number of elephants killed after the ban was implemented but, given that we are told that the number of elephants killed illegally between 2007 and 2014 doubled, and we know that the number of deaths in the latter year was between 20,000 and 30,000, it would be reasonable to assume that the figure was around 10,000 – 15,000, a fall of 80 – 90%.

The argument for permitting governments to licence the sale of ivory and rhino horn

Supporters of a limited trade argue that increasing the supply of ivory to the market would drive the price down, making it less attractive to criminals, while at the same time raising much needed funds for some of the poorest nations in the World. They suggest, too, that increasing the supply of ivory from legal sources would decrease demand for illegally sourced tusks. In 1999 and 2008 CITES bowed to pressure from certain African countries to lift the ban and permit one-off sales. Immediately after these events, the number of elephants killed by poachers fell, giving credence to the argument that permitting limited sales would reduce the threat from poaching.

The argument against ever permitting these products to be sold

Those opposed to any trade in ivory and rhino horn point out that the argument above, about demand, might be true if the size of the market was constant, but there is a growing middle class in China and the Far East with an apparently insatiable appetite for ivory products, meaning that demand is increasing. There is a body of opinion that believes that increasing the supply of ivory further increases that demand. This is backed up by the fact that, a couple of years after CITES permitted sales of ivory, the number of elephants killed by poachers increased. In fact, after the 2008 sale the numbers doubled. And that figure has been increasing ever since. Also, they point to the fall in the number of elephants being poached after CITES introduced the ban in 1989, saying this is evidence that the ban has saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of elephants, since then.

What happens in practice?

In Africa opinion is divided. East African countries tend to support a total ban, while many southern African countries oppose it. It is worth noting that those countries that oppose a total ban, generate considerable revenues from hunting.

Tourists require a greater financial investment than hunters

Tourists require a greater financial investment than hunters

Kenya, in burning the ivory, has implied that it will oppose any future attempts to permit one-off sales. It had considered, therefore, that its stockpile was worthless and keeping it was an expensive waste of money and resources. (While it existed, the stockpile had to be guarded to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.)

Some would argue that Kenya can afford to do this because it has a huge tourist industry, worth £1.6 billion ($2.35 billion), about 2.5% of its GDP, in 2014. The industry employs more than half a million people (about 2.5% of Kenya’s adult population). To them the ivory is definitely worth more alive.

Other countries are not so sure that the same argument applies in their cases. Kenya’s tourist industry evolved throughout the 20th Century. Other countries are starting from scratch or restarting after periods of conflict. Tourists these days have high expectations. Mass tourism involves a huge investment in infrastructure and people. Lodges have to be built, water and electricity have to be provided, sewage has to be dealt with, roads need to be maintained, staff have to be trained, and so on.

Many places have discovered, however, that they can improve their profits by providing a smaller number of tourists with a more expensive, exclusive, luxury experience. However, this still costs a lot to set up.

Others have found that they can charge even more money to an even smaller number of people by permitting hunting on their land. They can make a living by having a smaller operation, with simpler and hence cheaper camps. This income is threatened if the killing of certain animals is made illegal or, when such killing is permitted, if foreign hunters are unable to take their trophies home with them because of bans in transporting products from endangered wildlife.

Was Kenya right to burn the ivory and, if so, can other countries do the same?

Many of the people who run hunting operations are opposed to Kenya’s action. They argue that the money they make from rich hunters finances their conservation and breeding programmes. Banning the sales of ivory and rhino horn, they say, would put them out of business and hence increase the chance that elephants will die out in the wild rather than reducing it.

Personally, I think that they’re wrong. I believe that the Kenyan model is the way forward. It takes more effort and more investment but the evidence, that permitting the sales of ivory increases poaching, is so overwhelming that the alternative would inevitably lead to a world without elephants and rhinos. That world would be a poorer place, both financially and in people’s experiences.

The World would be a poorer place if elephants became extinct

The World would be a poorer place if elephants became extinct

Permitting a limited trade in wildlife products produces a smokescreen behind which the illegal trade can flourish. If there is a system whereby legally obtained products are certificated, then those certificates can be made available to the illegal trade too, through corruption, theft or forgery, making it much more difficult to identify the illegal products.

This is why other countries have to take a similar stance to Kenya. Ivory traders need to know that there will never again be any legal sales of these products to help them conceal movements of their own stockpiles.

To be fair to them, other countries have been burning their stockpiles. In March Malawi set fire to 2.6 tonnes of ivory, having initially been prevented from doing so by Tanzania, a country with its own massive poaching problem (it lost two thirds of its elephants in just five years). Last year, Ethiopia, Congo, Mozambique, the US and even China burnt some of their stockpiles too.

Mozambique belatedly recognised that continuing to store confiscated ivory is a high-risk strategy. Last year it very publically announced the confiscation of 1.3 tonnes of ivory and rhino horn (the rhino is extinct in Mozambique so these, almost certainly, had been poached across the border, in South Africa’s Greater Kruger National Park) only to have some of the rhino horns stolen from the police compound less than a fortnight later.

Rhino horn where it should be found - on the end of a rhino's nose

Rhino horn where it should be found – on the end of a rhino’s nose

In the end, however, the only way to stop poaching is to reduce the demand for ivory and rhino horn. Reducing demand, reducing human–elephant conflict and managing the destruction caused by large herds of elephants are beyond the scope of this blog, but they are major issues that can’t be ignored, so I will return to them in the future.

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Belinda – a life transformed

Dreamland, or IcFEM Dreamland Mission Hospital to give it its full name, is a small hospital in rural western Kenya with only one full-time doctor. In 2014 the hospital opened an operating theatre. The theatre enables visiting surgeons to come and run camps there.

Camps concentrate on a single condition. For example, when I was at Dreamland there was a camp for those with cleft palates and lips. The operations were paid for by the international children’s charity, Smile Train. When a camp is about to happen, a radio announcement is made and leaflets are handed out. Those suffering from the condition come to the hospital where a team of specialists assess and operate on them.

I spoke to one of the parents, Chebet, whose daughter had come for surgery. As we talked Belinda tried to chew on a piece of bread, bits of which appeared in her nostril, providing a perfect illustration of one of the many problems people who suffer from a cleft palate have.

Aged nearly two, Belinda was listless and weak. She hadn’t learnt to talk because the gap in her palate meant that she couldn’t build up air pressure in her mouth and there was little tissue in the palate for her tongue to press against.

Belinda-Chebet-KWEMDI-(4)Chebet told me how he had taken Belinda to a number of hospitals before Dreamland but they had been unable to help her. A year earlier he had heard that Smile Train was visiting the hospital and, together with his daughter, he made the 2½ hour journey to the hospital to be assessed. Unfortunately the team had had to turn her away at that time. An operation would have been too risky because the then 11-month-old weighed less than 4kg (as a result of her feeding difficulties). She was sick and had a chest infection and would probably not have survived surgery.

The hospital treated Belinda’s ailments and put her on a feeding programme. At first, she was fed 10mls of nutritious fluid by syringe every ten minutes. After six week’s treatment she was ready to go home. Donors provided the family with money to buy locally produced high calorie food and to pay for the weekly 5 hour round trip to the hospital so that Belinda’s progress could continue to be monitored.

When we met, a year after her first visit, Belinda weighed almost 10kg and was ready for surgery. I watched as Anne Marie Pettersen carried the terrified child into the operating theatre. She tried to calm her down by singing to her until she succumbed to the drugs administered by anaesthetist Michael Carter. Anne Marie’s husband Bjørn was assisting surgeon Tony Giles with the procedure. The scrub nurse Agnes, a member of staff at Dreamland, was learning the procedure under the watchful eye of Caroline Rawson. This team are all volunteers who travel the world, unpaid, helping people of all ages with clefts. It was a privilege to meet them.

4-months-later-1The long and difficult procedure took about four hours to complete. When Chebet came into the recovery room to pick up his daughter, he was amazed at the difference, describing her new appearance as a “miracle”.

Four months later, Belinda and Chebet returned to the hospital. Now that the swelling had gone down it was easy to see how good a job the surgical team had done. She has started to say a few words, is putting on weight and has the energy to run around and play. What a remarkable transformation!

Warning: The film, below, was shot during Belinda’s operation and contains scenes that some people may find difficult to watch.

Belinda’s story from Alan Smith on Vimeo.

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From Kampala to Kimilili

The blazing Sun assaulted my Celtic skin as I stood in a queue in a Kampala bus station. Slowly, slowly my fellow passengers divested themselves of the many bags, boxes and suitcases that accompanied them on their travels. As each was loaded into the bowels of the coach, its owner was given a numbered ticket and I wondered whether I had made a mistake.

Carrying a small fortune in camera equipment on a journey I’d never made before, I’d bought two tickets, one for me and one for the gear, hoping to minimise the risk of losing it in transit. Now, as I observed the unexpected security measures, I thought I’d wasted my money. It was to turn out, however, to be a fortuitous decision indeed.

I was on my way to Kenya to make a film for a woman, Becky, who I’d only met once before, about a hospital, Dreamland, that I knew even less about. Now I was about to board the only bus I could find that went anywhere near my destination. I had ruled out taking a matatu (minbus taxi) to the border because of the quantity of kit I was carrying.

Having checked at the ticket office, and at the check-in desk, that I would be able to get off the bus at Bungoma, and that it would stop at Jinja for me to pick up a package from my son and daughter-in-law, I boarded the coach thinking that everything was under control. Fortunately the Kenyan lady sitting in the row in front of me knew otherwise.

As I manoeuvred my kit into the window seat, she set about discovering what I, the only mzungu on board, was doing on this coach.

“Where are you going?” “Why?” “Who are you seeing?” “Is she your girlfriend?”

In response to the last of these I said, “No! She’s married. [Pause] And so am I. [Slightly shorter pause] And not to each other.”

“So she is your girlfriend!” she riposted with a cheeky grin on her face.

I knew I was beaten.

The conversation, however, did have its benefits. She made sure that the driver knew to stop in Jinja (this would not have happened otherwise, in spite of the office’s assurances to the contrary).

At an unusually prompt 3pm, the bus set off and wound its way through Kampala’s back streets in an effort to avoid the city’s traffic jams. These had been made worse by the apparently random road closures that happened to prevent opposition rallies in the run-up to the country’s recent presidential elections. I realised that this was going to be a long journey.

As we approached Jinja, I rang my son to let him know where we were so that he could get to the bus stop before us. By now the heavens had opened and it was raining in a way that you normally only see on film or TV. As we pulled in to the stop my son and daughter-in-law, who were very wet indeed, greeted me and handed over the package of reusable sanitary towels. Emily and Calum are based in the town and run Irise International, an NGO working to find a sustainable solution to menstrual health management in East Africa, hence the pads that I was taking for an orphanage in Kenya.

The bus continued eastwards and I tried to work out which border crossing we would use. On the one hand, Malaba (the red pin on the map) seemed the most logical, it was on a major road all the way to Eldoret, the coach’s first scheduled stop. Any point on the road from Malaba onwards could be reached by Becky, so this would suit me best too. On the other hand, this had been the only bus that I could find running on my route (others do too, but their agents denied it when I rang them up!!), and I had been told by some that it used the more southerly Busia crossing but nobody seemed certain.

Soon darkness fell and I gave up trying to work out where we were on my hand-drawn map.

As it turned out we did go to the Busia border post. Not knowing where I was, I followed the rest of the passengers through Emigration and then down the road into Immigration. As the only traveller requiring a visa for Kenya, it took me longer to be processed than the rest and by the time I emerged none of the others were anywhere in sight. Neither was the bus.

Not sure what to do, I started walking further into Kenya, my 20kg camera bag digging into my shoulder and bouncing off my hip. [Note to self: buy a rucksack before the next trip]

Some 500 metres down the road I found the bus, locked and empty, or at least I thought it was my coach. I stood there, alone, for about twenty minutes, growing more and more anxious, before a border guard came and checked the vehicle. As the lights were turned on I saw the rest of my equipment and could confirm, at last, that I had been waiting outside the correct vehicle.

My solitary vigil continued for some time. Then, slowly, my fellow passengers emerged from the surrounding gloom, carrying hot, cooked food for the rest of the journey. So that’s where they’d been, the local take-away!

Shortly after the border we turned left and headed north up a narrow road. This wasn’t on my hand-drawn map. Never mind. I had been assured that the bus would pass through Bungoma, which was close enough to Kimilili for Becky to be able to pick me up.

This part of the journey was tortuously slow. Every village, and there were a lot of villages, had built a series of enormous speed humps designed to rip the sump off any vehicle, no matter how large.

After an hour or so, our progress ground to a halt as we hit a traffic jam. Not to be stopped by this, our driver joined other vehicles in driving up the wrong side of the road until they too came to a halt. At this point he decided to test his off-road skills and we bumped and skidded along the verge at a perilous angle until we found the source of the jam.

A sugar lorry had overturned and shed its load across the road and surrounding countryside. There was no way through and it didn’t look as if this was going to be sorted out any time soon.

I rang Becky and tried to explain where I was. Another passenger had told me that we were just outside Bungoma, was there any chance that she could find me? Apparently my description matched two different roads so I tried to explain all the turns we had taken since the border. This still didn’t help but she said she’d try the nearest first and then, if necessary, the other.

While I was waiting for her, my fellow passengers kept getting on and off the coach, I assumed, to try and find out what was happening. How wrong I was.

Finally Becky rang back to say that she was the other side of the stricken lorry. I picked up my things, grateful that I hadn’t loaded them into the luggage compartment, told the Kenyan lady to let the driver know that I wasn’t coming back and then … tripped, falling headfirst down the stairwell. As I pushed myself back up the steps, I struggled to get back on my feet because the floor of the bus was moving. It was then that I realised that my fellow passengers had been helping themselves to sugar cane and it now covered the aisle of the bus. I had lost my footing on the cylindrical canes.

After circumventing the unfortunate truck, the hazards of an African verge, and the unwelcome attention of some of the locals, I found Becky and her driver a couple of hundred metres down the road. The rest of the journey was uneventful and I reached Dreamland shortly after midnight.

After a successful three days filming, I used private hire taxis for the return journey.

You can find out why the hospital’s called Dreamland by watching the film I made there. Warning: It contains some scenes in an operating theatre that some viewers might find difficult to view.

Dreamland Mission Hospital from Alan Smith on Vimeo.