Listening In the Wild

Saturday, June 20th, 2015


I’m traveling to Kenya as the Executive Director of Tusk USA, (www.tusk.org) a wildlife conservation organization whose mission is to help to conserve African wildlife and habitat by partnering with African non-profits that promote and integrate research, community development, economic growth, environmental education and direct wildlife protection.   

Yesterday, I was at the Times Square Ivory Crush.  A ton of illegal ivory was crushed into a sand-like powder with a massive industrial rock crusher.  There were speeches. There was indignation and hope and talk about policy changes and demand reduction for ivory.  And more talk.

By the time I get to my first destination in the Chyulu Hills of Southern Kenya –  it will be 2 days from now.  I quickly calculate 144 elephants will be slaughtered for their ivory by the time I get to where I am going.  

Words from The One and Only Ivan, a children’s book about a captive gorilla in a road side mall, reverberate in my head.  I have been reading this magical story with my 9 year old daughter.  In the book, Ivan, the gorilla says: “Humans waste words.  They toss them like banana peels and leave them to rot.  Everyone knows the peels are the best part”.  

144 elephants will be slaughtered before I get to where I am going.  How many elephants were slaughtered during the ivory crush in Times Square while we talked? 25?  50?   I know that doesn’t change the facts.  The crush was a successful media event. I’m just struck by the clock ticking. 

Yesterday at the crush, more than once I heard “I had no idea elephants were in danger of extinction”, “how awful”, “I love elephants”.  I have to admit it feels a little like tossing banana peels sometimes.  I think Ivan is right. “Humans waste words”.  

Everyone loves elephants.  We just don’t seem to be able to stop the slaughter.  

All our talk doesn’t seem to be resonating.  The other day, I bumped into a Tusk USA donor at a non-work related event. She was wearing what looked like an ivory trinket on a silver chain.  I think my eyes popped out of my head.  I thought about whether I should send her donation back. 

Sunday, June 21st

I’ve arrived safely at Heathrow.  It’s 6 AM London time.  

I estimate that at least 40 elephants have been killed since I left my apartment in NYC. Not all the elephants killed were in Kenya though.  Kenya has had great success lately protecting their elephants. 

On the other hand there is Tanzania.  Not so good.  I’d rather be a Kenyan elephant these days.

A recent report revealed that Tanzania is at the epicenter of Africa’s elephant poaching crisis.  The report estimates that 60% of Tanzania’s elephants have been killed in the last five years.  Between 2009 and 2014 the number of elephants went from 109,051 to 43,330. With an annual birth rate of 5% the number of dead elephants in Tanzania in the past five years is estimated to be 85,181.  

Even for those of us numb to these statistics, that’s a staggering number.  I picture the people in the bleachers at Belmont Stakes watching American Pharaoh make history winning the Triple Crown. There were about 90,000 of us there.   At the rate of slaughter of the African elephant in Tanzania all of us at the Triple Crown Stakes would be dead by the time my daughter reaches 14 years old.  

That thought is sobering.

Monday, June 22nd

Charlie Mayhew, the CEO and founder of Tusk Trust in the UK and I have stopped in the Chyulu Hills for two days on our way to the Tusk Safaricom marathon.  We have come to see programs that Tusk supports at the Big Life Foundation, an innovative conservation program that collaborates closely with local communities.  We are staying at Richard and Tara Bonham’s amazing home with a spectacular view of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  When I wake up in the morning, I know how privileged I am to be here. 

Now, at dusk I’m perched on a concrete step by the Bonham’s “pool”.

The pool isn’t really a pool anymore, but a drinking hole.  The Bonhams stopped putting chlorine in it when the elephants started to come for their nightly quaff.  Three elephants saunter up to the pool and stand noiseless and still at the edge.  Then the big bull dips his trunk in the water and starts to drink.  I am reminded of a quote from Jane Goodall: “it’s not just a species facing extinction, it’s massive individual suffering”.  Up close at night, with no barrier between us and the elephants, my heart stills.  There is something about elephants.

Listening to the pregnant stillness of the African night, I think about the tragedy of human nature – our insatiable greed, our ability to detach ourselves from acts of inexcusable cruelty, our inability to learn from our past.  Our inability to listen or to hear. The elephants, no more than 20 feet away, drink silently except for low reverberations – and the occasional sound of water spraying from their trunks into their mouths. Almost comical guttural noises of pure pleasure emanate from these spectacular beasts.  Their fabulously large ears flap. There is no question that they are aware of our presence.  While we can only see a silhouette of their massive frames against the sky, one senses that they can see us with perfect clarity.  

We don’t need their ivory.

35,000 elephants a year are killed to feed the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory.  The rate of killing exceeds the species reproduction rate.  Just do the math – it is unsustainable.  96 elephants a day.  15-20 years and elephants will be extinct.   As I sat for 20 minutes watching the elephants come for their nightly visit to the Bonham’s “pool”, at least one elephant was poached in Africa.  

The clock is ticking. 

Earlier that day, Charlie and I were visiting a ranger station supported by Tusk  and Big Life.  Richard Bonham got a call to get up in his plane as soon as possible.  A woman from the community who was collecting firewood had reported seeing a group of possible poachers sneak into the conservation area.  Richard invited us along for the ride.  

The Illegal Wildlife Trade (IWT) generates $19 billion a year in revenue.  IWT is the fourth largest illegal global trade after narcotics, counterfeiting, and human trafficking.  IWT is considered big business that helps fuel terrorism.  Some estimate that 40% of al-Shabaab's revenues are from IWT.  Others say that this is a gross exaggeration and that Al-Shabaab only dabbles in IWT.   Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army is also reportedly heavily involved in trafficking of ivory.  The connection between ivory trade and terrorism isn’t debated really. What is debated is just how much money terrorist organizations are making.  

As I sat and watched the elephants drink peacefully in the dark by the pool, it struck me that The One and Only Ivan, the captive gorilla at the roadside mall, would think humans were wasting words debating the finer points of this argument. Elephants are being slaughtered.  These magnificent behemoths are not going to exist when my daughter is an adult.  That is of course, unless we manage to do something really soon.    

The Big Life Foundation, and programs like it are making localized successes – beating back the poachers and stemming the tide of blood with innovative community based conservation programs.  Like I said, I would rather be an elephant in Kenya right now. Investment in smart conservation can work.  It’s being proven all over Africa. 

Up in Richard’s Cessna we don’t catch sight of the poachers.  Hopefully though we have scared them off.  Richard flew the Cessna low - really low actually – angled in a way that seemed at moments, perhaps unwise.  We needed to be low enough to try to see below the heavy foliage to spot a poacher’s campfire or a dead elephant.  We saw an old bloated elephant carcass but it was clearly not a new kill.  

The rest of the day was spent with members of the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), drinking Chai, waiting for more news as the rangers tried to track the poachers in the vast 2 million acres of wilderness in the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of East Africa. The story changed as the day progressed.  First, poachers had guns. Then bows with poison darts. Then a dead animal.  Then not.  The KWS can shoot to kill when they find a poacher in a conservation area.  This is serious business. 

Big Life employs 315 rangers, with 31 outposts and 15 vehicles.  From the air, it seems like searching for a needle in a haystack.  All I can think is that they need more resources. 

We may have scared away the poachers this time, but statistically somewhere in Africa 288 elephants have died since I left my apartment in NYC.  This is a war.  Depending on where you are in Africa, poachers are using poison darts, AK47 machine guns and advanced technology to track and kill elephant and rhino for ivory and horn sold on a lucrative international market.

Wednesday, June 24th

The primary reason I’m in Kenya is to attend the Tusk Safaricom Marathon at Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. The Tusk Safaricom Marathon has been held every year for the past 16 years.  It is one of Tusk’s biggest annual fundraisers and will hopefully raise over $500,000 this year for conservation efforts Kenya-wide.  

The marathon is a spectacular event. Corporate teams from Artemis, BlackRock,  EMSO, Deutsche Bank, Investec and Huawei along with over 1400 other runners take part in a marathon or half marathon that is set on dirt roads on an undulating 13 mile course through the reserve, across savannah plains, along river banks and through acacia woodland.  Full marathon runners do the course twice.

It’s said to be one of the hardest marathons in the world. Somehow that makes me proud even though I have yet to run it. The marathon should be hard – it adds to the message conservation organizations need to deliver. Wildlife conservation is a slog – a long term, hard and unpredictable trek.  If it were easy, we would have figured out how to save the elephant, rhino, lion and other species a long time ago. 

The problem isn’t just the illegal wildlife trade – its human wildlife conflict and a decreasing habitat for animals.  Its greed and money and terrorist fueled illegal trade.  And, it is population growth.  Simply by inhabiting the planet, we are changing its contours and constitution.  By the very fact of habitation we have an impact.  Who and what wins or loses in the fight for space and resources isn’t a new issue.  It is simply more pressing now that there are more of us in existence.

There are more of us on this planet than ever before.  And, if you believe in human rights, we all have a right to a chance at a better life.  I guess what that means is that people have the right to demand that they live in circumstances that give them hope.  Hope means wanting a home, land, an income, and education for your children.  It is really quite reasonable.  

And I know one thing – something I learned over and over again working for 16 years at the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian aid organization that works in war zones.  It is simple really.   People who have no rights, no security, no income, no future, and no hope will do desperate things to take what they believe they need, to feed their family – and to better their lives.  Which means that conservation programs need to be holistically designed – so that local rural communities living besides conservation areas benefit from the wildlife and land.   If local communities don’t benefit from conservation areas, conservation isn’t sustainable. 

I know I would do anything to feed my child if she were starving.  I just happen to live in a world that I don’t have to choose between saving and elephants life or being paid to help kill an elephant for its ivory to feed my child.  

June 25th

Yesterday, we flew from the Chyulus to Lewa in Northern Kenya.  It was a gorgeous flight.  By the end of the day, I estimate 384 elephants have been killed since I left NYC.  But as we flew to the right of Mt. Kenya, past suburbs, industry and road building, I was acutely aware that wildlife and habitat is threatened not just by the insatiable demand for ivory and rhino horn, but by a slow steady increase in population. 

It’s a numbers game.  

The Kenyan government is in the process of awarding $3.2 billion worth of contracts to build roads across the country.  Development and progress come at a cost.  There isn’t enough space for wildlife.  There are less than 20,000 lions left in the world.  Lions are being lost in large part due to habitat loss.  When one flies over Kenya and sees the roads being built, it isn’t hard to connect the dots.  A country like Kenya doesn’t invest $3.2 billion for roads to nowhere.  Roads connect people to cities, to markets, to other people.  

There are just more of us on the planet.

June 27th

The Safaricom marathon is today.  Runners will run, crawl, limp and in the case of many of the Kenyan runners, actually sprint, through some of East Africa’s most beautiful scenery.  With an amazing view of Mount Kenya to the south and breath-taking views north towards Samburu and Mount Ololokwe it is a demanding, hilly, dry, dusty but spectacular course. The heavily protected 61,000 acre wildlife conservancy called Lewa is home to rhino, elephant and a vast assortment of plains game including the rare Grevy’s zebra.  Helicopters will fly above the marathon to keep game off the course.  When I attended the event last year for the first time, I was blown away.  It is a logistical phenomenon.

As a sports event, the Tusk Safaricom marathon at Lewa is the equivalent of the Super Bowl for Northern Kenya.  In addition to 1400 runners, there are thousands of spectators at Lewa for the event and a post event festival with music and entertainment.  The money raised by Tusk and Lewa will be put towards conservation, education and community programs – a model of sustainable conservation that helps make African wildlife and habitat a resource for the local community. Tusk programs provide employment directly to over 6000 people.  Over 72,000 children attend Tusk supported schools.  Over 1,000,000 people benefit from Tusk’s investment.  36 species and over 2.2 million acres of habitat are protected by the funds we raise.  

Sometimes talk does pay, I guess.  The marathon, mostly by word of mouth and media coverage has grown from a small 150 person event 16 years ago to what it is today – a massive, successful undertaking attracting over 1400 hundred runners from 20 countries and raising significant funds to conserve wildlife and improve the lives of people living in rural African communities surrounding conservation areas.

Yet, day 7 in Africa, I estimate 672 elephant have been killed since I left Manhattan.  

672.  That is more than the number of students in my daughter’s elementary school.  That is more passengers than a Boeing 747 airplane – which seats typically around 400 people.

How many elephants would have been killed without Tusk and other wildlife conservations efforts?  It’s hard to know. More. Definitely more.

So, as I watch the Tusk Safaricom marathon runners run, walk, limp, and yes, sprint around the course at Lewa; while I hand out water at water stations with the volunteers, donors and family members of the runners; while the day heats up, and the dust grows thicker; while the US Ambassador to Kenya runs by swiftly and with intensity, and bystanders in leopard and lion costumes cheer on their friends, it occurs to me that Ivan the gorilla is only partially right.  Yes, humans do waste words.  They discard them like banana peels.  But in the end, I have hope that the words and the actions of the people running this marathon, on this brutally hot day in Kenya, will ultimately resonate around the world.  We cannot afford the luxury of not hearing the warnings any longer.   We cannot choose which portions of the planet we allow ourselves to be concerned about.  We need to worry about it all.

June 29th

I’m leaving Africa today.  By the time I land in NYC on June 30th, 960 elephants will have died for their ivory.

Photo by Ellen O'Connell

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