Meeting baby elephant orphans at David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, meeting the brave force on the frontline at Kenya Wildlife Service and raising awareness with World Experts at UNEP Headquarters, Nairobi, Kenya.
Today I put my feet on the African Continent for the first time. Last night I arrived at our lodge in darkness and it was such a stark contrast to the city lights of Beijing and Los Angeles where I have been spending much of my time lately. One could even see a blanket of bright stars above.
I awoke to warthogs meandering across a verdant garden and beautiful hills in the background. This was a good start as I considered the grueling schedule I was about to face on my 3 short days in Kenya where I was on a UNEP mission to learn about the plight of the iconic African rhinoceros and elephant. We have elephants and rhinos in Asia, but I had never encountered the African species, both of which are being massacred to feed an illegal international trade.
My first stop was the David Sheldrick Wildlife Orphanage. The founder of the orphanage, Dame Daphne, was the first to successfully hand rear baby elephants through her discovery that apart from their month’s milk, only a type of baby formula is able to sustain them. Cow’s milk will kill a baby elephant. Her daughter Angela guided us through the journey of what happens to a baby elephant for it to end up at the orphanage, and pointed out that the 25 currently inhabiting the orphanage are the lucky few that are actually found by people. Most babies whose mothers have been killed will die in a few short days if they are under 2 years old.
One always has a soft for babies of all kinds, but what immediately and undeniably struck me with these babies was how they seemed to feel the range of emotions that we do. They rely on their keepers to shield them from the sun, feed them (every two hours!) and sleep with them at night. So similar they seem in feeling joy and playfulness and sadness. And once released into the wilds of Tsavo National Park where they are adopted by wild herds, they still always recognize and acknowledge those who have taken care of them, after weeks, months and even years.
We also did a little test with the youngest baby Ajabu who they told me would only drink milk from the hands of his keeper. I put on the keeper’s jacket to try to fool her, but time and again she searched and eventually found her “real” parent. Although I am happy to say that Angela said that the moments we did share interacting were unusual. I like to imagine that Ajabu could feel my desire to help her kind.
I adopted two babies, Ajabu and Barsalinga. Barsalinga’s mother was shot and so badly wounded that she was unable to move and eventually was euthanized. The two year old baby was rescued by Kenya Wildlife Service and is now thriving with his new adopted family. Though it is a wonderful privilege to be able to spend time so close to these wonderful little creatures, one can only think about the pain that they have endured and the many many babies who are falling victim to poaching (close to 35,000 elephants were killed across Africa in 2011 and 2012) and die a slow death. When one knows that female elephants stay together for life in a close family of moms, sisters and aunties, you realize that they are not so unlike us, and it is very sad. I encourage my readers to adopt an orphan as well to help the Orphanage care for them. Feeding baby elephants is not inexpensive! www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org.
Our next stop was to Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) to meet the brave people on the frontline of this poaching epidemic. The Director and his team met us with great hospitality and described the virtual war-like circumstances that they face in trying to curb this massacre that is killing their elephants and rhinos, but also their own rangers and the valuable livelihoods that are based on a healthy and thriving tourism business, where in Kenya 70% of foreign exchange is based on it. I was shocked to learn that in the 1970’s there were around 170,000 elephants in Kenya and that by 1989, when the international ban on ivory was put in place, only 16,000 remained! This is how devastating poaching epidemics can be—and now, there are less elephants and a higher demand. So we simply cannot be complacent….
The Kenyan Director asked that I use my voice to bring awareness to the fact that obtaining rhino horn and ivory is not like “picking up a feather.” Because the tusks grow from deep within the skull, the animal must be killed and the face literally hacked away. It means a grueling death for the animal and the devastation of the herd for years to come because the older elephants carry the wisdom for the herd because of their lifetime experiences and these older elephants are usually the first animals to be killed since their tusks are bigger. He also explained how difficult the temptations are for the poachers who are very often poor rural people who are being offered a pot of gold to poach and for the rangers who are “paid peanuts” to protect animals when their own lives are so greatly at risk from the rebel militias who are now spearheading much of the poaching efforts—and are able to quickly kill huge numbers of elephants in a matter of days through their well-coordinated efforts, like what happened only a few months back in Cameroon when close to 400 were killed over a few days.
The Director asked me to take this plea back to my fans:“ the message we ask you to take back today is that we all must work together to break this chain. If nobody buys, there is no need to supply. It is high time that the world realizes that it can live without ivory. Only elephants should wear it. We need to be spending our limited resources on community support, not on the very costly war of protecting elephants, rhinos and the people who protect them. Africa is bleeding and we ask that people come to love Elephants in the same way that the Giant Panda is much loved.”
I personally don’t think this is too much to ask given the high price of the bloody, and illegal, ivory trade.
My final stop was at the Headquarters of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) for which I have been a Goodwill Ambassador since 2010. There, we held a Press Conference with a panel of experts and concerned parties that included myself and the UNEP Executive Director, the Permanent Secretary of Kenya’s Environment Ministry, the Head of Species Conservation from KWS, and the heads of two NGO’s in Kenya which are helping to protect elephants and rhinos here. I was very happy to learn that Kenya is stepping up its efforts to hand down tougher sentences to poachers and traffickers. But this will not solve the problem if demand remains high.
I had the opportunity to tell the story of when I, many years ago once I first started to achieve fame and could afford a bit more luxury, bought an ivory bangle bracelet. I did not know that this may have been connected to taking an elephant’s life. And I am sure many of us who may have bought ivory in the past, or are considering doing so now, did not know this. I believe we need to stay connected to our ancient culture, which supports harmony between man and nature, and seeks to maintain a healthy planet. It is true that ivory is not necessary, and rhino horn, which may have been used long ago for medicines, has many acceptable alternatives today. Most importantly, we must recognize that the international trade in both is illegal.comments powered by Disqus