Flowers for Elephants
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Flowers for Elephants

How a Conservation Movement in Kenya Offers Lessons for Us All

Peter Martell

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eBook - ePub

Flowers for Elephants

How a Conservation Movement in Kenya Offers Lessons for Us All

Peter Martell

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About This Book

When northern Kenyans find elephant bones, they lay down blossoms and branches as a mark of respect, honouring their crucial connection with the wildlife they live alongside. In our changing world, these values are vitally important.

For decades, northern Kenya was one step away from a warzone, on the frontlines of climate change and habitat loss. People slept with their shoes on, fearing attack. Wildlife was decimated. Yet, facing the most extreme challenges, people united. What began as a last-ditch effort to save rhinos from extinction sparked a remarkable return of wildlife, with the once-struggling cattle ranch Lewa named a UN World Heritage Site for its outstanding value to humanity. This served as a catalyst for much broader action. Communities created a network of protected lands across an area larger than Switzerland. Through conservation, they built peace, driving social, environmental and political change.

From tracking elephants through the bush to gun battles with bandits and treks through Al-Qaeda territory, Peter Martell tells the exciting story of a conservation movement that gives hope. At a time when humanity is reassessing its broken relationship with nature, these communities offer an inspirational blueprint, proving that environmental change does not have to divide, but can bring us together.


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1
KINYANJUI’S CLASSROOM
(HOW THE LESSONS WERE LEARNED)
Beneath the spreading branches of a shady tree, two old friends laugh, as they remember shared adventures from the days when they were young. They speak of journeys far across the sweeping savannahs of northern Kenya, lands dotted with graceful giraffe, and through the harsh plains where herders graze their animals on the wild grasses. There are tales of tough treks scrambling up steep escarpments to the cool green forests on the plateaus of sacred mountains, where the sweet waters flow even when the red dust deserts are baking dry down below. There are memories of secret valleys where herds of hundreds of elephants grazed in peace—until those who came to kill for their ivory found them.
Stories are told of nights in the mountains, sleeping to the sounds of the whooping hyenas prowling close by, and the dark blue sky flashing with stars arched in a bowl above. There are stories of how they followed the fearsome lions who had killed the cattle. They tell of legends of mystery, fables of spirits in the forests, and wizened men in caves deep in the hills who whispered magic and claimed to speak to rhinos. These are powers, the pair say with hesitation, that while they don’t believe, they also can’t explain and, it seems, might still fear.
On one side of the tree sits Kinyanjui Lesderia, dressed in his best in black leather shoes and a faded pinstripe jacket, too big despite his tall and still sturdy body. A grey-haired elder with deep sunken eyes, his dangling earlobes are stretched long by the plugs he once wore as a warrior of the Maasai people. Now he is retired, and spends his days at home, a tin-roof cottage surrounded by green fields on a small farm, with chicken scratching in the hedges, a flock of goats half-watched by his sleeping sheep dog, and a dozen prized cattle grazing beyond. But he was not always a comfortable farmer, and his weathered hands and lined face reflect a tough life of challenges. Staring out from above deep-set eyes, he holds the authority of a man used to giving orders and being obeyed. Yet his eyes also sparkle with a streak of humour, and his mouth twitches with a grin, for he is a man who finds humor even in the hardest of times.
On the other side of the tree is Ian Craig, a slim but strongly-built man dressed in a pair of sand-coloured shorts and a loose shirt, ironed with crisp creases but faded by long days in the sun. On his feet are scuffed old Converse shoes, and in leather holders on his belt, a pen-knife and compass that he uses as a pilot in the bush airplane he flies. He still looks like what he was for many years—a farmer. When he grins, his weather-beaten and deeply tanned face crinkles into lines of laughter. His passion is wildlife, and he seems happiest when tracking the great round footsteps of elephants through the forests.
Too often, these days, he is stuck in meetings and conferences, though he owns just one blazer and tie, and wears it only if he really has to. If he has a chance, he is off at dawn to join the wildlife rangers on their patrols in his tiny airplane, waggling its wings after take-off over his home to wave to his wife Jane. With cloth-covered fuselage and tyres like giant children’s balloons—meaning he can bounce down to use dry riverbeds as landing strips—it looks more a magnificent flying motorbike than an airplane. Often he heads out with Jane, camping on the sand, lighting a fire to cook food—and keep hungry lions at bay.
Kinyanjui and Ian have been friends since they were boys, out exploring the remotest corners of northern Kenya. They’d pack a small rucksack, grab a rifle and a cooking pot, and head into the hills where the rhino hid. In the bush, faced with the dangers of lion, they put their lives in each other’s hands.
Both men are now grandfathers. Much time has passed since those early days, so that the near misses each had when they flung themselves headfirst into bushes to dodge charging buffalos are retold with bravado, not terror. Then their voices are quieter as they recall the companions they have lost in battles with bandits in the bush, when the gunmen killing rhinos and elephants switched from wildlife to hunt the men too, the bullets thumping down beside them. They have seen so much, and there have been both good times and bad. They have supported each other through them.
Some might scoff and say their tales have been burnished in their fireside retelling over the years, but there is no reason not to believe them. They have no need to show off to each other; the two men have been friends for well over half a century. If the stories sound astonishing, then it is because they have both lived truly extraordinary lives. They have spent so much time together, from boys to old men today.
Their friendship would be the catalyst for a remarkable homegrown conservation movement for change, and set them on a course that would impact the land and wildlife far beyond the wildest of their adventures.
If you had asked them as young men if they could imagine what it would lead to, they would have laughed in disbelief. For their first small steps would be the seed for something far greater. Their role would be only one small part of a community effort, for many, many more contributed. It is a tale that includes a long list of people, who all faced overwhelming obstacles but who came together in trust, hope and courage to take action. So this is not just Ian’s and Kinyanjui’s story; far from it. But it is how this one begins.
* * *
For both men, home has always been the same rolling hills and rocky valleys. Ian grew up on the golden grasslands known as Lewa, and Kinyanjui comes from the tree-cloaked mountains of Il Ngwesi, bordering just beyond. They grew up exploring every step of the plains, climbing to the high tops, and looking out to where the peaks stretch far to the north.
At dawn, the jagged height of Mount Kenya rears up on the horizon. The summit slices through the wispy clouds, dreamlike, as if somehow floating and unattached. Ice and snow catch the light, shining silver directly on the line of the Equator. Some say that the holy peak—the tallest in Africa after the colossal Kilimanjaro—looks like the horns of a young rhino, and the snowy top on black rocks, like the white plumes on the black back of an ostrich. For those seeing ‘The White Mountain’ for the first time, it might seem more like a postcard of the Alps than the generic image of arid ‘Africa’ they’ve seen on television.1 It feeds life-giving rivers that run far down into the hot plains.
But the land far below on Lewa is a different world. It marks a border line. Behind, to the south, are the cool highlands, where the trees hang heavy with bananas, and green farms burst with vegetables from rich dark earth. Ahead, to the north, the soil grows thin and red. The land shimmers in the blazing sun on the horizon, and the hairdryer heat of the open savannah comes in dusty waves. Huge rocky outcrops rear up high, towering over surrounding thorn forests.
In the long hard months without rains, most of the land is crackling dry. But a permanent spring rises up in the centre of the Lewa. Looking down onto the thick reeds around the water, the marshlands stand out almost neon green against buttery-yellow grasslands around. Encircling the swamp at the spring, the woods have grown thick and tangled. Flat-topped trees dot the land, and avenues of the graceful fever tree line the tracks, curling high above the tracks to meet like rafters in a cathedral. It is a damp-loving acacia, and got its name from travellers attracted to camp under the shade of its branches. They found the mosquitoes that carried malaria liked the same cool places too. At dusk, birds roost in the trees, the noisy calls echoing far out across the plains. Flocks of white and black sacred ibis settle on the branches, and flamboyant crested cranes with their headdresses of golden feathers fly in to rest.
On the plains are whistling thorn, a bush with finger-length spikes that whisper as the wind rushes through. The tree grows plum-sized hollow balls on its bark as a home for ants, which in return pour out to attack animals who come to eat the tree. From the biggest to the smallest, predator to prey, everything is connected.
* * *
To tell the story of the present requires a short step back for the story of the past—and Lewa has the most ancient of histories. The name Lewa comes from the Maa language spoken by the Maasai people. It means ‘a clearing where the warriors meet’. People have gathered here since humans took their very first steps.
In the heart of Lewa there is a ford crossing through a shallow river, in the shadow of a steep hill with sharp cliffs of dark rock. If you have someone to show you exactly where—and someone else to guard your back so that the lions which creep with silent paws leave you alone—you can push through the tangled grass and find almond-shaped hand axes chipped out from volcanic rock. They still lie in the dirt where our ancestors dropped them. They used the sharp stone cleavers for cutting, hunting and killing. The stones are heavy in the hand, larger than both fists. If you run your finger the wrong way, some are sharp enough still to cut. Axes were cut here for thousands of centuries. Some are estimated to have been made 1.7 million years ago.2
So the lands were never empty of humans. It is where people came with their livestock to get water—and then stayed to talk. The waters attracted the wild animals too. Herds of elephants would stop there to drink, for Lewa lies on the marathon migration routes they march, as they move from the cool forests on the slopes of Mount Kenya to the hot scrubland north beyond. The cattle herders would push the wild animals away while their livestock drank, but when they were gone, huge herds of buffalo, zebra and giraffe all came to take their turn.
Arabs and Europeans moved from the coast ever further inland into East Africa in the late nineteenth century. It marked the start of waves of change—and destruction. One of the first—and worst—was the arrival of the deadly rinderpest. More simply, it was called the ‘cattle plague’. It was a highly contagious virus, like measles for cattle, and deadly for any animal with a cloven hoof. It swept across the continent in 1890. Africa, south of the Sahara at least, had been shielded from the disease by that daunting desert barrier for centuries. However, it jumped the gap when invading Italian troops on Africa’s Red Sea coast in Eritrea arrived with an infected cow—and the virus spread like a forest fire. The intense fever killed animals within days, decimating both domestic cattle and goats, as well as wild herds of buffalo, giraffe and antelope.3
‘Never before in the memory of man, or by the voice of tradition, have the cattle died in such vast numbers,’ wrote Frederick Lugard, a British army captain who rode across East Africa in 1890. ‘Never before has the wild game suffered. Nearly all the buffalo and eland are gone. The giraffe has suffered, and many of the small ante-lope.’4 People had learned to cope with cycles of drought and other diseases, but had never experienced anything like rinderpest. The virus spread on all the way south to Cape Town, leaving in its path near total destruction.5
‘Through all this great plain we passed carcasses of buffalo; and the vast herds of which I had heard, and which I hoped would feed my hungry men, were gone,’ Lugard wrote. ‘The breath of the pestilence had destroyed them as utterly as the Winchesters of Buffalo Bill and his crew and the corned-beef factories of Chicago have destroyed the bison of America.’6
Livestock were people’s entire livelihoods, and their death sparked famine. ‘The loss of their cattle meant death,’ Lugard added. ‘Everywhere the people I saw were gaunt and half-starved, and covered with skin diseases.’ Hard on the tail of rinderpest came other diseases, including smallpox. One estimate suggests that as many as a third of livestock herders could have died. Others suggest even more, perhaps two-thirds of the population.7
In the cool wooded hills north of Lewa, amid forests of tangled cedar and olive trees, elders still pass down stories of the plague known as ‘the drought of the red marrow’, a sign of the sickness seen in the animals’ bones. Cattle-herders who lost all their livestock retreated to the woods to hunt what they could find to survive. They joined older groups who had lived there for generations, foraging food and keeping hives of bees, living in hidden homes in the caves. The forests were known as the Mukogodo. ‘The people who live in the rocks,’ it means.
Colonial forces eyed their chance. ‘In some respects it has favoured our enterprise,’ wrote Lugard, a hard soldier with orders for imperial expansion, who had already fought from Afghanistan to India, and from South Africa to Sudan. ‘Powerful and warlike as the pastoral tribes are, their pride has been humbled and our progress facilitated by this awful visitation. The advent of the white man had else not been so peaceful. The Maasai would undoubtedly have opposed us, and either by force of arms or conciliation (whose results would have been doubtful), we should have had to win our way to the promising highlands.’
In 1895, just four years after the plague, Britain planted the flag, and claimed the land as the ‘East Africa Protectorate.’ It was an area larger than France or the state of Texas. The disease was devastating, but for the longer-term, it would have a much bigger consequence; it would have a fundamental impact on how outsiders saw the land.
* * *
The animals that had survived, both wild and domestic, built up some resistance to the disease. Numbers slowly returned. But with the herds of cattle knocked so low, there was nothing to eat the grass, which soon reverted to thick scrubland. That provided perfect breeding places for the deadly tsetse fly, a small biting insect that spreads the crippling sleeping sickness disease. Without treatment—and there was none effective then—it was often fatal to both humans and livestock. Herders who took their animals into the bush soon succumbed to terrible fevers.8
Areas that were once grasslands where herders and their livestock mingled with antelopes and buffalos, were now left for the wild animals. It not only helped colonial forces seize control without the outward appearance of too much violence, as if the people who surrendered their land had done so somehow willingly. It also gave the impression that the land had been unclaimed by man.
Of course, many of the officers who came to East Africa were all too well aware of what had happened, but since they came to seize massive tracts of land, the image of an unspoiled Eden was a simpler story to tell. The vision of a land untouched by human habitation is, and always was, a myth. It is a vision of Africa created by outsiders—mistakenly by some, wilfully by others.9
‘There were big tracts of lands used for other purposes than cultivation, and which were equally important to the community,’ wrote Jomo Kenyatta, who would become the country’s first president in 1964. ‘It is of these lands that the early European travellers reported that they had seen huge lands “undeveloped” and “unoccupied”. To them it may have seemed so, but... these lands were no more unoccupied than moorlands in England.’10
For the travellers and hunters arriving from Europe or America, seeing the endless herds of colossal buffalo with their ferocious horns, or the mighty herds of elephants pacing across the plains, it seemed like a pristine and primordial wilderness that time had forgot. In their countries, the environment and wildlife of their homeland had been hammered, the wild areas fenced in, forests cut down for industrialisation and the land cleared for fields of crops. Those who came saw the wildlife as a bounty without end, to be exploited as they saw fit. For hunters, that meant shooting sprees. For the farmers that followed, wholesale clearances.
‘A scene unaltered since the dawn of the world,’ wrote Winston Churchill, who in 1907, less than a decade after Britain had seized Kenya, came on holiday from Parliament to shoot animals to stuff as ‘trophy’ heads for his wall. A safari, a Swahili word rooted in the Arabic for ‘travel’, simply means a journey—and Churchill interpreted that in his own extravagant style. He had a garden bench bolted to the very front of the steam engine as it chugged its way inland, relaxing on the cow catcher, where he sat to fire at antelope as the train rattled past. He also equipped a smaller railway trolley laden with fine wines, food, ice and whisky as a trundling shooting platform to creep up close in comfort to the animals before opening fire. ‘So-fari, so-goody,’ he said, at the end of each day’s journey. Seeing a rhino stunned him. ‘I cannot describe to you the impression produced on the mind by the sight of the grim black silhouette of this mighty beast,’ he wrote. ‘It was like being transported back into the Stone Age.’ Hunting did not seem much of a challenge. ‘The manner of killing a rhinoceros in the open is crudely simple,’ he wrote. ‘You walk up as near as possible to him from any side except the windwa...

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