Op-ed: What’s the big fuss about animal conservation?


Amal Mohamed, UP Magazine

Date Published

With global movements like “Hands off our Elephants” being endorsed by First Lady Margaret Kenyatta and even acquiring the ‘royal’ nod from Prince William, who in turn attested to launching the United for Wildlife consortium, we ask, what’s the big deal?

Well, okay, the animals are quickly being pushed to the brink of extinction. So what does that have to do with us? An empty National Park has no effect on your busy life in the city, does it? It’s just the same cries and declarations conservationists have been making ever since the Moi era, right?

The answer is a bitter pill to swallow.

It has been about two years since the rhinoceros was declared extinct in Vietnam. The last one was killed in October in Cat Tien National Park, found with a bullet in its leg and its horn sawn off. At the beginning of 2013 there were two rhinoceroses left in Mozambique; by that May they had both been killed. This April, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) declared that in the first four months of the year, eighteen rhinos and fifty-one elephants had been killed. Just last month, the iconic 46 year old Mountain Bull that was the face of various charities was found with its shortened tusks hacked off and carcass was covered in spear wounds. “Mountain Bull’s death is a great loss to the conservation fraternity,” the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy said in a statement last week. “He taught us much about elephant and animal behavior, migration routes and patterns, and to a large extent, left many inspired by his bravery and resilience.”

The KWS insists that the poaching of elephants and rhinos in Kenya is not a national disaster. It’s difficult to see where they are coming from. Here in Kenya, we appear to be happy to just sit back and watch as our rhinos and elephants are wiped off the face of the earth.

More than a dozen tree species depend on elephants in mega faunal dispersion where their seeds are spread via elephant dung over acres of savannah. Without this million year relationship, the trees are no longer and so are the bats, birds, insects and other mammals that depend on it. This means a park devoid of life and a dryer world more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

What if these elephants had feelings? Not just feelings of pain, but emotions: like the ones humans have? Elephants are one of the few species on this planet that are sentient, self-aware – conscious of themselves as individuals, i.e. they recognize themselves in a mirror, rather than thinking their reflection is another elephant. These are the same traits we as humans possess and they lead us to believe that we are separate from animals, some might even be tempted to say better, more advanced. In reality, we are really not that different from elephants. Not only do they have extraordinary communication, good memory, similar lifespan to humans, a strong sense of family, ability to plan into the future, they also have an uncanny awareness of death.

The reason behind the genocide of rhinos is the ancient belief that there is medicinal value in their horns. Rhino horn is composed of keratin – gelatinous hair – the same substance found in fingernails and hair with no beneficial medical properties. Until the realization that we are interlinked eternally with our fellow beings, we risk losing them and ourselves in the process.

Emmy award winning film-maker Mark Deeble, wrote earlier this year about the search for big tuskers in Kenya, bulls with tusks so large that they can rest them on the ground. Hidden in a camouflaged box, he waited patiently for hours for days on end near a waterhole until he spotted something…

“Initially I thought the sun had reflected off the windscreen of a distant vehicle, but there were no tracks close by. Whatever it was disappeared, then glinted once more. I came to the slow realization that what I was looking at was sunlight reflecting off an elephant’s tusks.”  Although other elephants were relaxed, some even sleeping, it took the behemoth almost an hour to cover the final kilometer to the waterhole, burying its head in a bush whenever he turned his head. “It dawned on me that he wasn’t trying to hide his body, he was hiding his tusks. At once, I was incredibly impressed, and incredibly sad – impressed that he should have the understanding that his tusks could put him in danger, but so sad at what that meant.”

Animals whose mortality, and ours with it, hangs on a thread, are being guarded like the most paranoid Heads of State. 24/7. Reflecting the fact that poachers will stop at nothing, four armed guards have been assigned to guard 4 of the world’s 8 Northern White Rhinos remaining at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. These species which have survived for 50 million years may not be here in the next few. The poachers have resorted to stealing night-vision goggles from the Kenyan army, jumping over fences by the light of a full moon and killing rhinos using guns fitted with silencers made from bicycle pumps. It all comes down to whether you view human beings as superior, as custodians, as entitled consumers of the world’s resources or as similar parts of the delicate eco-system of the world.

In addition to raising awareness, the liking on Facebook and retweeting, that has hijacked activism in today’s digital age, walk with rangers from 12th to 24th June.

Poem: Almost Extinct

Scalding heat, trudging feet

Heaving heart, plundered soul

These are my last moments.

Tears stinging skin carved, lava encrusted face,
Head ringing, ears deafened, like death does this taste

The sun scalds where I once had pearls,
Thistles of flesh where they mined, and my world unfurls,
I know not their reason that I see my last season,
I will feel the rain no more but they will feel the pain

You see, there is no such tragedy
Than the end of a world from whence it begun,
Than Unity of souls, of life equal to life
Stop singing the songs that they sung,

I am because we are,
And I am not now because we are not.
They think it is wealth that is sought,

Blind to their own rot.

They are poachers of their own souls
Depleting their conscious for greed,
Forgetting it is the soul they need to feed
Save the humans
For they are almost extinct

Because we are interlinked.