Into Africa

AWI’s Cathy Liss Sees Conservation in Action in Kenya

This summer I was fortunate enough to fulfill one of my life’s dreams—a vacation in Africa! My family and I spent a week in Kenya. Though this was not a "working" vacation, I was privileged to witness firsthand some of the animals and habitats AWI has had a hand in protecting.

Wildlife in Kenya
We selected Kenya as our destination because the nation has been a leading proponent of strong enforcement of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to regulate wildlife trade. Kenya strives to protect its wildlife, and recognizes and values its live animals (rather than the financial value of dead animals and their parts and products) and the ecosystems in which they live. In particular, Kenya has long recognized the dire threats posed by agreements, no matter how narrowly crafted, to allow any trade in elephant ivory.

Earlier this year, in response to Tanzania’s interest in selling off its ivory stockpile, Kenyan Prime Minister Odinga stated, “I don’t want to dictate to Tanzania to burn its ivory stockpiles, but Kenya did so, na huo ni mfano mzuri wa kuigwa,” (with the last part of his remarks being Kiswahili for “and that’s a good thing which should be emulated”). Indeed, in a landmark event in 1989 Kenya burned the tusks from more than 1,200 elephants killed by poachers (with an estimated value of $3 million), declaring its support for an end to the market for ivory. The financial incentive is still strong for poachers and dealers (fueled by the ivory sales approved by CITES in 1997 and 2007); 20 rhinos and 232 elephants were poached in Kenya this past year. For decades AWI has worked with and applauded Kenya’s efforts. I was happy, therefore, to lend support via my tourist dollars.

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust
What a delight it was to visit the incredible staff and beautiful baby elephants and rhinoceroses at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust just outside of Nairobi! We’ve worked with Dame Daphne Sheldrick for years on threats facing Africa’s wildlife from bushmeat to the ivory trade, so I had been particularly looking forward to this visit. The trust has played a key role in Kenya’s conservation effort as it seeks to protect imperiled wildlife, runs anti-snaring units, supports anti-poaching patrols and rescues, and rehabilitates and releases orphaned elephants and rhinos. Watching the elephants at their mid-day mud bath and observing all of the orphans later in the day when they were brought in from the bush for their evening bottle before bed was heartwarming—and the keepers did a fabulous job of educating everyone about basic animal behavior and the perils the animals face.

Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary
Two hundred lush acres in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy serve as a refuge for abused and orphaned chimpanzees. Though not native to Kenya, 42 chimpanzees currently reside at the Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary, living in two separate groups on either side of the Ewaso Nyiro River. Many of the individuals have tragic histories, and one of the first chimps to greet us was a male who had been held captive in a cage that was so small he had no choice but to stand bi-pedal rather than quadra-pedal. Though he now has a vast, serene range to roam, he has trouble getting around as he is uncomfortable with the natural chimp posture on all fours.

Educational Centers
Our first stop at the Morani Information Centre in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy was the live exhibit: Baraka (whose name means “blessings” in Kiswahili), a black rhino who has gone blind and could no longer survive in the wild, is now cared for in an enclosure beside the main building. There were many visitors, mostly children, who appreciated the unique opportunity to be in such close proximity to a rhino as he was munching on his lunch. Then we went indoors to the educational and highly interactive exhibit rooms, with displays on the fauna and flora and the importance of protecting them.

Equally impressive was the Giraffe Centre near Nairobi, with its own live exhibit: endangered Rothschild giraffes who roam the extensive grounds and are part of the breeding program responsible for helping to raise the population in Kenya to about 300. This subspecies of giraffe is one of three found in Kenya—the other two being the reticulated and the Masai. Educational materials on giraffes and other wildlife are readily available at the Centre, whose walls are decorated with colorful works of art by Kenyan children. Sales of the art help provide disadvantaged children the opportunity to visit the Centre and other places where they can learn to treasure their nation’s wildlife heritage.

Kenya’s Future
It was heartening to see the clear value Kenya places not only on the education of tourists, but also on the education of its own people. From an early age many Kenyans have opportunities to learn the wonder of nature—and the dangers that threaten it (i.e., the ivory trade, bushmeat trade, human/wildlife conflicts, loss of range). Clearly, much energy is being invested in the future, with the hope that Kenya’s varied and breathtakingly beautiful wildlife will survive to the benefit of generations to come.