Flying! in the anti-poaching gyrocopter

One of my best days yet in Kenya was the evening I first flew over the wild and wonderful African bush in the resident gyrocopter!

A gyrocopter is a very small and light bubble-like aircraft with only two seats, a propeller and a tail. From the large window that surrounds you, you have a nearly unobstructed, Omnimax-type view of the world. You fly only 200 feet above the ground. (It is awesome – but not for one with a fear of flying!)

Going for a flight over the Wildlife Works project area was thrilling and an experience I will honestly remember forever.

It is such a different view of the land below. From the ground, the bush seems dense and impenetrable. From above, you can clearly see that all the shrubs and trees are evenly spread, maximizing the little water that’s available. Also, as the land is drying out in the dry season, everything has turned to an ashy grey color. It’s bizarre to see a whole landscape that is pure grey. It looks dead and barren, but I know it’s teaming with life.

And seeing herds of elephants from the air is just incredible. From the ground, they don’t seem to fit into the landscape – they are so big, they tower over the shrubs and are the same height as many of the trees! But from the air, I could barely see them moving just under the canopy. Keith, the gyrocopter pilot (and my good friend!), kept saying, “ele’s, up ahead, to the right, take a picture!” In my head, I was like whaaaaaat, but out loud I was saying, “cool, will do!… Um, where are they???”

At any one time there are up to 2,500 elephants within the 500,000 acres of the Wildlife Works’ Kasigau REDD+ project area, and it is a critical migration route between Tsavo East and Tsavo West National Park. The parks are home to 12,000 elephants, which is half of Kenya’s population.

I’ve always heard about poaching, I’ve known it happens and is a problem. But I’ve known this theoretically and never had a frame of reference to hold on to. It’s crazy to be here in Kenya and be part of an organization working to prevent it. Poaching is still so real.

Luckily, there has not been a poaching incident in over 6 months here, but on that first flight I was shocked by the number of elephant skeletons below – they honestly litter the landscape.

The aerial surveillance program, where Keith flies the gyro twice a day most days and in total around 60 hours a month, is one of the ways in which Wildlife Works protects the land and wildlife in the project area. By having eyes in the sky so frequently, Keith supports and guides the ground team of 85 rangers in monitoring all of the human and natural activities.

This work is vital for:

  • Spotting elephants injured in a poaching incident, with recent bullet, poison arrow or spear, or snare wounds
  • Spotting snared animals of any sort (read my first blog about rescuing a snared buffalo!)
  • Spotting illegal logging and charcoal activates
  • Security and visual support in any ground missions to apprehend loggers or poachers
  • Monitoring elephant and other wildlife movements
  • Monitoring the significant species on the property, including the very endangered Grevy Zebra of which numbers are down to around 2,000, around 60 of which are found on this land

This first flight was pretty awe-inspiring – the moment when we took off and I stopped gaping at the ground below us as we rose and I looked out ahead as the vast expanse of Tsavo opened up ahead. It is truly amazing living on the edge of such wilderness.

Things I have now seen from the air (take a look at the pictures and video!), lots of these are at water, because water is a pretty reliable place to find animals, it draws them out of the wood(work).

  • Herds of elephants, up to 60 at a time and some swimming and drinking in dams (watering holes). It was been beautiful to see elephants relaxed and at ease in the wild
  • Eight lions that had made a kill of a buffalo and eaten the bones clean!
  • Giraffe trying to drink at a dam, the way they splay their legs and bend over is a hilarious sight
  • Ostrich eggs in a massive nest, I was really surprised by how open and exposed it was
  • A dazzle (that’s actually the name for a group!) of zebra galloping
  • Lots of elephant skeletons.

I’ve made a little video of the flight. At the end you can see where I’m living, nestled under the hill. (Silly wordpress won’t let me add a video unless I pay a monthly subscription, so check out the video on my facebook)

P.S. Keith just came and asked me if I want to join him on his flight tonight… to find cheetahs! Cheetah is one of the few animals I have yet to see in Kenya, and I’ve been on the hunt to find. Hopefully I will have good news later.

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There is no water: human water access

This is no water in the local village, Maungu. For the past couple of weeks, there has been a dispute between the Mombasa and the county water distributors – supposedly the county hasn’t paid their bill, so Mombasa has cut off the water. This is incomprehensible to me… what are the local people doing for water?! They are all very poor, so buying water from the store when it stops coming out of the taps is not a luxury they can afford.

But water shortage is a part of life here, on the edge of Tsavo East in Kenya.

It’s supposed to have been the rainy season when I arrived in May. But other than my first evening when it properly poured, only a few drops have fallen a couple other times. I’ve been told that in total it only rained four times this rainy season. I brought a raincoat and no way have I had to use it.

This is a semi-arid climate and really tough to live and farm in. The ground is rock hard, red dirt, coated in dust. The challenge of living in these conditions is what causes much of the drive to deforest – and degrade the environment in other ways: slash and burn agriculture to maintain some level of soil fertility; desperation about the traditional crop maize, which needs water to grow well and therefore grows terribly here; and aggressive human-wildlife conflict over water.

Water access projects

The other week I visited one of Wildlife Works’ water access projects – Kula Kila rock water catchment system on the edge of a nearby village that is not connected to mains water.

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Kula Kila is a rocky outcrop, one of the many that sprout up from otherwise dead-flat land (this makes for massive sky country!) . Wind and weather has worn a natural water funnel into the top of this place. The water access project added a cement edging around the top of the rock face (see pictures) to capture more rainwater and funnel it into water tanks.

We climbed up the rock face, and stood inside what would be the water catchment area when there is rain. The view from up there was stunning. A bird’s eye view of subsistence farmland on the edge of a rural village, mud huts visible amongst the rows of severely anemic corn.

Before this water catchment was built, villagers had to walk up to 20 kilometers to fetch water – a basic human need. That takes the average person about 4 hours! This burden inevitably ends up with women and children. Now the 7,000 people this project reaches only have to walk up to 1.5 kilometers to the new tank. This saves an unimaginable amount of time each week that can now be spent on other pursuits such as schoolwork for kids and activities that can generate additional income like basket weaving or sewing for women.

It’s seemingly little facts like this that I come across daily that put into perspective for me how different the upbringing and opportunities I’ve had compared to the kids in Tsavo.

Even here, my biggest hardship with the water shortage was that I felt guilty about washing my hair for a couple of weeks. Not such a big deal!

Since 2011, Wildlife Works’ Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project has completed a total of 10 water projects serving over 26,000 community members 💙 And all funded through the sale of carbon credits. You can offset your carbon footprint and fund these projects with the click of a button http://www.wildlifeworks.com/shopcarbon/

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P.S. the timing of this post is a bit ironic because it’s just started raining here… I wrote this blog a few days ago and have been too swept-off-my-feet busy to post right away, so this is quite out of date now!

 

 

Teaching climate change to rural African villagers

One of the most surreal things I’ve experienced since arriving in Kenya was being part of a teaching session on climate change with village elders – held entirely in Swahili.

In my first week here, I accompanied the Community Relations Department of Wildlife Works on a series of community visits to the rural communities that are part of the project area. One of these was a focus group discussion with village elders (clan leaders, school leadership, etc.) to explain the project aims and how their personal actions can make an impact.

Can you imagine explaining the concept of greenhouse gases, how trees take in carbon dioxide and why trees are valuable for anything other than fuel to these folk in this situation? The majority of the people in these rural villages, especially in the older generation, don’t speak a word of English, and many have very low levels of education. When asked how old they are, many have no idea; they pull out national ID cards to show their birthdate but don’t know how to count the years to calculate their ages.

I sat there for the nearly two-hour discussion transfixed by the conversation taking place. Most of it, of course, I had no idea what was being said, but every so often I’d hear random words:

“…climate change…”

“…greenhouse gases…”

“…carbon…”

“…carbon credits…”

And at this point I’d learned a few key words in Swahili like that “ndovu” means elephant, “simba” is lion.

So in a way I was able to vaguely understand what was being said, and I challenged myself to follow the discussion as much as possible. (Thankfully, afterwards a Kenyan intern I’m working with kindly translated the main points and questions!)

After a presentation to the focus group, including showing pictures of glaciers retreating in the Arctic and a polar bear balancing precariously on a tiny iceberg, there was a general discussion where community members asked questions:

“How do you sell the carbon? You are asking us to save trees, but do you then cut them down to sell the carbon??”

“You ask us to save trees, but elephants knock them down. How is that fair?”

“How are we compensated for elephants destroying our crops?”

All fair questions! And it all was fascinating! I was impressed that Wildlife Works is properly teaching climate change in order to get the community to understand the science, but as Protus (one of the Wildlife Works Community team) said in the discussion, “the change in weather you see is due to this carbon.” People really understand that. It’s getting dryer, hotter, during the ‘rainy’ season I arrived in Kenya to I saw the rain twice. Climate change in action. (I just have to recognize here how surprisingly easy that phrase is to write – as I’ve done countless times for reports and presentations for work or university papers – when the reality of what ‘climate change in action’ means here is so devastating.)

The way the conservation model here works is that money comes back to the community (for education scholarships or water access projects) from the sale of carbon credits when deforestation is avoided (read more about the overall aims of the Wildlife Works project here). This means that collectively, the community has to buy into the fact that a standing forest and roaming animals are worth more to them alive than as charcoal or bush meat. One is far more intangible than the other.

The aim with these discussions is to empower members of the community to own conservation goals and be ambassadors for protecting the forest and the wildlife that calls it home. To carry the learning back into their villages and homes and spread the word further. Pretty cool stuff, right?

Wildlife Works – what am I actually doing in Kenya?

I’m here in Kenya for several months to work for Wildlife Works, a REDD+ project. So what am I doing, what does Wildlife Works do, and what on earth is REDD?

The meaning is really in the name: wildlife works… wildlife creating work for the community. The technical description of Wildlife Works is that it is the world’s first ‘REDD+’ project development and management company which applies market based solutions for the conservation of wildlife and forests. REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation.

In reality what this means is creating a financial value for the carbon stored in forests on an international market, and offering incentives for people on the ground in developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands (for Wildlife Works that means avoiding deforestation, not planting more trees) and instead invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. (I kind of stole this definition from the UN-REDD site!)

Wildlife Works has been operating in Kenya for nearly 20 years working to protect threatened wildlife, degraded forest and impoverished communities. Through a variety of programs they work to provide people in wildlife-rich areas with sustainable economic alternatives to poaching and deforestation, from activities like slash and burn agriculture and charcoal production.

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These programs include the mere fact of employing around 350 staff from the local community to:

  • Work in the eco-factory (Africa’s only carbon neutral one!) that produces clothes for western and local fashion clients,
  • Patrol the 500,000 acres as rangers to prevent poaching of wildlife and deforestation,
  • Work in the screen-printing factory,
  • Cultivate indigenous tree seedlings and test and teach drought condition growing techniques to local women in the greenhouse,
  • Make environmentally friendly soap from local ingredients such as jojoba oil,
  • Produce eco-charcoal,
  • Work in the workshop, including maintaining the large ranger truck fleet and building supplies such as desks and chairs for local schools, and
  • General site maintenance.

Apart from the economic impact of job creation for the rural community, the most critical component for local people is the payment they get from the sale of carbon credits. So going back to the REDD concept, when forest is protected by one of these programs, it is externally verified as saving a certain amount of carbon (stored in the protected trees). For the Kasigau Corridor REDD+ Project here in Kenya, the 500,000 acres have been accredited as storing/saving over 1 million tons of carbon. This is then translated into carbon credits that are bought on the international carbon market. One credit can be worth anywhere around $7-$12. If you do the math that is a lot of money that can be funneled back into impoverished communities that without these projects have no economic alternative to degrading their environment in order to survive.

This money from the sale of carbon credits is divided into three parts at Wildlife Works:

  • Running the operations, including verification, community relations, sales, business development, running the above employment programs, etc.,
  • Landowners, vast majority of whom are local community members, and
  • Split between going directly back into the community and to investors in the US.

The money that goes to the community goes to community organizations or committees who decide themselves what they do with the money. Most often they decide to spend the money on education scholarships for village children from poor backgrounds or water access projects.

To accompany all of this, there is a large, skilled community relations department (of local Kenyans) that runs a diverse array of community engagement initiatives, from focus group discussions with community elders on climate change, to motivational speakers for primary schools, to teaching teenage girls menstrual hygiene and how to make homemade sanitary pads (lack of which is the main cause of absenteeism for girls in school in Africa!). All of which aim to empower and enlighten the local community to pursue education, practice alternative livelihoods and protect their environment.

It is truly eye opening to see this work in practice. I’m here in Kenya primarily to document what is going on, share this with the outside world and get involved in anything and everything I can. And this is what this blog will be focused on in the next few months. I hope you enjoy this journey with me!

Sorry that was probably waaaaay more technical info than most people are interested in reading, but I wanted to put all the info out there.

And now, for those brave souls who made it to the bottom, here are some pretty pics of some the work I’ve been doing!

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Rescue from a poaching snare: not a bad first day!

On my first morning in the office at Wildlife Works I was called to attend the rescue of a young buffalo from a poaching snare with the ranger crew… talk about an exciting first day at work! “You do have a camera, right?” I was asked. “Just please don’t get killed on your first day.”

A large crew met in the Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary, Kenya, about 15 of the Wildlife Works rangers, as well as the vet from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and Kenya Wildlife Service rangers who are called in such circumstances. After the meet and greet and the vet had prepped a tranquilizer gun, we bundled back into the ranger trucks to locate the snared buffalo. In order to get to where the buffalo was trapped, the group had to do some pretty serious off-roading, bushwhacking directly over the scrubby brush, across dried out streams and maneuvering around trees. One truck had a massive tire blowout, unsurprising to me!

We came across the buffalo very suddenly; one moment there was just more dense bush ahead and the next a young buffalo was charging at us through the dust and then yanked backwards by the wire snare around his horns.

From there on, the team sprung into action. The buffalo was tranquilized with a dart gun, the team leapt out, some held his nose up from the dust by his horns, others doused him in water to keep him cool, and the vet removed the wire snare from around his horns and applied an anesthetic spray.

The day ended well: the skilled Wildlife Works rangers had tracked and responded to the animal before it was preyed upon by its human, or chance wild (lion, hyena), hunter, the buffalo was not injured, the rescue was successful.

Not a bad first day… Saving wildlife from the hands of poachers, witnessing the legendary rangers in action, this is what I came here for! And yet, it was a really tough day. The reality of being there was a sharp introduction into the work that’s happening here on the ground.

A snare is a wire trap with a noose that is activated when an animal walks through it, usually set for antelope, maybe a giraffe, and other game. This is different from lucrative ivory poaching; this is small-scale bush meat hunting for personal consumption. Food to feed families.

I found it quite heartbreaking. This is the human-wildlife conflict that many conservation organizations are fighting against. Much of the local community in the local area is dirt poor. Many people here are struggling to survive. But that is the beauty of the Wildlife Works model. The aim is conservation of wildlife and avoiding deforestation through working with the community and providing them with alternative, sustainable livelihoods that do not depend on degrading the environment. (I promise to write much more on what Wildlife Works does soon!)

85 unarmed rangers patrol the 500,000 acres of land in the Wildlife Works project area. Unarmed. This is significant because it really highlights the importance that the organization places on working with the community to achieve the project aims. Unarmed rangers minimize the perception within the community that they are a policing force and help to prevent violent confrontations. The ranger team is able to work with the community to gain intelligence and to collectively prevent poaching of wildlife, and trees.

A decade ago, the team would remove around 3,000 snares a year from the project area. Over the years this has fallen drastically. Head Ranger Eric told me his team can now go a whole month without coming across any snares. This is thanks to Wildlife Works, through a combination of increasing employment and providing alternatives to poaching, educating local people on the value of the natural world, and the excellent work of the ranger team.

And there is now one more happy and free buffalo on Rukinga Wildlife Sanctuary in Kenya as proof.

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This was now weeks ago – I’ve been on lots of adventures and am learning so many things about sustainable development, wildlife conservation and how projects like this work on the ground (not on paper!). But I’m going to try to do better and keep a more regular record of my work and the things I’m learning while I’m in Kenya. Wish me luck!

Arriving in Kenya

My welcome to Africa began with a 5-hour layover in Addis Ababa Airport, Ethiopia. It’s rainy season and it poured the whole time. The ceiling of the airport leaked spectacularly; first a few drips and then a steady indoor rain descended on parts of the lounge. While watching curiously at the maintenance methods being used (a guy climbing precariously in the rafters caulking up the worst holes which would make any western heath and safety office cover their eyes), little did I know my canvas suitcase was merrily sitting in the open air on the runway. That was a fun discovery!

Upon arriving in Mombasa, a long mostly dirt road with cratering potholes was all that was left between me and my new home for the next few months. Despite being the main lorry highway between Nairobi and Mombasa, the Mombasa Road was a serious obstacle course! A couple hours into the drive, I honestly could not tell you which side of the road you were supposed to drive on in Kenya and I had bruises on my shoulder from my seatbelt restraints.

I’m here for a few months working for Wildlife Works, a forestry conservation project which works closely with the local community and protects wildlife. Don’t worry – much more on them soon!

For now, here is my beautiful new house! Karibu!*

Swahili lesson: ‘Karibu’ means welcome and seems to be one of the most commonly used phrases here – I guess I’ve seen that people are super welcomingIMG_3759.JPG