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Sides of a Horn – Guest post by teenage conservationist Bavukile Vilane

Following the release of the controversial new film ‘Trophy’ last month, guest blogger Bavukile Vilane offers his voice as an advocate of the film ‘Sides of a Horn’, which claims to deliver the real truth behind the opposing views on the rhino horn trade. Will it deliver where Trophy fell short?

Sides Of A Horn film art

The Rhino Movie: Sides of a Horn is based on actual events, the dramatic film details the rhino poaching epidemic from the perspective of the three characters most directly affected: the ranger, the poacher, and the rhino.

When I first saw a mini trailer for the film on social media when the Kickstarter campaign had just started I wanted to get involved. I emailed Toby Wosskow, (very great guy indeed) who is the film’s writer and director. I then got involved in raising awareness for the film and the Kickstarter campaign so that all the funds could be met for the making of the film. Together we accomplish great things, as conservationists, I believe the only way to overcome barriers is working together one step at a time.

Writer/Director Toby Wosskow meeting with royal family. Photo by Dino Benedetti – © 2017 Sides of a Horn

On Friday, 20th October, the narrative short film received full funding and is moving into pre-production. 235 passionate philanthropists and wildlife enthusiasts from around the world have contributed over $57,000, making Sides of a Horn the fifth highest funded short film of all time on Kickstarter. After sharing the build-up to success countlessly on social media, I was very happy when it became a success. I had wished I was done with school and fully working on the production myself because I love editing and producing videos etc.

The short film is set to begin filming on location in South Africa in early-2018, and a feature-length adaptation is to follow. It is the first film to present an unbiased narrative of South Africa’s rhino poaching war.

Writer/Director Toby Wosskow location scouting. Photo by Dino Benedetti - © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Writer/Director Toby Wosskow location scouting. Photo by Dino Benedetti – © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Wildlife crime is the world’s fourth largest illegal industry (behind drugs, human trafficking and the illicit trade in arms) , and it is at an all-time high. A single rhino horn can fetch up to $300,000 (U.S. dollars) on the black market in China and Vietnam. By weight, it is worth more than gold or cocaine, and the demand in the Far East is fueling a war on the ground in South Africa. The human death toll is rising, but it is the rhino that faces extinction.

Team with a rhino. Photo by Dino Benedetti - © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Team with a rhino. Photo by Dino Benedetti – © 2017 Sides of a Horn

Sides of a Horn will expose the social impact of the rhino horn trade in a similar way that Blood Diamond did for the diamond trade—humanizing those on the ground, creating awareness, and catalyzing positive change. The team of U.S. and South African filmmakers are partnering with influential conservationists and global organizations to release the film around the world with a direct call to action.

The project will be filmed in the townships impacted by the crisis and in the game reserves that combat poaching on a daily basis. Months of research, countless hours on the ground, and relationships with local community leaders aid the team in keeping authenticity at the forefront of the project.

Discover more about the Sides of a Horn project here.

 

Bavukile Vilane

Bavukile Vilane is a 16-year-old with big dreams for the future. “I want to change the world”, he tells me. “I have always been interested in many things and Software Engineering was something I was going in to. So why Conservation? Because I believe there can be conservation everywhere, even in Software Engineering! It all started after I watched the Blood Lions documentary which also featured My father, possibly the greatest role model for most of the things I do. After watching Blood Lions, I had to join their youth for lions as an Ambassador and moved on to joining The Roots and Shoots SA Institute by Dr Jane Goodall and later The Crash Kids Against Rhino Poaching. I still have many plans for conservation and the role I can play. It all starts somewhere though. This is my story and it is only just the introduction to a lot of great chapters that I want to complete. There’s a lot to be done and it is about time the youth acts… It is, of course, our future. I alone can make a difference, but only together can we bring real change.”

Bavukile has his own platform, Conservation In Heart, and YouTube series: ‘Conservation Life‘. Find out more by clicking here.

 

Learn more about the trade in rhino horn

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Trophy ‘shockumentary’: Does it really compare to Blackfish?

In 1900 there were 500,000 rhinos in the world. Today there are less than 30,000. This shocking statistic opens the controversial new documentary ‘Trophy‘ — and if there’s one thing that audiences can agree on, it’s that this represents a crisis for the species.

I imagine this divisive film, which serves primarily to promote the idea of legalising the trade in rhino horn, offers little else that audiences can universally agree on.

trophy film poster

There’s no doubt that the time is now to act to save this iconic species. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen the momentum intensify when it comes to anti-poaching responses, debates and campaigns concerning rhinos and the horn trade.

Within moments of the film opening (to a scene of father and young son shooting dead a ‘trophy’ deer), we are introduced to South Africa’s most successful rhino breeder, John Hume. I’ve previously heard Mr Hume’s position on the rhinos horn trade at a debate I attended last year. The debate actually features briefly in the film (including a split-second shot of me, holding my pen to take notes for a blog post).

In 2016, John Hume’s rhino farm comprised of more than 1,400 of the animals — also making him first in-line for a huge profit, should the ban on international sale of horn be lifted. A cause he so passionately campaigns for.

“If he had an opinion to give to you, he would say ‘I’m very happy to sacrifice my horn in order to save my life’,” John states, simplifying a somewhat complex issue to a life vs. death scenario, rather than quality of life of a sentient being vs. compromised welfare standards owing to increased exploitation.

I think most people would agree that welfare standards surrounding large scale farming are far from satisfactory (think of the dairy industry) — when money is on the table, it seems that species survival matters only for the sake of profit for the owner, not to encourage an ecosystem to flourish via a natural life for the individual.

white rhinos born free foundations

Rhino by George Logan

Later in the film, John acknowledges that he has a protected stockpile of horns worth at least $16 million. His words echo round my head: “Give me one animal that’s gone extinct while farmers were breeding and making money out of it. There’s not one.” And I can’t think of a single example. But nor can I think of a country whose environment and natural ecosystem hasn’t been drastically altered for the sake of farming.

Another familiar face on this documentary is ecologist Craig Packer, author of the book ‘Lions in the Balance‘. Packer, who chaired the debate last year in which I first encountered John Hume, explains the hunters’ desire to ‘collect’ the big five. That is to kill a lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant and a rhino — the cost of legally hunting each of these species reflects how rare each animal is and Packer places the bill to shoot the rarest of these; the rhino, at $350,000. Significantly more than the next in line; elephants at $50,000.

african elephant in Shamwari

Safari Club International President, Joe Hosmer, claims the entire cost of an elephant hunt, which sold for $50,000, would go back into conservation. A wildly unsupported claim — as I discovered in my research for an earlier blog post about trophy hunting and canned lion hunting; the average percentage of hunting fees that make it back into conservation at the community level is more like 3%. For clarification, Safari Club International is an international organisation of hunters — not a jolly collective of tourist-ferrying safari guides; as it’s name might suggest.

At 32 minutes in, Trophy provides us with our first counter argument against the killing of animals for so-called conservation. Adam Roberts of Born Free USA examines the contradiction of Theodore Roosevelt’s hunting culture, whereby he hunted thousands of animals (reportedly 5,000 of which were mammals) and recorded each of his kills, whilst at the same time declaring national parks across the US. Roberts challenges the idea of cloaking the ‘sport’ in ideals of conservation and helping people, suggesting that the reality of the appeal is really in the rush of excitement that hunters feel when they put a bullet in something.

Ecologist Craig Packer expands on this argument: “A hunter was somebody who was willing to go out and spend three weeks walking around on foot tracking an elephant, tracking a lion, to shoot it to take home a trophy. There was a challenge, there was a sense of sport, but what has happened in the last 10 or 15 years has been a growing segment of the hunting demographic which are referred to as ‘the shooters’; the shooters may have to spend as much money as it takes to get a three-week permit, but if they can kill everything in the first two days, they’ll do it and they’ll fly home. It’s that mentality that really feeds the birth of the canned hunting industry… it’s not sport, it’s just killing.”

lion trophy born free foundations

Lion Trophy (c) Blood Lions

Having watched the point blank execution of a lion and a crocodile killed with a bullet to the head after first being injured and tied up; followed by scenes from a canned hunting lion farm and hunters posing with various kills with very little discussion and debate — and certainly no sense of a fair and balanced discussion about the ethics of such behaviour — I have to admit, it just felt rather perverse. But worse was to come as viewers bear witness to the slow, long drawn out death of a young African elephant, groaning through it’s last moments and requiring a shot to the chest at point blank to ‘finish the job’. These graphic scenes literally allow you to see the animal’s last breath.

Since the film’s release on 17th November, Born Free Foundation‘s President Will Travers OBE — who makes a brief appearance in the documentary — warns that the film, which was partly funded by the BBC, leaves viewers marooned in a no-man’s land without credible information on which to make up their minds on the highly-charged issues of trophy hunting and the dangers of promoting a legal international trade in rhino horn.

Kate on Conservation UK

Kate on Conservation

Travers said: “The film is peppered with assumptions and assertions about trophy hunting that are offered in an almost ‘fact-free’ environment. We are told (by a representative of America’s premier hunting organisation, Safari Club International) that ‘all the money [from trophy hunting] will go back into conservation’ with no evidence to back it up. Also that belief in the medical value of rhino horn ‘has been around for millions of years’. Neither is true.”

“In addition, the film presented almost no counter-argument or reliable data relating to the conservation ‘recipe’ of South African, John Hume, the most successful private rhino breeder on the planet, with 1,530 rhino to his name.”

“Mr Hume’s recipe is to breed rhino, cut off their horns and sell them — currently legal in South Africa but prohibited internationally. It is put forward by the film’s makers with almost no risk analysis, no alternative vision and no understanding of what would happen to the world’s 30,000 remaining wild rhino if his dream came true.”

Craig Packer, John Hume and Will Travers

John Hume, Craig Packer and Will Travers at the debate: ‘Should the trade in rhino horn be legalised?’

Born Free say they provided the film-makers with ample evidence drawn from history as to why legalising international rhino horn trade is likely to be a recipe for disaster. In 2008 the international community, despite the desperate pleas of Born Free and others, approved a ‘one-off’ sale of more than 100 tonnes of ivory from South Africa and several other countries to Japan and China. Far from ‘satisfying consumer demand’, as the architects of this sale hoped, it fuelled a dramatic and deadly explosion in poaching and illegal ivory trade.

The African elephant stronghold Tanzania, lost an average of 1,000 elephants a month, every month, for five years between 2009 and 2014. That’s 60,000 elephants. The poaching epidemic continues to this day with 20,000 elephants poached each year, tons of ivory being seized, and wildlife rangers and wardens — the elephants’ first line of defense — losing their lives. More than 1,000 wildlife rangers have been murdered in the last 10 years.

Mr Hume’s naive proposition, supported by pseudo-economics and a failure to understand risk, is likely to have the same impact

Trophy film poster 2

Does the human race really believe you have to kill something to save it? What a sorry, greedy world. My take away thoughts were that many of the people featured in this film stand to make a lot of money from rhino horn. Many of these hunters have a God-complex. Few of the filmmaker’s points are supported with any evidence. If you ARE expecting the next ‘Blackfish‘ when you watch this, you’ll be very disappointed.

 

Learn more about the trade in rhino horn

Discover the documentary ‘Sides of a Horn’, which claims to be the first film to give an unbiased view of South Africa’s ​rhino poaching war from both sides

Want to read about the debate featuring John Hume and Will Travers?

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Find out more about the work of Craig Packer:

Learn more about ‘Blackfish’

 

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Dr Jane Goodall: reflecting on chimps in the image of man

This month I’m proud to announce that a very special interview of mine has been featured in National Geographic Kids magazine: my recent chat with globally renowned primatologist Dr Jane Goodall about her groundbreaking career studying chimpanzees.

An extract of our conversation; including Jane’s recount of both her favourite and funniest moments with the chimps can be heard here:

Later this month, the brand new feature-length National Geographic documentaryJane‘ will have its UK release on the 24th November, and on the 27th – 29th November the Primate Society of Great Britain, of which Dr Goodall is a patron, holds its 50th anniversary meetings where Jane will be guest speaker — making the timing of this article particularly exciting!

Jane national geographic film

It was a real honour to sit down with this conservation hero of mine in the incredible setting of Windsor Castle at the annual summit of Roots & Shoots.

(Part 1 of my interview, about Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots programme can be heard here).

Flint and Dr Jane Photo Credit NatGeo, Hugo van Lawick

Flint and Dr Jane. Photo Credit: NatGeo, Hugo van Lawick

Hearing about Jane’s determination to fulfil her dream to work with animals in Africa was endlessly fascinating and inspiring.

“When I was 10 years old I decided I wanted to go to Africa and live with wild animals and write books about them. That’s going back about 70 years ago now, and back then it didn’t happen in England that girls had those opportunities,” she tells me, as we both sip tea from china cups in this most regal and British of settings.

Dr Jane goodall and kate on conservation Windsor Castle

Dr Jane Goodall and I outside Windsor Castle

“So everybody laughed at me and said; ‘Jane, dream about something you can achieve’, but my mother said: ‘If you really want something, you’re going to have to work hard, take advantage of every opportunity and never give up’.”

The rest, as we know, is history. We talk through her favourite moments with her favourite chimp (David Greybeard) and some of the incredibly discoveries she observed in her camp in Gombe, Tanzania during her study for National Geographic — and the less than warm reaction she received from the scientific community at the time.

kate on conservation nat geo kids jane goodall article

To read the full interview, see this month’s National Geographic Kids magazine.

Learn more about Dr Jane Goodall

Want to know more about Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Awards?

Want to know more about Great Apes?

 

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No Waste November: Making the switch to reusable cloth nappies

This past week I started taking action to fulfil my ‘No Waste November‘ pledge.

No Waste November pledge by Kate on Conservation - to use reusable cloth nappies

Pledge: To be a ‘green mum’ with reusable wipes and nappies.

As a new mum to a newborn baby, who arrived on the 20th October, I have pledged to go ‘green‘, by using cloth nappies and reusable baby wipes.

Since hearing about the No Waste November initiative back in August, when I attended Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Annual Summit, I began planning my contribution to reducing the amount of plastic waste I dispose of. Knowing my daughter was due late October, I saw it as a great opportunity to actually put in to practice the idea of using reusable nappies, liners and pads — giving myself the motivation to stick with it!

Pop-in reusable baby wipes

Pop-in reusable baby wipe set

It was important to me to find my feet as a mother and get used to changing my daughter all hours of the day and night — as well as managing all those extra loads of washing that consist solely of baby clothes, blankets and sheets — so for the first 13 days after her birth I worked with the convenience of disposable diapers.

It soon became clear to me how important the impact of this pledge would be… in those 13 days we went through 84 disposable diapers and entire 100 pack of baby wipes — not to mention all the plastic nappy sacks that the dirty nappies had to be thrown away in; for hygiene purposes!

Milovia nappy cover and lining

Milovia nappy cover and inner lining

I purchased an entire range of reusable nappies to see her through from birth to 2 years, finding two different brands I wanted to use: Close Parent Pop-in for the newborn stage and Milovia for when she’s 8lbs in weight to up to 2 years in age, due to their adjustable sizing (see above).

For a look at what comes in the Pop-in Newborn Nappy Pack, take a look at the video below:

I used a website called Babipur to source the nappy sets; a company which stocks a huge variety of eco-friendly baby products, whom I discovered courtesy of my colleagues at National Geographic Kids magazine.

Milovia nappy designs and carry bag

Milovia nappy designs and carry bag for holding soiled nappies while out and about

As well as buying the nappies from them, this is also where I bought my laundry kit by Tots Bots, which includes a lockable bucket for storing and soaking dirty nappies; mesh bags for soaking them in and easy transfer from bucket to washing machine; eco-friendly washing powder and flushable top liners for extra protection of the nappies — which I think will come into use further down the line.

cloth nappies cleaning in progress

cloth nappies: cleaning in progress with Tots Bots nappy bucket and laundry kit

So far, it’s been a little bit of trial and error — I’ve found the best way to initially soak the nappies is to wash off the excess by holding the liners into the toilet pan while flushing the chain, allowing the water to flow over the liner, then soak the liners and nappy covers overnight in the bucket using 3 table spoons of the washing powder. Then they need to be machine washed at 60 degrees to remove any stains and to soften the fabric ready for re-use. It is recommended that baby is changed at least once every 3 hours when using these nappies.

Kate on Conservation mother and baby

Although it’s taken a little bit of time to know how tight to fasten them (too loose and they leak, too tight and they indent my baby’s skin), and you do have to actually open the nappies regularly to check whether they need changing (unlike disposables, which indicate with a colour changing line down the centre of the diaper, which changes from yellow to blue when baby is wet); I’ve absolutely become an advocate the cloth nappy!

The amount of plastic waste I’ll save over the next couple of years — not to mention money — is incredible! It may take a little more work, but thinking about those 80-odd nappies over less than 2 weeks, and how that would add up; I’m really glad to have made my No Waste November pledge, and I’ll definitely be sticking to it long term!

 

Learn more about Roots and Shoots

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Remembering Rhinos launch: Special interview with Founder Margot Raggett

This week, many of the world’s top wildlife photographers and leading conservationists are joining forces once again for a series of events in London – this year to launch the coffee-table photography book Remembering Rhinos.

remembering rhinos

Remembering Rhinos is the much-anticipated follow-up to last year’s title; Remembering Elephants, for which I attended the launch at the Royal Geographical Society, London, the day before the Global March for Elephants. Similarly to Remembering Elephants, Remembering Rhinos was founded by photographer Margot Raggett in association with the Born Free Foundation.

Like its predecessor, the book and its accompanying exhibition (opening today; 30th October until 11th November) both feature stunning photographs donated by top wildlife photographers from around the globe. In this context of remembering the rhinos before they are confined to memory alone, the incredible images provide a profound, thought-provoking look at what we have to lose should we not win the fight against poaching, habitat loss and the rhino horn trade.

Marlon du Toit Remembering Rhinos

The event comes at a time where the issue of rhino poaching for their keratin horns (the same substance that our fingernails are made from) has been spotlighted by the recent announcement of this year’s winner of the Wildlife Photographer of Year competition; ‘Memorial to a species’ by photojournalist Brent Stirton, which shows a victim of the illegal trade in rhino horn, taken as part of an undercover investigation. The decision of the international jury to select this particular image as their winning entry is a move that Remembering Rhinos Founder Margot Raggett describes as ‘brave’.

“I think the [rhino horn trade is an] issue is on a lot of conservationists’ minds and many of the judges of that award are conservationists,” she tells me in a special interview. “It was a brave decision to choose a picture which will have many of the public turning away from looking at it but it is incredibly important that as many people see it as possible nonetheless. We can’t deny what’s happening anymore, because we are all running out of time to save so many species.”

Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton

Memorial to a species by Brent Stirton, winner of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year award 2017.

I spoke with Margot about the new book, exhibition and Remembering Rhinos’ special launch event to be held at the Royal Geographical Society on the 1st November…

 

Kate: What will make the launch on the 1st November a success to you?

Margot: Good question, I am so focussed on arranging it right now, it is important to step back and think about that… Obviously a packed house, the chance for likeminded people to mingle, talk about the issues and be inspired is all important. But ultimately, the exhibition and launch are all about trying to sell books because THAT’S how we raise funds to put into projects. So the aim is to inspire people to buy as many as they can carry and make it everyone’s Christmas present this year! If we sell out of books by Christmas I will be absolutely thrilled – we printed 4000 rhinos books this year compared to 2500 elephant ones last, so a real step up. 

 

How did Remembering Rhinos come about? Was it always in the pipeline, or a direct response to the success of Remembering Elephants?

During the launch of Remembering Elephants I had a lot of people asking me what’s next, as if it was a given that there should be a follow up. But I was very keen to do one thing at a time and get that first book launched successfully before I made any commitments. A few weeks after that launch I headed out to Africa with my friend, actor Dan Richardson – who had kindly agreed to become an ambassador for us – to have a look at some of the projects we’d supported in Meru in Kenya.

From there we headed to nearby Ol Pejeta and had the opportunity to meet Sudan, the last male northern white rhino left on the planet. That same day we visited a rhino graveyard for all of the rhinos who have been poached in that reserve and the impact of both those visits was immense. Both of us were in tears for much of that day and over dinner that night I declared that I simply had to produce another book to build upon the support we’d gathered. And of course it had to be on rhinos.

Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson with Sudan last male northern white rhino

Margot Raggett and Dan Richardson visit Sudan, the last male northern white rhino

 

How many photographers are involved this time? Are they different or the same the photographers that were involved in Remembering Elephants?

Once again we have 65 contributing photographers and while many are the same, we have swapped in a few new names. Some of the photographers from last time didn’t have suitable rhino pictures and in some instances very few photographers in the world had the images we wanted, such as those of Javan and Sumatran rhinos. Former Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Steve Winter was a new name for this year and we’re thrilled that he agreed to come to London for our launch and deliver our keynote speech at our RGS launch on November 1st.

 

Why did you choose the Born Free Foundation as the charity to partner with on this?

It was important to me to find a charity partner whose ethics aligned with mine and whom I felt I could trust. No-one ever has anything other than good things to say about Born Free and Virginia McKenna is a personal inspiration to me, so it was a natural fit. They’ve been great.

 

Why is this fundraising campaign/the plight of rhinos so important at the moment?

The rate of poaching for rhino horn has soared in recent years with its value more than its weight in gold on the black market. Add to that the recent legalisation of the sale of rhino horn in South Africa, which only masks the illegal trade further, and rhinos are being killed more quickly than they are being born. It is unsustainable. I was chatting to someone the other day who said the media were reaching poaching fatigue in South Africa, which is a frightening prospect. Anything we can do to keep the issue in the spotlight is therefore critical – and the fact that we also raise funds, which can be so quickly deployed into rhino protection, is even better. We are doing something because the rhinos need us and that’s the right thing to do.

 

What will the money raised from Remembering Rhinos go towards? 

At the moment I have a working spreadsheet with potential funds allocated against eight different projects across Africa and Asia (all approved by Born Free) but until we know the final amount raised — which depends upon how many books we sell — we won’t know exactly what we have to distribute. I’d rather give bigger, more meaningful donations to fewer projects than spread ourselves too thinly. There will be an announcement as soon as we can make it.

But in the meantime there are two projects we’ve already started supporting in South Africa from funds raised earlier in the year, which are Saving The Survivors (veterinary care for victims) and Wilderness Foundation Africa (anti-poaching patrols). In mid-November after the launch is done, Dan [Richardson] and I are heading out to visit each of those projects and report back to everyone exactly what effect those funds are having. I see reporting back as a critical element to our success, people quite rightly want to know how their money is making a difference. Accountability is a key part of our success I believe.

Remembering rhinos book

 

Remembering Rhinos talk and launch

A special evening about rhino conservation and photography will be held at the Royal Geographical society, London, on 1st November, and will include talks from former Wildlife Photographer of the Year Steve Winter, Saving the Survivors founder, vet and photographer Johan Marais and Will Travers OBE, President of Born Free Foundation. The event, which Margot Raggett will compère, will also include a presentation of the images from the book and an auction of some of the images.

The books themselves will also be on sale on the night with some of the photographers available to sign them if requested. Books and prints will be on sale to support Born Free Foundation’s rhino-protection work.

Tickets can be purchased from Born Free Foundation: For more info, click here.

Learn more about the rhino horn trade

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Taking big steps for elephants

So far, this month is shaping up to be an important month for elephants. On the 6th October the UK Government announced plans for a total ban on ivory sale, including pieces pre-dating 1947 — and in the days that followed, Action for Elephants UK led a powerful visual protest outside parliament to urge them to enforce the proposed ban.

Under the newly proposed ban the sale and export of almost all ivory items would be illegal in the UK, with ‘some exemptions’ for musical instruments and items of cultural importance, according to the government.

Although a similar ban was proposed in 2015; earlier this year, changes were announced to exclude antique ivory produced before 1947. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, animal rights campaigners staged a demonstration last weekend to urge Environment Secretary Michael Gove, to maintain his promise of a consultation to end the trade of ivory of all ages.

Activists also used the opportunity to raise awareness of the poaching crisis that is pushing rhinos and elephants to extinction.

african elephant in Shamwari

The striking silent protest saw hundreds of campaigners standing silently in London’s Parliament Square, wearing the same shirts and black arm bands for all the elephants and rhinos that have lost their lives to poaching and the ivory and horn trades.

The event was also attended by Save The Asian Elephant (STAE)’s CEO Duncan McNair, Born Free Foundation’s Will Travers, Angels for the Innocent Ambassador Dan Richardson and Director of powerful new documentary ‘Gods in ShacklesSangita Iyer – all of whom addressed the crowds, alongside Action for elephants UK – who organised the protest.

Duncan McNair from STAE leading silent protest for elephants and rhinos – photo by Antony March

After the demo, the speakers delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street representing over 200 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and MPs concerned for elephant preservation.

The Prime Minister was also addressed in a separate covering letter to express thanks for DEFRAs latest announcement on the ban, and to reiterate the need to enforce it.

“[The covering letter] says we will be working to ensure no watering down of a ban by those pressing for exemptions, such as the antiques trade, and also asking the UK government to take further steps to end the global Ivory trade that has decimated the elephants,” STAE’s Duncan McNair (pictured above) explained to me the morning of the protest.

“And to ensure it can stand at the head of nations at the 2018 conference on the illegal wildlife trade.”

He added “STAE welcomes the good news of a consultation on a UK ban on the ivory trade, but must emphasise that we wish to make sure all goes on track through the consultation to a ban, but moreover that government and all of us must exert influence here but abroad too to ensure all the other desperate dangers that threaten Asian elephants – torture, elephant tourism, destruction of their habitat, etc. – are finally addressed.”

“Our government has enormous influence still and should exert it before it’s too late, and should honour the 2015 manifesto pledge to help India to protect its Asian elephants, reaffirmed in David Cameron‘s Joint Statement with PM Modi at the London Summit in December 2015.”

Dan Richardson leads silent protest for elephants and rhinos at Parliament Square

Also concerned with the plight of the endangered Asian elephants (whose biggest threat is not ivory poaching, but the tourist industry, human-elephant conflict, forced contact with man and urban development – something I have written about previously) is campaigner Dan Richardson (pictured at the protest above).

Dan hosted the European premiere screening of feature-length documentary film Gods in Shackles at the Royal Geographical Society on the evening the protest, joined by filmmaker Sangita Iyer, who was born and raised in Kerala, southern India.

Gods in Shackles is an exposé revealing the dark side of Kerala’s glamorous cultural festivals that exploit temple elephants for profit under the guise of culture and religion.

Temples benefit the most financially from captive elephants in India, and the film showed harrowing scenes of elephants in temples chained so tightly that the injuries from their shackles have wounds on top of wounds – and one elephant was shown to be tethered so forcefully, that he couldn’t even put his foot on the ground.

As Dan stated after the screening; “I believe Gods in Shackles is the turning point”

Gods in Shackles offers hope to the thousands of endangered captive and wild elephants in India by exposing the abhorrent torture they suffer – one particularly gut-wrenching scene from the film showed painful and primitive ‘medical care’ given to one female elephant as her eye was pulled open and popped out by a mahout (elephant keeper) to administer eye drops to an injury consistent with a bull hook to the eye.

By highlighting their suffering, Sangita hopes to inspire key stake holders and policy makers to enhance the living conditions of India’s heritage animal.

Although I had some awareness of the ways that festival elephants are exploited, there were several points in the film that I’d never even heard of before – such as male festival elephants being chemically castrated to stop the production of musth hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.

From 2012 – 2015, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command.

I was also surprised to hear of ‘celebrity’ elephants, revered in the temple and festival circuits, which evoke a fierce culture of rivalry. One ‘celebrity elephant’ had razor blades hidden in its food after being targeted over the demise of another elephant.

As someone who grew up in Kerala (which is home to 500-600 captive elephants alone), Sangita explained during an audience question and answer series that she sees her role in making and promoting this film as ‘bridging the cultural gap’.

She wants to empower people with resources to make a change to this situation.

Interestingly, one of the locals in Kerala interviewed in the documentary compared India’s deep cultural connection to elephant festivals with that of slavery in the United States; “The US felt that slavery was part of their culture and it took a war under Abraham Lincoln to end it,” the interviewee says to camera. “Indians feel that this [treatment of elephants] is part of their culture too. It’s not.”

When asked whether children in India are being educated about how elephants are treated, Sangita explained that the state government is going to screen Gods in Shackles through the state channel into every single school in Kerala! Which sounds like an amazing achievement in ‘bridging the cultural gap’.

As Will Travers passionately explained; “Just look at Blackfish; we can change the world through film.”

Grey Future

Also screened at the Royal Geographical Society that evening was the short film ‘Grey Future’, which looks at a future world in which elephants and rhinos have been declared extinct. This powerful piece can be viewed below:

The film’s Writer / Producer Carla Fraser was on hand at the panel talk to advocate the powerful of film, and encourage others to share their conservation messages through this medium.

Find out more about Gods in Shackles, and how you can support campaigns to educate the suffering by visiting godsinshackles.com

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Jaguar journey: following the jungle cats’ paw prints to save the species

The jaguar; a most elusive, yet powerful big cat. Stealthy and strong, it hunts like a true warrior, yet lives almost like a phantom; ghost-like in the rainforests of South America.

Compared to the prolific press that Africa’s big cats — the lion, leopard and cheetah — are granted, the jaguar is rarely seen gracing the covers of magazines, receiving week-long coverage on prime time BBC broadcast slots, or taking centre stage in its own feature-length docufilm.

Despite being the world’s third largest cat, possessing such iconic features as its beautiful rosette-covered coat and bone-crushing jaws (the largest of any big cat), the magnificent jaguar and its vulnerability to the continued threat of deforestation remains a largely unsung story.

But for the last 30 years, one man has made it his mission to save these big cats. Dr Alan Rabinowitz, Chief Scientist at Panthera and the man who established the world’s first jaguar reserve, is himself somewhat of an overlooked entity here in the UK…

 

Discovering the jaguar

Some time in my teens, when I would rush home from high school to try and catch as many wildlife documentaries on National Geographic Channel as possible before the 6 o’clock news and the firmly established family TV time that followed; I fell in love with jaguars.

The Nat Geo documentary that first piqued my interest in the big cat was titled ‘In Search of the Jaguar’. The film followed the story of Dr Rabinowitz — and showcased his quest to a secure 5,000 mile pathway for the jaguar to move from Mexico to Argentina.

The protected pathway would be an invaluable conservation effort to allow the big cats to move freely and diversify their genes.

In search of the jaguar - jaguar journey

Shockingly, estimates at the time (around 2006) suggested that one and a half billion acres of jaguar habitat had been taken by man, leaving the surviving population isolated in small pockets. Back then, it had also recently been discovered that all jaguars shared the same DNA — so a method of sewing together these pockets was necessary to allow movement for more diverse breeding.

Known as the ‘Jaguar Corridor’, the pathway — spanning 18 countries — is intoxicatingly referred to as a ‘necklace’ in the documentary, and each potential new territory sourced by Rabinowitz is referred to as a ‘gem in that necklace’.

The imagery of the emerald forests of Brazil, the burning amber flashes of the elusive jaguar slinking in and out of view and this elaborate necklace of geographical gems has always made it stick in my mind.

That and the fact that Rabinowitz was himself fighting against the odds of a serious illness during this film; yet choosing his quest to save the jaguar over slowing down to save himself.

 

Intermission

As the formidable jungle cat slips in and out of view in its rainforest habitat in real life; so my interest in jaguars has slipped in and out of my consciousness over recent times.

In the years that followed my initial discovery of wildlife warrior Rabinowitz, I would read countless stories and memoirs about people who had entwined their lives with African big cats. I would come to understand the complex social structures of lion prides and marvel at the cuteness of baby cheetahs on BBC’s Big Cat Diaries; I’d even end up travelling to South Africa to see how these big cats find ways to share a continent, and catch a fleeting glimpse of a lone leopard on the horizon. But the Latin American jaguar; this most mystic and spiritual of cats would remain a quiet, secretive, yet powerfully present interest of mine.

Towards the end of last year, exactly 10 years after first viewing ‘In Search of the Jaguar’ I took a chance on following the big cat myself. Perhaps not in quite the same way as Dr Rabinowitz and his team, but through my own journey.

Historically, these animals are interwoven in ancient civilisation as mystic creatures of great spirituality; prowlers of ancient imaginations, paid testament to through elaborate carvings and etched onto the walls of temples: their spirituality and strength make them an iconic feline.

jaguar temple statue

It is perhaps this very spirituality and strength then, that guided me at the end of last year.

Picking up a copy of National Geographic Kids magazine’s September issue, I took in the beautiful jaguar image staring back at me from the cover and flicked through the copy, taking note of facts about jaguars snatching up prey, such as caiman and capybaras, by uniquely using the winding tributaries of the Amazon basin to their advantage.

Poring over information about their skull crunching canines and their skilful swimming abilities rarely seen in big cats, I used the article as my main preparation for chasing down a job at this most esteemed of natural history media brands. I referenced the article several times in my job interview for the publication; and after a securing a second meeting, I was offered a job at the company.

Within my first few weeks, I was tasked with researching jaguar facts for a promotional ‘jungle survival guide’, which would be released with National Geographic publications across the globe, in many different languages. My first real project with the company, and it featured jaguars!

National geographic lego expedition jungle guide

If signs come in threes, the next one definitely felt like one worth seeing — or rather, listening to. When one of my new colleagues recommended listening to a podcast called RadioLab, as it featured and in-depth look at trophy hunting for rhino horn, it didn’t take long for me to look around and find an episode about zoos.

I was curious to see the journalists’ handling of the issues surrounding captivity, and shocked at the coincidence that, quite unexpectedly, the final segment in the broadcast featured one Dr Alan Rabinowitz (a name I had first heard through Nat Geo many years ago); tracing his life’s work back to being a child, and encountering a lone jaguar in the Big Cat House at the Bronx Zoo

The powerful RadioLab story (which can be listened to by clicking on the player link above) focusses on why Rabinowitz connected so much with the jaguar (owing to a severe stutter throughout his childhood, which left him feeling voiceless — a symptom he could recognise in the pitiful yowling of the Bronx Zoo’s jaguar).

The severity of Rabinowitz’ stutter was barely touched upon in that earlier Nat Geo documentary, so hearing about the extremity of the speech disorder and the impact it had on the course of Alan’s life gave a whole new dimension to the story; and a whole new perspective on his connection to the jaguar.

The coincidence of re-discovering a human-wildlife story that had fascinated me so much as a teenager, and learning of such a significant side of the story — the influence of communicating with animals on learning to overcome a stutter — certainly reignited my interest in finding out what has happened to the jaguar population now, and how Rabinowitz’ all-important ‘Jaguar Corridor’ has made a difference.

 

Jaguar journey

In Search of the Jaguar ends with a tantalising concept: “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an overwhelming challenge? For this wildlife warrior, that chapter has yet to be written…”

Just over a decade on, it’s safe to say that that next chapter is an exciting one! Dr Rabinowitz is now Chief Scientist of Panthera; founded in 2006 as the only organisation in the world that is devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s 40 wild cat species (including tigers, lions, jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, pumas and leopards) and their ecosystems.

The Panthera Team take on the formidable forests of the jaguar’s range – on foot! Photo by: Veronica Domit Photography

Along with Dr Howard Quigley, Head of Panthera’s Jaguar Program, Alan is currently undertaking a three-year quest to journey by foot(!) through the 10 counties that make up the spine of his now well-established 18-country ‘Jaguar Corridor’, sharing his experience along the way of the progress being made—  and of course the jaguars he encounters!

On their journey deep into the jaguar’s range, together with Panthera’s scientists and partners, they hope to continue to shine a light on the developments in the jaguar’s population and range, as well as the challenges in places where jaguars are most at risk — so that they can continue to develop and implement global strategies to best protect the cat.

I’ve signed up to ‘join the journey’ and receive regular updates about the team’s progress and was delighted to read about the efforts to explore the powerful cultural connections that locals have to Latin America’s iconic big cat.

‘The Journey of the Jaguar is showing that humans and jaguars are coexisting’ one of their most recent email newsletters reads.

This sounds like an incredible achievement when there is often so much conflict between local populations and predators (such as in the case of last year’s poisoning of multiple lions from the Maasai Mara’s Marsh pride).

I contacted Dr Rabinowitz to find out more about his experience and how the local people are able to live alongside the big cat, when so often predators are seen as a threat.

“My best experience has been to see the enthusiasm of local people and local governments to the idea of an integrated jaguar corridor,” Alan explains.

“Also to see local people feel strongly about wanting to bring jaguar culture back into the lives of their children and the schools.”

Alan Rabinowitz - jaguar journey

Dr Rabinowitz on his epic ‘Journey of the Jaguar’. Photo by Veronica Domit Photography

Hearing of the desire to educate local children about the beauty and importance of jaguars as part of their learning in the classroom is immediately something that resonates with me.

“I realise more than ever that the future rests in the hands of the young,” Alan continues. “My hopes are that this journey creates a permanent platform and a permanent movement for saving the jaguar, saving jaguar culture, and making sure that the world’s third largest cat does not go down the road of the tiger, lion and leopard.”

And for a man who has faced (and overcome) so many challenges in his life, what has been the hardest part of the jaguar journey so far?

“The worst experiences, as always, are to see dead animals.” he tells me. “Jaguar skins, jaguar teeth, and other animal parts. And learn of the fear some people still have about jaguars.”

 

Join the journey…

You can follow the footsteps of Dr Rabinowitz and the Panthera team at: journeyofthejaguar.org and see regular updates and images on Twitter and Instagram.

The expedition is also being used to spread the word about The Stuttering Foundation, which is of course is an organisation close to Alan, and one whom he is promoting along the route by wearing the foundation’s patch.

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