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Rhino’s Up: One six-year old’s fight to protect the last Northern White Rhinos

Working in conservation and education will always feel like a blessing to me. To see how children react to the issues facing the natural world around them, and to discover time and time again how they seem to intrinsically care about the environment and the wildlife they share it with — it truly fills me with hope and positivity.

One such story that’s started August off on a positive note is that of six-year-old Frankie and his fundraising mission for Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Frankie (pictured above) is on a mission to save rhinos after discovering that there are only three northern white rhinos left in the world.

He decided to launch a fundraising project called ‘RhinosUp to raise £48,000 – the amount that a poached rhino horn might fetch on the black market.

His plan is to create a living sculpture in the shape of a northern white rhino out of bee-friendly plants. Frankie hopes his flowerbed — made in partnership with Fauna & Flora International — will encourage people to think about the plight of rhinos and spread the message that poaching has to end.

Read the full story (and watch Frankie’s video) on National Geographic Kids’ website here.

National geographic kids rhinos up article

Richard Vigne, Ol Pejeta’s CEO said: “I am making a special trip to the UK to meet with Frankie. I am amazed at what this formidable young man has managed to achieve at such a young age.”

“If only the world were made of more people like him, we would not be facing the extinction crisis that we currently are. The northern white rhinos need all the help they can get, and what Frankie is doing will make a huge difference in how we protect them and for the survival of the species.”

Well done Frankie!

For more information on Frankie’s ‘RhinosUp’ project, and to donate online, visit www.rhinosup.com

 

Want to know more about rhino horn poaching?

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Jonathan Scott – Special Interview Part 2: The Big Cats and the Marsh Pride poisoning

In my last blog post, I explored the lives of ‘The Big Cat People’, Jonathan and Angela Scott, most famed for their work on BBC’s Big Cat Diary and Big Cat Week. Inevitably, our conversation became not just about the amazing photographs and stories that comprised their latest book offerings, but also the animals that inspired the work.

Like me, Jonathan Scott was first inspired to follow a dream of seeing animals in the wild by the 1966 film, Born Free, featuring actors Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna.

“What really stands out from those teenage years is the memory of sitting in a cinema watching Born Free, the true story of George and Joy Adamson‘s triumph in returning the wild-born lioness Elsa to the wilderness of Meru National Park in Kenya,” he explains. “Its stirring effect was reinforced by a talk that a fresh-faced teacher gave to the sixth form one evening, illustrated with colour slides of his travels around the world on a gap year. I sat there aching to do something like that – to be free of studying and to live.”

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 And live he certainly has. Jonathan clarifies that he wanted a ‘life of adventure’ combined with a ‘window on to wilderness’. That meant Africa.

“Preferably careering around in the bush looking for big cats, just as I had seen Armand and Michaela Dennis doing in On Safari on the telly.”

Having graduated with a degree in Zoology from Queens University in Belfast, and spent a year exploring the North American landscape, he signed up for a fourteen-week overland journey from London to Johannesburg in 1974.

“Six-thousand miles later and having sold my onward boat ticket from Cape Town to Sydney in Australia, I spent an idyllic few weeks living on a luxury houseboat – the Sitatunga – stationed in the Okavango Delta, a wildlife wonderland known as the jewel of the Kalahari.”

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From that point on, Jonathan fell in love with Africa and became a well-established author, photographer (winning the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award in 1987) and filmmaker.

I have grown to love writing natural history narratives about animal characters Angie and I have followed over the years,” he says, “such as the Marsh Pride of lions, the leopards Chui and Half-Tail, along with the cheetahs Kike and Honey and Honey’s adorable cub Toto of Big Cat fame.”

Marsh Pride

It is the Marsh Pride that we inevitably end up discussing the most.

The now infamous (thanks largely to Jonathan Scott’s work) Marsh Pride of lions were the subject of his first book, The Marsh Lions, co-authored with Brian Jackman in 1982.

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Scott credits Jackman with teaching him to appreciate the importance of the narrative flow, rather than simply producing a scientific journal: “He questioned whether I was writing for my chums at the Serengeti Research Centre at the expense of the general public, my primary audience. Learning to integrate the science with the narrative was something that took time for me to embrace.”

The pride, who live near the Musiara Marsh (which inspired their collective name) in the Maasai Mara National Reserve were the subject of several books, including those centered around the BBC Big Cat Diary series; which Scott authored on his own, with photographs by his wife Angie. They also starred in the BBC television series.

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Jonathan spent many years tapping into the lives of these cats, and their relationship with the Maasai Mara National Reserve – a protected area of more than 1,500 cubic km. He fondly refers to the Maasai Mara as the heartbeat of Africa, and observes that the lives of the Maasai people (often seen in their traditional red robes, adjourned with beads and carrying traditional weapons) are instinctively linked with the animals and the survival of the Maasai Mara as a whole.

This couldn’t have felt more relevant, when, at the end of 2015, the Marsh pride was back in the public’s consciousness after a mass poisoning.

“The poisoned lioness was 17,” Jonathan explained to an audience at the Royal Geographical Society, almost exactly one year on from the poisoning, “and a surviving cat from Big Cat Diaries in 1998 – one of Bebe’s pride.” 

Jonathan Scott getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

I asked him in our interview whether the poisoning had ignited an urgency in him to tell these stories and share the amazing photographs that he and Angela took in the book Sacred Nature.

“People asked if we were shocked and surprised by the poisoning. We weren’t,” he explained.

“It is a fact of life for lions living among pastoralists or in the case of the Marsh Pride on the edge of a protected area – half inside the reserve and half outside – among the Maasai.”

His words made me think back to my study of Craig Packer’s book and the plight of lions following CITES last year.

“It was a tragedy, but rather like with the case of Cecil the male lion killed illegally by a trophy hunter in Zimbabwe, the killing of [the] high profile [Marsh] lions caused a storm on social media and in the local and international press.”

“That created a far louder ‘voice’ on behalf of lions than we could have on our own. And that caused the Ministry of Tourism – and the Narok County Government responsible for the Maasai Mara – to take the situation seriously, particularly when people realised they couldn’t just wait for the storm to blow itself out.”

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

Lionesses from the Marsh Pride

The poisoning forced the authorities to ensure that cattle did not come in to Marsh Pride territory at night when the lions are most active and incidents with cattle most likely.

“The Marsh Pride are now able to roam their traditional territory without fear of conflict with livestock owners. But this is not a problem that is just going to disappear. Kenya is home to large numbers of pastoralists with large herds of cattle worth a lot of money in terms of cash and a fortune in terms of cultural status.”

Scott explains that due to global warming, Africa – particularly East Africa – is more prone to patterns of wild rainfall.

“Prolonged droughts and failed rainy seasons are more common. When I first came to live in Kenya 40 years ago the onset of the rains was very predictable – the short rains began in mid-October through to December and the long rains started towards the end of March and continued in to June. Droughts and dry times mean that large herds of cattle are driven in to protected areas and on to private land illegally causing enormous problems for the government, the wildlife and local communities.” 

“There just isn’t enough pasture for all those domestic animals.”

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Members of the Marsh Pride, including Scarface

Despite opening this blog post with the early inspirations and aspirations of Jonathan Scott; his dream to have an adventurous life in Africa, I feel it is only fitting to close with the following statement from him:

“One thing I do know is that at 67 I had reached that time in life when I was eager to give back, to transition from following my personal dream of living with wild creatures to trying to find a fulfilling role as a conservationist and spokesperson for Africa’s wild places, in particular the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya and the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.”

“I wanted to acknowledge [with Sacred Nature and The Big Cat Man books] in a tangible way, the gift that Angie and I had been given by being able to spend so many years living and working in the Mara-Serengeti; to try to ensure that this last great wild place might survive the pressures that are currently threatening its very future.”

What next?

So, what can we expect from Jonathan and Angela Scott next? The pair have two new children’s books due out this year with Cambridge University Press – one on a Tiger Safari in India and the other on Toto the Cheetah.

Scott also tells me that they intend to take the message of Sacred Nature worldwide with a series of Exhibitions in key cities – London, Paris, LA, Sydney, Delhi, etc. That and a new TV series that they are currently filming in the Maasai Mara.

The Scott's inspired one of my own childhood projects — about African Big Cats. News of their upcoming children's book is very exciting!

The Scott’s inspired one of my own childhood projects — about African Big Cats. News of their upcoming children’s book is very exciting!

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Jonathan and Angela Scott – The Big Cat People: Special Interview Part 1

In the days before we saw life through the eyes of animal robots, we saw life through the eyes of the people who knew them best – and Jonathan Scott was instrumental in that. I was 8 years old when I first tuned in to BBC’s Big Cat Diary, where Simon King and Saba Douglas-Hamilton completed the trio of big cat filmmakers that would change the way we saw lions, cheetahs and leopards forever.

man-with-cubs“I had a unique story unfolding right before my eyes,” Scott acknowledges. From his days of sleeping in his car while following African Wild dogs – which, by his own admission, allowed him to become ‘part of the pack’ –  to becoming famous as ‘the man that a cheetah crapped on’ (who can forget that famous Big Cat Week scene with Kike the cheetah?); it certainly seems he has had a life that many of us can only dream of.

Fast forward almost a decade, and Jonathan Scott is still bringing us ever closer to the formidable big cats of Africa, with a little (or maybe I should say ‘a lot’) of help from his partner in work, as well as in life; Angela Scott – or as he affectionately refers to her in our conversation, ‘Angie’.

At the end of 2016, the pair released an impressive combination of work; Jonathan Scott’s autobiography ‘The Big Cat Man and a coffee table book ‘Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance, which is predominately Angela’s photography.

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Angela Scott photographing cheetahs for Big Cat Diary

I spoke to Jonathan in a special interview to find out why he felt it was time to tell his story and what made him want to tell it publicly.

 “It is one thing to write an autobiography, quite another to figure out why,” Scott explains.

The Big Cat Man

“I think in some ways it was wanting to review my life to make better sense of it – I have lived life at such a frenetic pace that I sometimes feel that I need to slow down and take stock and think about the big questions that flash across one’s mind from time to time, reminding us that life is not a dream, that it is real, and that we owe it to ourselves to pay attention to what we are doing with this precious gift of being alive and the amazing opportunity that offers us – both for adventures and for personal growth.”

“Isn’t it an indulgence;” he added, “to think that your memoir is of interest to others – the written equivalent of imagining that anyone might really like to see your holiday photos.”

I actually purchased a copy of the book after listening to Jonathan talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London; guiding the audience through anecdotes of his extraordinary life, in preparation for some of the incredible tales and awe-inspiring photographs that feature in the book. Archives of life that I’ve spent the last month of so poring over as I read page by page before settling in for the night.

It dawned on me that it must be quite a daunting task, to give away the intimate details of human life to complete strangers.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

Jonathan, getting ready to take the stand at the Royal Geographical Society, London.

“I never [gave] a thought to who will eventually read it,” he states, “I needed and wanted this book to centre on me and my growth as a human being – not just about what it is like to live in Africa and spend time following big cats.”

 “I have always led two lives – like everyone to varying degrees – the life lived ‘out there’ in front of my eyes, one’s sense of self; and the inner world that for me was a bit of a muddle given the mental health issues I was grappling with. I really felt I was going to die – like my Dad.”

Quite early in the book, you learn the sad revelation that Scott was just two years old when his father died of an inoperable brain tumour.

“I was convinced that something was wrong that some awful disease was working its way into my system. It took me until I was 40 to lay that to rest.”  

“Marrying Angie and having a family gave me something much more important to worry about than my own wellbeing. Writing my story was a way of coming to terms with who I am – or who I think I am. And [a way of] being honest about my life and letting people see that we all have problems and issues and frailties – and that when you consider the lives of other people you need to see beyond the superficial. Particularly with people in the public eye.”

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“We are all just human – being famous doesn’t mean life is any less complex or angst ridden. I wanted people, particularly younger people who might want to follow the kind of life I have lived, to believe that following your dream is possible. It might be a very bumpy road but in following it you can find the most unimaginable joy and meaning.”

Hearing Jonathan’s words, I feel like, particularly in the current climate, the need to feel like there’s a sense of purpose to be found; a life outside your current existence is a very important rhetoric for young people to hear. 

“The autobiography I wanted to write was a more fulsome account of my life than my celebrity as a wildlife author and presenter of Big Cat Diary merited,” Jonathan explains, as he tells me how finding the right publisher proved to be an ‘elusive creature’.

“People knew me as ‘the bloke the cheetah crapped on’ from my encounter with Kike the car climbing cheetah of Big Cat Week 2003; surely my potential audience wanted to hear stories of daring do among large possibly dangerous wild creatures rather than of growing up on a farm in Berkshire along with revelations of whatever skeletons in the cupboard I might reveal.”  

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My own collection of Scott’s early books

Like many people, it was Big Cat Diary that first switched me on to the work of Jonathan Scott, and I subsequently began buying the BBC books that accompanied the programmes – originally co-authored with Brian Jackman, then later, Angela Scott – and whilst I came to expect more tales of the big cats we’d got to know on the television, the authors certainly fascinated me too. Skeletons in the cupboard and all.

The Big Cat People

The first thing I learned about the combined force of Jonathan and Angela Scott is that they are the only couple to have won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award individually – a testament to their individual skills and vision. Jonathan won the prestigious award in 1987 and Angela won in 2002.

Jonathan Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

Jonathan Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 1987

The second thing I learnt about them, is that they go by the collective name: The Big Cat People. “Social media is a huge opportunity to have a shop window, but you do have to grow your brand,” Jonathan addressed the audience at ‘The Big Cat People’ talk at the Royal Geographical Society.

The Big Cat People feels a like brand that has been a long time in development. Prior to these book releases, the Scotts have worked on 29 other publications together!

Angela Scott's photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

Angela Scott’s photograph, which won Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2002

I asked what makes them such a good team in telling these stories and sharing their world with people who may never get to see these places or animals for themselves. “Angie always says that the key to a great relationship –  both business and personal – is to make it a “Competition of Generosity”, Jonathan gushes.

“If you are always thinking of your partner’s best interests and prioritising them then – as long as you are both doing it – you will be successful. Angie is great organiser: very structured in her way of thinking, whereas I just tend to wing it and believe that things will always work out fine. So it is a great combo.”

“And we both love each other’s work; we think of it as ours. The problem sometimes – and I am always quick to remind people of this – is that because I am on TV I often get the lion’s share of the attention. But when it comes to our photography, Angie is the talent not me. She has a wonderful eye as you can see in Sacred Nature. Eighty per cent of the images are Angie’s.”

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I can very clearly see their intention in releasing both books together, as a combination of work for anyone interested in their lives and career. As Jonathan puts it, they are ‘very inclusive’ – the personal text of the autobiography with their pen and ink drawings and photographs, and then the splendor of viewing some of their best images in a big folio book.

“The books complement each other. We knew that the autobiography was not the right format to show off our photography to best advantage. Words predominate in the autobiography and images predominate in Sacred Nature. That was our intention.”

Sacred Nature: Life’s Eternal Dance

Sacred Nature comprises 10 chapters, each preceded by a short essay setting the theme and tone of the photographs to follow. As well as being Angela’s ‘mission’, Sacred Nature really is family ‘labour of love’, as their son David is responsible for creating the design concept.

“Our son is incredibly creative. He drew together all the elements that we wanted for Sacred Nature: the right images – both colour and black and white; the tone of the text, and he chose the quotes from great poets and sages to mirror the message of: ‘look, listen and absorb the mood created by the images and the words’.”

“He conjured up a little bit of the magic inherent in the wonder of savanna Africa and the incredible place we call The Last Place On Earth – the Mara-Serengeti – home of the great migration, all the big cats that have been our obsession all the years,  and so much more besides.

A leaflet teasing the design concept of 'Sacred Nature' and the book's review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

A leaflet teasing the design concept of ‘Sacred Nature’ and the book’s review by Keith Wilson in Geographical Magazine

Keith Wilson writes of the book in Geographical Magazine‘s November 2016 issue: “This may be Jonathan and Angela Scott’s 30th book, but it is without doubt their magnum opus.”

So, what is it that makes the book stand out so much? (Jonathan tells me that one journalist said of Sacred Nature: “It is a coffee table book on steroids.”).

It’s clear from his answer that he agrees with Wilson’s interpretation, which reads: “The Scott’s have been firmly established at the top of their field for decades, during which time the public has grown accustomed to witnessing their spectacular work in print and on screen (through BBC TV‘s hugely popular Big Cat Diary), but this book differs in many ways to any of their previous efforts. Sacred Nature is primarily Angela’s vision.” 

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Angie is a very spiritual person,” Jonathan tells me. “Compassionate; someone who reaches out to others in need. She grew up in Africa, spent her holidays on safari in places like the Serengeti as a child living in Tanzania.”

“She draws strength from connecting to wilderness – she loves trees and seeing plants growing in her veggie garden. And she is very artistic; she loves to draw and was always very artistic and her great passion was photography and the ocean. She is quiet, and shy and retiring – so photography gave her a voice, a way to express herself.”

“The genesis of Sacred Nature was partly to do with our age. I am 68 this year and Angie will be 64. We have had a long and successful career as authors, wildlife photographers and working in television. This was the time when we wanted to review and assess where we were in our lives and careers and plan the next step.”

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Some of the incredible photography featured in the book, giving and intimate view of Africa’s wildlife

He also cites concerns about the natural world, loss of wild habitat and diversity, and the surge of the human population across the planet.

“They all played a part in focusing our attention on the reality that most of the world is shut off from nature. Most of the world lives in cities. And the places that still harbour most of the wild animals on earth are mainly the most impoverished parts of the planet – such as Africa.”

The irony of these places, he says, is that local communities are too busy just trying to get by in ensuring they have the basics in life (and many don’t; ‘living on a few dollars a day’), dealing with far more pressing day-to-day priorities to be able either enjoy the natural environment or to see any reason to treasure it. 

“Most people living in East Africa will never see a wild lion or elephant. And those living in rural areas adjacent to wilderness naturally have a very different view of an elephant a lion or a buffalo to the one enjoyed by visitors on safari. Those same charismatic wild animals that visitors so want to see up close and romanticise are often a threat to life and livelihoods for local communities who bear the brunt of living with wildlife. Elephants and buffalos destroy crops at times and predators sometimes kill livestock.”

“We hope to take the message of Sacred Nature: that we need to re-engage with wilderness and to value it as the source of life, as the provider of our fresh water, our food and the air we breathe, and use it to remind people that the world will be a poorer place without other forms of life to share it with and marvel at.

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Geographical Magazine publishes images from Sacred Nature

Purchase these incredible books here.

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My top 5 ways to fend off ‘Blue Monday’…

Apparently today is the most depressing day of the year. Cold January Mondays, can be a miserable time as it is, without the thought that statistics are against us, as well as the rainy British weather.

I figured it would be a good time to escape the January blues and indulge in the beauty of nature, and some of the incredible conservation heroes working hard to secure a future for some of our planet’s rarest wildlife.

Here are a few of my top suggestions for getting through the day.

1. Try out Gorilla Safari VR

A free app for your phone or mobile device, Gorilla Safari VR was developed by vEcotourism.org and released by the Born Free Foundation over Christmas.

If you’ve not tried it yet, the app — available on Android and iOS — begins at Born Free Foundation’s headquarters in Surrey and takes users on an immersive adventure (either using a VR headset or as a 360-degree video experience on your device), to the Kahuzi-Biega National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Meet Eastern Lowland Gorilla patriarch, Chimanuka (star of BBC’s Gorilla Family & Me), and explore his native habitat with Ian Redmond OBE as your guide.

Gorilla Safari VR

I wrote an entire post on this app last month, so feel free to take a look back over that for a full introduction, or visit vEcotours website at: http://www.vecotourism.org/news/announcing-gorilla-safari-vr/

2. Watch A Lion’s Tale

The realm of Natural History film making is in a fantastic position at present. We finished 2016 on the high of the amazing Planet Earth II, with its ground-breaking footage and camera techniques; we’ve had a host of great wildlife shows presented by Gordon Buchanan, and currently you can catch the fascinating BBC series ‘Spy in the Wild‘ narrated by David Tenant. Spy in the Wild uses some impressive robotic animals fitted with hidden ‘spy cameras’ to film a very intimate and unusual look into the lives of a range of animals, from alligators and elephants to African wild dogs. 

But there are many other amazing Natural History films available that you won’t find from switching on your television. Independent filmmakers are posting some incredible results online, including ‘A Lion’s Tale‘ by Tania Esteban.

This film looks at the legacy of actress turned conservationist Virginia McKenna, who famously played Joy Adamson in the 1966 film ‘Born Free‘. Fifty years on, A Lion’s Tale attempts to look at what that legacy means among today’s wildlife conflicts, returning to Kenya (where Elsa the lioness was once released to roam free) to visit the Born Free team and the Kenya wildlife service rangers to explore their work on the frontline of conflict and education.

A Lion’s Tale saw its public release online this last weekend, catch it here:

For more info about the film: treproductions.co.uk/

Official webpage: taniaesteban.wixsite.com/alionstale

3. Explore ‘Speaking of Nature’ case studies 

Another impressive independent film project to have received its launch onto the World Wide Web is that of film maker Craig Redmond. His project ‘Speaking of Nature‘ was released on the 5th of January and has gradually been doing the rounds on social media.

I discovered it this weekend and spent an entire morning working my way through the six stories that comprise this project.

Each story focusses on a different conservationist; Badger Cull – Dominic Dyer, Badger Trust;  Primate Pet Trade – Dr Ros Clubb, RSPCA; Hunting and Trapping of Migrating Birds – Fiona Burrows; Committee Against Bird Slaughter; Wildlife Crime – Mark Jones, Born Free Foundation; Industrial Fishing – Wietse van der Werf, The Black Fish; Gardeners of the Forest – Ian Redmond, Ape Alliance

There is a written introduction to each conservationist, exploring their role and the plight of each animal they work with (or rather, for the protection of) and video footage of two-part interviews with each chosen person.

Grab a cup of tea, nestle in and prepare to be inspired.

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For the full stories, visit: https://craigredmond.exposure.co/speaking-of-nature

4. Discover GreenWorldTV

Something to get excited about for 2017 — a brand new television channel dedicated entirely to wildlife and environmental news!
Although GreenWorldTV hasn’t quite ‘landed’ yet, it’s coming. And I for one, can’t wait.
GreenWorldTV will launch in 2017 as the UK’s very first conservation, animal rescue and investigative wildlife online TV Channel and intends to bring a selection of educational and truthful wildlife TV shows, films and shorts to the world. Stay tuned – the channel will launch at http://www.greenworldtv.com
Check out this trailer for an idea of things to come, and give yourself something to look forward to:

 

You can sign up to Green World TV YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCfsRp0AAJQII4EIfZeVoeRw

5. Have flick through National Geographic Kids Magazine

Ok, so I’m cheating a bit here, because – as some of you will know – I recently started working for National Geographic KiDs magazine. Their February issue (on sale now), is the first issue I contributed to.
It’s a great little uplifting read – lots of fun for children, but also, I’ve found, it’s a nice easy read on an early morning commute.
Simple language, great photography; some fun and unusual facts about big cats and a really interesting feature on polar bears (do you know how big a polar bear’s paw is?).
Plus, it’s bright and colourful and easily digestible. Definitely the kind of thing that cheers me up in January!

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Visit www.ngkids.co.uk or pick up a copy in your local newsagents.

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Volunteering with the Zambia Primate Project — Guest post by Tom Hicks

The Zambia Primate Project is one of the operations run and sponsored by the Born Free Foundation. Based in the Kafue National Park, the project focuses on the rescue, rehabilitation and reintroduction of Vervet monkeys and Yellow baboons throughout Zambia.

The project is run by Cosmos Mumba, an immensely talented Zambian conservationist (see video below). In 2015 he was nominated for the 2015 African Conservationist of the Year award by the Tusk Trust. Cosmas is a leading light in the conservation of primates and works very closely with Dr Cheryl Mvula from the Born Free Foundation.

Together, the Zambia Primate Project and the Born Free Foundation work tirelessly to conserve both the habitat of the vervet and baboons, and the wild populations.

They seek to achieve this through education, in-situ work and a welfare programme for those primates in need of intervention and rescue. In August 2016, I was granted the remarkable opportunity to work in-situ at the release site in the Kafue National Park, where the team work closely with Game Rangers International.

I arrived at Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and was greeted by Cosmos, who was waiting to take me to Lilayi. This is the location of Game Rangers International’s elephant orphanage. The orphanage is now also a refuge for rescued and confiscated pangolins, whose population has dramatically decreased over past years. They are always looking for volunteers and donations, so I would encourage anyone to find out more about there work by clicking here.

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The release camp in the Kafue National Park

Cosmos and I then set off on the 4-hour drive west to Kafue, where I would be staying at the release camp. My eyes were opened to the work and commitment exuded by the team, made up of Cosmos, Mathew, Dalisou and Caribou. They live in camp for most the year.

We visited the release site of a troop of Vervet monkeys who were reintroduced into the wild in February 2016. Each individual monkey has a story to tell, sadly usually of tragedy. They are rescued, rehabilitated and reintroduced back into the wild.

The team can recognise individuals within the troop by name. Immediately I was inspected by the lead males of the troop, grunting and softly barking while they all circled me. Cosmos and his team found this very amusing, as did I; it’s something that must happen to every volunteer. I felt as if the troop were sizing me up and deciding whether or not they liked me.

With introductions out the way, I was allocated Blacky to observe; one of the adult females in our focal studies. This formed the bulk of my job for the month. I would monitor individuals in the troop and note each minute what behaviour they were performing. This meant we could gather enough data to allows us to track individuals progress and identify any health issues.

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Working with the team at Kafue

The process of rehabilitation is often very hands on, as the primates being treated are usually in poor health — both mentally and physically. This, in turn, builds an exceptionally strong bond between the team and the troop.

Although this could lead to problems when it comes to encouraging the troop to evolve and become completely independent; the operation here is conducted to the highest degree of professionalism, and no such issues were evident.

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The team’s bond with the Vervets is extremely strong. Cosmos personally views them as his family. This was first demonstrated to me upon my encounter with Mysozyo, who is an adult female.

She was rescued from terrible conditions: chained outside a shop and used as a status symbol.

She was in extremely poor health when Cosmos first met her, and he cared for her through rehabilitation and reintroduction with the troop.

When I first saw her, however, she wasn’t alone. Mysozyo had mated earlier in the year with one of the lead males in the troop and had given birth to a truly “born free” infant, which Cosmos named Ndiase, meaning Gift.

This marked a huge step for the troop as it shows they are capable of wild natural behaviour.

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Image title: Born Free, Photographer: Tom Hicks

Now that I have returned from my time in Zambia, I have had time to reflect on just how impressive and successful the whole operation is.

I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have had the opportunity to work with the team; as an aspiring conservationist, I feel I have learnt an infinite amount from actually working with the team on the ground, rather than simply learning the theory behind it.

I would encourage anyone to get involved with charitable organisations such as these, whether it be donating your time, or as a beneficiary. It is hugely rewarding, and sadly still very much needed.

My connection with the troop and the team is one that I treasure immensely; it has inspired me to train to run the London Marathon in support of Born Free Foundation later this year — if you’d like, you can sponsor me here: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Tom-Hicks3

Finally, to Game Rangers International, Born Free Foundation and the Zambia Primate Project, I can only say thank you for the opportunity. I feel incredibly grateful for the immense benefit I have gained from the experience and education you offered me. I sincerely hope to take you up on the offer to work together again.

If you would like to enquire about the chance to work with the Zambia Primate Project then find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/ZambiaPrimateProject

Or through the Born Free Foundations website: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/campaigns/primates/campaign-action/zambian-primate-project/
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4

Introducing Gorilla Safari VR! A Christmas present from Born Free

Born Free Foundation have a special gift to give this Christmas. Working in conjunction with vEcotourism.org they have just released a brand new app — Gorilla Safari VR — and it’s completely free!

I know quite a few people will be waking up to a VR headset underneath the tree on Christmas morning, but for those who aren’t ready to take the leap into fully immersing themselves in the virtual world just yet; you can still enjoy the app and its opportunity to explore the habitat of the Eastern Lowland (or Grauer’s Gorillas) using a smart phone or tablet. The app is available on IOS and Android.

Gorilla Safari VRIan Redmond OBE, is the guide on the Gorilla Safari VR, and will take you to the Kahuzi-Biegan National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the heart of Africa.

“I invite you to join me on this unique VR trip to learn more about the world’s largest primate – the Eastern Lowland, or Grauer’s Gorilla.” Ian writes on the Born Free Foundation website.With us will be John Kahekwa, winner of the 2016 Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, presented by HRH The Duke of Cambridge at the prestigious Tusk Awards this November.”

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A sneak peak of the VR tour

“Christmas is a time for family. And while most people take this to mean reconnecting with seldom seen siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts, think for a moment about our wider zoological family. Don’t you wish sometimes you could get away from it all to visit your more distant relatives, the great apes?”

“If so, Born Free has a special Christmas gift for you this year. In conjunction with the team that brought you virtual travel via http://www.vEcotourism.org, and just in the nick of time for Christmas.”

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Meet Ian Redmond, John Kahekwa and Born Free Foundation President Will Travers in the app

Having supported the fantastic work of vEcotours for a while now, I was so excited to hear that they have developed an app for my favourite charity, which even includes a view of the Born Free Foundation Headquarters in Sussex.

I gave the app a little go this morning and I love it! Here’s how I got on…

Perhaps the coolest thing about this new app (other than the fact you can download it for free…), is that it arrives just in time for today’s BBC Two’s special Christmas Eve programming, which will see a back-to-back screening of Gordon Buchanan‘s two-part series The Gorilla Family & Me from 3:45 this afternoon.

Ian and John Kahekwa both worked with the BBC last year to make the two-part series, and there’s an opportunity in the Gorilla Safari VR app to look behind the scenes of the making of the documentary.

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Going behind the scenes with Gordon Buchanan while filming The Gorilla Family & Me

Join Gordon and the BBC film crew with the warden, rangers and trackers on the trail of siverback Chimanuka’s family. You could also spread some more Christmas cheer and continue being a part of Chimanuka and Mugaruka’s wild story by adopting the gorillas through Born Free Foundation.

You can adopt the pair (I have!) and receive a personalised adoption certificate, photo, cuddly toy gorilla, the pair’s full story and regular updates about the gorillas; courtesy of Adopt! magazine. To find out how, click here.

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To learn more about Gorilla Safari VR visit: http://www.bornfree.org.uk/news/news-article/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=2394 

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Taking the lions’ share: Cecil the lion’s legacy

CITES 2016 has drawn to a close. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora held its 17th meeting in Johannesburg over the last month, and the conference — heralded as the most critical meeting in its 43-year history — delivered some surprising results.

Good news for pangolins (the most trafficked wildlife species, owing to their scales being used in traditional Asian medicine), who were uplisted to receive Appendix 1 protection, i.e. a total ban on international trade except for non-commercial import, such as scientific research.

A mixed result for elephants, as although they were not uplisted to Appendix 1, further talks to open the case for legalising the sale of ivory were quickly closed down, with parties unanimously voting to prevent a decision making mechanism for future trade.
cites-bannerI have previously written about the debate surrounding rhino horn, and, happily, CITES parties rejected Swaziland’s request to trade in white rhino horn, which to me was supported simply to allow rhino farmers to profit from long collected stockpiles of horns.

But in this Born Free Foundation’s Year of the Lion, I was particularly tuned in to the plight of lions. In the lead up to CITES, there were calls for the 182 Member Countries to uplist lions to Appendix 1, which would effectively ban all commercial international trade in lions and parts and products derived from them, and place far greater restrictions on the trophy hunting industry.

Instead of Appendix 1, however, a compromise agreement was reached banning only the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions. Therefore, those coming from captive-bred lions can still be legally sold — which means the export of trophies from lion hunting, or canned hunting, remains legal.

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I must admit, I’m shocked at this decision, not just because of the all PR that the shocking practice of trophy hunting received via Cecil’s story, but because the population numbers of lions speak for themselves.

In 1900, there were as many as 1 million lions across Africa; today there are thought to be less than 20,000 wild lions across the whole continent. There are fewer than 2,000 wild lions left in Kenya, only 2,800 in South Africa, and numbers have declined 66% in 15 years in Tanzania.

When reasoning that both elephants and rhinos are wildly recognised as under threat, and their population numbers are at 40,000 [wild elephants] and 25,000 [wild rhinos] across Africa, it seems crazy to think that lion numbers are at 20,000 individuals, and yet hunters are still invited to kill thousands every year and vast tracts are reserved for hunting.

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The species is under so much pressure that — in a silver lining to the CITES outcome — Botswana announced it would voluntarily treat its lions as though the Appendix 1 vote had been approved; making trade in all lion parts illegal within the country. The Environment Minister of Botswana, The Honourable Tsekedi Khama, released a statement during CITES, before the plight of the lions was formally discussed saying:

Botswana currently hosts a fair number of lions and we have made a conscious decision that we will not entertain holding any captive carnivores in the country. And the decision was made because it just becomes a habit, an easy area of trade. The more we don’t manage and protect our wildlife, the more they are subject to abuse. My concern is that if we don’t uplist lions to Appendix 1 we run a very real risk of lions eventually being hunted and traded as body parts by unscrupulous people around the world, into extinction.”

The thing that struck a chord with me the most from his statement is the idea that Botswana will not have any captive carnivores within their country. I recently read an interview with Born Free Foundation President Will Travers in Geographical Magazine in which he suggested that wild lions, as we might traditionally think of them; roaming free within protected areas, stalking their prey, etc. could be entirely replaced with lions that exist within fenced areas where every aspect of their lives is intensively managed.

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Within the same interview, Travers seemed to have forecast the outcome of CITES 2016; in explaining that the conference does not concern itself with conservation threats, such as habitat fragmentation, conflict resolution or loss of prey base — it can only apply itself to the impacts of international trade. “There isn’t enough evidence that international trade is the threat”, Travers is quoted as saying, “As we see lion populations decline, so we’re seeing trade in lion parts and derivatives, both legal and illegal, going up significantly from both wild and captive-bred lions.”

After CITES

Looking ahead, I’m interested in knowing what we can do to help protect and preserve lions in the wild, as they should be, between now and the next CITES meeting in 2019. I interviewed lion expert Brent Stapelkamp, who spent nearly a decade working on the Hwange Lion Research Project with the University of Oxford’s WildCRU and whose study subjects included the now infamous Cecil the lion.

Brent saw Cecil the lion’s killing as a chance to talk about conservation efforts to tackle the many threats that lions face, and with a small team of equally passionate individuals, re-visited a concept born 15 years ago, by chimpanzee expert Dr NishidaWorld Heritage Species.

The concept is for UNESCO to create World Heritage Species in the way that it establishes World Heritage Sites for areas of historical significance and/or outstanding natural beauty. “Basically, it’s a global recognition that lions have been too much part of our evolutionary and cultural history to lose,” he explained, “and for that recognition to be used to protect them and generate the massive international funding needed to save their landscapes.”

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It would mean “hands off, this animal belongs to the world and is too precious for a select few to hunt or appreciate,” Brent added. “A long lasting sense that at least somethings are sacred.”

The advantage to investing in an apex predator like a lion is that they are an umbrella species and their survival will mean the survival of their prey and habitats too.

The Cecil legacy

I asked Brent what he thought it was about Cecil, who he had tracked for years, that captured the world’s attention when he was hunted. Cecil had been radio-tracked and studied by Oxford University’s team since 2008 as part of a long-term wild lion research project. But he was lured away from the protection of Hwange National Park, shot by a bow and arrow and reportedly died 40 hours later.

“Cecil’s demise was not a unique event and indeed I saw maybe a dozen such hunts during my decade. I think what made it “blow up” was that those that work around here, be they safari guides, lodge owners or researcher, just said enough is enough. Not again! This hunt was the straw that broke the donkeys back and a lot of people worked very hard to make sure the story saw the light of day. The world just needed to hear it and the rest was, I believe, a natural manifestation around the global attachment to lions.”

The sentiment of this was recently echoed by Mark Jones, Associate Director of Wildlife Policy at Born Free Foundation, who is quoted as saying: “until very recently, everybody seemed to think that there were loads of lions in Africa. What the Cecil incident did was bring to people’s consciousness the reality that these animals are actually being shot by rich Westerners paying lots of money”.

Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion

Several countries have been inspired to take significant action since Cecil’s death. France announced a ban on lion trophy imports in November 2015, and in April 2016, The Netherlands announced a ban on the import of hunting trophies from around 200 species, including lions. In January 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added lions to the Endangered Species Act, making it more difficult for American lion trophy hunters to ship their trophies home.

But even Cecil’s story is not without its conflict amongst conservationists. Stapelkamp explained in our conversation that it was common practice to name their study subjects at Oxford. “It was based on the fact that it was easy to speak about Cecil or Jericho than MAGM1 or GUVbM2; their database identities. Guides and members of the public wouldn’t know what you were on about. We enjoyed naming them too. Some had a lot to do with each personality of the story behind them.”

The concept of naming animals has always divided opinion. Renowned ecologist and lion expert, Craig Packer finds the whole idea of naming lions bizarre. “Normally lions are called things like MH3T or lion LGB,” he said in a recent Guardian article.

“The Cecil story tells me that we, as a species, can only show empathy with individual organisms.”

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

But nonetheless, Cecil’s story has helped Packer to lobby the US and EU for control of trophy imports, and he has asked the EU to take into account the corruption in Tanzania and consider banning all trophies from there.

The canned hunting dilemma

“The hunting industry is scared to death they’ll lose the lion.” This sentence, said by Craig Packer at the 2004 CITES conference — where he argued against animal welfare groups that trophy hunting has an indisputable impact on population numbers of wild lions — pretty much sums up the conflict that prevents lions from gaining Appendix 1 CITES protection.

“While your arguments may be flawed, I agree that trophy hunters should be kept on a tight leash.” He reportedly added, back at that 2004 meeting.

Packer, who has since been banned from entering Tanzania for speaking out against corruption in the trophy hunting industry, first went there to study baboons with legendary primatologist Jane Goodall. Since then, he has dedicated his life to study lions.

His book, Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns, reflects on studies of lions carried out to see whether the trophy hunting industry harms the local populations with its continuous removal of adult males: causing frequent takeovers and infanticide (killing of other males’ cubs) by replacement males, who in turn live only until the next hunting season, and are then shot and replaced themselves.

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He champions regulating hunting using a minimum age (a male should be at least 6 years old before it is hunted) instead of quotas. “In the long term, there is no conflict between business and conservation,” he writes in his book. “Lions are like a crop. Look after them properly, and you can harvest more of them, making lots more money. Just be patient and let the lions grow up.”

To me personally, the exploitation of lions in this way leaves the door open to the same amount of animal welfare issues, as selling off rhino horn stocks and farming rhinos. But Packer believes hunting could provide the best incentive for conserving vast tracks of land.

This is something that Born Free’s Mark Jones has drawn attention to, citing in Geographical Magazine that we don’t understand animal populations well enough to understand what the value of an individual is to its population — regardless of its breeding age — as breeding isn’t the only thing that social animals, like elephants and lions, bring to their population.

He also argues against giving value to trophy hunting outfitters, as he believes that land management will inevitably then prioritise providing trophies over benefiting wider biodiversity — which is essentially what the entire ‘canned hunting’ industry is (i.e. shooting lions in the ‘can’; enclosed areas of unregulated conditions).

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Packer, at a recent event I attended at the Royal Geographical Society in London, also confessed to having seen photos of lion farms where conditions are ‘far below the reasonable minimum standard’.  “Whatever you think of someone who pays to shoot a lion,” he said, “the conditions those lions are kept in have no regulation and should have a minimum standard.”

Even though Packer doesn’t agree that trophy hunting has to necessarily impact the population of wild lions, he does suggest that the hunting industry greatly exaggerates its ‘positive’ impact on wildlife conservation, stating that ‘hunters lie’.

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 “A lot of clients head off into the bush believing that their $50,000 will save the world — when in fact virtually none of that money goes to conservation and the true costs of conservation are far higher.”

According to Mark Jones, the actual data suggests that only around 3% of the money generated by trophy hunting  actually ends up at the community level for development. During one area of Craig Packer’s research, he surveyed 26 villages from Mount Kilimanjaro to the shores of Lake Victoria, and found almost no benefits to local communities from either ecotourism or trophy hunting.

Other threats to the African lion

Canned hunting isn’t the only threat that lions face. Habitat loss has caused the numbers of traditional ‘lion prey’ — herbivores such as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo — to drop by as much as 52% in East Africa, and 85% in West Central Africa.

As prey becomes harder to find, some lions have instead turned to preying on livestock, which can have a major impact on small-scale African farmers. To these people, cattle can represent a life’s savings — creating a direct human-lion conflict, which often leads on to retaliatory killing.

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Packer has encountered lions poisoned with rat poison as intolerance grows. The people poisoning the lions live in fear, or hatred, as the predators have eaten their husbands, wives or children.

As a result, he favours the South African system of conservation, with wildlife effectively kept behind fences and strict regulation. Indeed he ‘unwild’ wild that Will Travers predicted may be the future for the African Lion. “It may feel controlled and over-managed, but it works”, Packer says “and people do not get killed.”

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Solutions

After viewing the issue from all angles, it seems that over the next few years, there will be tough times ahead for Africa’s most iconic predator. “I do think that academia sometimes gets lost within itself and the production of papers, etc. can distract from conservation work,” Stapelkamp contemplates, “that has to be guarded against”.

He has set up a new initiative, The Soft Foot Alliance trust with wife Laurie to help mitigate conflict between man and lion, hyena, elephant, baboon and honey-badger. The aim is to improve local people’s everyday lives with conservation outcomes cleverly designed into each action.

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The positive is that even scientists who remain at odds in their approach ultimately reach a very similar solution. Brent and the World Heritage Species initiative position themselves as neither an organisation, nor an NGO (non-governmental organisation, i.e. non-profit, or charity), but a grass roots, ‘citizen campaign’ and believes that NGOs, such as the Born Free Foundation and research scientists, like Packer can successfully work together under a common goal, like the WHS movement.

“Unless we find a common direction we speak different languages and aim for different targets, and to be quite frank, we can’t afford to waste time anymore.”

Even Packer, who has expressed that ‘animal groups tend to seem religious’, concedes “There are two sides to every argument and both sides are right on certain points.”

“The wider solution is for the world to recognise that the great African wildlife reserves are true world heritage sites and that their protection should be paid out of global funds. They are world treasures yet UNESCO gives no money – there’s no revenue at all. A lot of people have been duped into thinking that just by being a tourist or a hunter, it is enough. It’s not.”

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If you want to sign the petition that calls on the United Nations to establish a World Heritage Species program, you can do so HERE. Keep up-to-date with WHS by following them on Facebook.

Learn more about CITES 2016

Want to know more about CITES 2016?

Want to hear more on Cecil’s story?