Animal lover walks the talk in campaign to save elephants

Sunday July 28 2013

PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI Jim Nyamu (left) and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta (centre) join conservationists in ‘Ivory Belongs to Elephant’ walk in Nyeri on June 25, 2013.

PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI Jim Nyamu (left) and First Lady Margaret Kenyatta (centre) join conservationists in ‘Ivory Belongs to Elephant’ walk in Nyeri on June 25, 2013. NATION MEDIA GROUP

By CARLOS MUREITHI [email protected]

It is said that the average person will walk about 160,934.4 kilometres in a lifetime. Jim Nyamu, a conservationist, has already walked 1,500 km over 64 days, and he is set to walk even more in his quest to raise awareness on the plight of elephants and wildlife at large.

It all began last year under the theme “Ivory belongs to elephants”, and Nyamu’s walkabout consisted two legs: the first was from Mombasa to Nairobi and the second was from the Maasai Mara Game Reserve to different parts of the country, then back to Nairobi.

“Through my organisation, Elephant Neighbours Centre, I planned a celebration of Elephants Awareness and Appreciation Day on September 22 at the Galleria Mall in Nairobi,” Nyamu told the Sunday Nation.

He had taken part in a similar event in Tanzania. So last September he showed videos, distributed pamphlets and talked with the people who stopped by. This way, he realised that Kenyans do not know much about wildlife, and even less so what protecting animals entails.

He, therefore, decided to walk to create awareness on the plight of wildlife in Kenya. “I talked to my friends and some agreed to walk with me from Mombasa to Nairobi,” he said.

Dressed in khaki shorts, a T-shirt and sport shoes and carrying a walking stick, the 38-year-old set out on foot from Mombasa on February 9 for the 14-day trek to Nairobi. Ironically he followed the same route taken by ivory and slave hunters in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Although Kenya banned sport hunting in 1977, poaching greatly reduced the country’s elephant population in the 1980s. And although the menace reduced in the 90s, it has resurfaced over the last few years, forcing the government and conservationists to take drastic measures to protect the jumbo.

According to the Kenya Wildlife Service statistics, Kenya’s elephant population was reduced from 167,000 in 1973 to 20,000 in 1989 due to increase in ivory trade. As a result of the ivory trade ban in 1989 and increased security efforts by KWS, which was established in 1990, poaching levels went down.

KWS says that the elephant population of Kenya by 2010 was estimated at around 35,000 and increasing at the time.
Despite international agreements banning the sale of ivory — with certain exceptions — poaching has again become a major threat to Kenya’s elephants and rhinos.

Poaching has risen from 177 elephants felled by poachers two years ago to 384 last year.

Conservationists say that poaching has especially been driven up by insatiable appetite for game trophies in Asian countries.
During his trek, Nyamu would wake up at 5a.m. and begin walking at 6 a.m. His first rest would be at noon and then he would continue until he clocked 35 km. He would retire to his tent at 9p.m.

Every day, his six-person backup team would fold their tents and drive on to the next shopping centre where they would drum up interest among local residents by telling them about Nyamu’s quest and the importance of wildlife.

“By the time I would get there, they would be anticipating my arrival and I would carry the conversation forward,” he said.

And the residents would tell him what they thought about elephants and what they thought conservationists were doing wrong.

On Saturday, February 23, Nyamu and his entourage reached Nairobi after covering the distance of 500 km. But he felt there was more to be done.

Even though his resources were limited, he decided to cover another 1,000 km in the Rift Valley and northern and eastern Kenya.

Rearing to go

If he had been up to it, he said, he would have gone as far as Pokot and Baragoi “where poaching is done seriously”.

He began the second leg of his journey in the Maasai Mara on May 11 and walked to Mai Mahiu, Nakuru, Nyahururu, Ng’arua, Sipiri, Subuta, Maralal, Kisima, Mwamba, Laisamis, Marsabit, Isiolo, Nanyuki, Meru, Tharaka-Nithi, Embu, Kirinyaga Nyeri and Thika, returning to Nairobi on June 29.

In Nyeri, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta joined him to walk five kilometres from Mt Kenya Academy, where both addressed students, to Mt Kenya Bottlers.

“If the First Family is committed to wildlife conservation, shouldn’t everyone be?” he asked.

Several encounters made a strong impression on him.

“When I was at Archer’s Post, one poacher surrendered. He came and said he had stopped poaching,” Nyamu said, expressing his wish that the Kenya Wildlife Service would declare a two-month amnesty during which poachers could hand over ivory to authorities.

When Nyamu was still in the Mara, he talked to a group of local people about why killing rhinos for their horns and elephants for their ivory would end up hurting their livelihoods. Later a woman approached him and handed over a necklace made partly of ivory.

“It gave me encouragement,” he said.

The previous night, another woman who thought Nyamu was a tourist approached him with the intention of selling him souvenirs made of ivory from an animal she said she had killed. “I could tell it wasn’t ivory but bones,” he said. “Nevertheless, before I began my walk the following day, I called the women from the area and told them how dangerous it is to kill wild animals.”

When he was giving a talk in Samburu, some old men challenged the community’s young people to protect elephants.

“If one person has to come all the way from Nairobi for the sake of elephant conservation, then there is a problem,” Nyamu recalled one man saying.

But not everything was inspirational. He had a rough time with the heat in the coastal areas, and he developed 15 blisters on his feet on the walk to Nairobi.

In addition, he suffered headaches for the better part of two weeks on the second leg of the trek and had back problems, especially in Samburu due to what he said were loose stones on the road. But all along he was documenting his walk on Facebook and Twitter.

Nyamu was born in Kangema, Murang’a, and developed an interest in wildlife when he was in Class 8.

“My uncle brought me a copy of Komba Magazine,” Nyamu said, referring to the publication of the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya that inspired him to get into animal conservation.

He joined Ichichi Secondary School in 1993, but it didn’t have a wildlife club.

“I requested friends to join me and share my vision, and by third term we had a club, a patron, and had even managed to get people from Nairobi to come and teach us what wildlife conservation is all about,” he said.

Love for wildlife

Because of his work with the club, he got a scholarship to study wildlife management at College of Wildlife Management in Mweka, Tanzania, where he was from 1997 to 2000.

Before he completed his studies, he joined KWS in 1998 as a research assistant in their elephant programme until 2004 when he left to become a research scientist at the Africa Conservation Centre when he implemented a cross-border elephant project on the Kenya-Tanzania Border.

He resigned seven years later to start his own initiative, the Elephant Neighbours Centre, “in order to work with young people in conservation”.

The centre is dedicated to the conservation of wildlife, and its work is based on three pillars: conservation and research, community education and advocacy, and community-based natural resource and management. It also collaborates with KWS and other like-minded institutions.

But why elephants?

“Because they are the keystone species,” said the married father of two.

This means that elephants have a disproportionately large effect on their environment relative to their numbers. Nyamu calls elephants a flagship group in that they speak for all other animals.

In his journey, he had occasion to talk about issues related to animal-human conflict especially lions and snakes in some communities.

“What became clear to me,” he said, “is that generally Kenyans don’t like wild animals. They live with dogs, for example, but don’t associate or feel like they own wild animals. We need to talk about the value of wild animals.”

In his native Kikuyu language, nyamu means animal. “My great-grandfather’s name was Kamau. But people called him ‘Nyamu’ because he had a big piece of land where there were many monkeys. They would refer to it as “This land of Kamau of animals”.

Nyamu is set to go on more walks in the coming months. “In September, I’ll walk for 300 km within Switzerland, then 2,700 km from Kampala to Dar es Salaam in October, 400 km in California in December and next year, a yet-to-be determined distance in China,” he said.

Last week, Environment Cabinet Secretary Judy Wakhungu warned that poachers are set to receive heavier penalties as government and other stakeholders step up efforts to protect diminishing elephant populations due to rampant poaching.

The Bill proposes a fine of up to Sh5 million and 15 years in jail for offenders.

A film, “Battle for the Elephants,” premiered in the country on Friday at the Sankara Hotel unearthing the elaborate trade in wildlife trophies, both in China and Kenya’s ports and airports. Film director John Heminay said their undercover work took them to major Chinese cities and also the port of Mombasa.