Sunday, June 1, 2014

Tears for Mountain Bull, the face of conservation

Mountain Bull, the intelligent elephant that was speared by poachers in Mount Kenya in early May. PHOTO / LEWA CONSERVANCY

Mountain Bull, the intelligent elephant that was speared by poachers in Mount Kenya in early May. PHOTO / LEWA CONSERVANCY  

By VERAH OKEYO
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Naughty, adventurous, sensitive and loyal; these are unlikely adjectives to use when referring to an animal, but for Kenya’s most famous — some would say infamous — elephant, that word-painting effort is scant.

For the lucky few who had the honour of meeting Mountain Bull, a massive elephant that patrolled Laikipia and Meru with elephantine gusto and pride, words, no matter how colourful, will always do a great disservice to the seven-tonne beast that became the face of Kenya’s conservation efforts.

Today, however, Mountain Bull is no more. He was aged 46 when a poacher’s spear felled him mid last month deep inside Mt Kenya Forest, becoming yet another tragic example of what happens when human greed meets the defenceless wild.

Mike Watson, the Chief Executive of the Lewa Conservancy, is a devastated man. He has known Mountain Bull for a long time, and he knows that, with his death, the plains here would be the poorer.

'REMARKABLE ANIMAL'

“He was a remarkable animal,” says Watson. “A remarkable animal that taught the human kind a lot…. It was difficult not to become attached to him.”

And many at the 62,000-acre conservancy did indeed get attached to Mountain Bull. Adan Thapicha, a ranger here, was so fond of the animal that, when he received news of its demise, memories of their interactions, fights and battles came flooding, reducing him to such an emotional wreck that he could not hold back his tears.

He had thought that the worst was behind Mountain Bull, that, even though humans had encroached on the animal’s habitat, there was no ready danger to it.

For decades, the stubborn elephant had refused to change the migratory route introduced to it all those years ago, and even though that bullheadedness had rubbed many the wrong way, Mountain Bull had survived their wrath and somehow managed to traverse the expansive plains at the foot of the majestic Mt Kenya.

A nocturnal creature, he often barged through high-voltage fences and braved gunshots to reach the dense forests on the Meru side of the mountain, his path often carved through farmlands.

SPECIAL HOBBY

His fellow elephants, with time, found this journey too treacherous to maintain and carved alternative paths to their Canaan, but Mountain Bull remained obdurately focused on the paths of his ancestors, his complete and wholehearted obeisance to the migratory patterns of those who had gone before him earning him the attention of the country’s zoologists and conservationists.

“Mountain Bull’s hobby was breaking electric fences,” says John Pameri, a security officer at Lewa.

Barging through an electric fence, however, does not make a lot of sense, because the reason that fence is electrified in the first place is to shock the ignorance out of the animal.

But Mountain Bull found a way of beating the clever human beings at their own game when he discovered that he could use his non-conducting, keratinous tusks to beat the system.

“He would roll his trunks close to his mouth,” explains Mr Pameri, “all the while very careful not to let it come into contact with the wires.”

Watson philosophises: “I think he decided he was not going to make way for human beings to create more barriers in a land that was rightfully animals. Regardless of what was in front of him, he was not going to change his path.”

EARLIER ATTEMPT ON HIS LIFE

He had survived an attempt on his life before, probably for his tusks, that left eight bullets lodged in his body. Soon after, he took time off his wild antics to recuperate from the injuries, but he came out of the experience with a steely resolve to defend his home and heritage.

However, fight as he may, it was clear that he was losing the battle to humans, who were endowed with smarter brains that could fashion weapons to augment their tiny and feeble bodies.

The baboons colonised the kopjes of Meru and Laikipia, using them as hiding places from the outstretched hands of scavenging humans, but all Mountain Bull and his family had were just smooth tusks that, other than being their defences against man, were also that man’s biggest attraction to their herds.

But tusks do not deflect bullets, so conservationists stepped in to save him and his ilk. They built a specially designed underpass for the animals on the Nanyuki-Meru road to reduce conflict with humans — cameras fitted on the underpass would later show Mountain Bull leading other elephants through the safe passage — and then, in 2012, decided to make the massive jumbo less attractive to the human eye by sawing off a third of its tusks.

It worked; in two ways. First, no poacher thought the animal was worth a bullet or spear, and that de-horning made the bull rudderless when it came to barging through fences. He was, therefore, effortlessly confined inside the conservancy.

TRACKING DEVICE

Everyone seems to have relaxed; the bull was safe and dull, they thought. It turns out they were wrong. Sometime in 2006, Save the Elephant, a conservation organisation that focuses on elephants, had fitted a GPS-GSM collar on Mountain Bull to track his hyperactivity using satellite technology.

That piece of technology was the one that, mid last month, alerted Lewa co-founder Ian Craig to the possibility that Mountain Bull was in trouble.

When the tracking device went immobile for eight days on their screens, Craig felt a tight knot in his stomach. A sense of foreboding engulfed him, the thought of losing this most famous resident too hard to bear.

Those fears were confirmed to him in the most brutal way when a search team found Mountain Bull’s lifeless body deep inside Lewa, what had remained of his tusks carved out using an axe.

Stories have been told of how, in their hurry to escape their crime scenes, poachers hack off tusks even before their victims breathe their last, and the struggle here pointed to that possibility.

The animal had suffered multiple spear wounds, but even though the weapons might have been poisoned, Mountain Bull would most probably have taken a couple of minutes to die.

BRUTAL JOB

A struggle may have ensued as he fought to save himself, but man will always have an upper hand in these circumstances, and so several axe blows to the skull as the attackers hacked out the tusks did the dirty, brutal job.

Upon learning of his death, Rebecca Sargen, a member of Save the Elephant, blogged emotionally: “Rest in peace Mountain Bull, you will be missed.”

The place where the bull met its death raised questions about the militarised nature of poaching in Kenya: Mountain Bull had a GPS-GSM collar on his neck for eight years and had lived in the confines of the Mt Kenya National Park, an animal shelter with a World Heritage Site status, all that time; so how could poachers sneak in and out so effortlessly?

For conservationists, that remains a mystery to date. What they are sure of, however, is that Mountain Bull found himself in the middle of a complex ecological system characterised by scarcity of resources and vicious survival wars.

He almost won the battle with ecology, but poachers were waiting on the other side, their spears and axes at the ready.

The unwanted guests of Laikipia

It is not clear where Mountain Bull was born, but a collection of wildlife research and the works of award-winning photographers Tui De Roy and Mark Jones places his roots in northern Kenya in the 1970s, from where he and his family moved to Laikipia.

In their book The Landscapes: Wildlife and People of Kenya’s High Country, Laikipia, Roy and Jones combine the works of renowned wildlife researchers, such as Dr Rosie Woodroofe and Antony Kingnote, to describe the habitat where Mountain Bull lived.

The felled animal was the last to make it through an increasing barrage of intensive farming in this part of the country which is slowly blocking wildlife from accessing Mount Kenya, their mating ground and saving grace during dry spells.

Mountain Bull and his family, many believe, were driven to Laikipia from their home in northern Kenya by poachers from Somalia, who financed their Shifta War through illegal ivory trade.

But Laikipia and Meru are highly populated regions compared to the semi-arid north, so their stay here was not welcome either. Residents regarded this massive migration as an intrusion into their lands, and so they started to fight off the animals.

The elephants, a naturally highly destructive species that smashes down trees and eats five per cent of its body weight, did not make their stay here any easier either. As their population grew, farmers made a lot of noise about losing a year of hard work of farming to 10 minutes of a jumbo visit.

The Kenya Wildlife Service would intervene every now and then, but not to the satisfaction of the residents here. That is why such conservancies as Lewa and the forests of Mt Kenya were carved out as safe havens for these animals. Mountain Bull, once again, was free to be naughty, to roam and be all that he could be... until poachers hit.

The world must unite against this ‘wildicide’

Readers reacted angrily to the first story of the demise of Mountain Bull, which was published by the Daily Nation on May 17 this year.

Correspondent James Ngunjiri reported that many had credited the elephant for being the force behind the construction of the pioneering elephant corridor stretching from Mt Kenya through Lewa and onwards north into the wide expanse of Samburu, connecting the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the Ngare Ndare Forest Trust to Mt Kenya.

Lewa Chief Conservation Officer Geoffrey Chege said this had led to the opening up of the traditional migratory route of over 2,000 African elephants that had previously been blocked by human development in Mt Kenya.

Here, a call to action, as posted on www.nation.co.ke by our readers from around the world:

Kibetosh: All the hype about protecting our wildlife is just hot air. The truth is that terrorists and poachers are having a field day in a country where security apparatus are so eaten up by the cancer of corruption that it is impossible to tell what proportion of them are clean and are not part of the criminals ravaging this country. The whole thing does not make sense, the country has literally been held hostage by druglords, terrorists and poachers while all we hear is “investigations are on-going” as we wait for the next blast or story about more endangered species that have fallen prey to poachers. The world should sanction all countries that deal with components of the endangered species, China being the first.

Sura Mbaya: If Lewa cannot protect its elephants, no one can. They are well organised, have top-notch financial and technical resources, excellent management and a passion for conservation. The only way you get around all that is insider involvement.

Weihan Xingqi: The slaughter of these magnificent, wonderful animals for their ivory is utterly heinous and should be punished with on-the-spot executions of anyone who buys or sells ivory. And what, pray, is the Kenyan government really doing to protect these animals? Only a complete dictatorship of sanity can stop this vilest form of madness!

Wn2007: If we could not guard this special animal, how can we guard all the others? What a horrible thing to do to Mountain Bull. My heart has sunk over our wildlife!

Martt Denja: Poachers and terrorists are having their way as the police nab drunkards and tinted private cars with great efficiency.

OSaak Olumwullah: If nothing else, this must be the turning point in our war against poachers, against ‘wildcide’. From Vanga in the South Coast to Mambrui in the North Coast, from Mombasa to Busia, Isebania to Wajir, Cape Town to Cairo, Mogadishu to Lagos, Sydney to Reykjavik and from Beijing to San (Francisco), this is a call to arms, a call to a total and complete war against poachers and against the market that sustains this utterly reprehensible act against Kenya’s heritage.

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