Garth Owen-Smith (1944–2020) – A great tree has fallen

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Education, Fundraising No Comments
Daily Maverick | April 14, 2020

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Garth Owen-Smith, who died of cancer on Saturday 11 April 2020, was one of the wisest people I have known. My chats with him long into the night sitting around fires in the great stillness of the Namib Desert guided me along the sometimes treacherous paths of African conservation.

The first time I met Garth Owen-Smith was in 1983. I was a young newspaper correspondent based in Windhoek covering the bush war in Namibia for the SAAN Morning Group of newspapers, including the Cape Times and Rand Daily Mail. It was over morning coffee at Café Schneider. A tall, skinny, softly spoken, bearded man wearing faded jeans, a khaki shirt and Swakopmund kudu-skin veldskoen with no socks walked up.

“People tell me you’re not scared of the apartheid government,” he said. “Do you want to come to the Kaokoveld?”


Original image as posted by The Daily Maverick: Conservationist Garth Owen-Smith. (Photo: John Ledger)

That was the start of a friendship, and (I like to think, anyway) a mentorship that continued for nearly 40 years, until his death from cancer early on Saturday, 11 April 2020. His long-time partner and collaborator, Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, emailed me on February 20 to tell me he wasn’t well, that the cancer had spread. I emailed back: “I’m not sure if he knows this, but the conversations he and I had around fires in the Kaokoveld back in 1983/4 and later were what shaped my own conservation and environmental philosophy, and have done so ever since, particularly on community-based conservation. In conversations, I always cite him as the most influential person on my thinking.”

Garth’s uniform of faded jeans or khaki longs, khaki shirts and kudu skin vellies seldom changed, except when he had to reluctantly uproot himself from the bush to attend conferences, meetings with government officials, or to fly off to international award ceremonies.

In December 2015, Garth pulled off what must be a world first – he wore a pair of Swakopmund kudu-skin vellies to Kensington Palace to meet the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William. He and Margie were in London at the Tusk Awards to receive the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa.

In 1993, he and Margie flew to San Francisco to receive conservation’s equivalent of the Nobel, the Goldman Prize. In the video of his acceptance speech, he is clearly wearing kudu-skin boots. The Goldman organisation’s video tribute to him and Margie is memorable.

The Goldman citation reads in part: “Garth Owen-Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn pioneered a natural resource management program that links Namibian wildlife conservation to sustainable rural development, which has since become a model for wildlife conservation throughout Africa… Together, Owen-Smith and Jacobsohn have brought reason for hope and optimism in rural Namibia: most wildlife species have increased in the northwest Kunene region and in Caprivi, in the northeast of Namibia, poaching is being brought under control with major input from community-appointed game guards.”

Garth was rightly regarded as being the father of on-the-ground community-based conservation in Africa. After that first coffee at Windhoek’s Café Schneider, we travelled together to Namibia’s remote north-western Kaokoveld on an anti-poaching patrol, starting from his isolated base in Damaraland, Wêreldsend. It was the beginning of my real environmental education. Garth was the finest naturalist I have known, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of his landscape and its inhabitants.

Despite never getting a formal degree (he abandoned both attempts, one in agriculture, one in zoology), he was widely recognised both in academia and in conservation circles as a world expert in his field and a posthumous honorary doctorate would not be misplaced.

On that first journey, we spent hours around the fire at night, Garth talking of his vision, me scribbling notes by the firelight, often with hyenas whooping in the background, or the distant roar of a – at that time – rare desert-adapted lion.

We were headed through the Marienfluss to Otjinungwa on the banks of the Kunene River, where Garth stood crocodile watch with a loaded shotgun as I fished for supper. By then we had eaten the two live goats we had traded for bundles of rough Purros tobacco along the way, and which travelled for miles with us, bleating on the back of Garth’s Land Rover.

We saw only one other vehicle in nearly a month’s travel, the faded drab green Land Rover Series IIA shortie driven by the late Blythe Loutit, who founded the Save The Rhino Trust.

The Kaokoveld is a place of endless vistas across lichen-covered gravel plains, of rich grasslands that stand shoulder high after good rains, of soaring mountains in an astonishing number of shades of red, black and dark brown. It is a harsh land where conservation victories have been won in small increments, a place so empty the emptiness starts to move.

We scored two small victories on that journey. There were almost no tracks in the wilderness back then, and when we came across fresh vehicle spoor, we followed it. We picked up fresh tracks (they last forever on the lichen plains) just south of the Marienfluss and followed them to a recent bush camp on the banks of a dry river. “I know those tyres,” Garth said, “they belong to (a butcher from a small town not far from Etosha). He’s really stupid, but a nasty piece of work, in with the local cops and military.”

We began searching the campsite for clues, kicking over the fire, with Garth’s assistant and interpreter, Elias Tjondu, an expert tracker, casting about for any tell-tale spoor. Behind a dead log that had been dragged up to the fire to serve as a bench, a flash of familiar red and yellow half-hidden, a roll of exposed Kodak film.

Garth had the film developed, there were photographs of the butcher with his prizes – gemsbok, zebra, and a black rhino. Armed with the evidence, Garth laid charges. But this was war-time Namibia, the butcher was an influential white man in a frontline town, he was friends with the police, the magistrate, the nature conservation officials, a reservist in the local commando. He got away with a slap on the wrist – but it was a good warning to the band of white hunters who had until then regarded the Kaokoveld as their happy hunting ground.

The second small victory was gained after we had negotiated our way across what has now become a notorious challenge for 4×4 adventurers, Van Zyl’s Pass, but what was then just another part of the track, and down to the village of Etanga. There Garth was trying to woo the headman of the Orupembe district, Vetamuna Tjambiru, into joining the community game guard and conservation scheme he was patiently stitching together. Garth was a master negotiator, patient, respectful, informed.

Around the fire, Garth had taught me about Himba customs and taboos: whenever we arrived at a new village, our first ritual was to place a stone on the graves of the ancestors as a sign of respect. The second was to never cross between the chief’s hut and the sacred mopani fire which is kept burning in perpetuity.

The fire symbolises a living link between the present and the past, between those still alive and the spirits of the ancestors. Allowing it to die is an insult to the ancestors, and a severing of links to the spirit world. It was this link that was vital in the wooing of Chief Vetamuna Tjambiru.

I have an old Kodachrome slide of Garth and Chief Vetamuna Tjambiru sitting under the shade of a giant acacia albida, an ana tree. The chief is leaning forward, his chin on his walking stick as he talks. I wrote down his words as Elias translated: “When I see the wild animals, my heart is happy, they are like my children, my cattle. When there are no wild animals, my heart is sad. It is as though the graves of my ancestors have been destroyed, my sacred fire extinguished.”

It was a big breakthrough, a vital cog in establishing a network of community-based wildlife conservation projects that today underpins Namibia’s entire wildlife philosophy.

Back then, Garth was waging an almost single-handed low-intensity war against the apartheid-era Namibian authorities who treated wild areas and the wildlife as their own personal property, and had complete disdain for local, black communities.

Poaching was rampant. Some of it was survival hunting by local subsistence hunters, but there were also organised rhino horn syndicates at work, some operating out of the military and the police.

Garth was intensely disliked by the apartheid authorities, who saw him as a subversive and a sympathiser with the Swapo guerilla movement. At one stage, he was banned from entering the Kaokoveld because he was “a security risk”. And he was a subversive, but not in the way that they believed – he was simply a humanist with a strong liberal philosophy who passionately believed that local communities owned their wildlife, as opposed to the view of the white authorities, who saw them as a primitive obstacle.

He had no official funding and survived off occasional grants and remittances from organisations like the far-sighted Endangered Wildlife Trust. He was on the bones of his arse. He drove a battered Series III Land Rover with tyres that were through to the canvas. When we visited we would take along whatever we could manage to scrounge. His own binoculars were a battered pair of old Pentaxes with one eye cup missing. I felt embarrassed to own a new pair of Nikons.

By late 1984, I was also “stringing” – in media terms, someone on the ground with local knowledge who contributes information and reports, seldom bylined – for among others, Newsweek and The New York Times. The Times asked me to “help facilitate” a visit to Namibia by one of their correspondents, Jane Perlez, and her partner who was writing for The New Yorker, Raymond Bonner (both went on to win Pulitzers).

I had leave due, so offered to take them on a trip to Damaraland and the Kaokoveld, and to spend time in the field with Garth. There was one proviso – I didn’t want a fee, but had a shopping list of goods. Thus it was that Perlez and Bonner filed one of their more unusual expense accounts – two 750×16 Land Rover tyres; four steel jerry cans, filled with petrol; a Land Rover starter motor; a case of bully beef; two sleeping bags and a tent (donated to the game guards after their short use); and a pair of new binoculars.

Partly based on his experiences in the Kaokoveld and his many conversations with Garth, Bonner went on to write a controversial, and ground-breaking book on African conservation, “At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife”.

Much has, and much will be written about the life and times of Garth Owen-Smith, his is a many-layered story. I have so many memories: of Garth loping silently across the desert plains, “like an old elephant”, my wife Liz said; Garth carefully picking up scorpions and moving them to safety after unseasonal rains drove them towards our fire – and then, after 30 or more had invaded our space, and one had tried to climb up Liz’s leg, saying “bugger this” and beating them to death with a spade; a flight of Namaqua sandgrouse, kelkiewyn, flying overhead in late afternoon and Garth saying “if you’re ever stranded without water, follow the kelkiewyn, they fly straight to water three hours before sunset”; Garth always building a small fire, never a bonfire, feeding one stick at a time, point first into the fire in the Himba way – “deadfall wood is a crucial desert habitat for myriad creatures, big fires destroy habitat”; Garth carefully doing a 10-point turn in his Land Rover when surrounded by endless miles of seemingly dead desert, because “these ancient and fragile lichen plains are one of Earth’s oldest life forms, just one pass of a set of vehicle tracks will still be here in a hundred years.”

We drove together down the river bed of the Upper Hoanib, the Khowarib Schlugt – the southern border of the Kaokoveld – a place of legends. It is a magnificent gorge fringed on all sides by towering red cliffs. At odd intervals in the river, perennial springs pop up to the surface, running for a few hundred metres before disappearing underground again.

Halfway down the Schlugt is a towering ana tree. We stopped in its shade to brew some tea, we were sitting under “Oom John se Boom”, Uncle John’s Tree. Garth told the story: in the 1970s, when South Africa was tightening its military grip on Namibia and Angola, the South African Prime Minister Balthazar John “BJ” Vorster came here on hunting trips. There were more elephant and black rhino than could be counted. Lions moved through the long grass and the gemsbok were thick as cattle.

Vorster was no longer the strong young man he used to be. He was hoisted onto a broad platform in a fork of the ana tree where two mighty branches split skyward. Then the South African Air Force helicopters scoured the side gullies of the canyon for elephant, herding them down into the Schlugt. As they panicked and stampeded down through the fine powder dust of the gorge, John Vorster picked them off with his hunting rifle.

Vorster and his Cabinet colleagues had a hunting camp on the banks of the Kunene River, one of the last refuges of the endangered black-faced impala. Vorster and his Cabinet cronies hunted them down with semi-automatic rifles, they were gathered into nets slung below Air Force helicopters and flown to the camp where they were sliced into strips and hung in the sun to dry as biltong.

Much as he hated indiscriminate killing, Garth was never opposed to hunting as an important source of conservation funding: “Trophy hunting is an essential part of conservation, particularly in areas where photographic tourism isn’t possible. It is integral to our programme.”

In 2010, Garth published his life’s work: “An Arid Eden: A Personal Account of Conservation in the Kaokoveld” (Jonathan Ball). I reviewed it at the time and wrote:

Once in a decade, an African memoir or novel comes along that instantly goes onto my “classics” shelf. They are few and far between: Isak Dinesen’s (Karen Blixen) Out of Africa; Bernhard Grzimek’s Serengeti Shall Not Die; Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya; Ernest Hemingway’s The Green Hills of Africa; Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man; George Adamson’s My Pride and Joy; Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth; John Hillaby’s Journey to the Jade Sea; Wilfred Thesiger’s The Life of My Choice; Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Petals of Blood; and Elspeth Huxley’s The Flame Trees of Thika are among them.

“An Arid Eden” goes straight to the “African classics” shelf.

This is one of the most important books on African conservation in several decades. And while it deals with just one region of Africa, Namibia’s Kaokoveld, its lessons and conclusions are universal throughout the continent.

“An Arid Eden” is a monumental work, a detailed account of his almost 50 years in the field in Namibia, battling, often against almost insurmountable odds, to get conservative authorities to recognise that conservation could not be imposed on remote rural communities from afar. The answer, he tirelessly fought for, was to make the local communities the guardians of their land.

The end result is evident throughout Namibia today: a network of community-owned conservancies that make up the Namibian Community Based Tourism Association (Nacobta), and the groundbreaking, and internationally emulated Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) network…

Namibia’s Kaokoveld is one of the most beguiling and magnificent wild areas of Africa. Now, at last, the definitive book has been written on its modern history by the man who is not only central to that history but helped to shape the destiny of the region. “An Arid Eden” is essential reading for all lovers of Africa and its wild places.

On Easter Monday Margie e-mailed me: “Just 12 hours before Garth died, and as he was slipping into a coma, it rained at Wêreldsend for the first time in five years.”

The desert gods were weeping.

There is an old Ghanaian saying borrowed by Maya Angelou — when someone important dies, “A Great Tree Has Fallen.”

It is often a lie. This time it is true.

Safari njema, Mzee Garth, lala salama.


Conservationists fear African animal poaching will increase during pandemic

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Education No Comments
WCSJ News | April 14, 2020

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NEW YORK: The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted tourism around the globe, grounding travelers and shutting down nonessential businesses. For Matt Brown of the Nature Conservancy, that spells trouble for the wildlife the environmental organization works to protect.

For 15 years, the Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit has been helping create community-owned conservancies in East and Southern Africa that provide both a safe habitat for wildlife and jobs for locals. The operation of the reserves was designed to be largely financed through tourism.

“Tourism is a great payment for an ecosystem service — when it works,” Brown, regional managing director of the Nature Conservancy’s Africa program, told ABC News.


Original image as posted by WCJS: Andrew Linscott/iStock

Until now, tourism was on the rise in Africa. Some 67 million tourists visited Africa in 2018, up 7% from the year before, according to the World Tourism Organization’s latest international tourism report. Tourism accounts for 8.5% of Africa’s GDP, generating $194.2 billion in 2018, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

But in recent weeks, tourism — along with life as hundreds of millions of people know it — has grounded to a halt across Africa. Since the continent’s first COVID-19 case was reported in Egypt on Feb. 14, the number of cases now totals more than 14,000 in 52 countries, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Quarantine measures such as lockdowns, curfews and border closings have been rolled out from Tunisia to South Africa. The economic fallout is far-reaching and expected to be devastating for the world’s poorest continent.

For wildlife reserves that depend on tourism dollars, that money is essentially gone.

“The major impact of the pandemic is tourism has stopped in Africa,” Brown said. “And that affects the revenue. That affects the impact of the rangers.”

At many of the reserves the Nature Conservancy supports, more than half of the budget is covered by tourism revenues, Brown said. Variable fees such as bed-night fees and conservation fees help pay for the rangers’ salaries, fuel for airplane patrols and more.

The organization has calculated that the lack of tourism adds up to a $3 million drop in expected revenue over the next 12 months, Brown said. And hampered security, coupled with economic distress, means that poaching is a problem.

“When people don’t have any other alternative for income, our prediction — and we’re seeing this in South Africa — is that poaching will go up for high-value products like rhino horn and ivory,” Brown said. “We believe we have to be more vigilant than ever with our ranger patrols to help protect these critical animals at this time.”

A second type of poaching — meat poaching, for local consumption — is also on the rise as a result of the economic downturn, Brown said.

“In a lot of reserves, people go in and will shoot or even use snares to capture antelope,” Brown said. “It’s either to sell the meat at a local bushmeat market in the capital city or it’s to feed family.”

Poaching had been on the decline in Africa, particularly for elephant ivory; a 2019 report in Nature Communications found that the illegal killing of African elephants fell to 4% in 2017 from a peak of 10% in 2011.

The Nature Conservancy is working to help bridge its $3 million revenue gap so security work continues. The organization is looking to raise upward of $2 million in donations to provide grants to reserves, many of which have also been crowdsourcing support, Brown said.

“Our goal is to make sure that we’re sustaining the highest level of protection that we can in these places,” said Brown, who wants to track daily wildlife sightings over the next few months to see if there is a spike in poaching or if — preferably — the population is sustained.

Brown anticipates the fallout from the pandemic will impact tourism in Africa for up to a year, due to the global economic downturn and health concerns over COVID-19.

“A holiday to Africa is kind of a luxury expense,” Brown said. “Even if [people] had planned last year to come or currently to come, they might think twice about spending that money now.”

“I think the economic downturn is one of the real concerns for this industry,” he said.

NASA is where the wild things are

By Conservation, Education No Comments | April 14, 2020

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It’s a massive, marvelous planet we live on, and part of what makes it so wonderful is the fascinating array of wildlife.

That wildlife may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of NASA, but researchers and conservationists around the world are using data and images from NASA satellite instruments to manage and track living creatures of all kinds.

Conservationists in Kenya are finding new habitats for endangered black rhinos by using a tool that helps them track changes to landscapes in NASA satellite images. A scientist at Stony Brook University in New York is using a program that analyzes NASA satellite imagery to help track the movement of penguins in Antarctica. And at Yale University a professor is integrating NASA satellite data into a critter-tracking program called the Map of Life.

Original image as posted by

You can read about those and other projects that incorporate NASA satellite data below.

In addition, you can take a look at some of the creatures right in NASA’s own back yard — Kennedy Space Center in Florida, to be exact. KSC shares land and wildlife with Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge. Learn more about some of the efforts to protect and manage the island’s animals at the end of this feature.

Leading the Charge to Find Rhino Habitats

After careful conservation efforts to bring rhinos back from the brink of extinction, extreme weather is making it difficult to provide a habitat for them to thrive in.

For conservationists in Kenya, analysis of satellite data from the joint NASA/U.S. Geological Survey Landsat program using a tool called the Africa Regional Data Cube (ARDC) could provide answers.

Located in northern Kenya, Il Ngwesi Conservancy is home to the Il Lakipiak Maasai people, who set aside 80 percent of their community land to provide wildlife with protected grounds within which animals could roam freely without the threat of poachers.

Rhinos have been critically endangered by a half century of poaching, with numbers in Kenya falling from 20,000 in the 1970s. A painstaking conservation effort has raised the number to about 650 black rhinos.

“This community knows its lands and animals,” said Mohammed Shibia of Northern Rangelands Trust, which supports 39 conservancies in the region. “Where once the Maasai boys in the community would collect information on water availability and suitable grazing pastures throughout a reliable seasonal cycle, now with frequent flooding and drought this becomes an impossible task. Remote sensing can be a highly effective tool to manage great swathes of land without causing exhaustion and hardship.”

Now Shibia is working with Il Ngwesi leaders, neighboring conservancies in Lewa and Borana, and local and international organizations to derive insights from satellite data and develop a plan to protect and preserve land with the preferred environmental and climactic conditions for the rhinos. The landscape being monitored is large — about 35 square miles, divided into 9 grazing plots, through which pastoralist communities pass and animals roam.

The research team is using the Africa Regional Data Cube (ARDC), an initiative developed by a host of partners including the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (a network of 250 organizations working to improve data for international development), NASA, Committee for Earth Observation Satellite (CEOS) and others that provides an analysis-ready platform that can be used to look back over 20 years of satellite data and identify changes in rainfall and the vegetation state of the grazing land.

Demand for satellite data by governments in low income settings is high — areas of interest include everything from identifying physical destruction of lands caused by illegal mining, to monitoring deforestation, drought conditions, coastal erosion and showing urban sprawl in growing cities over time. A coalition of international organizations is rolling out a continental wide data cube in 2020 through the Digital Earth Africa initiative. Input and feedback from the five countries using the ARDC — Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, Senegal and Sierra Leone — helps develop products and algorithms that are shared openly as global public goods.

For Il Ngwesi, time series data analysis on changing vegetation availability over time will be consolidated into reports and shared with neighboring conservancies, partners and Kenya Wildlife Service, strengthening coordinated action and building the licensing application to host additional black rhinos. There are two rhinos onsite and the plan is to host 10 more rhinos in the short term, building up to an eventual population of 30.

“Using remotely sensed estimates of Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) we can see which of these grazing plots are losing vegetation, through fluctuating weather conditions or over-grazing, over time,” said Brian Killough, a researcher at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, who led the technical development of the ARDC. “Using the data cube, the Il Ngwesi and Northern Rangelands Trust are able to observe and anticipate trends in vegetation condition to identify plots most suitable for the rhinos and develop grazing plans to prevent decimation of the lands, which could impact the health of the people and animals using it.”

Jennifer Oldfield, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data

Coronavirus: Xi Jinping weaves silk road of alternative healthcare

By Conservation, Education No Comments
The Australian | April 13, 2020

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The spreading of COVID-19 has precipitated the biggest boom in the more than 2000-year history of traditional Chinese medicine.

As with everything sanctioned in China today, the internationalisation of Tang dynasty medicinal recipes follows guidance issued by President Xi Jinping.

Last month, Mr Xi instructed health workers to “adhere to using Chinese medicine alongside Western medicine” in the fight against the new coronavirus.

“Chinese medicine embodies profound philosophical wisdom and China’s thousands of years of healthy conception and practical experience. It is a gem of ancient Chinese science and a key to opening up the treasury of Chinese civilisation,” he has previously said.


Chinese medicine

The surge of state-backed ancient concoctions — such as the exporting of facemasks and other protective equipment which, according to official numbers, earned China almost $2bn in March — is a rare bright spot in the world’s second-biggest economy.

And it demonstrates how Mr Xi’s nationalistic regime is using the coronavirus crisis to pursue long-standing goals such as increasing the global use of Chinese traditional medicine.

An early win for China’s leaders came last month when the World Health Organisation removed ­advice on its website telling people to not take “traditional herbal remedies”.

“A decision was made to remove that line as it was too broad and did not take into account the fact that many people turn to traditional medicines to alleviate some of the milder symptoms of COVID-19,” a WHO spokes­person told The Australian.

The change in advice by the WHO — which US President Don­ald Trump last week criticised for being “Chinacentric” — came days after Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the pandemic showed the need for a global “Silk Road of Healthcare”.

Within weeks of the lockdown of Wuhan, China’s state media began a campaign on the effectiveness of traditional Chinese ­medicine.

By the end of March, Yu ­Yanhong, the Communist Party secretary of the National Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine, said 91.5 per cent of ­infected patients in China had been treated with traditional medicine in conjunction with Western medicine.

Mr Yu said more than 90 per cent of those patients had benefited from traditional treatments.

Less politicised experts outside mainland China said early research had found health benefits from some traditional medicines.

Yibin Feng, the acting director of the University of Hong Kong’s school of Chinese medicine, told The Australian that “Qingfei Paidu”, a blend of four formulas first used about 1800 years ago, had effectively complemented Western medicine when treating COVID-19 patients.

Associate Professor Feng said traditional Chinese medicine had become increasingly respected after a practitioner, Tu Youyou, was awarded a Nobel prize for medicine in 2015 for proving the effectiveness of sweet wormwood as an anti-malarial drug.

He said, however, that some of the sourcing of its ingredients — particularly of animal parts from endangered species — needed to change.

Wang Xiangwei, the former editor-in-chief of the South China Morning Post, has said banning exotic animal trade in China had become harder because of the revival of traditional medicine. “China’s consistent efforts to push traditional medicine complicate things as some officially sanctioned remedies use animal parts from threatened species, including pangolin scales, rhino horns and tiger parts,” he wrote in the Post.

In February, a senior official at China’s National Health Commission said a pangolin, an endangered species whose scales are used by some practitioners of traditional medicine, may have been the original carrier of the new ­coronavirus.

While planeloads of traditional Chinese medicine are being flown to Italy, Cambodia and hosts of other stricken countries, its importation is still to receive official approval in Australia. “Traditional Chinese Medicine has not come up in conversation in government planning and no evidence of its effectiveness has been presented,” a spokesperson for the federal ­Department of Health said.


Amid coronavirus pandemic, China bans domestic trade of wild animals, but offers tax breaks for exports

By Conservation, Education, Illegal trade, Law & legislation No Comments
The Wall Street Journal | April 13, 2020

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Chinese authorities have shut down domestic wild animal traders on fears their goods sparked the coronavirus pandemic. Now officials are offering tax incentives to the multibillion-dollar animal-products industry to ship some of the creatures overseas, according to Chinese government documents.

China’s National People’s Congress on Feb. 24 imposed a ban on the sale and consumption of wild animals in the country. “The prominent problem of recklessly eating wild animals and its potential risk to public health have aroused wide public concern,” a spokesman said at the time, according to state media.

Less than a month later, China’s Ministry of Finance and tax authority said on March 17 they would raise value-added tax rebates on nearly 1,500 Chinese products, including offering a 9% rebate on the export of animal products such as edible snakes and turtles, primate meat, beaver and civet musk, and rhino horns, a Chinese government document shows.


Original video postwed by The Wall Street Journal: On Dec. 1, 2019, a patient in Wuhan, China, started showing symptoms of what doctors determined was a new coronavirus. Since then, the virus has spread across the world. Here’s how the virus grew to a global pandemic. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

China’s economy is struggling amid a sharp global downturn and a prolonged trade war with the U.S. The Chinese government’s new tax incentives are tied to a broad array of exports, designed to support Chinese industries from steel and construction to agricultural products, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service, which produces nonpartisan analysis for members of Congress.

But the move to encourage wild animal sales abroad, while banned at home, “could spread the risk to global markets,” the report said.

China is also a major exporter of medicines and medical equipment, but the new tax incentives made no mention of goods in short supply during the global pandemic, including personal protective equipment for medical workers and first responders.  “Absent in China’s policy push are incentives to encourage the sale of pharmaceuticals, PPE, and other medical products overseas,” the report said.

China’s Finance Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. Neither did the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. Many countries, including China and the U.S., have put export restrictions on medical-equipment exports due to global shortages.

China’s exports of wild animals and animal parts are minuscule compared with the vast volumes of goods China ships abroad. China’s live reptile exports—which are almost entirely edible reptiles—go primarily to Vietnam, with more than $1 million worth of sales in total during January and February of this year, according to China customs statistics tabulated by Trade Data Monitor.

South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Indonesia were the next-largest importers of China’s reptiles, though at much smaller volumes, with South Korea importing more than $122,000 in reptiles and the other countries less than $100,000 during the first two months of 2020, the data shows.

And yet, even small amounts of exports could pose a risk, should wild animals prove to be the source of pandemics, as some Chinese reports suggest. The U.S. was the biggest importer of China’s animal products used in pharmaceuticals, such as civet and beaver, buying around $865,000 over January and February 2020, according to the data.

Taiwan was the second-largest importer of the products, buying around $126,000 worth over the same period; South Korea and Hong Kong followed, each buying around $70,000 worth, the data shows.

Data on rhino horn trade, which varies in legality around the world, is sparse. Vietnam, and China itself, are believed to be the world’s biggest consumer markets for rhino horn, according to a 2013 report by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty administered through the United Nations, and a 2017 report by WildAid, an environmental organization based in San Francisco.

The Center for Advanced Defense Studies’ Wildlife Seizure Database shows that after China, Vietnam is the most frequent destination for rhino horn seizures. Vietnam is the destination in 25% of recorded seizures with destination information, said C4ADS, which is based in Washington, D.C.

The exotic animal trade fuels the multibillion-dollar traditional Chinese medicine industry, in which products made from rhino horns and tiger bones are used to treat ailments. Many scientific studies have found no medicinal properties in either.

Beijing has promoted the use of traditional Chinese medicine in treating coronavirus patients, with China’s national health commission last month recommending a remedy containing bear bile, goat horn and other ingredients for critically ill patients.

There is also a long tradition in China of eating wildlife, especially in the southern regions of Guangdong and Guangxi, a practice that has long been the target of criticism by animal-rights activists.

More than 1.7 million people world-wide have so far been infected by the virus, which causes a disease called Covid-19, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. As of Saturday, countries have reported more than 107,000 deaths from the virus, which first emerged in Wuhan, China.

Although health authorities have yet to identify the precise cause of the outbreak, a study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, based on patient samples, found a 96% genetic match with a bat coronavirus. Another Chinese study suggested snakes sold in a Wuhan market were the source.

Medical researchers have said the 2002 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, originated in bats and spread to humans via palm civets—cat-sized mammals that look like weasels—sold in China’s open-air food markets.

China banned all wildlife trade in 2003, when Hong Kong researchers first identified civets as a potential source of SARS, which killed around 800 people. But it lifted the ban later that year on 54 species—including civets—that it said could be bred in licensed farms, subject to sanitation checks.

For years, the U.S. and other World Trade Organization members have also raised concerns about China’s VAT rebate policies, saying such practices “have caused tremendous disruption, uncertainty and unfairness in the global markets,” especially in areas where China is a leading exporter, such as steel and aluminum, according to a report issued to Congress by the United States Trade Representative last month.

Josh Zumbrun contributed to this article.

Try your best to be socially responsible, Malaysian documentary filmmaker urges

By Conservation, Education No Comments
The Star | April 13, 2020

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Like any other Malaysian now, Lydia Lubon is staying at home obeying the movement control order (MCO).

“(My life) completely revolves around working online, connecting with friends and colleagues on social media, and thinking about what to make for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Work and makan, the pillars of Malaysian society!” she says in jest.

However, the Malaysian documentary filmmaker and environmental educator is serious about the fact that overcoming the Covid-19 pandemic is a social responsibility.

“It’s natural to want to ensure one’s own survival and comfort in challenging times like this, but if we only think and act as individuals, then the effect on society would be disastrous,” she says.

“For example, if we panic buy more than what we need, others might not have enough, or if we go out unnecessarily, we are endangering the lives of others as well as our own.”


Original image as posted by The Star: Among Lubon’s work was “Operation Sumatran Rhino” (2016), a National Geographic wildlife documentary on Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinos that is still being aired today. Photos: Lydia Lubon

Lubon emphasises that everyone needs to cooperate as a community in following the social distancing guidelines set by the World Health Organization and adhere to the MCO decreed by the Malaysian government.

It is not surprising that Lubon, 41, feels so strongly about this. Above her many achievements in the field of filmmaking and environmental conservation, closest to her heart is the issue of social responsibility.

The Sarawakian, of Iban-American parentage, has worked on several documentary shoots in East Malaysia for big names like Al Jazeera, National Geographic and Unicef.

She is currently attached to the Free Tree Society, an environmental organisation that provides free educational programmes (such as waste management, gardening and rainwater harvesting) to the public on sustainable living.

“The MCO is an extremely challenging time for all, including myself. Both my passions as a filmmaker and an environmental educator involve a great deal of social engagement and working in teams, and right now, that’s exactly what we’re not allowed to do,” she says.

However, she adds that there is no better time to think of ways to be of service to others through her work and personal life.

“Whether it’s posting inspiring, educational or funny videos online, or not panic buying, I do my best to be socially responsible. And I hope others will do the same too, so that we can all get through this pandemic situation successfully.”

Lubon, whose favourite class in school was art, has always been a creative person. It was only natural that she wanted to make a difference in the world through the art of moving visuals.

She first ventured into the world of filmmaking at the age of 24, straight out of university (in Denver, Colorado, the United States), as an intern for an Animal Planet series shot at the Singapore Zoo.

“I fell in love with documentary filmmaking and have been producing documentaries ever since,” she shares.

Lubon loves real stories about social issues with real people and the challenges they face.

“These are so much more fascinating than fiction,” she enthuses.

“After watching countless documentaries on Astro in my early 20s, I realised that TV documentaries were one of the most powerful tools for raising awareness among the masses about social issues, the environment or wildlife conservation,” she explains.

In 2016, she worked on Operation Sumatran Rhino, a wildlife documentary for National Geographic about Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinos and the conservationists in Sabah who were working against time trying to save them. It aired worldwide in over 150 countries and is still showing on Astro and around the world today.

“The documentary and wildlife extinction is still as relevant today as it was three years ago. Extinction happens every single day on our planet and it isn’t stopping any time soon,” she stresses.

Malaysia’s last Sumatran rhinos have all passed on, with the last one named Tam dying in November 2019.

“It was an incredibly humbling experience to see what extinction really looks like because I watched it happen over three years during the production of the documentary.”

Because of her work on wildlife documentaries, she became involved in more and more conversations about environmental conservation.

“The more I screened this documentary to the public, the more I realised I wanted to be part of this conversation on a daily basis rather than just at my film screenings,” she explains.

That was what led to Lubon joining the Free Tree Society this year.

The NGO offers several programmes, including: On the Go (environmental education and skills training programme for students and teachers), Rewilding (growing home ecosystems to sustain oneself and support biodiversity), Bangsar Nursery and Taman Tugu Nursery.

Lubon admits that doing hands-on outdoor environmental work is very different from producing a documentary, where 80% of the time is spent sitting in front of a computer writing proposals, editing scripts or researching story ideas.

“I had no idea how physically difficult outdoor work and gardening was. It’s a huge adjustment from filmmaking but I absolutely love it.

“I love being in nature every day, getting my hands dirty and helping fellow Malaysians appreciate our planet and wildlife a little bit more,” she says.

The purposeful producer recently directed a shoot about inspiring women in South-East Asia who are challenging social norms.

“It’s a great initiative by Germany’s International Public Broadcaster, DW, and the series is entitled, Her Perspective.”

Lubon notes that one of the highlights of her career was having renowned English primatologist and anthropologist Dr Jane Goodall attend a special screening of her documentary in Kuala Lumpur.

“As a wildlife conservation filmmaker, it doesn’t get better than that!” she exclaims.

Jane Goodall calls for global ban on wildlife trade and end to ‘destructive and greedy period of human history’

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Education No Comments
The Independent | April 13, 2020

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The coronavirus pandemic may have grounded Dr Jane Goodall but she is putting her time in lockdown to good use – by calling for a global ban on wildlife markets linked to the outbreak.

The renowned conservationist, 86, who typically travels 300 days a year, has pivoted to making calls, recording podcasts and videos around the clock, relentlessly pushing her lifelong message of protecting the natural world.

She told The Independent: “I have never been busier in my entire life, except perhaps the last days of trying to get my PhD thesis written.”

In the 1960s, Dr Goodall’s research on the behaviour of chimpanzees in Tanzania discovered that our closest living relatives were a lot more like us than previously believed – they have their own personalities, can use tools, mimic each other and grieve for the loss of friends.


Original image as posted by The Independent

For decades, she has urged the world to respect nature, a message that has never been more acute in the face of the coronavirus that had led to more than 98,000 deaths and 1.6 million confirmed cases around the world, also decimating the global economy.

Environmentalists told The Independent last month that the coronavirus would not be the last pandemic to wreak havoc on humanity if we continue to ignore links between infectious diseases and destruction of the natural world.

Zoonotic diseases – those transmitted from animals to humans – cause 2.5 billion cases of human illness and 2.7 million deaths each year around the world, according to the National Institutes of Health. The spread of diseases such as HIV, Ebola, Sars, Mers and Zika are also believed to have originated in animals.

Dr Goodall, along with fellow activists and the UN’s acting executive secretary on biological diversity, Elizabeth Maruma Mrema, are calling for restrictions on wildlife trafficking and the sale of live animals at “wet markets”. The coronavirus outbreak is believed to have originated at such a market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals were sold, and made the jump to humans from animals kept in close proximity.

“As we destroy the environment, animals are living in smaller and smaller spaces, and viruses are transferring from one animal to another,” Dr Goodall says.

“Then there’s wildlife trafficking and the handling of wild animals. They are kept crowded together with people in the meat markets. Not just in China, but across many parts of Asia and also with the bushmeat trade in Africa.

“This is where a virus gets the opportunity to jump from animals into people, and that’s what happened with Covid-19.

“The awful thing is that this has been predicted. People knew it was coming, they talked about it but nobody did anything.”

She adds: “We have moved into this destructive and greedy period of human history where we are destroying the environment and putting economic growth ahead of environmental protections, even though we are thus destroying the future for our own children.

“Now we see this resulting in this current pandemic, which is having a horrific effect on the planet.”

Dr Goodall says she hopes the pandemic will inspire international action.

“I’m hoping that governments around the world will cooperate with the facts and that there will be a global ban on all of these markets, trafficking and eating of wildlife.

“But we also have to remember that some of these epidemics have started with viruses jumping from domestic animals in awful intensive farms, where the conditions are horrendous, with crowding and poor hygiene.

“It’s not just wildlife, it’s the way that we treat our domestic animals, too.

“Science has now admitted what as a little girl I learned from my dog. Animals, like us, are sentient. They can feel fear and despair. They have personalities and are amazingly intelligent.

“When we talk about wildlife trafficking, we just think, ‘Oh, that’s wildlife’. But it’s millions of individuals who can suffer, feel pain and despair.

“We need to respect the natural world. We can’t go on and on taking natural resources for economic development on a planet with finite natural resources.

“If we go on treating animals the way that we are, that is going to hit back on us, as it has.”

How we treat animals ‘still risking spreading disease’

In an op-ed this week, Dr Goodall wrote: “This is a global trade, and every country and individual must do its part to create more comprehensive legislation to protect wildlife, end illegal trafficking, ban trafficking across national borders, and ban sales (especially online). And we must fight corruption that allows these activities to continue even when they are banned or illegal.”

Dr Goodall, who was created Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in 2003, says individuals, too, can play a role.

“Some people are raising moneys to help NGOs keep going. We are trying to protect chimpanzees in Africa because they can catch [Covid-19] from us and they are endangered.

“Our Jane Goodall Institute (JGI) people are wonderful – they’re rising to the challenge. Many people giving even small donations makes a big difference to our teams in the field to get the proper testing kits.”

It is crucial that any bans on markets and trafficking take into account the people in different parts of the world whose livelihoods and diets currently depend on wildlife, Dr Goodall says.

“If we suddenly close everything down, as there has been a demand to the United Nations, we have got to think of how these people rely on wildlife and find alternative ways for them to make a living.”

The JGI’s Tacare programme helps communities move away from wildlife trade. “It’s our method of community-based conservation. It’s very holistic but it includes helping people find alternative ways of making a living without destroying the environment,” Dr Goodall says.

“There’s a microcredit program where groups, mostly women, can take out tiny loans to buy a few chickens and sell the eggs or have a tree nursery and sell the saplings, for example.

“It’s what people want, not what we impose upon them. The only criteria is that it’s got to be environmentally sustainable.”

The coronavirus pandemic has amplified the devastating consequences that can unfold when we don’t respect boundaries with nature.

In the US, Donald Trump has rolled back environmental protections, withdrawn the country from the Paris Agreement on climate change and overhauled the Endangered Species Act, which environmentalists say puts more wildlife at greater risk of extinction.

Dr Goodall is not optimistic that Mr Trump will change his views on protecting the environment, even in the wake of the coronavirus.

“I kind of doubt it. I don’t know, it should do,” she says. “But our prime minister in the UK is also pushing economic development ahead of environmental protections. The same is true in Brazil and Tanzania.

“It’s not just President Trump, but he sort of hits the media because he sometimes says some very strange things.”

But there are some leaders that give cause for optimism, Dr Goodall says.

“Leaders of countries like Costa Rica and Colombia and a couple of African countries are taking very firm steps to protect the environment. More and more European and US NGOs are doing what they can to help.”

She adds: “What I’m hoping is because of the shutdown worldwide, many places are now seeing unpolluted air.  I think a lot of people living in the cities have never known what it’s like and now they’ve got experience.

“I’m hoping that there will be a groundswell of people who are so horrified at the thought of going back to polluted skies that the sheer numbers will force governments to change their policies.”

Since 1991, she has encouraged young people to protect the natural world through her youth scheme, Roots & Shoots.

“Roots & Shoots is now in 65 countries, and my vision is to have the programme everywhere. That’s just a dream, but on the other hand, it began with 12 high school students, and since then hundreds of thousands of young people have been through the programme. Each group of Roots & Shoots chooses three projects to make the world better: One to help people, one to help animals and one to help the environment.

“Many of them are now in influential positions, and they hang on to the values that they acquired. Their message is every one of us makes an impact every single day and we can choose what sort of impact, unless we are living in desperate poverty – in which case we just do what it takes to stay alive.”

At a time when there is so much despair and anger from young people about the future because of climate change and environmental destruction, Dr Goodall tries to offer hope from her own experiences.

“I lived through the second world war when I was a little girl. It was very grim. We were then fighting a physical enemy, and this is an invisible enemy but the results are sort of the same. We never knew where the bombs were going to fall, which houses would be destroyed, which of our friends would be killed, and that’s a little bit the same now. But we came through it.

“I was in New York at the time of the fall of the Twin Towers, the 9/11 terrorist attack. It seemed like the end of the world but we got through that.

“There’s this indomitable human spirit you can see all around the world in communities helping each other.

“I’ve seen so many wonderful stories of people helping each other, taking food around and making themselves available for telephone calls from lonely, frightened people.”

She adds: “I myself have started reading children books so that they can get these stories while they’re forced to be at home and sending out video messages of encouragement that we will get through this – we must not give up, and let’s do our bit.”

The coronavirus, Dr Goodall says, may alter how she spreads her message.

“It may force change. I imagine when the airlines start flying again they may have to put their fares up so it may not be possible to do as much flying as I did.

“I look on it as practice for the time when my body says, ‘No Jane, enough, we‘re not going to allow you carry on like this’. Because it’s very exhausting, all the travelling I was doing.

“However, we have to get the message out that we’ve got to change but let’s have hope that we’re going to come out of this better people.

“We have to push our politicians in the right direction that we want.”



No selfies with animals: Why lockdown is forcing Assam Forest Dept to issue new advisories (India)

By Conservation, Education, News No Comments
Tora Agarwala, The Indian Express | April 4, 2020

Read the original story here

“Don’t take a selfie with the wild animal, don’t go too close to the wild animal, don’t make a noise near the wild animal.”

These are among the many guidelines the Assam Forest Department has issued to sensitise the public about “free-ranging” wild animals that they might come across during the nationwide lockdown. On Friday, the advisory appeared in all local papers in the state, appealing the public to cooperate with the authorities. “During the current lockdown period, due to minimal human and vehicular disturbances, some wild animals may move freely into the human habitats from the nearby notified Reserved Forests and Protected Areas” said the appeal, listing out a set of Dos and Don’ts.

Wild animals venturing into human habitation is not a new phenomena — at least in Assam, in which 34.21 per cent of total geographical area lies under forest cover. In fact, Guwahati, the state’s busy capital city shares its boundary with the Amchang Wildlife Sanctuary, and a number of notified Reserve Forests.

What has changed post lockdown is the frequency of sightings and the distances the animals cover, according to forest officials here.

For example, on March 24, a rhinoceros emerged out of Pobitora Wildlife Sanctuary (PWS), travelling at least 25 km to Khetri in Sonapur. Famous for its population of one-horned rhinos, PWS is about 46 km from Guwahati.

Original photo as published by Indian Express: Kaziranga: A one-horned rhinoceros seen at the Bagori Range of Kaziranga National Park in Nagaon district of Assam.

“Usually come they come to the Maloibari Pothaar, right next to Pobitora,” said Dilip Das, Range Officer, Sonapur, “This time, however, probably because of lack of villagers/sounds of cars, it reached right up to Khetri.”  The animal was located almost three days later, and put back into PWS.

MK Yadava, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife) and Chief Wildlife Warden, Assam, said that at least four-five cases are reported every day since the lockdown was announced. “Since people might mistreat, overreact, gather together, we decided to issue this appeal,” he said. The advertisement also includes two helpline numbers to a designated Control Room, to report sightings.

Last week, in a village in Assam Jorhat district, a leopard was killed by the authorities in “self-defence” after it attacked a member of the tranquillising team and a BSF jawaan. “The fringe areas, between village and forests, are natural habitats of leopards,” said Bidyut Bartahkur, Divisional Forest Office, Jorhat.

This area, too, was a “fringe area” but Barthakur said that what led the leopard to come out was “probably the silence” in the area. In Dibrugarh’s Tingkhong, two juvenile leopards died on March 30. “It is difficult to say for sure that it was because of the lockdown — because it is common for leopards to venture into villages. However, young ten-month old leopards usually do not,” said Pradipta Baruah, Dibrugarh DFO.

Hemkanta Talukdar, Chief Conservator of Forest, Central Assam Circle said that it would be a stretch to say big animals are reclaiming human habitats, all of a sudden, post lockdown. But he mentioned a “fifty per cent decrease in anthropogenic pressure” since the lockdown came into effect. “The watch-houses in the fields, where humans would stand guard to check wild animals are empty, all of a sudden there are no sounds of vehicles from the highway, they don’t hear any movement,” he said.

Last week, a swarm of birds — Whistling Teals — were seen in Guwahati’s Dighalipukhuri area, it created a buzz on social media. “These birds are not uncommon in Guwahati — but they usually tend to gravitate towards quiet areas and deep waters,” said Baruah, “Dighalipukhuri lake is usually buzzing with human activity: pedestrians, boat rides etc. The lack of activity is probably what brought them to the lake.”

Jayaditya Purkayashta, a Guwahati-based herpetologist said that it is possible that these sightings were increasing because now people have the time to see these birds they have not seen for decades. “So whenever they see something — even if it’s a lizard in the garden — they feel it needs to be rescued,” said Purkayashta, who has long researched on the ‘urban-biodiversity’ of the city. “While there is a slight change, big animals won’t change their habitat so soon,” Purkayashta said.

Local short film “Baxu and the Giants” to stream globally

By Antipoaching, Conservation, Education, namibia No Comments
The Economist | March 18, 2020

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Multiple award-winning local short film ‘Baxu and the Giants’, telling the story of how Rhino poaching triggers social change in rural Namibia, will be available globally to stream and download for free starting 20 March.

The 29-minute film follows Baxu, a 9-year old girl who is in touch with nature and tradition but toughened by life in poverty, lives with her older brother Khata and an alcoholic grandmother in a village in Damaraland, Namibia.

Baxu and the Giants was commissioned by the Legal Assistance Centre with the aim of sensitising teenagers to the issue of poaching in Namibia. Producer Andrew Botelle (‘The Power Stone’, ‘Born in Etosha’) enlisted Director and Co-Writer Florian Schott (‘Katutura’) and Co-Producer/Co-Writer Girley Jazama (‘The White Line’) to craft an emotional story out of this difficult issue.

Original image from The Economist

Over the last six months, Baxu and the Giants screened in ten countries around the world, at over 20 Film Festivals and won multiple international awards, including the Award for Best Foreign Narrative at the San Francisco Independent Short Film Festival, three Namibian Theatre- and Film Awards (including Best Female Actor for 10-year-old Camilla Jo-Ann Daries), two international Cinematography Awards and two Awards at the Knysna Film Festival in South Africa.

Just in the last few weeks, Schott presented the film to over 500 school children in Los Angeles as part of the Pan African Film Festival and at the RapidLion Film Festival in Johannesburg, where the film was also nominated for ‘Best Humanitarian Film’.

In addition to that, the Legal Assistance started showing the film to thousands of learners all across Namibia and MaMoKoBo Video & Research is busy bringing the film to all corners of Namibia via mobile screenings, in partnership with the Save the Rhino Trust and the Ministry of Environment & Tourism.

Baxu and the Giants will be available to stream on the official website as well as on YouTube and Vimeo.

VMDIFF 2020 / Kifaru – The rhino’s last stand

By Conservation, Education No Comments
Scout Mitchell, Headstuff | March 11, 2020

See link for photo & videos.

We’ve all read the headlines and watched the David Attenborough documentaries. By now it should be no secret that human greed has catapulted our world into the midst of an extinction crisis.

The facts are devastating. According to the World Wildlife Fund scientists are estimating that between 0.01% and 0.1% of species are becoming extinct each year (that’s between 200 and 2,000 on the lower rate and 10,000 and 100,000 on the higher estimate). It’s truly infuriating to ask ourselves how we’ve let it get this far. And even scarier to ask the question: Is there any going back?

Documentary filmmaker David Hambridge offers an incredibly personal insight into this topic in Kifaru, which tells the story of the last standing male white rhino, Sudan, and his caretakers who are dedicated to fighting for his species. The connection between humans and animals, the reality of animal poaching and what it means to be a “free” animal are all ideas that are explored in this documentary. Somehow both heartbreaking and encouraging, Kifaru documents the urgency of wildlife conservation through the eyes of those willing to make sacrifices for these beautiful animals.

Captured over approximately four years, the majority of Kifaru is set in the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy located in central Kenya. “Kifaru” is Swahili for rhinos and these animals are the main focus of this film: Sudan, his daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. At the film’s beginning, these are the only three white rhinos left in the world. They live under 24-hour surveillance at the conservancy. The risk of poachers is far too high should they be released into the wild.

Sudan is named after his place of birth and was originally rescued and relocated to a zoo in the Czech Republic. In his old age he was moved to Ol Pejeta along with his captive-raised daughter and her offspring.

It’s clear that these animals don’t have the freedom they deserve and it’s dangerous that they are so trusting of the humans who look after them. But the facts are that the commercial value of rhino horn is incredibly high in a country where many families are surviving on the equivalent of $1 USD a day. Freedom is not an option for these animals so Ol Pejeta is the next best thing. Jojo (Joseph) and Jacob are amongst some of the caretakers we get to know in this film who have pledged their lives to the wellbeing and survival of these rhinos.

It’s by no means an easy job. Working on the range for 10 months of the year is hard. Jojo makes the point that he often feels like a stranger in his own home upon return. We see the impact that this kind of living has on these men.

Jojo is anxious to be near the maternity ward for the birth of his first child and Jacob struggles to pay the fees for his son’s education — he manages to make up enough to ensure his son will remain in school until at least the next time he is home from Ol Pejeta. These men make a lot of sacrifices in order to do the work that they do. However, it’s clear that the connection they have to the rhinos makes the hardship worthwhile.

Early on in the documentary, they are alerted to sightings of an orphaned baby rhino and immediately take in ‘Ringo,’ a young male who struggles with the absence of his mother. Eventually the other rhinos warm to him: this is due to the persistence of Jojo who makes sure that Ringo remembers that he is, in fact, a rhino and needs to learn to act like one. It’s the perseverance of these men that means these animals have any chance of survival.

The conservancy also gets a lot of tourists, eager to catch sightings of the last standing male white rhino. You could say Sudan is somewhat of a celebrity. The caretakers welcome such tourism as it gives them business and it raises awareness of Sudan’s predicament. However, when watching this film it’s hard not to be reminded that age is something one cannot defy. At 45 years old, Sudan has already outlived the average life-span of a rhino.

All of the publicity and awareness resulting from tourism can’t freeze his youth. The caretakers are aware of this and it’s in the back of their minds as he continues to get older and develop health issues. One of the goals of their care is to allow enough time for scientists to be able to develop a method that would allow them to clone the species from Sudan’s DNA. It may seem unorthodox, but science may allow us a chance to undo the mess we ourselves have created.

A heart-rending but necessary watch for anyone who feels passionate about wildlife conservation. Kifaru is not afraid to shine the light on the ugly parts of our society: that of an excessive greed for wealth. This is the resulting impact.

Kifaru screened at this year’s Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival.