Happy new year and here’s hoping your year has lots of inspiration and adventures of the African kind in it!
To kick off 2016 with a resounding trumpet we’d like to share the exciting news that Matson & Ridley Safaris’ new website matsonridley.com is now live! For a dose of inspiration and some ideas on your next African adventure, please take a look and share it with your friends.
Matson & Ridley Safaris has been a labour of love of Andy’s and mine for the last two and a bit years, and we’re delighted that many of you have already been on not one but two safaris with us, as well as signing up for more in the future. I think this is a sign that we’re on the right track with the life-changing experiences in Africa that we’re offering.
You can read some of the feedback we’ve had from guests on our safaris on our Testimonials page. The overwhelming feedback we get is that people love the fact that they’re not just having an amazing experience on our safaris, they’re also learning a lot while there, very importantly, able to also give back while on holiday, and to see their positive contribution with your own eyes. You can read more about the conservation projects we support on our Conservation page.
We are learning, growing and passionate about continuing to provide incredible safaris that make a difference to Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania and Rwanda (and open to any others you suggest to us!). Check out our Safaris page to learn more about the destinations we tailor safaris to. Life is short and there’s so much to explore!
Our family safaris are growing increasingly popular, so if you’re interested to learn more about taking your precious treasures on the trip of a lifetime check out our Family Safaris page. There are great deals available with discounted rates for kids.
If you’ve had a great safari with us, please let your friends know about us and help us grow our business into one that can really make a difference in conservation. Go on – take a moment for an Africa fix – matsonridley.com is now live!
It’s that time of year again, and it seems to have crept up so quickly (or maybe I’m just getting old!). Now at the end of our second year in business at Matson & Ridley Safaris, Andy and I wanted to thank you for your support and to wish you a wonderful Christmas and new year. I’ve put together this short video (scroll down to see it), which I hope you’ll enjoy, sharing a few special memories of my adventures with you in the last couple of years in Botswana, Kenya and Namibia. Thanks to all who shared their photos for this, but in particular a big thanks to all the people who made these journeys so wonderful in Africa’s most incredible wild destinations!
For me, it’s a real joy to be able to reflect back and know that our fledgling safari business is helping support so many worthwhile on-ground conservation initiatives, from the Save The Rhino anti poaching efforts in Namibia, to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust and the Mara Naibosho Lion Project. Those who come on my safaris often get to meet some of the dedicated people behind these operations.
And of course, just by supporting Matson & Ridley Safaris, you’ve helped me continue to keep spreading the word in the Let Elephants Be Elephants campaign, around Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia and even in my new base in the Netherlands. The LEBE campaign has raised approximately SGD$40,000 (almost US$30k) for awareness raising on ivory trade in Asia since its inception, and Nadya and I have spoken at dozens of schools, events, conferences and government departments across the region. A new study by Save The Elephants just revealed that growing public awareness through campaigns like the one by WildAid in China have played an important role in the halving of the price of ivory in the past year, a truly outstanding result that will help reduce elephant poaching. Our LEBE campaign continues in Southeast Asia in 2016 – more news to come on that soon.
But I think our biggest contribution through Matson & Ridley Safaris is the benefits your safari bookings provide in terms of local employment in Africa. Wilderness Safaris recently released a breakdown of how your safari dollars are spent, and most enlightening for me was that about two-thirds goes to local employment. This is so important! In Africa, conservation of wildlife is directly related to the economic benefits people get from wildlife, and so this really is a win-win scenario for both people and wildlife. In rural areas where these camps are, there are few other economic opportunities for people, so ecotourism done right can be a real lifeline. Asilia Africa, who we work with to plan your East African safaris, focus on education and conservation, as well as community partnerships to deliver long term sustainability that benefits local people. You can read more about their positive impact and approach to sustainable business development here. When you go on one of our safaris, either independently or with me, don’t forget to ask about all the incredible work these ecotourism companies are doing to ensure that you not only have an amazing experience but that the local people and wildlife directly benefit from the monies you spend.
Very soon we’ll be launching the new Matson & Ridley Safaris website, but in the meantime you can find us on the Matson & Ridley Safaris Facebook page – like us here to see the latest updates on all our safari offers and opportunities, and you can share your photos there too. We have big dreams for our conservation work – please help us get there by spreading the word about our ethical safaris!
Don’t forget it’s not too late to sign up to join me in northern Zimbabwe in September next year, and I still have one spot left for a single woman sharing in North West Namibia in May (last minute discount available for the latter). There are great deals available for family and group safaris in 2016 all over Africa’s safari regions, especially if you go in the green season. May 2016 be a year of adventure, excitement and inspiration for you all and I hope to see you by the campfire under a starry African sky soon!
I’m getting very excited about my upcoming safaris in 2016, which are set to be in some of Africa’s most spectacular wilderness areas! As always when you book with Matson & Ridley Safaris, the whole experience are specially hand-designed by me every step of the way to ensure that your hard earned dollars are spent as ethically as possible, to maximise benefits flowing back to African people and their wildlife. And of course, I choose the areas and camps I want to go to based on the best I can find in terms of wildlife experience, exclusivity, camp feeling and local culture – so you get a mind-blowing African journey that will change your life. Most groups I take are between 8 and 12 people, so you get to know people really well. Imagine yourself spending time with like minds on the savannah while watching elephants and then spinning a few yarns under the starry night sky by the campfire later – life doesn’t get much better really!
I have a few spots for my safaris left in 2016, but don’t wait to grab your spots as these have to be booked this year.
20-27 Feb 2016.
Up to 7 places left, but time is very limited to sign up for this trip as you only have until THIS FRIDAY! Check out my photos from last year’s trip. An unforgettable journey – I can’t recommend this area highly enough!
20-27 May 2016.
Only one spot left for a single female!! Check out my photos from this year’s trip to Namibia.
23-30 September 2016.
Only 3 spots left! This trip is different to the one I advertised previously as it focuses only on northern Zimbabwe. We are going to some of the most wildlife rich areas in Africa – an unbeatable nature experience at some of the most gorgeous camps in the country. Contact me for the itinerary.
Shortly I’ll be releasing the details of the conservation safaris I’ll be leading in 2017. I can share at this stage that there will be two back-to-back ethical safaris that you can join either one of or both during August 2017. The first, starting on 8 August 2017, will be to Rwanda to experience the incredible Mountain Gorillas up close and personal. The second starting 5 days later, is in Tanzania, exploring the great plains of East Africa’s Great Rift Valley, first at Ngorogoro Crater and then onto the world famous Serengeti, during the height of the wildebeest migration. There will be an add-on adventure at the foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro for those who are keen to continue the journey after the Serengeti! Full details of both of these adventures will be in a blog very soon, but do drop me a line if you’re keen to register your interest…
One of the most enjoyable things I get to do as a zoologist is talk to kids about elephants. Kids give you instant feedback. There are no inhibitions, just a whole lot of questions, and when it comes to elephants, frankly, kids just get it. You don’t have to convince children to appreciate and want to conserve animals. They simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to. I get questions like, “Why don’t people do something else to get money other than kill elephants?”, “Why don’t we just leave the elephants to be in the wild?”, and “Why do people buy ivory instead of some other kind of jewellery?” All brilliant, simple questions that make you wonder why we grown ups are such damned idiots. The kids of today will inherit the legacy of our action – or inaction – and we need to remember that.
What happens to us as we grow up? Do we forget how much we loved animals as kids? Other things become more important, and the magic of the animal world becomes secondary to earning a living, buying the latest iPhone and upgrading the family car. I’m not criticising. As a mother of two, I know how tough it is to make ends meet and raise a young family. But every so often, I’m lucky enough to get a reality check by the young people who attend my talks on elephants, who remind me, as my own kids often do, what’s really important.
Many people don’t understand why elephants are so vital to conserve, why they’re considered a ‘keystone’ species in ecosystems. It’s not only because they are naturally the ‘gardeners’ of the forests and savannahs, having a major role in shaping habitats, they are also integral in dispersing and germinating seeds, and providing other animals with food and water and salt. A recent study also showed reptile and frog diversity is higher in areas with high elephant activity. They matter ecologically. Their dung is like pure rich fertiliser and is a great food source in itself for many animals (because much of what they eat is undigested). The habitats elephants live in would look completely different without them there. And of course, there is the intrinsic value of elephants. What would the world be without them? The deserve to be here as much as we do!
I’ve just returned from a whirlwind week of talks on elephants in Singapore and Melbourne where the importance of conserving elephants has been a key topic. I combined the Round Square Conference (hosted by United World College, Singapore) for 1000+ high school kids and their teachers from all around the world, with about 400 passionate Aussies marching at the Global March for Elephants and Rhinos in Melbourne, and snuck in a session talking elephants at the Singapore Botanical Gardens and a showing of the LEBE film at the University of Melbourne (hosted by A Future With Elephants) while I was at it. Here’s a few photos showing the highlights.
Special thanks to Belinda Duffield-Torr who helped fund my visit to Melbourne and organised the Melbourne March, Susan Edwards and the amazing team from UWC who arranged for me to be one of the speakers at the Round Square conference, Mandy Heng, Vilma d’Rozario and Winnie Wong who made my talk at the Singapore Botanical Gardens happen, and Evan Bitner for organising the film showing by A Future With Elephants. Thanks to everyone who showed up and added their two bobs worth to the discussions!
One of the most inspiring things of the week for me was when two small boys, aged 7 and 9, presented me with a cheque for our LEBE campaign. Sammy, the younger of the two, had been to my talk on elephants at his school, UWC in Singapore, about a year ago, and had been so inspired to help that he raised $500 among his family and friends! This is the sort of thing that makes me believe that wildlife has a future in the world and it just goes to show that anyone can do something for wildlife. You don’t need to be a pro!
If you’re interested in having me as a speaker about elephants at your school/business/club, please get in touch with me here.
In the world of elephants, it’s not often that you see conservationists celebrating. President Xi Jinping of China’s announcement on Friday last week that China will join the USA in enacting near total bans on domestic ivory trade is… I think… worth cracking the bubbly over. We don’t entirely know the detail yet, and there is no timeline, other than what was in the White House’s statement, which includes agreement between China and the USA to work together in “joint training, technical exchanges, information sharing and public education”. But this could be a winning combination.
It will of course take some time to see the effects of these Presidents’ commitments, but this is definitely a big step in the right direction and with President Xi Jinping publicly declaring his support, surely this should make it a priority for Chinese policy. This is most significant because China is the world’s largest consumer country for ivory, representing about 70% of the trade, with the USA coming in second. With these two Presidents clearly stating their position that ivory trade will not be tolerated, this sets a precedent that other countries can now follow. Other south east Asian countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong and Thailand, also play key roles in the illegal trade, either as consumers or transit countries for illegal ivory.
In the last year or so we’ve seen several big players in the ivory trade undertake ivory stockpile crushings (the governments of the Philippines, Hong Kong, the US and China being a few). While this doesn’t really do anything to stop the trade, it does send a strong message that these governments are committed to ending the bloody illegal ivory trade.
Is the world turning a corner when it comes to ivory trade? Is the whirlwind of awareness raising starting to cut through in key consumer and transit countries for ivory? And most importantly, how long will it take for this to make a difference for elephants? Personally, I won’t be really celebrating until we start to see real population trends for elephants in the wild start to improve, and that’s certainly not happening yet. It was only a very short time ago that both Mozambique and Tanzania reported that at least half of their elephant populations have been poached in the last 5 years. Today, I feel cautiously optimistic, but we do need to keep the momentum up.
As I’m about to fly to Singapore and Melbourne for a week of talks on elephants, I’ve been investigating what the Singapore and Australian governments are doing to stop illegal ivory trade. In May this year, Singapore Customs seized their biggest illegal haul in over a decade, including $6 million worth of ivory. But we have yet to see any significant government ivory-related statements from either Singapore or Australia. When I met with Singaporean authorities last year to discuss this issue, I was informed that the Lion City would be crushing its official ivory stockpile shortly, but I haven’t heard anything since. In addition, with the strong influence that both southern hemisphere powerhouses have over other countries in Asia, particularly those that are struggling to get on top of this problem, I think both countries could do more to help this problem by exerting their influence in the region. It’d be great to see support from the governments of Australia and Singapore for countries like the Philippines and Thailand, to help them in the fight against illegal wildlife trade.
We know from the latest CITES report that the level of poaching of elephants is still unsustainable (and has been since 2008) – see the graph below. Anything above the red line is unsustainable (measured against natural population growth rates).
So elephants are far from being out of the woods. However, in addition to last Friday’s announcement from the White House, what also gives me some hope is that Wild Aid is starting to demonstrate some significant results from their Public Service Announcements in China, featuring the likes of David Beckham, Prince William and Chinese basketball player, Yao Ming, for both ivory and rhino horn. Wild Aid’s assessments suggest that awareness of this issue in China is improving (comparing 2012 to 2014), with a 51% increase in people surveyed realising that poaching is a problem and 90% of those who had seen the PSAs saying they would not buy ivory as a result. Read the report here.
Around the world on Sunday 4th October, hundreds of thousands of elephant- and rhino-lovers will congregate at the March For Elephants and Rhinos in 130+ cities. I’ll be marching and speaking at the Melbourne one, which has over 500 people coming. Melbourne residents can sign up to the march on Facebook. Anyone can sign the petition put together by the March organisers to encourage the Australian government to go further – click here to sign.
For those who want to learn more about the illegal ivory trade, please also come to watch the ‘Let Elephants Be Elephants‘ film and hear the latest from me on elephants the day before in Melbourne (this Saturday at 11am). You can RSVP here (where there are also full details of time and venue on Saturday). Singaporeans can join my talk at the Botanical Gardens this Friday at 4pm (full details here). It’s never been so important to keep the momentum up and show the world that we care about elephants and rhinos and will not stand by while they perish on our watch. Let’s all stand together and encourage all governments to follow the lead of China and the USA and commit to ending the illegal ivory trade!
It had been a few years since I’d been back to Namibia, the desert land where I studied black-faced impalas for my PhD, later planning a reintroduction for the subspecies to their historic range in the far north west. Namibia is also where I went on to start my work on elephants, working with the San Bushmen in Nyae Nyae Conservancy to help alleviate human-elephant conflict over water. Namibia will always have a special place in my heart, and it gave me a great grounding in the how-to of practical conservation. It’s also a great place to go on safari, being easy and safe by African standards, and having the most astounding landscapes, fascinating cultures and unique wildlife, unlike anywhere else.
I believe Namibia is one of the best countries in the world in terms of innovative, practical conservation, largely because of their highly successful community-based conservation efforts, centred around the communal conservancies. There’s no better place to visit than camps like Doro !Nawas Camp, Damaraland Camp, Serra Cafema Camp and Desert Rhino Camp, if you want to see how engaged local communities get when they have genuine ownership over their natural resources. It’s not only the fact that you have locals running these camps, as managers, waiters and guides – it’s the warm feeling you get from the staff, who are not just employees but owners and landlords.
I had a fantastic group of people on safari with me this time, mostly expats from Singapore of Dutch, Indian and American backgrounds, as well as a representative Aussie and a Kenyan! They were all up for an adventure, and that’s certainly what Namibia provides. Flying over the vast landscapes is half the experience, seeing the dune shapes from the air and if you’re lucky, seeing flamingoes and seals along the coast!
We kicked off the safari at Kulala Desert Lodge, the closest camp to the famous Sossusvlei area in the Namib Naukluft Park. I was delighted to find that my research assistant, Munekamba (now known as Ati-Sari), who helped me on my black-faced impala studies in north-west Namibia, is now the manager at Kulala Desert Lodge. If you’ve read my second book “Elephant Dance” you’ll remember the story of the two bull elephants standing over my tent while my assistant looked on from his roof top tent – well, that was Munekamba! After we worked together I introduced him to the managers at one of the Wilderness Safaris camps, and he’s done so well that he’s now managing one of their busiest camps. I’m stoked to say Munekamba saw his first elephant with me back in 2006 – and it was standing over my tent at the time!
Kulala Desert Lodge is a great place to explore the Namib from. If you want, you can actually sleep on the roofs of the gorgeous chalets, star gazing from your bed as you drift off to sleep, however it wasn’t the best night for it for one of my group, Robert, as during the night a sand storm blew in and he had to make a quick departure inside! It was a wild morning in the dunes, as the more adventurous among us climbed the dunes, being literally blown right off their feet as cyclonic winds whipped across the desiccated landscape.
At Dead Vlei however, it was perfectly calm, somehow protected from the winds by its sunken position. We discovered several fascinating species in the Namib, including the white lady spider and a horned adder at Sesreim Canyon, plus a wonderful spotted eagle owl in a tree near where we stopped for coffee, all well spotted by our excellent Wilderness Safaris guides. But to me it’s always the oryx that steal the show in the Namib, these magnificent antelopes with their black and white markings and sharp, straight horns that make them stand out so strikingly against the pastel colours of the mountains.
Then it was off to Desert Rhino Camp at Palmwag in Damaraland, a place of incredible red, rocky, mountainous landscapes, and home of rare black rhinos who munch on toxic milk bushes (Euphorbia damarana), springbok and oryx, kudu and many more desert- adapted creatures. If the Namib is like landing on the moon, then Damaraland is like going to Mars. Here were were lucky enough to experience spotted hyaenas at a den, including two very young ones who walked right up to our vehicles with not a care in the world.
We joined the Save The Rhino Trust trackers on a walk to see a black rhino they had found earlier that morning, a bull known as “Don’t Worry”, who had been dehorned as part of a Ministry of Environment and Tourism initiative to reduce poaching in Damaraland. It never feels right to me to see a rhino without its horn, and I worry about the ability of the rhinos to defend their young against lions and conduct normal behaviours without this natural appendage. Sadly, there is evidence that poachers will still kill dehorned rhinos for the small amount of horn left below the skin, because of its high value on the illegal market in Vietnam.
There was lots of discussion around the campfire about rhino conservation, and a recurrent theme was the issue of legalising the trade in rhino horn, which seemed to be a popular idea among all the Namibian wardens, guides and rangers I spoke to. Many people in Namibia feel that they should be benefiting from the horns, not the criminals involved in the trade, or that the sales of horn could support rhino conservation. While this makes sense to me, I can’t imagine how wild rhinos, with such low populations today, and continuing to decline at 1000+ per year, could sustain a market in Vietnam, with its growing population of 93 million+ and increasing wealth. In Africa, a single horn can fetch three year’s worth of a local person’s monthly salary, so there are very real incentives for good guys to sacrifice conservation for economic motivation. We have to continue to support anti-poaching efforts in Africa, but I’m more convinced than ever that reducing demand in Vietnam is the most effective weapon we have to stop the slaughter. That’s why I think awareness campaigns in Vietnam (like Breaking the Brand) need much greater support, targeting the elite audience who are buying it. This battle cannot be won in Africa alone.
Desert Rhino Camp is a partnership between Wilderness Safaris and both Save The Rhino Trust and 3 Damara communities surrounding the Palmwag concession. Going there is truly supporting conservation because what you pay to visit directly supports the 3 communities and pays for the trackers to protect the rhino every day in the concession. I love examples of genuine community-based conservation like this, based on sound economic principles. And quite besides the feel good factor of going there and knowing the contribution you’re making makes a real difference, which the staff remind you about all the time by thanking you at least three times a day, the feeling in this camp is just magical. The staff sing and dance every night (and boy, have they got rhythm!), and on our last night they arranged a surprise starlit dinner out in the bush, something that me and my group will never forget. It was the highlight of our Namibian journey.
Finally it was off to see some big animals up close at the Ongava Game Reserve, right next to Etosha National Park. For me this is really home territory as I was based there for two years in a battered old caravan at Okaukeujo research camp while collecting data on black-faced impalas for my PhD. This part of the world is really fantastic in terms of wildlife in September, the dry season, because you get the big concentrations of animals at the waterholes, and on this front it didn’t disappoint. You can simply sit at a waterhole for hours in Etosha at this time of year, just watching the hundreds of animals come and go.
We also spent some time with mating lions in Etosha, walked up to white rhinos at Ongava and shared a cup of coffee at Okaukeujo waterhole with my old friends, Shayne Kotting (MET warden, Okaukeujo) and Birgit Kotting (MET, head of the rhino custodianship program).
I’d like to thank Dr Julian Fennessy of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation for giving us a talk on the plight of Africa’s giraffes on our first night in Windhoek and for joining us for a fun night at Joe’s Beerhouse afterwards. Julian really opened our eyes about the increasingly worrying state of Africa’s giraffe subspecies, and watch the IUCN red list this year which is likely to suggest that quite a few giraffe species are more endangered than we realised.
Thanks also to Abigail Guerier at Ongava Research Centre for the fascinating talk at Ongava on our last day on her work on the genetics of white rhinos. Fascinating to learn about the complex life histories of these prehistoric giants. Let’s just hope they are around for our children to see!
All in all, it was a fantastic life-changing journey, one that I certainly won’t forget, and I hope that all who joined me are now great ambassadors for the cause of conserving Africa’s wildlife. If you’re interested in joining my next Namibian adventure, contact me to sign up for an odyssey in to the ruggedly beautiful Skeleton Coast from 20-27 May next year, limited to 10 people and already half full. And last but not least…
Finally, a very big thanks to Susan van der Vloodt, who brought most of her family and friends along on this magical journey. There’s nothing like sharing an African experience with the ones you love, and for me it’s a real privilege to share Africa with others who love being there as much as I do!
If you love elephants and would like to know more about their plight and what you can do to help conserve them in the wild, please come and join me at one of the following events in early October in Singapore and Melbourne. Bookings are not required.
Come along to see the short film our Let Elephants Be Elephants team made on the illegal ivory trade last year, as shown on National Geographic channel across Asia last year, and hear the latest on elephants from me, on Saturday 3rd October at Melbourne University. Then join us on the Sunday morning (4th Oct) as we raise awareness as part of the Global March For Elephants and Rhinos.
Date: Saturday 3rd October
Venue: Lyle Theatre, University of Melbourne, Faculty of Veterinary & Agricultural Sciences, Building 115, Room 101, Royal Pde Parkville, 3010.
Cost: $10 (this goes to elephant conservation)
RSVP at Eventbrite.
Host: A Future With Elephants
Date: Sunday 4th October
Venue: Meet at Federation Square and peacefully march to Parliament Steps, Spring Street
Join us for a LEBE film showing & talk
Host: Singapore Botanical Gardens & N Parks
Date: Friday 2nd October
Venue: Function Hall, Botany Centre, Botanical Gardens
Love to see you there & bring any friends you think might be interested!
Friends in Melbourne and Singapore, I’m coming your way to talk elephants in early October so if you’re around please come along to see some beautiful elephant images an update from me on all things elephantine! More details of the events are coming soon, but for now put these dates in your diary! All of my books will be available at these events.
FRIDAY 2ND OCTOBER – Singapore Botanical Gardens, Function Hall. 4pm-5pm.
SATURDAY 3RD OCTOBER – Melbourne University, hosted by A Future With Elephants, including the Melbourne premiere of ‘Let Elephants Be Elephants‘ and presentation by yours truly. This will be held between 11am and 2pm, so won’t clash with any of you who are going to the AFL Grand Final that evening. Exact times and venue to be revealed shortly.
SUNDAY 4TH OCTOBER – Melbourne March For Elephants. 10.30am for an 11am start at Federation Square. Peaceful march through the city to Parliament Steps followed by speeches. Come and show your support for elephants and ending the illegal ivory trade! Join up here.
There is a reason why Kenya’s Maasai Mara is so famous. Not only is this World Heritage Site Kenya’s most visited reserve, famous for its high density of herbivores and predators, it also protects one of the planet’s last great migrations of mammals, including about 2 million wildebeests, and a thousands of gazelles and zebras, which visit between July and October.
Now large herds of tourists aren’t my cup of tea, so while I just had to tick the Mara off my bucket list of must-see wildlife places, I didn’t want to share it with dozens of other homo sapiens in their open-top land cruisers. That’s one reason why I chose to use Asilia as my ground operator for my first group safari in the Mara, because their intimate, small camps make for an experience that is private and exclusive, and being in the private conservancies bordering the reserve itself you’re not lining up at cheetah kills with 17 other cars full of tourists. I can’t tell you what a huge difference this makes to your safari.
The other reason I chose Asilia is for their positive community and conservation impacts, which my group contributed to simply by going on the safari. We stayed at Naibosho Camp and the Mara Bush Houses, both part of unique conservancy partnerships that directly benefit local Maasai land owners, not only through paying rent in hard cash from the money people like us pay for the privilege of being there, but also through a whole lot of other benefits, like guide training, scholarships for primary school students and future conservation leaders. This is exactly the kind of tourism I like, because not only are the camps themselves low environmental impact (Naibosho is almost entirely run on solar and they use bucket showers to minimise water use), but they are sustainable in the long term because they’re directly linked to and benefiting communities.
So, all in all, a truly ethical safari with an absolutely brilliant bunch of Aussies. And the wildlife…. Holy moly! I don’t think I’ve ever seen the sheer volume of animals that we saw in the Mara anywhere else in Africa. The wildebeests were in their tens of thousands, far too many to count, and the sense of space you get on the vast plains of East Africa can’t be compared with anywhere else. And of course the huge numbers of herbivores draws big prides of lions. One group we saw had 9 cubs and at least 4 adults in the group. Lions mating. Lions stalking. Lions lying around, which of course is what they do best. I’ve never seen so many lions in one place.
A talk by resident Danish lion expert, Niels Mogensen, from the Mara Naibosho Lion Project, on the first day, really put things in perspective. The thing is, when you go on safari in a national park to see the animals, you could easily overlook the fact that there are local indigenous communities that live on the periphery and who are living with the wildlife and without their buy in the wildlife wouldn’t stand a chance. Maasai culture is centred on their cattle, which represent wealth and status, and over-grazing by cattle could be a serious threat to the Mara ecosystem, but community-based tourism gives them an alternative income source. Maasai herders are compensated if a lion kills one of their cattle. It’s not perfect, and it’s an ongoing process to try and find a harmony between people’s needs, their culture and the conservation of wildlife. But I think all of my group walked away with a deeper understanding of the reality of conserving this region’s wildlife, and the challenges local community and conservation workers face in finding a balance that works for everyone.
Now time for just a few of my favourite pictures showing a few of the highlights of our safari…. And if you’d like to experience the Maasai Mara with me, I can’t recommend it highly enough and I will be taking a group there for the wildebeest baby boom from 20-27 February next year so please contact me if you’d like to join. This is no ordinary safari. You’ll be with me and a small group of like-minded individuals on the experience of a lifetime, hand picked and organised by me all the way through. Here’s what a couple of my group members from this trip had to say about it!
“It was such a wonderful time the group was great thoroughly enjoyed our meals with each other as it was still intimate with the 13 of us! Such fun we had! With you as our leader you were just perfect! I am so glad I have met you (finally) and travelled with you, you are an inspiration! Keep up all your fantastic work!” Leonie Bayley
“Tammie, it was such an amazing time- it all seems like a dream!! It certainly was the experience of a lifetime. You did an amazing job coordinating it all and creating such a wonderful experience for all of us. Hopefully one to be repeated!” Sheelin Coates
We’ve seen some promising signs from China in the last week in relation to the ivory trade driving elephant poaching in Africa, with the Chinese government conducting their third ivory destruction in the last eighteen months and committing to phase out its legal, domestic ivory industry. No time line has yet been given, but it is encouraging to see the Chinese taking stronger measures and the steps have been lauded by conservation organisations.
So are attitudes changing? A survey by WildAid showed that 95% of Chinese supported a total ban on ivory sales. Another one by WildAid, the African Wildlife Foundation and Save The Elephants showed that three quarters of Hong Kong residents supported a ban on ivory sales there too. Hong Kong is a major transit point for ivory to Chinese market places.
The Let Elephants Be Elephants team participated in an awareness and fund raiser for elephants in Hong Kong in November last year, run by the Hong Kong Elephant Society. Our campaign has always been focused on South East Asia, but we are now starting to form some good working partnerships with organisations in Hong Kong as well.
There were some great heroes of conservation in the room that night. In one of the most special moments of my career, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr Goodall (photo above), whose book “In The Shadow of Man” I read when I was dreaming of becoming a wildlife researcher back in the early 1990s. Richard Bonham, COO of Big Life, went on from our event in Hong Kong to London to accept Prince William’s Life Time Achievement Award for conservation, so we were in fine company! Also there in support of elephants were the pro-environment Hong Kong politician, Elizabeth Quat and Hong Kong For Elephants‘ campaigner Alex Hofford. The night raised significant funds for three organisations, including a donation to LEBE’s Thailand demand reduction campaign.
Following successful launches in Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Indonesia, the Let Elephants Be Elephants campaign is planning to focus on Thailand’s ivory market in the next phase of the campaign, and this year so far we’ve been working on bringing in funds and developing the partnerships to roll out the campaign.
We’re heartened by the fact that the Thai government has taken some strong measures towards controlling their ivory markets in the last year, including strengthening laws around ivory trade and clamping down on registration of ivory across the country. We don’t entirely know what this means yet for ivory markets and elephants. LEBE co-founder Nadya Hutagalung found fewer stalls selling ivory in Bangkok during her visit there earlier this year than last year during the filming of the LEBE documentary, which was encouraging, but may also suggest the sellers are uncertain of what the future holds. What we don’t know is whether ivory sales have simply gone underground, and how long existing measures will be enforced. The need for education to reduce demand for ivory remains as strong as ever.
So what’s happening in Africa? Well, the bad news this week has been the WCS report showing the devastating loss of half of Mozambique’s elephants in the last five years. In neighbouring Tanzania, new census figures have shown a decline of 60% of the nation’s elephants in the last five years. This is happening right now! In addition, in western and central Africa, the ivory war is as bloody as ever.
Thankfully there was some good news in amongst the bad this week in the elephant world. This week I was heartened to see a report by WCS from Uganda showing that their elephant population is on the rise, with more than 5000 across the country (still quite low numbers in the big scheme of things however). And don’t forget that in countries like Botswana, the country with the world’s largest elephant population, they are doing just fine. I saw a commentary just today suggesting that South Africa has ‘too many’ elephants, a term I used to hear a lot when I lived in southern Africa in the early 2000s, but not so much these days. Does South Africa have too many elephants or just too little land?
With some countries at threat of losing most or even all of their elephants in the next decade, and others with good, strong populations, we need to look at Africa’s elephant population as just that – Africa’s – rather than one or another country’s elephants, because the species roams across human-defined border as if they don’t exist. The good thing about this is that elephants can expand into new areas when they know they are safe, repopulating former ranges across borders, and that’s where the idea of Africa as a series of interconnected parks and communal conservancies gets interesting. This is already happening in several countries, with great results.
I guess my point this week is that it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the stories out there about the ivory wars, but bear in mind that both Africa and Asia are big places and the situation is different everywhere. While we might be losing the ivory war in some countries, and we may well see localised extinctions of elephants in some parks and/or countries in the next decade, we’re starting to see improvements in others. So don’t lose hope.
Remember that if you love Africa and you love elephants, make your next safari an ethical one that ‘gives back’ to the local communities who live with elephants and ensure their survival. Drop me a line for more info on joining one of my conservation focused safaris that make a difference.