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Killer whales in captivity: guest post by Ben Stockwell

My latest Kate on Conservation guest blog post explores the reality of orcas in captivity. Just two weeks after a new film detailing the story of Tokitae (renamed Lolita by Miami Seaquarium) was shared online, this post from Ben Stockwell was inspired by his Geography dissertation, and reminds us all why the issue of orca captivity is one we should still be talking about after the death of SeaWorld’s Tilikum.

Exploitation or Conservation Education?  

sea world tilikum

In 2014 I wrote my undergraduate Geography dissertation, entitled Killer whales in captivity: Exploitation or Conservation and Education?  Since then, public and media attention around the topic has soared as a result of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s incredible Blackfish released in 2013.

The documentary followed the life of SeaWorld’s prized bull orca, Tillikum, and his involvement in the tragic deaths of three people, highlighting the issues with keeping such large, intelligent animals captive along the way.  

Whilst publication of the topic is not in short supply, I couldn’t let this stop me (finally) sharing some of my findings. I have chosen to focus on my favourite section of the project, which looked at the pros and cons of anthropomorphising orcas (assigning them human characteristics). Now this might not seem like a good way of arguing for or against keeping orcas captive, but just bear with me.  

Humans certainly have a desire to label things, especially in ways that we can relate to. Take pets; we give them human names and assign them human characteristics. A good example is the viral sensation ‘Grumpy Cat’, whose underbite and feline dwarfism induced ‘grumpy’ face made her a social media sensation (she even has her own movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever!). By identifying animals, such as a (grumpy) cat, as having shared features and even emotions with us, we can empathise and relate to them, forming tighter bonds.    

In the case of SeaWorld, these bonds are developed via the naming of their orcas, say Tilikum, or even ‘Tilly’ for short. Additionally, the orca perform human actions throughout the show, splashing the crowd and blowing raspberries — a playful act that signifies their intelligence and further helps us empathise with them. They reinforce this message by referring to trainers and orcas as being part of ‘one really big family’ and each orca having a ‘unique personality’. 

Sea world, Florida

The shows combine anthropomorphisation of the orca with repeated messaging about our ‘one ocean’ that is under threat, which through ‘conservation and education’, ‘we’ can help to protect. I do actually think that these techniques will inspire many watching about the species and their natural habitats. You only need to look at dogs and cats, animals we have forever anthropomorphised, and look how well we treat them!  

However, this all needs to be considered in the context of these being wild animals living in unnatural circumstances. Suggesting they are ‘one big family’ is simply not true, as the artificial pods in captivity are often highly dysfunctional, comprised of individuals from sub-species thrown together in a small pool. The result is often raised levels of aggression towards each other (and humans), high levels of stress and abnormal behaviours.  

Similarly, applying human characteristics to animals, like names and human behaviours, hardly educates the public about orcas in the wild (or even the issues they face). Yes, being able to blow bubbles on command is impressive, but it’s not a natural behaviour that would occur without our interference. I think this provides very little educational value to the shows and whilst they do attempt to inspire the audience to relate to the orca, I would be very interested to know how many people go on to donate to conservation efforts as a result.  

In fact, it is highly likely that this form of consumptive tourism attributes to some of the issues orca face in the wild anyways. Think about the number of single-use plastics sold at SeaWorld – how many of those end up in in the marine environment? Even SeaWorld’s own orca have a legacy of damaging wild populations – the Southern Resident population is now Endangered, largely as a result of the 47 individuals killed or captured by the industry in the 60s and 70s. I suppose there is a strange irony that this staged spectacle is sold as a conservation and education tool, whilst it may well have contributed or is still contributing to the plight of wild killer whales (but this is a whole other section of my project, which I won’t bore you with!).

Ben Stockwell, Galapagos Conservation TrustBen Stockwell completed a degree in physical geography, focussing his dissertation on keeping killer whales in captivity, before going on to complete a Masters in Conservation Ecology. Working for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, he gained experience in community engagement and urban conservation and is now working for the Galapagos Conservation Trust as the Communications and Membership Assistant.

 

Find out more about whale and dolphin conservation here: http://uk.whales.org/

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Travel, adventure, parties and… natural history! – Guest post by Adventure Ed

Starting the year with a focus on achieving success in 2018, young adventurer and bird specialist Eddie Williams, aka Adventure Ed, from California offers his perspective on making conservation cool and reaching new audiences with his one of a kind YouTube channel.       

adventure ed title card I have started a Youtube Channel that combines travel with environmental education in a way you may have never seen before.

Before I explain the details, I want you to ask yourself this question: How are you unique? I believe this is a question everybody should ask themselves. Though it is extremely cliche, everyone is unique in his or her own way, and if you realize your uniqueness, not only will the world be more colourful, but you will remember your purpose in life.

I am unique, like everyone else. I am a 27-year old guy who likes doing the things that most guys my age like doing. I like working out, watching football, going to the beach, and going to parties with my friends. Like many others, I enjoy the outdoors, but my fondness for nature is not average. Nature has dictated the course of my life so much that I now work as a wildlife biologist with a focus on birds. Not only do I study birds but I am also a keen recreational birder (birdwatcher). In case you do not know about the hobby of birding, it is when people actively observe birds in their habitats.

2018 year of the bird adventure Ed

Birding, as you might imagine, has some solid stereotypes. People think it’s “too simple” or “boring” or “awkward”. People joke that birding is for a dork still living in his or her parents’ basement or for a strange hippy lost in his or her own world. These stereotypes are not only often given to birders but also to people who actively observe and appreciate nature in general.

Back to the original question: how am I unique?  Well, I am a 27-year-old birder. The vast majority of birders are much older and many are senior citizens.  But I like to think that is not the only way I am unique because I believe that I defy the stereotypes of birders. I may enjoy a bit of weirdness and awkward humour, but like I said earlier I am just like everyone else at the end of day. I am no nature nerd, but a nature stud… Okay, that was a joke, as I don’t want to brag too much about my beautiful plumage! (Another bird joke). Throughout my entire life I have wanted to share my passion of nature and birds with other people and show that it is not for dorks or hippies but is really cool and interesting. My love of nature has become contagious and I have found that people can appreciate anything as long as you make it cool.

For example, in my early twenties I spent two and a half years traveling, studying, teaching, and doing ecological fieldwork in Australia and Central America. I met thousands of younger travelers who had never heard of birding or had assumed the usual stereotypes. But after an introductory bird walk and hitting up a beach party with me, pretty much every person I met learned to appreciate birding. My personal belief is that there would be more young birders in the world if they were properly exposed to birding.

adventure ed twitter bird pic

Just like anyone who travels I fell in love with the vagabond life. I visited many tourist destinations throughout the tropics that were developing rapidly and thought about the environmental impacts of the tourism industry in these places. I wondered how many of the other young travelers attending the beach parties actually thought about their environmental impacts.

I never really watched Youtube until a while after I came back to the USA and I discovered an entire community of travel vloggers sharing the world with each other. I realized that Youtube was a way to reach out and spread a message to people all over the world no matter what the size of the audience. It’s a potential way to make a difference in the world and a creative outlet to embrace one’s uniqueness. So I decided to start my vlog channel that combines travel with environmental education. It is called Adventure Ed.

Adventure Ed will show you my adventures around the world where I go birding, do other outdoor activities, and explore the young traveler party life. I will give budget travel tips, educate about birds and natural history, and give a perspective on environmental issues surrounding the places I visit by interviewing locals.

My ultimate goals are two-fold. The first is to get millennials more in touch with nature and expose the hobby of birding to people who have never been exposed to it before.

The goal is not to convert everyone into a birder but rather to make them appreciate the hobby and the general observation of nature. By using myself as an example and defying the stereotypes I hope that younger people see that nature is cool. Most young people think that partying is cool, so it is one way I will relate to my target audience. I encourage everyone to go out and have fun like the cool kids (in a legal and controlled manner) as long as they take time to appreciate the natural world around them.

The second goal is to educate about environmental issues surrounding tourism. I want tourists who are going to beautiful destinations to party to realize their potential environmental impact. Instead of ridiculing young party-goers, I join them, and advise that they consider their impacts.

Yes, this is a radical way to do environmental education, and that is my full intent. My main target audience is millennials, but there are aspects of this channel that will interest everyone.  If you do not like watching the beach parties, then maybe you will love the footage of exotic wild animals and learning fun scientific facts.

I started my channel a few months ago and my following is currently very small. I am brand new to videography and my videos are rough around the edges, but I am working hard to improve my skills. Fortunately I have a job schedule in which I work long stretches overtime and receive long breaks, which allows me to travel frequently and film content. This winter I am visiting Thailand, Panama, and Vietnam, where I hope to have a lot of fun and see a lot of cool wildlife.

If you are interested in learning about budget travel, nature, and environmental issues, I suggest you take a look at the channel. If you like the content, all I ask is that you click the subscribe button.  My goal for the end of 2018 is to get to 1,000 subscribers.

 

Subscribe to Eddie’s YouTube Channel and help him reach 1,000 subscribers by the end of the year by clicking here.

Adventure EdEddie is a 27-year-old wildlife biologist from California who specializes in birds. His YouTube channel combines travel, environmental education, and pure fun. He provides budget travel advice and shares his passion and knowledge of science and nature. He explores both the natural world and party life, two activities not usually associated with each other. He says his ultimate goal is to get more millennials in touch with nature.

 

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Save The Asian Elephants: Tourists, temples and traditions

STAE save the asian elephants

This month kicked off with World Wildlife Day, and for me, the weekend immediately following meant an opportunity to visit the Animal Welfare Bazaar in Ealing. It was my first opportunity to attend the event, which has been running for 39 years(!), and I must admit, it was a treat to see some of my favourite charities and causes coming together.

A particular highlight of these kinds of events is discovering charities I know little or nothing about. In this case, it was Save The Asian Elephants (STAE).

STAE team at Ealing Animal Bazaar

Now, the plight of elephants in Africa is widely recognised — I’ve written several blog posts on the ivory trade and the rate at which African elephants are poached — but far lesser known, and spoken of, are the desperate threats facing Asian elephants.

Astonishingly, the surviving population of Asian elephants is barely 5% of that of African elephants — with a huge decline from estimates of a million or more in the late 19th century to scarcely 40,000 today! Around 10,000 of these are captive.

Mali the elephant in the zoo

While the majority of Asian elephants are found in India and Sri Lanka, there are small populations in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and (among others) Thailand. I mention these countries specifically because they are all places where I have see photographs of elephant rides and ‘elephant painting’ for tourists.

I recently watched the incredible BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise, and learnt about some of the terrible ordeals these animals face when they are snatched from their forest homes to supply tourist attractions and festivals. Often the young elephants’ mothers and other adult herd members are slaughtered as they try to protect their young.

Elephant sanctuary BBC series Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise

Elephant sanctuary to rehabilitate captive Asian elephants featured in the BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise

The Asian elephant, which has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1986, faces a bigger threat from the tourist industry then it does the ivory trade, as a lifetime of tourist rides are more lucrative than the one-off sale of its ivory.

Unlike the African elephant, only male Asian elephants grow tusks — meaning the enslavement and exploitation of these creatures for tourist attractions brings in money where it otherwise wouldn’t be found. However, the Wildlife Protection Society of India still reported that over 121 elephants were lost to poaching between 2008-2011.

Asian elephants are smaller and less aggressive than their African counterparts making them ‘easier to tame’. Their gentle nature sees them stolen from the wild, forced into a pen and tied with ropes to prevent them moving. Deprived of water, food and sleep, they are brutally (sometimes fatally) beaten with bullhooks, rods, chains and other implements of torture.

The ‘breaking in’ process, known as “pajan” ends in the death of 50% of the elephants it intends to ‘domesticate’.

Captive Indian elephants + trainers

The life of pain, fear, dehydration and abuse that a captive elephant faces is something I have witnessed firsthand in Indonesiasomething I have written about in the past.

I have seen Sumatran elephants intimidated with wooden sticks into performing circus-style ‘tricks’; such as balancing (i.e. walking along a relatively thin bench), throwing a basketball into a hoop and using their trunks to paint using a paintbrush. It was awful. Sickening.

Most holidaymakers are unaware that many elephants have been captured from the wild, trained through fear and beaten into continuing their work: often carrying heavy loads of 2-4 tourists on metal seats on their backs. Their tusks are often blunted with chainsaws; the ends removed in a stressful and terrifying ordeal.

This cruel and harsh life — often spent with legs bound in short, tight chains — is not dissimilar to that experienced by ‘temple elephants’.

Chained to tradition by Emily Garthwaite

I remember seeing a photograph of a temple elephant at a previous year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. ‘Chained to tradition’ by photographer Emily Garthwaite shows a desperate, pained-looking elephant with bound legs, looking as though it’s literally crying out for help.

These captive elephants are used for religious ceremonies and rented out for festivals. Often their legs are chained to posts in such a way that they are prevented from even turning round, and throughout their lives they are subjected to the chaos and confusion of crowds and noise — even firecrackers during festival season (December to May).

Like captive elephants used for tourist attractions, temple elephants are forced to carry heavy loads; sometimes up to four men and given very little access to water and shelter.

Other threats to Asian elephants

It’s not just temples and the tourist industry that are having a detrimental impact on this beautiful but fragile species. Population numbers are being devastated by human-elephant conflict (up to 200 elephants are killed annually and around 60 people), and many elephants die from other means of forced contact with man, such as electrocution from power cables and collisions with trains.

Urban development, which results in human activity encroaching on the natural lives of these elephants, has also left migratory paths obstructed; meaning herds are more likely to come into contact with man — thus allowing for situations of human conflict that result in animals being shot or poisoned.

The disruption to migration also means a disruption to gene flow, as naturally Asian elephants migrate to find mates and this distribution of genes over large geographical distances improves genetic strength. When elephants can’t travel to breed, their offspring becomes less genetically diverse and therefore more vulnerable to diseases.

STAE Asian elephants

How does STAE help?

Save The Asian Elephants works to end the terrible cruelty and brutal conditions suffered by this wondrous and ancient species. With Asian elephants facing extinction in our lifetime and by our hands, STAE believes that Asian elephants don’t just “belong” to a country or region, but have an intrinsic right to exist in the wild.

By influencing governments, politicians and the tourist industry to adopt solutions (such as captive elephants being returned to the wild where they can play their natural role in forests, or in extreme cases — where wild release is not an option — being kept in genuine sanctuaries), they hope to see the psychological wellbeing of elephants improved and respect for these creatures realised, so that an increased understanding can be developed, leading to the better management of human-elephant conflict.

They believe that with a global imagination, global funding, and global planning, there can be a future where wild elephants and humans can co-exist peacefully, in a way that supports and respects local communities, as well as Asia’s rich ecosystems, and the world’s forests. They look to achieve this by informing public opinion on the truth behind this collision of commercialism and custom that Asian elephants currently find themselves in the middle of.

Find out more by visiting: stae.org

kate on conservation logo

Learn more about elephants

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Reflecting on a gentle nature

Lately, I have found myself in a reflective state of mind. Reflecting on my work, my goals, the small successes of the campaigns I’ve joined (Sea World agreeing to end the breeding of its captive whales); the near misses (the slow progress of the UK government in deciding whether to close the domestic trade in ivory); and the complete misses (never getting to see Tilikum free of his Sea World enclosure, CITES not delivering lions with Appendix I protection, etc.).

I suppose it can weigh heavy.

In need of a little pick-me-up, my thoughts went to the beginning —in fact, before the beginning —to the chain of events which began the ripple that would eventually flow into the creation of this sea of words; articles; posts.

It begins with the memory of murdered photographer Julie Ward, whose book, ‘A Gentle Nature’, I won in a raffle many years ago.

Below is a vlog I made a few years back, explaining who Julie Ward is and a little bit about her tragic story.

 

This is the book mentioned, which captured my interest in the Born Free Foundation and wildlife photography and was one of the inspiring factors which made me travel to South Africa to volunteer.

gentle nature

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I had chosen to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve because it is home to two Born Free Foundation sanctuaries for rescued big cats, and one of these rescue centres was opened in Julie Ward’s memory.

Shamwari friends with Kate

Celebrating a job well done with my fellow Shamwari volunteers at the Born Free Foundation”s Julie Ward Education Centre.

Since that vlog was filmed, a further development arose in the Julie Ward murder case, where new DNA evidence brought detectives a step closer to finding her killers.

The following video shows a news report from BBC News in the East of England. I must apologise for the quality of the video and give pre-warning that to get the most from the video, it will require viewers to turn the volume to full. It was recorded on simple digital camera by my ever-supportive parents, and emailed to me during my year in Australia, so that I could watch it online from overseas.

 

Back in 2013 I even designed my own mini Go Go Gorilla to send out to Born Free‘s Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari.

The basic elements of my design were my Shamwari work t’shirt from my time as a volunteer there, the Born Free Foundation logo, and an image of Julie ward herself. Such were the reaches of their influence.

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It’s wonderful to reflect on my own locality, and how where I grew up ultimately had an influence on ‘how’ I grew up. There are so many wonderful figures who have inspired my path into gentle nature and compassion conservation.

Those that I’ve followed throughout my life are: the late Joy Adamson (writer of the Born Free autobiographical tale of Elsa the lioness, and its sequels) and George Adamson (Joy’s husband, who had a lifetime of incredible conservation work in his own right, rehabilitating captive lions, such as Boy and Christian back into the wild) and the late Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (who founded the Born Free Foundation with their son Will Travers, and whom played the roles of Joy and George Adamson in the Born Free movie).

I would also, like many people, have to cite David Attenborough in my list of conservation heroes whose footprints I would love to walk in. I am so grateful that, in blogging, I have found a way to honour those idols and to continue to grow in the shared goals; in all their triumphs, near misses, and total knock-outs.

 

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TigerTime now — Guest post by Christopher Marsh

TigerTime now is a campaign established by the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation and it is a key player among charities fighting to protect and save tigers in the wild. The campaign involves raising awareness and funds — with the help of events, fundraising auctions, education programmes, animal adoption packages and an ever-growing online presence — highlighting the key issues that need to be tackled.

At the centre of the campaign is the aim to fund conservation projects around the world, most notably in Russia, India and Thailand and to urgently ban the illegal trade of tigers; their bones; skins and body parts.

tigertime-twitter

It’s main website, which contains vital information and education tools, is tigertime.info and is managed by Vicky Flynn, a passionate advocate for tigers.

As one of its many official supporters, my role is to lend my voice to the campaign; raising awareness of its cause, and contributing by raising funds to help its mission in preventing the rapid decline of the species and ensuring that the tiger does not face extinction at the hands of those who seek to make profit from tiger parts or by using these endangered animals for entertainment, particularly for tourism ventures.

The exploitation of tigers for tourism purposes is far-reaching, including anything from circuses to the ‘selfie’ culture; a running trend of putting these animals under poor conditions through which they can be forced into use as props for tourists and photos.

The campaign is on a mission to put a stop to these crimes against the tiger.

TigerTime now conservation projects also look to successfully bring these animals out of danger; relocating them back into the wild, or housing them in sanctuaries, where they will be safer and out of harm’s way from hunters and profiteers.

I loved tigers growing up as a kid, and I’ve always had a fascination with nature and animals, stemming from watching David Attenborough documentaries in complete awe, trips to zoos or coming across wildlife out and about. But my love for the tiger truly came to fruition once I became more aware of humanity’s affect on them, and becoming more informed about how some people in the world treat them as nothing more than trophies or trade deals.

tigers-photo

This really startled me and I just could not fathom how, in a world of such beauty, awe and wonder, humans could dismantle their existence and bring themselves to kill such fiercely majestic, wonderous creatures. It was heartbreaking and it hit me hard, and so I knew that I had to do something about it, no matter what means I had to do so. This truly encouraged me to seek out others who shared the same passion.

I came across TigerTime now and I reached out to them so that I too could be involved and contribute to their mission by any means necessary. My recent involvement includes raising funds through pieces of artwork, where TigerTime supporters, including myself, were tasked to create a piece of art to be auctioned off for their annual ‘Stars and Stripes’ charity auction; which took place both online and at the Mall Galleries in London.

the-water-roamer

The Water Roamer, TigerTime charitable auction submission by Christopher Marsh

My further involvement and plans at this present time will include more fundraising and being a continued voice for the campaign. I urge anyone with an equal passion for animals to join our campaign in saving the tiger from extinction by signing up here. For me, a world where tigers do not exist, where they are taught only as an extinct animal existing only in pictures, is incomprehensible.

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Digital conservation and virtual reality tourism

Virtual reality technology is going to change the game of conservation in a huge way.

I spend a lot of my time indulging in digital content and documentaries, both for my job and as a hobby. I work as a sub editor for Discovery Education UK by day* and blog, build websites and try my best at photography in my spare time. (*Disclaimer: all thoughts on this blog are strictly my own).

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Having visited the BVE expo at the end of February with my good friends at Chiswell Studios, I have found a new excitement in all the potential opportunities of making virtual reality (digital worlds entirely created by people) and augmented reality (elements of the real world, but with digital graphics interspersed) media content for a more interactive audience experience.

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BBC’s Jon Page speaks about the change in the audiences’ role

I listened with particular interest to the seminar: ‘Creating a new broadcasting system with audience experience in mind’ by keynote speaker Jon Page, Head of Operations at BBC Research and Development (pictured above). Jon spoke of the way that audiences look for a personal, two-way experience to get the most of their media and positioned them as ‘explorers’ rather than ‘consumers’.

He showed us a video created by the BBC to demonstrate the type of audience experience they believe they will be catering for in the not-so-distant future:

bbc randd

Aside from some of this imagined technology potentially impacting the type of content I would make for schools at Discovery Education (see the child doing his homework at 1:58), the video interested me in the way that it made Autumnwatch an interactive game.

‘Gamification’ was one of the buzz words of the expo’s seminars this year, along with ‘immersive’ and ‘responsive’. Jon even described what was happening with the imagined new version of Autumnwatch as ‘citizen science’ – and seeing as ‘citizen journalism’ is now so embedded in our culture that we barely give it a second thought anymore, the idea of the whole nation becoming ‘scientists’ to a degree, doesn’t feel that far fetched.

It seems now that the first generation of Internet gamers has grown up, the requirements they demand from their media consumption is somewhat different to the generation before. And how fantastic that we have the technology to deliver it!

virtualtourintro

The entry page to a 360-degree, immersive digital tour of Mount Elgon, Kenya.

Enter vEcotours. With all this amazing technology and adapted content design, there must be a way we can use it for conservation education? …Exactly!

This World Wildlife Day, I posted about the live guided tour of Mount Elgon in Kenya that I would be taking — and I can say it was fascinating to share an online, immersive experience with people from all over the globe and various time zones; one where we could have a two-way conversation.

Virtual tour1

Screen grab of the digital tour’s portals to other 360-degree landscapes

With Ian Redmond at the helm, guiding participants through the virtual world and into various portals of information (still images, videos, article clippings, etc.) and answering questions over his mic from the ‘explorers’ using the chat bar — and another member of vEcotours, Jay, responding to all other conversation in real-time via text on screen — that ‘personal, two-way experience’ that I heard about at BVE appears not to be just round the corner, but already here!

Virtual tour2

A screen grab of some of the additional multimedia presented on the tour.

Never one to let an opportunity pass me by, I’ve decided to offer my web publishing and writing skills to vEcotourism and have joined the team as a blogger!

I’ll be sure to post info and updates of what I get up to with vEcotours on this site too, so please keep an eye out for those! But in the meantime, why not check out what all the excitement is about and take a virtual tour of one of their locations? Turn the volume up and enjoy!virtualtouroverview

You can follow vEcotourism on Facebook and Twitter for more info too.

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Join me for a unique World Wildlife Day adventure!

This World Wildlife Day (TODAY!), I’m taking a special trip to Kenya… Do you want to come too?

I’m going to visit the world’s only salt-mining elephants. If I’m completely honest – I didn’t know until yesterday that there was even such a thing as a salt-mining elephant; so to have the chance to discover more about these animals and their behaviour in their natural environment is pretty extraordinary. And I get to do it without leaving my chair!

I’m having a live, 360-degree immersive tour of the dark caves of Mount Elgon in Kenya, guided by wildlife expert and conservationist Ian Redmond OBE. And you can come too!

vEcotourism elephants

Apparently the tour will be taking guests deep underground, to see the world’s only underground elephants (known as troglodyte tuskers), as they feel their way through the pitch-black caves using their trunks.

Ducking under the bats roosting overhead to explore the mysterious crevices and discover the rarely seen behaviours of these incredibly rare creatures; I think it’s going to be a rather unique experience.

vEcotourism elephant caves

The tour is taking place at 3pm (GMT), at live.vecotourism.org. If you can’t make that one, there’s second chance to take the #WorldWildlifeDay tour at 8pm (GMT) – but as they are both LIVE, it’s important to arrive on time and climb aboard with your headphones turned up: there won’t be another chance if you miss it!

I’ve always wanted to visit Kenya and I love elephants. Last year I held a fundraising event to raise money for the Born Free Foundation’s Europe elephant sanctuary for rescued captive and circus elephants, and I’ve previously interviewed the makers of the moving documentary Elephant in the Room about the impact on elephants of living in zoos; but to actually celebrate these animals living naturally in the wild is a positive rarity for me – and seems like the most fitting way to celebrate World Wildlife Day!

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Saving rhinos the Black Mambas’ way: Anneka Svenska interview

The Black Mambas are a nearly all-women anti-poaching unit created to protect the rhinos of the 400km² Balule Nature Reserve, and keep poachers out of the park.

Aside from the fact that the unit is made up almost entirely from women; the surprising thing about the Black Mambas is: they do it unarmed.

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Presenter, film maker and founder of Green World TV, Anneka Svenska last week released a 10-minute film of the Black Mambas and their work – having recently returned from South Africa with Producer Nigel Marven to create the documentary short on behalf of UK-based charity: Helping Rhinos.

Anneka Svenska dismantling snaresI’m a big supporter of independent films, having blogged for the St Albans Film Festival in the past (where I met Save Me videographer and camera man / editor of the official World Animal Day video 2015, Michael Dias) and interviewed fellow former Uni of Herts student Amanda Gardner, the Producer and Assistant Editor of the incredibly moving short documentary, The Elephant in Room. Despite her crazy week of interviews with The Daily Mail and BBC Radio 5 live, I caught up with Anneka to find out more…

“We want to inspire change all over the world in communities; to group together and stop the world’s wildlife head towards extinction.”

 

Where did the idea of filming with the Black Mambas come from?

Producer and Zoologist Nigel Marven and I were made aware of the work the Black Mambas do through supporting the charity Helping Rhinos. We did some research and realised that these ladies, despite being unarmed women have achieved some amazing things such as a 76% reduction in poaching in their reserve in just two years. It’s such a simple concept – employing poorer communities to take part in ranger projects. The Mambas simply have a visible presence, no weapons and this alone can deter poachers to choose not to poach in that area.

Anneka-Nigel-and-Michael-meet-Jade-and-The-Mambas

What was the main motivation for the film?

To spread the word that anyone can make a change. With so much corruption throughout the world, not just in African countries, the wildlife is losing, as people are more interested in money than protecting the animals. However, small uprisings of people all over the world are happening. Not just the Black Mambas, but elsewhere too. We wanted to show that anyone could make a difference. We want to inspire change all over the world in communities to group together and stop the world’s wildlife head towards extinction.

What was the best part of filming?

It was meeting the rhino orphans. Bitter sweet as it is wrong that they have ever ended up in an orphanage to start with, but to bottle feed the babies was out of this world. My favourite part of the trip was hearing the beautiful sounds that rhinos make. It reminds me of the smaller Frankenstein out of Carry on Screaming. It is such a very sweet sound. You must try and look it up on YouTube just to hear it. I cried the first time I laid eyes on a rhino orphan.

Feeding baby rhino - the best experience

What was the worst part of filming?

Finding the snared buffalo and realising that it would have taken four weeks to die. These animals are adapted for drought conditions, so it must have suffered dreadfully. I was also told that some locals want to kill all of the wildlife, as they feel that it belongs to the white man and not theirs anymore, so it’s important that everyone feels that they are guardians of these animals. The Bush Baby programme, which the Black Mambas have started at local schools, is helping with this, by empowering and educating the children. Also The Black Mamba programme is allowing the communities to protect their native wildlife and feel part of the equation.

buffalo caught in snare the worst part of filming

“They walk with bravery and every day their lives are in danger from not just the poachers, but the wild animals they protect.”

I first heard about the Black Mambas last year, after reading an incredible piece about them in TIME Magazine (which I referenced in an earlier reflective blog post). Being a self-confessed advocate of school education, I was keen to question Anneka more about the education programmes that the Mambas are involved in, and whether TIME’s philosophy that: “They may not be able to stop poachers with pepper spray alone. But they can stop them with education” was one that could actually be realised…

Anneka in the classroom

How effective is education as a defence against poaching?

Many of the children are very poor and only eat at school. I was told that some of their families poach for bush meat to feed the families.

I think an effective defence would come from several things: you have to empower the children to protect the wildlife by making them feel that it’s theirs to protect. You have to educate them as to why the animals are so important to the future of the planet. Also, their culture is very different than the white settlers. It is very difficult to break tradition that has been in families for generations and many families have been moved off wildlife reservations for the animals, and this has caused resentment. You can only offer them employment in tourism and ranger programmes to make up for this. So education and employment needs to go hand in hand, with good leadership to wipe out any corruption.

Eventually as jobs are provided and Africa develops, the old ways will change anyway, as they have done in the UK and other countries. Africa is predicted to have a huge population increase and towns will expand and develop over the next 50 years – this means all ways of life will change anyhow. The importance of keeping land for the animals will become an even bigger priority.

Were any of your expectations or initial ideas about the Black Mambas challenged?

Yes, I didn’t realise that they were 100 per cent unarmed until I was out there. They are very vulnerable, but so very brave. They walk with bravery and every day their lives are in danger from not just the poachers, but also the wild animals they protect.

Siphiwe made a valid point that she is glad they are not armed, as many people she knows would use weapons incorrectly if given that power, so they are pure to the project if they remain unarmed.

Nigel Marven and Anneka Svenska with two of The Mambas

Nigel Marven and Anneka Svenska in the classroom with two of The Mambas

Finally, when and where can we see the documentary?

Its live now, on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zFBXNePubjg

rhinos

Many thanks to Anneka Svenska. Please check out this fantastic documentary and don’t forget to like and share!

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What’s it like to work at a game reserve in South Africa?

Volunteering report: Shamwari Game Reserve & Born Free Foundation’s big cat sanctuaries

Before there was blogging…

Or perhaps at least before sites such as WordPress made the platform available to all (blogging was regarded as something more like a social media site, anyone remember BEBO? – Blog Early, Blog Often), I look a gap year after completing my A-Levels, and headed off to South Africa alone, a mere two weeks after my 18th birthday.

There were no ‘insta feeds’, photo filter apps; iPhones were for the extremely well off, and camera phones were such poor quality and required such a hard to come by blu-tooth connection before you could download your snaps that it made far more sense to own a stand alone digital camera. I don’t know whether they were better or simpler times, but I do know you had to be a lot more selective over the photos you felt were worth editing, and a lot more determined if you were going to find a platform for your work.

Naturally, a journal-keeper and documenter of things; I had to write about the experience.

I kept a diary of every day spent travelling and working, and wrote a summary report on the benefits of volunteering abroad, for my local education authority as a means to inspire others from my not-so-privileged hometown to aspire to such an adventure themselves, after I successfully applied for a £250 grant towards the otherwise self-funded £5,000 trip. (Mostly achieved through part time work in retail, and the unspent funds gained from the sale of an extremely rare ‘beanie baby’ card about 9 years prior).

The report was part of my grant agreement and I poured over it for days after I got home; carefully cutting borders from print-outs of my own photography at the reserve (before blogs, borders and ‘WordArt’ meant you were serious about your work and its presentation…) and painfully minding my handwriting, so as not to screw up the clarity of a word, and have to cross it out which would have certainly spoiled the piece!

Although I do not hold exactly the same views as I did back then (I read the report now and look at the photographs with a much wiser, more informed understanding), I thought it would be quite nice to share the little-seen, rarely read, ramblings of a just-returned from the adventure of a lifetime, determined to change the world 18-year-old version of myself. Enjoy!

Shamwari Report page 1

Shamwari Report page 2

Shamwari Report page 3Shamwari Report page 4Shamwari Report page 5Shamwari Report page 6Shamwari Report page 7Shamwari Report page 8Shamwari Report page 9Shamwari Report page 10Shamwari Report page 11

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Global March for Lions: Together we CAN ban canned hunting!

I wonder if the tech entrepreneurs of yesteryear could have predicted that one of the odd consequences of digital globalisation is that it can often leave you feeling isolated? We all know that the public places which used to be filled with pleasantries and small talk among strangers are now occupied by frowning faces looking down at screens – that’s nothing particularly new (and it would be foolish to lament my adult past as being any different). But last month I found myself combining physical action/real life company and a global, social movement – and for the first time truly understanding how the Internet can bring people together. IMG_7377 I joined the #GlobalMarchForLions movement – along with people in South Africa, Australia, Europe, and those picketing next to me in Trafalgar Square, London – to stand in solidarity with man’s symbol of strength and freedom. IMG_7350 FullSizeRender (1) Ironically, the very animal that epitomises those values to us, is the same one that can find itself born into a corrupt money-spinning industry: moving between petting farms as cubs, ‘walk with lion’ attractions as adolescents and onto sinister hunting realms as adults. Something which tourist industries across Africa seem only to happy to cash in on. IMG_7368 I have heard the argument, more than once, that canned hunting provides a humane method of population control, helpful in distracting those wanting a lion pelt trophy – or better still, a severed head to mount on the wall – from killing wild lions illegally in reserves. It makes sense. Until you discover that those lions bred (or captured) for canned hunting are often chastised, beaten, drugged or have teeth literally ripped from their gums to put them at a disadvantage to the hunters (who can pay a few hundred pounds more to shoot them with a crossbow, incase that sweetens the pot).

Literature handed out at the march

Literature handed out at the march

One of the things I respected most about joining the Global March for Lions, was the ferocity of the message but the gentleness of its delivery. That’s not to say it was delivered without impact, rather with understanding that having an informed opinion is difficult when knowledge of certain things is often hard to come by. But we were willing to share it – canned hunting makes no difference to wild population numbers, as those poor creatures that find themselves part of the industry, have never really had the chance to be wild. There are less than 4,000 wild lions left in South Africa, but 8,000 in captivity, breed for the bullet. The early part of their lives (being hand-reared, petted by tourists, used for ‘walk with lion’ experiences, etc.) means they are essentially tame, and trust humans entirely by the time they are released into an enclosed camp to be shot at. Often the bullets or bows that hit the lions are fired by those who are not trained marksmen, leaving the creatures in terrible pain until an employed gunman finishes the job. IMG_7361 The lasting message I took from #globalmarchforlions, as we delivered our petition to South Africa House: urging the country to stop advertising canned hunting as an acceptable tourist attraction, was that together – albeit in unity and protest on the street, or by raising awareness together online through hashtags, conversations or even sharing blog posts like this one, we can roar loudly for condemned captive lions!

Here’s how you can help: FullSizeRender