For those of you who don't know me already, I am an executive director of the African Environmental Film Foundation, a non profit charity producing educational films about wildlife and environmental issues in Africa, in African languages, for free distribution across the continent.
Over to your questions:
Atravellyn: Which of Kenya's conservation programs have most successfully involved the local people so they can profit?
There are many examples of conservation programs working in Kenya, despite ever-increasing pressures and widespread wildlife and habitat loss in non-protected areas. All too often however, if there is a set-back here or there, people immediately condemn the effort as a whole without perhaps fully understanding the background to the situation or factoring in the difficult circumstances in which many of the conservation programs are running. Different countries have different conservation challenges, and differing economic, social and political backdrops to the issues, which sometimes makes the reality on the ground more difficult than it might seem “on paper”.
Despite the many challenges still facing it, I do believe that the Kenya Wildlife Service is one of the best wildlife authorities in Africa. There are many sides to KWS which tourists may not ever hear about, such as the KWS clinics set up in areas adjacent to the National Parks, where local people can gain access to [almost] free medical care (registration at these clinics costs 10 Kenya Shillings which is the equivalent to about $0.15 or £0.08) – a direct benefit to people gained from wildlife.
Of course, the money brought in by KWS through wildlife-based tourism has a major impact across the country, but this impact is often hidden: the infrastructure in Kenya may not be perfect but it is a lot better than in many African countries – as a contributor to this, the foreign exchange earned through wildlife-based tourism does impact Kenyan citizens positively, even though some people may not make the connection.
Other initiatives which have successfully involved the local people can be found across the country. To name a couple:
The Mara Conservancy in western Kenya is a community-owned area which is run as a joint venture between the local Maasai community and experienced wildlife/land use managers. This relationship has yielded excellent results, both financial and in terms of habitat and wildlife conservation.
The Northern Rangelands Trust is a group of 14 (and counting) community conservation areas in northern Kenya, inspired and spearheaded by Lewa Downs Conservancy. Again, in this area which is the size of Switzerland, the local people are earning more money through wildlife-based tourism than they ever did through former land-use methods.
There are also many other positive “spin-offs” from conservation, including better security for people. You can read more about this and about other successful examples of community involvement in an earlier post I made on this forum here.
Jochen: What I know of Kenya is that there's definitely been some bad reports (pre-elections) on the situation of the parks; a lot of poaching, too many tourists, the delicate balance between the animals and the (ever increasing) Maasai population, and so on...
There are several issues highlighted here by Jochen.
The issue of population is becoming critical in many parts of the world, and Kenya is no exception (and of course the Maasai are not the only people living adjacent to national parks – there are national parks in all regions of Kenya and so the issues affect all the different ethnic groupings in the country). The issue of population is not just about increasing human-wildlife conflict, it’s also about water, infrastructure, food security and other fundamentals required for a decent life.
Poaching remains a problem in certain areas, in particular bushmeat poaching which is possibly the gravest threat to wildlife in Africa today, but is often overlooked. Containing it is one of the greatest challenges faced by wildlife authorities across the continent (and indeed internationally). Bushmeat is obtained by illegally killing wild animals, often by cruel and inhumane methods. The meat is then transported to urban centers and sold in the markets, disguised as ordinary beef or goat (most people don’t even know they are buying bushmeat). It is also illegally exported in ever growing quantities to Europe and the US. Interestingly, Nigeria is one of the biggest IMPORTERS of bushmeat in the world – they have killed all their own wildlife, so now they are importing bushmeat from other countries.
Not only is the bushmeat trade destroying one of Africa’s richest natural resources - its tourist-attracting wildlife - but it poses health risks to all who handle it and eat it. Recently, for example, it was proven that the deadly Ebola virus in Uganda initially spread to humans through the handling of dead monkeys.
One method employed to kill wild animals is the setting of wire snares along well-used pathways, or around waterholes. Everything from giraffes and impala to dikdik and baboons are affected. Large snares with thick cable are even set to trap elephants. The bushmeat trade is not just about someone killing an animal every now and again to feed their family; it has become a major commercial business, run by well-organized cartels. These cartels have no regard for the short or long term effects on biodiversity and the human population in the areas where they operate. Where there is a bushmeat poaching problem, there is also inevitably a charcoal problem, for these same cartels often deal in charcoal, a major cause of deforestation across Africa, which in turn is exacerbating global warming.
The final issue highlighted here by Jochen is tourism numbers. I think that Kenya faces a fundamental question regarding how they strike a balance between tourist numbers and protection of their natural resources. If this question is not addressed countrywide, Kenya risks “killing the goose that laid the golden egg”. From an environmental and economic perspective, it makes more sense to attract a smaller number of high-paying tourists than a large number of low-paying tourists. This is a difficult discussion and I know there are members of this forum who won’t be happy with me saying this, but this is the reality, in my opinion. Fewer tourists paying higher prices will bring in the same (if not more) income, but will have less environmental impact, thereby conserving the resource for future generations.
The Olare Orok Conservancy, formed in 2006 as another joint community/professional partnership in the Mara ecosystem, has introduced a limitation on the number of tourist beds in the Conservancy and puts a strong emphasis on low-impact tourism. (I believe that they set their tourism quota by allotting 700 acres per visitor.) You can read more here.
Of course, these reports are always focusing on one particular issue. Can she give us a more general view? A view from an "insider" so to speak. I'm actually wondering how things are really going (in the right direction? Or not?)
I think that while there are many disappointments, there are also many successes to celebrate. One major success is the increasing elephant numbers in Kenya. I was involved in the tri-annual elephant census of the Tsavo Mkomazi Ecosystem at the end of January 2008 – you can read about it here
People here in Kenya are becoming increasingly aware of the value and importance of their natural resources, and many of the key protagonists in the struggle to conserve wildlife and biodiversity in this country are local Kenyans. More and more Kenyans are leading the way in lobbying for greater protection of their country’s natural resources. Examples of home-grown NGOs doing fantastic work are Youth for Conservation, Wildlife Clubs of Kenya and the East African Wildlife Society, among many others. For example, recently YfC and EAWLS lobbied against the biofuels project threatening the Tana Delta (one of Kenya’s most important wetland areas), and they have won an injunction from the Court in Malindi halting the project. This success was due to the pressure exerted by local Kenyans, fighting for the environment and the welfare of local people in their own country.
Isaac and Steve from YfC and AEFF's Lucy and Ian attend a conservation event in Nairobi.
There are also many smaller local groups springing up around the country, such as the Friends of Kinangop, a community group formed at the southern end of the Aberdare mountain range to raise awareness about deforestation, habitat loss and water issues.
What I’m really saying is that yes, there have been some disappointments along the way, and yes there are many many challenges still ahead of us, but there are also so many positive things going on and much hope for the future.
Predator: I've heard that there is a lot of resentment towards wildlife in parts of Kenya. Do you believe this is due to lack of education/awareness of the benefits wildlife brings to Kenya, or it there more to it than that ?
I think education has a huge part to play in this. Not everyone is making the connection between a healthy environment (including biodiversity) and a better standard of living.
While a growing number of people are becoming environmentally aware, there is, however, an ever-widening gap between those who have the knowledge, education and resources necessary to inspire and effect change, and those who have not had access to information and environmental education and have little understanding of how the actions of humans can negatively affect the environment, and indeed negatively impact their own wellbeing. This is the gap we are attempting to bridge through the educational films that we make. We currently have an audience of over 2 million people in Kenya alone, as well as expanding audiences in other parts of Africa and internationally. Increasing this audience and making films that cater for the discrepancies in educational opportunities are a major part of our plans as we expand our Foundation’s work over the coming decade.
A key characteristic of our films is that we aim to show the facts, supported by working examples from across the region, illustrating ways to solve problems – instead of merely “preaching” to people. This allows people to make up their own minds about what to do, based on knowledge and information. When people understand the value (both financial and in terms of personal wellbeing) of protecting their wildlife, preserving their forests and utilizing their environment in a sustainable way, then they have a motive for conserving these important natural resources. If people don’t know, it is impossible for them to care.
It is also an inescapable fact that, with ever-increasing food prices, poor people are forced to look at short-term solutions in order to put food on the table. It is therefore up to governments the world over (in my opinion) to step in and help people deal with the short term problems in a sustainable way, in order not to destroy forever the natural resources which can help people build a better life in future.
Game Warden: How do you feel conservation is approached by African people - and how much influence should foreign conservation NGOs have in the future?
As I said above, increasingly conservation initiatives are being driven by local Kenyans, while there remains a large portion of the population that does not yet fully understand the importance for their own wellbeing of environmental and biodiversity conservation.
International NGOs will probably continue to play a role for many years to come, but the key to their ongoing success on the ground will be partnering with local people and local organizations, and supporting KWS in order to help strengthen the Service.
At the end of the day, change will only be effected properly if local people understand the need for it and support it. (Again, education is key.) I think there is a fine balance between international NGOs “dictating” to local people (which is resented) and expecting certain stipulated results in return for their support (which is important).
Ross: What's it like living within the bush and among the animals?
I think it is utterly magical living in the bush, among the animals. I really feel like we have moved into their home (rather than vice versa) and it is a very special feeling to be accepted as “part of the furniture”. Life has a natural rhythm here, and you follow its progression through the life cycles of the animals and birds living all around you.
Having said that, it’s not an easy life in many ways. We have to be self-sufficient for everything from electricity to water…many of the trappings of modern life which city people take for granted are simply not here. There are no shops nearby – our nearest city is 200 miles away; our nearest small town is an hour’s drive away. There are many challenges involved in just living from day to day which many people would not enjoy – but if you love this life (as we do), then it is a small price to pay! You can follow the daily wildlife dramas occurring around our home and office in my Wilderness Diary.
How rewarding is it working with animals, local people and actually doing something that benefits Africa?
Like everything, I suppose, there are many frustrations but ultimately it is very rewarding. When we see the faces of kids light up as they watch one of our educational films, or we hear that a community group is implementing some new conservation initiatives in response to seeing one of our films, then it all becomes worthwhile.
Madaboutcheetah: What does she think about the tourists keeping away from Kenya at the moment - is it already encouraging poachers to enter places like the Mara? and what is the overall impact of this entire situation ........ what's her prediction for the future?
There is no doubt that when tourism levels drop, the implications are severe and hard-hitting, both from an economic perspective and from the point of view of increased pressure from poaching. The troubles we experienced in Kenya earlier this year were very damaging for Kenya’s reputation and the resulting loss of revenue at all levels of society here has had a visible impact. Fortunately, tourism is already recovering though, and we can only hope that people have learned from their mistakes…
Mother Cheetah with 4 cubs in the Mara Conservancy (especially for Hari)
A positive trend we are seeing here in Kenya is the growth of domestic tourism to our National Parks – not only does this help bring in revenue during times of low international tourism but, importantly, it shows a growing interest and appreciation of the country’s natural treasures amongst Kenyans themselves – which in turn encourages more support for conservation.
What's Tsavo like for those of us who have not been?
The Yatta Plateau (allegedly the longest lava flow in the world) runs through Tsavo East.
This shot was taken in the rainy season - it's not always this green here!
For a start, Tsavo is huge – the ecosystem as a whole is over 40,000 square kilometers, of which 21,000 is National Park (divided into Tsavo East and West.) Tsavo is famous for its rust-red elephants (coloured by the iron-rich soil), and has one of the greatest elephant populations on the continent (currently numbering almost 12,000, over one third of Kenya’s 30,000 elephants.)
Much of Tsavo is covered by commiphora-acacia bushland, although the country opens up into grass plains in the west and the south of the park. Despite its low rainfall and very poor soil (unsuitable for agriculture but ideal for the dry-country vegetation that has evolved over millennia to thrive here), Tsavo is an area of great biodiversity. It’s one of the best places in the country for birding, especially known for its abundance of raptors. For those interested in “The Big Five”, they’re all to be found here too.
Always one of the most stunning sights in the dry bushland: a flock of electric blue Vulturine Guineafowl.
Tsavo has a certain mystique, and is a great place for visitors to come who have already seen every species under the sun in the Mara, but who are looking for something a little more wild and unpredictable. There are many, many animals in Tsavo, but due to the terrain and the vegetation, you never know what you are going to see…this makes it a very exciting experience, and one which I would highly recommend.
The Galana, Tsavo's largest river (which starts its life as the Athi, becomes the Galana and finally becomes the Sabaki.)
Nyamera: When will there be an online shop where people around the world can buy AEFF’s films? It’d be interesting because of the films themselves and the languages they’re in.
We’re currently drawing up a partnership agreement with the Tribeca Film Institute in New York, through which our films will be available for sale on DVD and as downloads from the net…so watch this space!
Kavey: What are the biggest challenges facing conservation in Africa today? (i.e. I'm thinking is it money, is it local communities that aren't benefiting so aren't supporting, is it corruption/negligence on the part of officials in wildlife service/ government/ national parks, or something else entirely)
I’d say it’s a little bit of everything but the key to putting it right in the long term is Education, Education, Education…
Atravelynn: What are you most optimistic about and most pessimistic about regarding wild places and wildlife in Kenya?
Most optimistic about the role Kenyans themselves are playing in conservation.
Most pessimistic about the way – all over the world – conservation of our environment and biodiversity is pushed aside in favour of short term financial gain (often by a few people at the expense of many.)
BCPrints.com: What is the one thing that you think makes people watching a wildlife film go out and want to do something to save it. There are so many features, specials, programs that feature nature, but what one element do you think puts some over the top and really inspires people to change?
I think people have to make a personal link between conservation and their own wellbeing. Once people know they are affected personally, they will act…so it’s about joining the dots and showing people how they are negatively affected through environmental degradation or biodiversity loss, etc.
And would you ever do a documentary about the conservation field and all its politics invloved, its business side, its dealings with all sides of hunting, with zoos ..the behind the scenes issues that people wouldn't expect to see from the conservation field. (if this would be possible)
Now that would be an interesting program! But I think this would be more suited to an investigative reporter of some kind…our mission is to produce educational films about environmental issues in Africa, for the people of Africa, in their own languages. We try not to stray too far from this core mission.
[Game Warden]Does nobody want to know the behind the scenes gossip from "Out of Africa" or "Gorillas in the Mist" in which her father Simon was involved in filming?
John Milbank: If Tanya has any stories which readily come to mind, I'd like to hear them. I liked both movies very much, though I recognised 'Out of Africa' as a very Hollywood-box-office version of Karen Blixen's story. 'Gorillas' was for me more true to Dian Fossey's story. Did the people on location discuss such things?
I think you are right – “Out of Africa” was a romanticized version of Karen Blixen’s story – but I think that’s OK – it wasn’t meant to be a documentary, and never pretended to be. I do think though that the film tried to be faithful to the essence of her character (and the other protagonists) and probably succeeded in that. As you say, “Gorillas” was perhaps truer to the real story. Some of the key players in the movie, including Sigourney Weaver and Arne Glimcher, the producer (who is on our Film Foundation’s Board of Directors), have remained faithful and active supporters of conservation in Africa.
And what's Tanya's view on the trend which people like myself and sniktawk see in wildlife documentaries nowadays...too much emphasis on entertainment (which includes the presenter-personality cult) at the expense of educating and informing. I think we both recognise that entertainment and information have to go together because a great majority of people want to be entertained, otherwise they're not interested. But are program-makers going too far?
I couldn’t agree more that pure entertainment has elbowed education and information out the way in many cases…and yes, I think there are definitely programs which go too far, over-sensationalize, use (abuse?) animals, focus too much on the presenter-personality, and set things up to such a degree that they do not truly warrant being presented under the genre “documentary”.
One of the reasons the African Environmental Film Foundation was founded ten years ago was in response to the need to produce real documentaries about real issues as an educational resource for people in Africa. (You’ll have noticed that most wildlife films have been made for Western audiences, often by Western producers – with entertainment as the key. We wanted to redress the balance somewhat, and make truly educational films specifically for the people of Africa - which is our home too, after all - about the issues affecting their environment and their wildlife.)
I do think though, that there are still some wildlife programs which inform and educate while they entertain (striking the right balance) and I’m hoping that, as the world becomes more environmentally aware, we will see a swing back towards these programs. After all, something which is informative need not be boring – it’s all about producing a film which keeps an audience enthralled while also educating them.
Breakfast, AEFF-style: Ian Saunders about to head out filming in the Mara.
Jiwe: focusing on education of local communities is definitely the key leading to a real conservation in Africa, but being a bit provocative, and seeing the damage that lodge owners and managers, guides and tourists are able to do, shouldn't we focus on their education also?
Absolutely – the education needs to be across all levels of society and people from all backgrounds…and in particular aimed at all stakeholders – that includes lodge owners, managers, guides and tourists as much as the local communities who live alongside the wildlife.
Game Warden: I'll chip in with a question/s aimed towards Simon [Trevor]:
As an already established / respected wildlife documentary film maker - how did you become involved in films such as Out of Africa, and how different was it working in the feature film environment?
I think that my father became involved because he was an already respected film maker – that’s how his name came up as a candidate for the job – as someone who knew how to capture the essence of Africa and the wildlife on film.
Of course, working on a big feature film is hugely different to producing wildlife documentaries. When my father produced documentaries for international television, he was essentially a one-man-band, doing everything from pre-production research, filming, sound recording, editing, writing, even setting up camp, being a car mechanic, you name it… On a feature film, you have an incredible support network, and you are a single (albeit important) cog in a very big wheel. I think this was extremely exciting and perhaps at times frustrating too. Having such an array of filming equipment at his disposal and not being constrained by budgetary considerations in the same way as he was on a documentary, allowed him to really use his creative skills to the maximum.
What attention was brought to you / your work by involvement in said films - and how do you feel they impacted on conservation / tourism in Africa?
When my father founded the African Environmental Film Foundation in 1998, he stopped working on any commercial projects, but the fact that he had worked on these films previously has brought a certain amount of recognition to the Foundation, and certainly adds credibility to the organization. As I said, one of our Directors in the States was the producer on “Gorillas”, so in that sense the film led directly to a very positive relationship. Sigourney Weaver has also recently narrated a promo film for the Foundation which you’ll be able to see on our website very soon.
“Out of Africa” was responsible for attracting a huge amount of tourism to Kenya, and continues to do so – in that sense, its positive impact on this country cannot be overstated. In conservation terms, I’m not sure that it had a direct impact (beyond bringing people here, a percentage of whom one would have to assume consequently started supporting conservation projects.)
I think with its more conservation-focused story, “Gorillas in the Mist” has had a greater impact in conservation terms, as it specifically highlighted the plight of the Mountain Gorillas. As I said before, Sigourney Weaver has become actively involved with gorilla conservation, and her name will have attracted a lot more people to the cause.
Game Warden: As a girl growing up both in Africa and away from your parents as you grew older, did you ever wish for a more conventional upbringing, and what would be your advice for people thinking of moving to Africa with a young family that may well have to go through the same thing?
It’s funny isn’t it, when you’re young you have no idea that you live an unconventional life – you just assume this is how life is…then you start going to school, meeting more people and the realization dawns on you that actually you’ve had an unusual upbringing!
Did I ever wish for a more conventional upbringing? Categorically NO. But then, I have always loved the bush and have never been a hugely gregarious person. I never yearned for pubs and nightclubs. I was also extremely fortunate in that I was able to live a dual life as I was growing up, going to boarding school in England while returning to Africa for my holidays. This taught me to be equally comfortable in both worlds, not to feel out of place in the West, while feeling at home in Africa. This was a great gift to me from my parents.
Photographing hippos near our home and office on the Athi River.
Advice for people thinking of moving to Africa? Well, now that’s a difficult one as it depends so much on different people’s circumstances, where they are planning to live and what they plan to do here. For a start, Africa is huge: so many different countries, and so many different environments.
It is important to understand that, on many levels, life works in a completely different way here…there are different considerations to bear in mind. I think there are a lot of people who come here wanting to live “in the bush” but how realistic is this, really? How many opportunities are there to live in the bush and still earn a living to support your family? Getting permission to work here as a foreigner is not easy, unless you are specifically and uniquely qualified for a certain job. But all these hurdles can be overcome, if you have a strong enough will to be here, and if you know that Africa will bring you and your family enough happiness and fulfillment to make the difficulties seem worthwhile. I think this is true of wherever you live in the world. There are positives and negatives everywhere, and the trick is to find the place where – for you – the positives outweigh the negatives.
My greatest piece of advice is perhaps this: don’t over-romanticize Africa. The wildlife and wild places of Africa are awe-inspiring but Africa is a tough place to live in many ways. If you love it, you deal with the harsh sides of life here, but there are times when this takes a lot of strength. It’s about finding a balance that works for you, because Africa is magical too, in so many ways. For me, it’s home and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
More information about the African Environmental Film Foundation, a non profit charity producing educational films about environmental issues in Africa, in African languages, for free distribution across the continent.
Tanya’s personal Kenyan Wilderness Diary.