By Rupi Mangat
Jimmy Nyamu has walked 3,118 kilometres in his life mission to save the elephant from poachers. On his walks, he talks to people and communities who matter in the fight to save the dwindling numbers.
Whenever poaching comes up for discussion, there are always ideas being floated on how to curb it — from heavy fines and long jail terms for poachers (as has happened in Kenya) or a shoot-to-kill policy as suggested in Tanzania.
Jimmy Nyamu has made it his life mission to save the elephant from poachers by walking and talking to people who matter in this fight — communities that live near elephants’ natural habitat, as well as in places that have no elephants but the people there come to Kenya and the rest of Africa to see them.
Recently, Nyamu gave a talk hosted by the Kenya Museum Society about his mission to save the elephant.
“People said what I was doing was useless. I translate that to ‘use less’ (as in resources). They said ‘that boy has nothing to do,”’ he told the audience. “Out there, people really don’t know what the issues are surrounding the elephant.”
Africa’s current elephant population is estimated to be half a million, down from 1.2 million in 1980 and 10 million in 1900. Research shows that an estimated 22,000 elephants were poached in 2012, and if the trend continues Africa could lose 20 per cent of its elephant population in a decade.
“But people really don’t know what we are losing,” says Nyamu. “When I met a district commissioner in Taita Taveta some time back, he told me there were lots of elephants in the park. I asked him ‘how many?’
“He replied, ‘one million.’ This was the district officer talking — can you imagine communities that live far away from elephant range lands? They have no concept of the numbers we are talking of.”
Now in his 30s, Nyamu became interested in wildlife at a very young age. “In school, I joined the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya and started reading their magazine Komba. It made me aware of the challenges faced by wildlife,” he said.
He later joined the Kenya Wildlife Service, monitoring elephants in the country and then the African Conservation Centre. But the desire to reach out to people and talk to them about saving the world’s largest land mammal could not be quenched. He finally decided to walk the talk and quit his job.
Nyamu went on to found the Elephant Neighbours Centre, a grassroots and participatory research organisation to help people value elephants as a natural resource, and bridge the link between species and habitats.
“There’s power in walking,” says Nyamu. “People listen to you, they identify with you and you see more. But when you drive by in a big four-wheel drive, you are seen as someone else.”
His quest is to conserve the African elephant in the wild. He believes that by walking and talking, he can penetrate the remotest areas and meet people in the most rural settings.
He has a four-year-old son whom he wants to show free-range elephants. He fears that if nothing is done soon, his son and future generations will not see the elephant in the wild; statistics show that four elephants are killed every day in Kenya.
According to the Ivory Belongs to Elephants campaign started by Nyamu in collaboration with other organisations, the elephant mortality rate in Kenya is four per cent against a growth rate of just two per cent. At this rate, in 10 years, there will be no elephants in the wild in Kenya.
In 1979, Kenya’s elephant population was 167,000. Poaching has taken a toll and there are only 30,000 today.
“Kenya is not doing enough to stop the poaching menace,” says Nyamu. “In Tanzania, wildlife is shared among ministries with conflicting interests. Uganda and Tanzania want their elephants to be down listed to Appendix 2 of Cites (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Flora and Fauna), which will allow for some trade in ivory. South Africa has been accused of killing elephants in neighbouring Botswana. On the whole, Africa is quiet about this menace.
“The African Elephant Coalition is only active during the Cites meeting. In 2008, Cites temporarily lifted a ban, allowing Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe to sell their stockpiles. Their elephants are placed on Appendix 2 of Cites, which means that there can be regulated trade in a wildlife product.
“But Cites is not the vehicle to stop poaching in Africa,” says Nyamu. “It basically regulates trade in endangered species — hence it should place all elephants from different countries under Appendix 1, which prohibits trade completely.”
China is the number one consumer of Africa’s ivory, followed by the US. Few Chinese can relate an ivory trinket to a poached elephant. Due to an international outcry, China burned 6.1 tonnes of ivory this year; the US crushed six tonnes of illegal ivory last year. “It’s a drop in the ocean. We want to see more done,” says Nyamu, pointing out that Kenya has a 70,000-tonne ivory stock pile, and he would like to see it burnt.
In 1989, Kenya’s then president Daniel arap Moi set fire to 12 tonnes of elephant tusks to persuade the world to halt the ivory trade. In 2011, former Kenyan president Mwai Kibaki ignited more than five tonnes of elephant ivory — 335 ivory tusks and 41,000 trinkets, which had been confiscated in Singapore — to draw attention to poaching deaths.
“My objective to walk is to bring countries together. That’s the only way we can fight the menace.”
On his recent walk around Mount Kenya, Nyamu saw the havoc that the bush meat trade is causing. Apart from traditional wire snares, poachers are also using a new version of a snare called kiatu (Swahili for shoe), mostly to trap elephants. Kiatu is a boulder inset with sharp tall spikes; if an elephant steps on it, it has a very little chance of survival.
And the pictures he shows taken on this one walk a few months ago are not for the faint-hearted. There is one of a baby elephant whose trunk has been severed by a wire snare, one of an old elephant minus a limb and others of waterbucks and buffalos suffering the same fate.
Tsavo Trust chairman Nzioki Makau says herders in the parks are part of the poaching problem.
“It is critical that migratory corridors be secured and livestock removed from the parks. Herders sometimes hide poachers in their midst or poachers masquerade as herders, thus gaining access to the elephants in the park.
“It is an offence to herd livestock in national parks and reserves and it is hoped the law will be enforced strictly to deter would-be poachers,” he said.
Nyamu began his first walk on February 9, 2013 from Mombasa to Nairobi, some 500 kilometres. He walked an average of 25 kilometres a day. His walk through North America was different. “You cannot just talk to anyone there. So my hosts organised forums every day where I met people. Few Americans cannot relate ivory to poaching.”
The Kenyan government has embraced Nyamu’s walking project; First Lady Margaret Kenyatta joined Nyamu on his Mount Kenya walk. Others who have joined his walk are Serena Hotels managing director Mahmud Janmohamed and industrialist and philanthropist Manu Chandaria, who is also a board member of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.
One of his biggest supporters is Muzzafar Khan. “When I heard about Nyamu last year, I said, we will support him. My late wife Tamina and I did. What I liked about Nyamu is the audience he gets from the local people in the villages, the governors and all. He has raised awareness wherever he’s gone.”
Working closely with rural schools, Nyamu is working on community-based education programmes.
One of his best moments was in Samburu after a meeting with the community. “A poacher surrendered himself and is now supporting my education programme there,” says Nyamu.
For now, he considers heavier penalties for wildlife and environment crime a step in the right direction. “
Three members of parliament asked me about wildlife penalties. I said they were too lenient and suggested a Ksh3 million ($35,300) fine and 15 years in jail as a minimum punishment. I’m happy to see the new Wildlife Act has upped the penalties to life in imprisonment and/or a Ksh20 million ($235,300) fine.”
Four pairs of shoes and 3,118 kilometres later, Nyamu says he will only stop walking when people stop killing elephants.