…… There was the morning in January, for instance, three years ago, when we had been on safari in Uganda close to the Congo border, filming the herds of elephant as they crossed this great area of savannah country. We had started early. To the west we had a rare and magnificent view of Ruwenzori, the Mountains of the Moon, and although we drove for more than two hours through high, rich grass, we saw nothing except baboons and a few hyenas. Of all the elephants that we had been told were in the area there was not a sign.
This was mysterious. Game does not usually disappear like this without a cause, yet there was nothing we could see to account for it.
It was just before noon that we spotted our first elephant of the day. It was a nearly full-grown cow, and as soon as we saw her we could tell there was something wrong with the way she was walking.
We stopped about half a mile away from her and looked at her through the binoculars to see what was the matter. It was not difficult to see the trouble. About eighteen inches above the foot ran a thin steel wire encircling her leg. On the end of it trailed an eight—foot long wooden stake that she had somehow managed to pull out of the ground. But the wire had been drawn so tight that it had bitten deeply into the flesh and the whole leg had festered and swollen up like a balloon.
It was intensely moving to see the way the elephant accepted this terrible injury and carried on, limping uncomplainingly after the herd that was probably miles ahead of her by now.
We had never seen anything like this before, but Michaela and I both knew all too well what had caused the injury. For several months past we had been hearing reports about the steady increase of elephant poaching, not only in this area but almost everywhere in Africa where elephants occur. Even in the Tsavo National park in
Kenya, the number of elephants being killed each year by the poachers was beginning to run well into hundreds. Poaching was becoming a business. The poachers were being organised into gangs, sometimes operating in Land-Rovers from semi-permanent camps.
They would set these murderous snares of theirs indiscriminately for any animals they could catch.
We pulled close to within a hundred yards of the painfully limping elephant.
"She's been snared, but it looks as if she's broken away," I said to Michaela. "That wire would have bitten through to the bone by now."
"But what can we do to help her?" asked Michaela.
"Nothing now," I replied. "'We're too late. She could never recover from an injury like that. The leg is rotted. She must have been like this for weeks."
As I spoke, it was almost as if the elephant heard what I said.
She stopped, faced us and trumpeted forlornly. For once I wished that we carried a gun with us. At least we could have put her out of her agony. As it was the only thing we could do was to drive back as fast as we could to the game warden's headquarters and get him to do it.
This took us most of the afternoon and it was nearly dark before we had found him and caught up with the elephant again. By now she had dragged herself on for about half a mile from where we had left her and then stopped.
She did not bother to trumpet when she saw us this time, but stood facing us passively. The ranger took his time over the shot and made a clean kill of it. When he fired she sank to her knees and died without a murmur.
I hate the death of any animal. Normally, however, you reason with yourself and realise that you have to accept the facts of death. Death is one of the laws of the wild and not something to get sentimental about.
This was something different. The waste and the appalling suffering of the animal disgusted us. We drove back with the game ranger.
"Is that a job you often have to do?” I asked him.
He nodded. “There’s always elephant poaching going on round here."
“But don't you ever catch the men who do it? “Asked Michaela.
“Of course we do, although it's getting more difficult these days than it used to be. The poachers are arming themselves now and they're much better organised than they were. Only last week one of my own men got shot in the leg by a poacher. He was lucky to be shot in the leg. He will recover. Lucky that was all it was"'
"But what do you do with the poachers when you do catch them?" insisted Michaela.
The ranger looked as if this was a question he had heard many times before.
''W'e11," he said, "you can Put them in gaol, of course, but that doesn’t do anyone much good. The Africans don't particularly object to a few months’ free board at the Government's expense.
It doesn’t bring the animals back and it certainly doesn't turn the poacher into an animal lover."
"To tell you the truth," he went on, "the men I'm bitter about are not really the poachers. After all, they're local men. They've always hunted the game and they take a 1ot of risks I wouldn't like to.
The people someone really should clamp down on are the merchants and the middlemen on the coast who finance the poachers and buy the ivory from them. If there was a bit more drastic action against them from above, we might start getting somewhere"'
This conversation with the game ranger made a great impression on us both. If the Government was slow to act about poaching, we at least had the chance of making the people who watched our programmes aware of what was happening. That very night we decided to shelve our plans to film the rest of the elephant herds. Instead we would make a full-scale documentary film on the poaching of Africa's wild life.
It was not a particularly pleasant film to make. During the weeks that followed we saw sights too gruesome ever to show to any television audience. There were rhinos within twenty miles of Nairobi that had been speared to death and left rotting for the vultures. A11 the poachers had wanted had been the horns that they hacked out and sold to one of the local merchants engaged in the perfectly legal trade of selling rhino horn as a theoretical aphrodisiac to the Far East.
'We saw zebras and wildebeests that had been snared with steel wire, hamstrung, and then left several days to die. All the poachers could be bothered to take would be the wildebeests’ tails to make into fly-whisks that sell, again perfectly legally, to the tourists in the gift shops of Nairobi for a few shillings.
Worst of all were the completely useless deaths we encountered. Snaring is easy, but it is also indiscriminate, and the snares were placed so widely that for every animal caught that was any use to the poachers, there must have been dozens that were not. These would just be left where they were. Female gazelles caught and left to die of starvation, their young waiting patiently beside them; warthogs and buffalo that had suffered a similar fate; rotting carcasses too far gone even to identify. Once we found a giraffe that was still alive but had had a front leg torn off by a snare.
The snares worst victims of all were not the animals that they killed, but those that managed to escape and survive. Twice during these weeks Des Bartlett came upon elephants that had been caught in snares by their trunks. One had broken away and was somehow managing to exist with only half a trunk, by grazing the grass on his knees. The other was less fortunate. When Des first spotted him he was floundering to a river, and he watched him actually feeding on floating weeds. This was all he could manage to get, for the elephant relies almost completely on his trunk for feeding and Des saw that this elephant's trunk must have been caught in a snare for although it looked intact, it was paralysed and just hung uselessly.
I estimate that to-day (1963) there remains at the most only a tenth of the game that was in Africa before the First World War, perhaps much less than a tenth. The numbers are still declining, and still we are doing nothing to teach the African why he should behave better than we have with organised hunting over the years.
I felt all this even more strongly a few months later over the last hippos of lake Baringo is a small lake by African standards, about twenty-five miles long, it lies to the north of Nakuru in particularly wild country. Unlike Nakuru, Elenrenteita, Hannington and Magadi, the big salt-lakes of the Great Rift Valley, Lake
Baringo has fresh water. In this respect, it is like Lake Naivasha and, like Naivasha, it used to support a large and flourishing population of hippo. After the war these hippos and the rest of the game that used to surround the two lakes began to be seriously threatened by indiscriminate shooting and spearing. By the time the hippo were declared Royal Game five years ago, the hippo of both Baringo and Naivasha had been brought close to extinction.
In the whole of Lake Baringo, there could scarcely have been more than a hundred hippo left; and about this time another danger came to threaten this pitiful remnant. For several seasons drought or scanty rainfall brought disaster to the surrounding area which had already been ravaged by overgrazing and injudicious burning of the grass and bush. Two years ago the hippos had to live through a period of several months of virtual starvation, and last year conditions were even worse.
Soon the hippos were so weak that they could scarcely stagger a few hundred yards from their lake, and within that limited radius they would wander searching for the dry seed pods that fell from the thorn trees and that were all that was left to give them the illusion of food.
Michaela and I heard about the plight of the hippos when we were staying with our friend, David Roberts, who has the fishing concession of Lake Baringo, and lives there with his family on the western shore. He had been particularly affected by the plight of eight hippos that had lived for a long time on the edge of the lake within sight of his house.
As the weeks passed without sign of rain, these eight hippos had become weaker and weaker. At night they used to wander through the remains of his parched-up garden in search of food and soon they became so thin that their ribs showed and they staggered as they walked. Instead of disappearing out of sight in the lake during the day, as these animals usually do, they would simply lie exhausted on the bank, a sitting target for any African hunter who cared to take them.
Finally, when David found the bull of this small herd actually in the porch of his house, sniffing at the remains of the food he had left out for the dog, he decided that the time had come to make some attempt to save these eight hippos.
Hay was the only food that he could get for them in sufficient quantities and this he put out. To start with the hippos were clearly puzzled by the new food. The first night they nuzzled it and scattered most of it along the shore. But they ate a little and, within a few days, they were eating three to four full bales a night.
The hippos began to put on weight again, and although they still looked emaciated, they clearly had a chance of surviving until the rains came. Their favourite food of all was the Lucerne hay, with star grass hay and oat hay running it a close second. At first they would also accept Rhodes grass hay and ordinary wheat straw, but then they became fussier about the food they would take and tended to leave this uneaten. As a result, David was having to spend more than he could afford on good quality hay to keep the eight hippos alive, and Michaela and I offered to help by starting a small fund for the hippos of Lake Baringo. The Wild Life Society headed the subscription list with a gift of also and although we received contributions from as far afield as the United States, most of the money came from conservationists we knew in Kenya. Within a few weeks we had enough money to guarantee the hippos' food for as long as the drought lasted.
Soon we saw a remarkable difference in the habits of the hippos.
They began to develop confidence in people. Normally, hippos spend most of the day well off shore and land only at night, but these soon started lying in the shallow water during the day, not more than twenty or thirty yards from the men loading the fish into David's freezing plant.
In the evening they would come out of the water, start eating long before dark, and stay out until day-break. One evening I actually saw David pat one of the hippos on the back as it waddled past on the way to the house for the day's ration. All this was very satisfactory except for one thing that began to worry David as the drought went on.
He knew the Africans well who lived around the lake and he understood how the drought was hitting them. They were beginning to go hungry too, and he knew that the longer the drought lasted the more of a temptation these nearly tamed hippos would become. He knew just how serious this danger was when he saw one of the hippos with a spear sticking out of its back. It was not a bad wound and David was able to get the spear out.
But the day came when David had to leave home for a week.
When he returned he found that the big old bull had been speared to death in his absence. A few weeks later, another followed. Then a female was killed and her baby caught in the mud and choked to death. Within a matter of weeks, the last of the eight hippos, we thought we had saved, had been killed, and the animals exterminated from one more African lake.
Ultimately several of the Africans responsible for the killings were arrested and imprisoned for a while, but, in this case, the sentence struck me as being almost as pointless as it was unfair.
Despite all our opportunities we have failed to teach the African to value the wild life of his country.
Take first the continuance of licensed hunting in East Africa, which seems to me such arrant stupidity at the moment. Quite apart from any question of cruelty to the animals, it makes the sheerest nonsense of any attempt to teach the African to value the game of his own country. As long as the white man is allowed to hunt, any attempt to suppress the poacher will always appear mere hypocrisy in African eyes.
Consider next the fact that for the ordinary African villager the two things that matter more than anything_ else are land and cattle.
Wild animals, nor surprisingly, appear to him as a threat to both and he has always been encouraged in this attitude by the wholesale campaigns of game extermination which the Europeans in Africa have carried on under one Pretext or another over great areas. In Uganda, for instance, countless zebra and antelope have been methodically destroyed on the grounds that they are dangerous carriers of sleeping sickness. The whole theory behind this has been disproved by every reputable scientist who has studied the subject, but the slaughter still goes on. The wild animals killed in various areas in the last ten years for so-called "tsetse control" run into hundreds of thousands.
Because of such examples when European authorities do try to set aside an area for the protection of game it is not surprising if Africans regard it simply as a means of robbing them of land on which they should be allowed to settle themselves.
Many times I have heard the National Parks referred to as land stolen from the
African and the preservation of animals are usually regarded as a perverse white man's hobby.
As a result, the herdsmen and the African settlers have felt themselves within their rights in moving into many of the areas of the National Parks and hard pressed local administrators have all too often accepted this way out of the problem of providing more land for the growing population. …………………… worst of all, the land itself is changing and turning against the wild life as it is in so many other parts of the world. The cattle and the goats increase each year. The sparse land becomes overgrazed and dies. Trees are felled. The thin soil of the bush erodes even more quickly than the soil did in the American Middle West, and like the Middle West, much of Africa is already rapidly turning into a dust bowl.