By Dai Kurokawa
As a child growing up in a highly industrialized society, it had always been my dream to see the wild animals in their natural habitat of the African Savannah or the Amazon rain forests. When the media in Japan started talking about disappearing rain forests in the 1980s, I simply thought that it was not “fair”: Why might my generation be banned from ever seeing them just because some people were cutting down trees for money? I used to ask my parents and they would tell me that I had to do something about it if I wanted to see these animals in the future.
These childhood memories resurfaced in December 2012, when I met a high ranking man from an international wildlife NGO and was later told that this very person was said to be deeply involved in poaching and trafficking of ivory. I was puzzled that people in a position to protect animals are the ones actually involved in killing them.
Poaching had already been a big issue in Kenya/Africa at that time so I thought this was a good chance to do something meaningful both personally and professionally, and started my research and preparation in mid 2013.
Poaching is not a sport but an environmental crime. In Kenya, about 280 elephants and almost 60 rhinos have been killed by poachers in 2013 according to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). Elephants and rhinoceros are targeted for their tusks and horns. Ivory is used in mass productions for souvenirs and jewelry. The tusks of one elephant are worth tens of thousands of euros. Especially Asian clients pay good money for rhino horns to use in their traditional medicine as it is believed it can cure almost everything. But actually, biting nails would have the same effect. The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) estimates that the illicit wildlife trade is worth at least 14 billion Euros per year, ranking it the fourth largest global illegal activity. And Somalia’s Islamist militant group al-Shabab is believed to derive some 430,000 Euros a month, or up to 40 percent of its revenue, through the ivory trade to fund their terrorism activities, as claimed by wildlife NGO Elephant Action League (EAL).
As a wire photographer, I didn’t have the luxury of spending seven consecutive days on a feature story. Therefore the story had to be worked on an on/off basis. To take a photograph of a poached rhino in Lewa, for instance, I acted on a tip off from a local source. As soon as I heard the news, I hit the road to Lewa.
For me, this is one of strongest pictures in this series because it’s rare to get these pictures in Kenya, and it took a lot of preparation and setup. Authorities never want you to photograph them for fear it would make them look like they weren’t doing their job.
I covered the rangers in Maasai Mara because I wanted to show what is actually being done on a daily basis on the ground, as opposed to “official” PR events that are actively promoted by authorities. Through my contacts inside the KWS, I was invited and allowed to cover the chip implanting operation.
I was surprised to see how many resources – time, money, people and their expertise- are devoted to put one microchip into one rhino – while on the other end of the spectrum some poachers use very basic and primitive techniques to kill animals and are so successful at it and often walk free even when discovered.
From talking to rangers, poachers, conservation activists and members of local communities, I have come to think that no matter how well their rangers are equipped or how much international campaign they put out, the big task of conservation will be impossible without engaging local communities more closely and team up with them as partners. After all, it would be impossible for poachers to operate without being tipped off by the local population and insiders who are aware of rangers’ patrol routes, times, number of rangers etc.
For one thing, the local population in the poaching prone areas are the ones living side by side with the animals and often with first-hand information regarding illegal activities. Yet some of them are reluctant to help authorities because they feel let down by the government in the first place. They believe authorities only care about the animals’ welfare, and neglect theirs. For example, the Maasai herdsmen are banned from grazing their cattle inside the parks so as not to bother wild animals or disappoint tourists. When wild animals kill their people or their cattle, they are rarely compensated. So locals come to feel unfairly treated in the name of conservation. I think it would be important for the government to listen to the locals’ concerns and make them feel they will actually benefit from conservation.
And here is some more food for thought: In his book “2052 A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Yeaers”, Norwegian scholar Jorgen Randers gives readers his personal advice on how to live happily in the future- “Don’t teach your children to love the wilderness” and “If you like great biodiversity, go see it now”
“When you see your child sitting in front of the computer and think that she should rather be by the campfire in the great outdoors, you should constrain your temptation to interfere. By teaching your child to love the loneliness of the untouched wilderness, you are teaching her to love what will be increasingly difficult to find. And you will be increasing the chance of her being unhappy- because she won’t be able to find what she desires in the future world of eight billion people and a GDP twice that of today”.
Despite my childhood worries, my generation has been lucky enough to be able to witness the great biodiversity of the world. But what about our children? Will they be lucky like us? It’s up to all of us and our responsibility to prove Mr Randers wrong.