blog

Excerpt from The Big Conservation Lie

Book: The Big Conservation Lie

Author: John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada

Publisher: Lens & Pens Publishing LLC Auburn WA USA 2017

 

 

The Epiphany

John Mbaria’s Encounter With Unseen Injustice

 

 

She was an unmistakable image of deprivation. The emaciated Samburu woman had thrown across her left shoulder a torn shuka, which left parts of her body exposed. She had braved the sweltering Samburu sun that baked the entire place bringing into being mirages of promise that failed to deliver more than that. As she advanced to the river, the woman attempted an upright position. But her stooped frame refused to yield. Nevertheless, this enabled me to peer into her cracked, multilined face. Her look was distant. Her thin hands held onto a cord with which she had strapped the empty twenty-litre water jerrican. Her entire frame talked of many struggles and probably as many defeats. The woman had emerged from a thick bush across the river, itself part of a natural spread dotted here and there by short, sturdy trees and broken, now and then, by awkward-looking hills. Some of the outcrops had been whitened by excrement from birds of prey. The vast, monotonous terrain extended into the distant horizon, giving packs, herds and flocks, and other residents a veritable abode. Some did not just live and let live; they visited local people’s homesteads with danger and intent.  Across the river was a scene removed from the reality of this unforgiving landscape. Under the watchful eyes of armed rangers, a group of us were happily and noisily climbing a rocky landform that formed part of the river’s embankment.

This was in 2001, and most of us were young, joyful journalists. We had been sponsored to the Shaba Game Reserve, 314 kilometres northeast of Nairobi, by the Sarova Group of Hotels, one of Kenya’s most prominent hotel chains with eight hotels—many of which are carefully stashed in some of Kenya’s most spectacular, most pristine pieces of wilderness. Located in Eastern Kenya, Shaba is where the popular reality TV adventure series Survivor III was shot in August 2001. Before that, the game reserve hosted Joy and George Adamson, the romantic conservationists who gave the world a reality show of life in the bush before they were tragically murdered. Together with its sister reserve, Buffalo Springs, Shaba boasts of seventeen springs that sojourn along subterranean courses from Mount Kenya—one hundred or so kilometres away—and which gush out there to convert part of this dry wasteland into a veritable oasis. Along its northern boundary flows the Ewaso Nyiro River that, together with the springs, has made the entire place a magnet for gerenuks, Grevy’s zebras, reticulated giraffes, lions, leopards, and hundreds of bird species that live side by side with the Samburu people. We were taken there to savour the unmitigated joy of spending time in a purely wild area. We were expected to reciprocate by meeting our brief—flowery feature stories embellished into captivating narratives that could attract and keep guests visiting the hotel and the reserve. Many of us were poorly paid cub reporters who could hardly afford the European cuisine on offer or the joys of partaking of a game drive atop four-wheel-drive fuel guzzlers. With a monthly pay that either equaled or was slightly more than the cost of spending a night in the extremely comfortable and luxurious hotel, we could not but agree to be spoiled for three days and be blinded by freebies. We roamed the area in vans packed with bites, booze, and soda. For lunch and dinner, three-course meals of continental dishes awaited—a veritable feeding frenzy ensued.

While on game drives, we hoped to spot elephants, dung beetles, and everything in between. Part of our exclusive experience included climbing a rocky landform close to the crocodile-infested Ewaso Nyiro River. It was while doing so that I spotted the elderly Samburu woman. Silently—almost in mime—and removed from my world, she was to take me through a host of lessons that dramatically altered my entire outlook on the grand wildlife conservation program Kenya and other countries in Africa have adopted since the dawn of colonialism.

“A conversation with the Samburu elders during a study on pastoralism, 2017” [Source]

For some reason, I found myself thoughtfully watching her every move. She dipped her jerrican into the river, rapidly filling it with the muddy, unpalatable water. The water notwithstanding, this had me thinking. With a load of European food still fresh in my belly, I could afford to summon some imagination. I conjured images of the immense peril the woman had exposed herself to. But what repeatedly danced in my mind was one image in which a four-metre, several-hundred-kilo crocodile emerged from the water, splashed dirty water into her eyes, and in a lightning move, grabbed the woman’s leg with its massive jaws, its saw-like teeth tearing into her flesh, as it then dragged her limp body into the deeper waters. In my mind’s eye, the croc went on to convert her entire existence into some unsightly bloody mess.

Thank God this did not happen. But in the case it had happened, I figured that it would have resulted in several eventualities: A photojournalist would have captured the bloody scene in a single, award-winning shot. The woman would have paid the ultimate price, ending up as yet another sad statistic. Many of us would have filed copious media reports detailing how “another victim met her death” or “I witnessed the worst case of human-wildlife conflict at the banks of Ewaso.” KWS rangers would have been summoned. And with cocked guns, fingers on triggers, eyes strained to the river, and adrenaline pumping into muscles, they would have first shot in the air to rattle any crocs. The rangers would have found it impossible to identify the culprit. Unable to isolate the life-snatching beast from the rest of the gang, they would have shot one of them—an act of appeasement to sorrowful relatives, tit-for-tat killing, justice delivered to a woman so shunned in life. The conservation juggernaut would have rolled on, as ever deceitful and callously removed from the plight of those who suffer the brunt of what it purports to preserve.

Yes, the woman lived that day, not just to take the dirty water home, but probably to go back to the river and risk her life many more times. Maybe she lived only to fall sick or die from the muddy, parasite-infested Ewaso waters. This is not just a possibility. Neither is it a mere probability or likelihood. It is a circumstance that is replicated countless times across most areas bordering Kenya’s twenty-two national parks and twenty-eight national reserves. Many of the people who live with wildlife in Africa meet their deaths, leaving hordes of orphans with no one to wipe their tears. There are hundreds of women—young and old—who have been denied the comfort of travelling through life with their spouses. There are men who must gnash their teeth in pain and immense anger each time they think of their late beloved spouses and children. There are countless more who live without limbs, just as there are many others who endure torn flesh, broken bones, blindness, destitution, and loss of entire livelihoods occasioned by encounters with wild animals.

In this Samburu woman, I saw the embodiment of a community praised for its traditional conservation ethics that spared for the world vast populations of diverse wildlife, a community, however, shunned by the world, even as acres of paper and decades of airtime are expended by many a conservationist and organization to discuss their welfare.

Upon this revelation, I refused to play along, and I made it my career to expose the rot.

~ John Mbaria, 2014

 

+++