On a Wednesday morning in March a 40 year old man checks his twitter feed. The latest GetIT 411 story is trending. Meanwhile in Isinya, Kajiado county about 20 km outside of Nairobi city a lion strays into a populated area. A crowd of people quickly gathers, taunting the lion who reacts by injuring a bodaboda operator.
KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) rangers arrive and shoot the lion after failing to subdue it with tranquilizers. It takes nine bullets to take it down. The KWS ranger who fires the lethal shots says it was a threat. The mob agrees. Apparently a lion that has tasted blood has to be put down.
A Whatsapp group monitoring activity on Elephantcenter.org picks up the story. Some members actually recognize the lion. His name was Mohawk. One of the leaders of a pride at the Nairobi National park. A celebrity by any measure. The day turns gloomy for the group of volunteer conservationists. Earlier that morning, the administrator, Jim Nyamu broke the news of two elephants, killed in Amboseli, at the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro next to the Tanzania border. The incident bears the hallmarks of a revenge mission after two people were killed by elephants. The community had demanded compensation from KWS in the form of the elephants blood.
On the same day, a container of ivory worth Ksh 6.4 million headed to Bangkok is intercepted at JKIA (Jomo Kenyatta International Airport). The stockpile originates from Mozambique.
As members of the Elephantcenter.org weigh in, decrying the escalating human wildlife conflict and the glaring inability of KWS to arrest the issue. Outrage pours out online over the reactionary treatment leading to the unnecessary death of a national treasure at the hands of the people employed to safeguard Kenya’s wildlife.
By the end of day, March 30th, the death of Mohawk the lion, is a trending hashtag #JusticeforMohawk and generates news headlines from as far as the Washington Post. Jim Nyamu response is surprisingly optimistic:
“I am supposed to be sad but I am also happy. This story is helping Kenyans understand the reality of Human Wildlife conflict”.
What changes a man from a spectator to an activist? From a complainer to a doer?
In 1997, Jim began a career in conservation after winning a scholarship from GEF – Global Environmental Facility, to study a degree in wildlife management in Mweka Tanzania. In his second year, he got an internship at KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) where he was assigned to the elephant programme with support from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). His job was to look at the effect of confining elephants within their habitats. Trailing elephants led him to 4 major forests; Aberdares, Mt. Kenya, Shimba Hills, Arabuko Sokoke and extended to OloloKristia in Maralal. He spent days also tracking cross border elephant movements into Tanzania at Taragiri in Manyara and Lake Natron. From 1999, Jim begun to work exclusively with elephants, the scientist in him bubbling to the surface.
“I started by doing the aerial survey counting elephants which is very difficult. An elephant defecates 17 times and per defecation, they defecate 13 bolines and you have to follow that to get some of parameters for the number of elephants within certain areas. “
Jim has followed the elephant dung trail for 13 years, moving from KWS to the African Conservation Centre . He monitors elephant movement using satellite polar, applying DNA tests to check on the relationships between groups. Like many in his profession, he fixates on the number of cross border elephants alive.
Then one morning in 2012, he resigned.
“I realized the limitation of the existing conservation model and I decide to return home where I believe I can be of better service”.
Jim wants to target the young people. He realizes the big disconnection African youth face in understanding the value of wildlife in their future.
Knowing where the gaps were but resource strapped, Jim narrowed his focus to the young people on the periphery of the unprotected areas . He needed to reach them aware that most are unemployed, vulnerable and often conduits for poachers. Most of Kenya’s wildlife resides outside gazetted parks and the terrain to cover was vast.
“I decided to walk. It was a hard decision but it is what I could afford”.
Nairobi, April 2013.
I meet Jim Justus Nyamu for the first time on Biashara Street, in Nairobi at a small tea and mandazi joint. The narrow chairs are designed to dissuade loungers. Kush Archer, a visiting Jamaican filmmaker tags along curious to see an African conservationist “ a real one’. My colleague Renee Ngamau, a morning presenter at Nairobi’s Capital FM radio vowed he was different. The real deal.
Jim is at rest having completed a walk from Mombasa to Nairobi promoting conservation. The achievement attracted some news and Renee decided it would make a good ‘real man’ story . I became curious.
I imagined a rugged, swarthy man, in khakis , ideological, even tempered and sinewy from all the walking. The man seated across the narrow table threw me off. Jim could easily pass for an accountant. He has a soft round face, his middle is pudgy and sporting a shiny forehead with the impression of a balding patch. Jim has a permanent frown and rarely smiles.He relaxes into the posture of one who spends long hours staring at a computer screen. Only his khaki safari jacket is typical but even that is starched and pressed in in a way reminiscent of the formality of Provincial Commissioners in the past.
Jim speaks plainly, in a measured tone. Bracing myself for his story, I silently hope he does not bog it down with conservation jargon. Then, as I listen, the conviction in his voice starts to soar. Like a seasoned performer who transforms into character on the action cue. As he continues talking, Kush and I shift our positions, leaning in to catch every word and cursing the noise makers in the small restaurant. It is the same voice and the same tone but the sincerity is what makes listening to him compelling. Jim speaks from his heart.
“70 percent of the animals are outside the park. KWS is stretched. If you think poaching is bad what is even worse and it is coming, is human wildlife conflict”.
Kush hesitantly asks for the numbers of elephants lost.
“We are losing 2 elephants a day. Do you know what that means? In 10 years they will be extinct. So I have to walk to raise awareness. If I don’t. We lose all our elephants”.
After finishing we merge with the foot traffic of mostly office workers rushing home. Kush is surprised that no one has made a film about Jim. I nod in agreement and then we both spontaneously get the irony. A prophet in his own backyard not fully understood?
Kush is touched by what he calls, Jim’s elephant sermon. He says that man is not selling an agenda. His campaign is the stuff of tenacity and he is prepared to walk it alone until people pay attention. I agreed. Jim managed to shift my whole perspective on conservation of Africa wildlife in one sitting.
“The people who can make a real difference are the communities but no one is talking to them”.
Especially the children. They are the only ones who still have time to make a difference. They are the hope.
Jim’s love affair with conservation sprouted as a child in class 8 in the year 1990. He had undergone his rite of passage to become a man in Ichichi village, Kangema in Murang’a county. His uncle, a student at Kijabe high school brought him his first personal copy of a wildlife magazine called Koba magazine ; Kiswahili for bush baby and edited by the Wildlife Clubs of Kenya.
“As I went through the magazine, I ran came across several stories of poaching in the late 90’s. I got interested. I felt I could help”.
Poaching from the late 70’s through the 90’s had decimated Kenya’s elephant population from 167, 000 in 1979 to 16, 000 by the late 90’s. The rate was alarming he had to pick a side. That was his turning point.
When Jim joined Ichichi high school the following year, he was dismayed to find there was no wildlife club. He decides to befriend his history teacher as a form 1 student and persuade him to serve as club patron. With his club legalized, he gathered forty students and made a strong case for wildlife conservation. Everyone was impressed by his knowledge but he chuckles. Jim suspects they joined him mostly for the regular school outings.
The club started by planting trees and collecting garbage, an attempt to make a difference to the environment around them. Soon Jim got bored and went off in search of ways to expand the scope of the club. He pestered his uncle to sponsor him for a trip to Nairobi where he got the club registered at the Wildlife Clubs Headquarters in Bomas. Along the way he met Anne an exchange student on a short internship from Canada. Intrigued by Jim’s total dedication to conservation she promised to help when she returned in a year. Jim was grateful for the compliment but did not believe her.
One year later, Anne returned, keeping her word. Her visit to the school caused a stir that brought out even the village chief. Mzungus are a rare sight in the simple Ichichi village. Anne fulfilled her promise to show a film about the crisis of the Elephants prompting the audience to action. After the end of the film, 60 students joined the Wildlife club as members.
“I was only in form 2. I knew I had found my calling”.
Jim’s first conservation walk was from Mombasa to Nairobi in January 2013. His wife of 6 years Gladys Wamaitha reluctantly blessed him.
“My wife is not too pleased about this intention but when we got married, she found me doing crazy things. I would disappear for a month in the forest and return with empty hands and torn trousers”.
Wamaitha likes to say, I have given you to the elephants. She understands compromise.
His 5 year old daughter Joana takes his work very personally and every time she sees a dead elephant in the news, she says, dad why are they killing your elephants?
Justin his 8 year old son loves the walking and makes a point to join him to the finish line as his father’s biggest cheerleader.
He took an overnight bus to Mombasa, a bit disappointed that KWS was not lending any support. He had a handful of faithful volunteers drawn from a small dedicated band of local conservation NGOs helping with the logistics. Lilian whose responsibility is route planning, Ken who keeps the PA system working, Peter on camera and Gilbert who is good at fixing stuff.
A police officer Corporal Muhammed Abel agreed to flag him off from Nakumatt, Nyali branch. Some of the staff members escorted him all the way to the Makupa Causeway, causing a commotion on their way out with their banners, loudspeakers and policemen on motorbikes redirecting traffic. Jim recalls glowing in the momentary celebrity status, knowing well what lay ahead. A long lonely road and people who do not always take kindly to traveling preachers.
“It was difficult. I had so many blisters and I had no idea what the best shoe was for walking. I was walking in Safari boots and because of the name Safari. I believed that they were built for walking”.
I suppose no one had taken them on a walk this long.
When he reached Maungu town, a hostile crowd confronted him, insulting and chasing him away as he stopped to speak to them. They claimed he was bewitched and had lost his mind. At this point he realized he had to start taking his security seriously. It took Jim three days to walk from Mombasa to Voi.
Fortunes shone a day after. KWS came on board when Jim reached Voi. They finally acknowledged his resolve.
“The fascinating thing is when I reached Voi. I paid a courtesy call to the DC, the deputy county commissioner, a Mr. Shivogo. When I informed him of my reasons for walking, he begged me to stop wasting time”.
The deputy commissioner confidently states that Tsavo has 1 million elephants and there is no cause for alarm. As it is, he struggles to contain the population.
It is an illuminating moment for Jim, one that validates the urgency of his mission. Many senior people mandated with wildlife conservation are ignorant of the facts, let alone the urgency.
Africa’s total elephant population is under 500,000. Kenya had hit a historic low of 16,000 before the formation of the KWS in 1990 which slowed the momentum of poaching and the illegal ivory trade. The 2013 Africa elephant database places the population at 25,600.
The KWS assistant director provided security escort for Jim across Manyani, in the Tsavo conservation area. The next day, the deputy county commissioner flagged Jim off reluctantly, certain that the wildlife activist would not make it to Nairobi.
At 156 km and the walk started taking a toll on his body, with the strain of physical endurance etched on his face. The early February heat sapped his energy and his soles wore out from the repetitive friction of the sun baked tarmac surface.
When Jim returned to Voi in February 2015, he found a reformed director talking conservation.
The longest section of the walk is from Voi to Nairobi. Jim managed to hit a high of 50 km on the stretch from Man Eaters camp to Mtito Andei in the scorching Kenyan heat. The walking gradually became bearable. The most draining part was the talking. He had to stop and talk wherever he found a gathering. In essence conducting a door to door awareness campaign.
At Maungu he changed tack and decided to go undercover, posing as an ivory dealer. He was introduced to a young broker and in under half an hour, a dusty tusk was brought to him. The price? 10 000 Kenya shillings, non-negotiable. Seething inside he reminded himself that it is not wise to show anger.
“They ask me to talk to the Nairobi people to raise their rates because the Mombasa market was offering better prices. The Mombasa buyers were parting with anything from 15000 to 20000 and Nairobi was stuck at 10k!!!”
Realizing that to end poaching then he would need to understand the operations of underground networks. Jim handed a wad of notes to the eager broker, holding it mid-air as cue for more information. The money loosened his tongue and he went on full disclosure with Jim.
“How do you put an elephant down”, Jim asked not ready for the answer.
“You can hire a gun or just go kienyeji, arrows and spears but it needs many people”.
The last statement hit him hard suffocating his chest.
When Jim returned to Nairobi he encountered widespread ignorance. For all his efforts at public awareness, the issue of Elephant survival was too removed from the people. He decided to go on a second walk. He had to keep walking.
“People were ignorant including some KWS officers”.
In Maasai Mara, he found rangers who were way off mark on the existing elephant population. The Mara was a poaching flash-point. The key to solving the problem is garnering community goodwill which is easier said than done. The Maasai are traditionally bound from killing elephants but some are willing to ignore the practice when lured by poachers. The outsiders are seen as helping them remove a problem. Do you know what some leaders say, he poses.
“The animals belong to KWS and it is there problem. That is how a leader thinks”.
Jim decided to take the next two years from 2013 to 2015 walking and preaching about conservation. Reinforcing sustainable co-existence between wildlife and communities.
The scientist turned activist has walked over 5000 km, the equivalent road distance of Nairobi to Lagos in 2 years. He walked from Maasai Mara to Narok, Nakuru, Nyahururu, connected to Maralal and all the way to Wamba, junction of Marsabit taking 50 days to cover 1710 km. He walked to Isiolo, Meru, Embu and then Nyeri where the 1st lady Margaret Kenyatta joined him on his last leg back to Nairobi. He walked through Boston Massachusetts from the picturesque Cape Cod through Rhode island, onto Connecticut within gawking distance of Yale university onward to New York through Manhattan. From New York to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and finally Washington DC. It took him one month to complete the 900 km trek. Shortly afterwards, U.S. President Barack Obama passed an Executive Order combating Wildlife trafficking to attack the issue through a renewed government approach.
Arriving back in Kenya,Jim begun a walk from Meru town clocking 170 km, passing the Njuri Ncheke shrine to Maua onward to Meru National park. Then he walked down to the coast through Shimba Hills to Kwale, Lunga Lunga, Mombasa, Kilifi, Malindi, Garsen to finish in Lamu. 510 km. thirty four days on the road preaching and teaching.
He took a short rest of about a month then decided he needed to take his message to the Western part of Mt. Kenya and the Northern Aberdares in July. The 350 km trek, over 21 days took him from Nanyuki, Nyeri, Nyahururu, Njabini to the flyover in Naivasha.
In September, he finally walked from Nyeri on the eastern side of Aberdares through Ndakaini and that took him 10 days. It is a short walk of a mere 250 km.
In 2015, February he was back down Mombasa road to walk from Emali to Loitoktok, then across to Taita Taveta, Voi to Mackinnon Road bordering Kwale county. It took him 37 days to cross the 455 km Amboseli, Tsavo West Kilimanjaro ecosystem.
Along the way, a movement started by Kenyans of all extractions has grown. There are others who have become friends of his organisation, Elephant Neighbor Center ,a legion of fans spreading the message by wearing branded T-shirts, “Ivory Belongs To Elephants”.
Preaching conservation to the afflicted can quickly become a plea of “Do not shoot the messenger”. On the Amboseli walk, a villager who lost his wife to elephants confronted him. The dejected man dragged Jim to his modest home and pointed at two graves, the mound of soil still clear of weeds. In them lies his wife and his unborn child. He holds Jim and his ilk responsible. All he sees are planes counting elephants.
“Why are these elephants more important than the life of my wife and child?”
Jim bears the collective guilt of conservationists. The man is partly right. Stakeholders are mostly concerned with increasing elephant populations and revenue. Human life does not draw as much sympathy as the death of a member of the Big Five.
There would be a subsequent confrontation with a group of elders after Emali town. They stopped his crew and asked him to witness the aftermath of marauding elephants on their farms. The farms situated between Kimana and Loitoktok were virtually flattened and the losses substantial. A crowd followed them about, an uneasy mood in the air. When a female farmer along the way spotted “Ivory Belongs To Elephant” banners, she started wailing and gesturing angrily at Jim. “Look what you have done to us!”.
Switching codes to a diplomat, Jim remembered the little kiMaasai he learned on the beat in Tanzania and used it to sooth the rising tensions. He remained aware of his dilemma. This was not a good place to brandish the truth.
“I could not tell her that all this was her making”.
Land adjudication in Maasai land and the change of use from pastoral areas to farmland has disrupted animal movement. Probably, her educated children had established a farm on an animal corridor that elephants had followed for centuries. “You do not teach the paths of the forest to an old Gorilla”.
Jim offered his profuse apologies and promised to pass the message to KWS to “Come and remove their elephants”.
The next day, they found the main road jammed by a procession of angry locals. They were carrying the coffin of a young man killed by an elephant. Jim instructed Ken his technical guy to tone it down, switch off the music and take down the banner as a sign of respect to the bereaved. He could not afford to be inappropriate.
In September, Jim reserved 11 days to cover 200 km, from Kilgoris to Loita. His meetings became more pointed and structured. Beyond overstating the problem, he had to start offering solutions.
At least two to three people fall victim to human-wildlife conflict in Laikipia every month. Several more survive with injuries. In Nyandarua the cases are escalating as elephants have become aggressive.
As he tells me this, Jim receives a call. A man was apprehended with 39 pieces of ivory tusks Nairobi’s Githurai, Kimbo area. Someone was rushing to verify.
He turns back to me apologizing for losing his train of thought. The phone call had changed his mood.
Jim is preparing for a major walk, his longest so far from Nairobi, to Dar es Salaam, Kampala and back to Nairobi. It is an estimated 3200kms. The choice of the region is instructive. The three East African countries are classified as the gang of producer countries, the largest source of ivory on earth.
Another Kenyan, the late Michael Sampson Werikhe “The Rhino Man” had walked a similar route in 1985. From Kampala to Dar es Salaam and eventually Mombasa. Werikhe took his “Save The Rhino” campaign to several countries in Europe covering 3000 km in 1988. Werikhe’s decade long activism made a substantial contribution to the protection of the surviving Black Rhinoceros in Africa.
All this walking has transformed Jim’s thinking. He used to reason like a scientist fixated on solving the problem but walking has taught him patience. It has taught him to spend more time with people.
“I meet all kinds of people. I used to get angry easily at the ignorance but that has changed. When I walk, I get a lot of information and it helps me meet people where they are”.
He is aware of the stereotypes that people battle with. In Kenya’s historical narrative, conservation was a white washed activity. The images through the years projected Caucasians as the protectors of African wildlife. Black Africans were associated with farming, cattle herding and poaching.
He knows his sacrifice will be dismissed and his intentions questioned. Yet, three years since he started walking the results have been incredible and the awareness movement has grown organically.
Jim’s core message has not changed. “Ivory Still Belongs To Elephants”.
He is on a singular mission of reinforcing the importance of wildlife to our lives.
“About 80 per cent of the people I meet have no idea about elephants. Our generation only thinks about money. When they see an elephant moving, they only think of the elephant in terms of its monetary value, a resource for ivory and meat”.
He intends to walk until attitudes change.
The conservation field has to show value to win public support. Something that is not valued will not be protected and with only 30 per cent of wildlife in protected areas, the clash is inevitable.
Jim’s sense of urgency is well informed. He is making up for the long years spent as a scientist counting elephants.
“We only document the tragedy of poaching but no one documents the value of elephants”.
Jim Nyamu believes Human-wildlife conflict will be a bigger menace than poaching. Haphazard planning of farms and settlements continuously encroach on wildlife territory. Nairobi National park is surrounded by residential units and the migration corridors blocked. Amboseli national park is encircled by farms. In areas such as Mara, Laikipia and Mau forest, traditional animal migration corridors have barricaded by new human settlement, majorly politically motivated.
The potential for conflict remains high and communities who do not see tangible benefits will see wildlife like elephants as a menace. Their priority is protecting their livelihoods and when KWS does not heed their call, they apply the law of the old, an eye for eye.
Is there any hope even for an optimist like Jim?
It is doable. He is certain. With political goodwill and more awareness, hardened attitudes can be changed.
“With information, we can activate. We just have to educate more people”.
Jim turned 40 on 15th October, 2015 and he told me it felt like a new beginning. “Walking changed me. You know, for a man to live he has to see a man. My role models in conservation were Dr. Richard Leakey and David Western. I have to continue finding men who can take up from me “.
“I feel that it is the only way, this is what I will do for the rest of my life, educating people”.
It is true what they say. Life begins at 40.
Modern African Guy