It has been four and a half years, 10,457Km (6498 Miles) since I started walking for elephants and it feels like I just started. The question most people ask is, why walk for elephants and for all those miles and for years?
Last month, I completed my 13th edition of Ivory Belongs to Elephants Walk in Marsabit from Nairobi covering a distance of 617Km in 32 days. I did what I do best which is walking and talking to well organized groups of people from town to town, along the planned walk route, engaging them in the need to protect our elephants and wildlife at large, enlightening them on the wildlife laws that would be of help to them and getting feedback on how to better co-exist with wildlife from their point of view.
I started this initiative in 2013 after realizing how ignorant Kenyans were about the dwindling numbers of our largest land mammal which is a great icon in Kenya’s tourism business. They say knowledge is power. I had the information that grassroots community in Kenya and Africa at large desperately needed (and still need) to be able to participate in conservation. My first walk was from Mombasa to Nairobi where I covered a distance of 500Km in 14 days with minimal support since many people and organizations had not understood what exactly I was doing. Interestingly enough, the walk campaign greatly benefitted Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) but they did not support me as I expected in my first walk. I am glad to say this changed for the better in the subsequent walks.
In my most recent walk I highlighted Ahmed of Marsabit, who remains the most famous Kenyan Jumbo due to its long and beautiful tusks. Ahmed was put under 24/7 protections under presidential decree by the first president of Kenya. This goes to show how important our elephants are in this nation, a fact that has to be repeated on and on for people to change their attitudes towards wildlife. The focus was on promoting Ahmed’s legacy and using it to promote Marsabit as a tourists’ destination. The remains of Ahmed are in the National Museums of Kenya alongside a replica of the same. I was impressed by communities who have established wildlife conservancies and I encouraged them to keep up the good work because our wildlife’s future entirely depends on communities’ goodwill since 70% of the wildlife in Kenya lives outside the protected areas. It is therefore mandatory to note that KWS cannot protect our heritage alone as at times it is out of their reach, we as community need to support the rangers.
Walking is not easy. It’s even harder when it’s done for a cause. During Nairobi-Marsabit walk, I had a myriad of challenges; some were anticipated but others I’d say I had underrated. To start with, our cause was blessed on the first day with rains as we completed the first leg. We were therefore prepared for rains and definitely cautious for our health. When it rains, I need to continue walking as the cause runs on a timeline and we are expected ahead as planned. Sometimes this becomes a challenge especially when I have a large group of people walking with me. Often my one or two hired vehicles are not enough to offer shelter to all. It is heartbreaking for me when they all look up to me when I barely have enough raincoats to share.
We approached Mt. Kenya region from Nanyuki all the way to Subuiga and very cold weather. Keep in mind that when you are walking for a cause and you must wear branded T-shirt that did not provide an adequate layer against the cold. The low morning temperatures exposed my team to the threat of the flu and pneumonia. We thank God we pulled through just fine. On the same stretch my knees also suffered. The terrain from Timau to Subuiga and all the way down to Meru was so steep and the downhill descent put a lot of pressure on my knees. By the time we were getting to Meru, my leg muscles were worn out and I experienced painful muscle cramps. When we got to Isiolo, I had to get a knee support especially for my right knee.
From Bad to Worse
The journey from Isiolo was characterized by extreme daytime temperatures that were direct contrast from what we experienced in the Mt. Kenya region. My knee support was tight and uncomfortable and in combination with the heat made the walk became unbearable. My breathing was labored as we encountered crosswinds, which would stir up dust from roadside. We would be hit by blasts of hot air and once in a while cool air. The newly tarmacked Nairobi-Moyale road was a blistering walkway, reflecting back the heat from the scorching sun. It felt like we were slowly roasting in an oven. I experienced severe headaches and reddened eyes for days. We endured temperature highs of 34 degrees Celsius at an emerging center where we camped for two nights called Sere Olipi and also at Merille, a trading center which is the gateway to Marsabit County.
I must say our bodies are magical. I had never experienced these kinds of temperatures before but with time, the body adapted to the harsh temperatures and I could walk just fine even though my T shirt would be soaked wet in sweat. The weather fluctuated from hot to cold at Loglogo. The body had to readjust and I even realized I barely remembered to take water since my system did not demand hydration.
Nonetheless, challenges are meant to be overcome. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comforts and convenience but at times where he stands at times of challenge and controversy. I strive propelled by motivation for the cause knowing that by overcoming the challenges, the walk becomes meaningful.
Basically, every walk has its unique challenges but a common challenge I experience across all walks is the logistics of planning for the journey. I usually have to be present in all the planning meetings. By the time I begin the walk, I am usually fatigued and overwhelmed by the countless engagements that planning demands. I have since learnt to delegate some duties, though in most cases I have to attend to them in person.
Over time I have come to learn that it is imperative to walk with people full of positive energy, people who are jovial, who create fun, make me dance along to the music as I walk and divert my attention from exhaustion and worries. I have firsthand experience of how the groups of people you have really do affect you mentally, physically and psychologically. I would especially give credit to my Rwandese friend Nkurunziza wa Nkurunziza, who joined me during the East Africa Walk in 2016 and also walked with me from Isiolo to Marsabit. Walking with Nkurunziza and his kind re-energizes me and before I know it, I am engaged in my next community meeting or the destination for the day.
I commend the company I had during the Nairobi-Marsabit Walk. I was caught with a smile on my face in some exceptional photos captured by one energetic guy called Kizito. I must reiterate the importance of walking with the right team. This is an important consideration I have learned over four years of walking and there have been occasions when I nearly terminated a walk before completion or sent the entire team back home to walk alone.
Finances are also a critical component to the success of any walk. One major need that cuts across all the walks is constant presence of a vehicle from the first to the last day of walk. I must have a truck that carries camping gear, foodstuff for my crew and a public address system. Occasionally, I need a vehicle for advance assignments as well. I therefore I fundraise while am walking in collaboration with my communications person to cater for the needs of my crew during the walk especially in the areas of mobility and meals.
There are some days that I appear unhappy, bored or worn out, but it’s just that my mind is usually preoccupied by pressing logistical matters. I believe acquiring my own vehicle is an urgent need that will help the cause a great deal as the cost of hiring and fueling makes a big dent in our operational budget. During the East Africa Walk, at Fort Portal Uganda we didn’t have a vehicle for three consecutive days and we could not walk. Evidently, it is next to impractical to put on our luggage on our backs and walk for the distance. This is only practical in mountain climbing.
Sometimes these preoccupations distract me from paying attention to my basic needs such as staying hydrated. At times like this it is useful to have an assistant to remind me to drink water and other energy drinks. Without this I normally suffer from headaches further fueled by air pollution from vehicles plying busy highways. Air pollution is a health risk that can lead to respiratory and heart conditions and I therefore do not take it lightly. I have thought of practical ways to deal with this challenge as I find using dust masks quite cumbersome.
Having a proper pair of walking shoes has been of great help especially to prevent blisters. During my Marsabit walk I was completely blister free unlike on previous occasion when I had invested in proper walking shoes. I will need to acquire a new pair for my next walk in Uganda since my last pair were worn after the Marsabit stretch.
Why do I continue walking despite all these challenges?
Here’s the thing, I focus on the bigger picture. Like I had mentioned earlier, I started walking after seeing the high level of ignorance amongst our communities whose roles are vital in protecting our elephants. I consider what I have done so far to be in the past and I have more to do ahead of me. Even with the attendant risks, I enjoy my job.
Provoking peoples thinking and changing their attitude is not a walk in the park; it takes time and consistency to get the results. The long term approach for this cause is targeting the youth and young children especially those in primary school which is exactly what we are doing. I believe if we inculcate a culture of conservation in them, it will become their way of life and adopting a conservation mindset would be second nature.
What they need is the knowledge of how valuable wildlife is, how to mitigate human-wildlife conflicts and most especially how to benefit from wildlife. It is unfortunate that the bias that we normally have towards wildlife is from inherited attitudes that labelled certain animals as bad. All animals have their ecological importance and we just need to learn how to live with them. The Almighty did not make a mistake in creating any of them.
I attract thousands of people across the world especially through social media who give their support by all means. I have also received goodwill support from the Government of Kenya through the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources and that of Interior and Coordination of National Government.
I have had substantial support from the First Lady of the Republic especially during the East Africa Walk where she flagged me off at KICC. I acknowledge the support of the security organs in Kenya as well as they have walked with me especially through areas considered risky to ensure safety for my team and I easing the cause. I must say that the demand for this knowledge is higher than the supply. The communities that I talk to along the way, governments and certain institutions are craving for this information. During the Nairobi-Marsabit walk, I realized the Marsabit county government was very receptive, supportive and eager to learn.
When I started this walk, I had clear objectives that have evolved to keep up with knowledge gathered or new laws that affect or relate to the cause. My messaging approach to communities is customized to their way of life and level of understanding to enable the message to be effective. For instance, I get to show them the aesthetical value of elephants by having them express how they feel after seeing the elephants. Take for instance the SGR which was recently launched by the President that has passengers excited about seeing elephants at Tsavo while onboard.
Elephants are magnificent animals with exceptional beauty. They are also the world’s largest mammals. As an eye opener, I encourage people in fringe communities to learn more about elephants and act as tour guides and in return they will be able to reap some earnings. I also give them clues of minimizing human-wildlife conflict and by maintaining a safe distance from them.
We are all responsible for our wildlife and they are beneficial to all of us as global citizens. We should be all custodians of our wildlife. The rangers and institutions mandated to protect them are simply the first line of defense watching over our wildlife.
I believe if we all changed our attitude towards wildlife, it would be very easy to ensure their survival and to mitigate human wildlife conflict which has become the next major threat for elephants after poaching.
We must come together, walk together and talk to each other!
Jim Justus Nyamu- Elephant Man