Once upon a time, Africa alone was home to 26 million elephants. The giants roamed the continent knowing not what lay in store, that their habitats would dwindle and so would their majestic numbers.
From millions, they are now in their thousands, falling faster than trees – all for their ivory tusks.
Approximately 97 elephants are gunned down daily by poachers for their tusks. This means by 2030 there could be no elephants left in the wild.
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the African elephant population dropped from 550,000 in 2006 to about 350,000. In East Africa, the decline is far more alarming – from 150,000 to about 100,000.
Other parts of the world have also seen a drastic decline of the elephant population. In Asia, it’s estimated less than 50,000 elephants still roam the region; more than half of them in India.
These figures are frightening – what deforestation and poaching can do.
Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times said: “Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent.”
It’s hard not to notice the mammoths disappearing.
Dr. Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Kenyan conservation NGO, is currently leading a campaign, Hands Off Our Elephants – civil society, corporations, government agencies as well as other conservation organizations in a unified approach towards ending the poaching crisis in Kenya.
Born in Nairobi, Kenya, to an English mother and Kenyan father, Kahumbu is one of eight siblings. Being out in the wilderness as a child interacting with animals made her the committed eco-warrior she is today.
“My mother was often home alone and because we were so many, mother would literally tell us to get lost and we would do just that,” says Kahumbu.
“We’d go exploring – catching anything you can imagine; birds, mice, snakes, frogs. We’d go fishing and swimming in the rivers, make our way through to forests and swamps. We spent our entire childhoods in the wilderness.”
“We did the kind of stuff you would never allow children to do today actually but it was very safe at that time,” she continues.
Soon, these trysts led to an encounter with Richard Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician.
“We didn’t know all that much about wildlife so we would visit our neighbor, Richard Leakey, head of the Kenya Museum Associates. He was someone who knew a lot about animals and whenever we would spend time with him he would teach us about their ecology, behavior, and the like.”
Between the 1960s and 1980s, elephant poaching was at a dramatic high, according to the Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES).
“When I finished high school, it was very difficult at that time to get into university. My parents could not afford to take us to the local university,” says Kahumbu, who then, just as she had done countless times as a girl, returned to Leakey.
She knocked on his door, which at the time was at the National Museum, and said, “I want to be a ranger”. That got her in.
“There was one particular place I wanted to go to, Kora National Park, best known for the lions and George Adamson who is famously known as Baba ya Simba, which translates to ‘father of lions’. My dream was to be his ranger. And Richard Leakey said ‘are you sure about this’? I was 17 years old and that’s all I wanted to do. I ended up in a research facility which focused on monkeys and that’s when I realized the importance of science in studying animals,” says Kahumbu.
That was the motivation for years of study. Kahumbu was the first in her family to attend university.
“My mum was not keen on the idea of a career in animal conservation… She sent me to secretarial college because she thought that the safe [career] option is to be a secretary because everyone needs a secretary. I detested it and the day I ran to Richard Leakey’s office was the day I ran away from secretarial college.”
Kahumu did a lot of field work early in her career.
“I went to some of the remote corners of the country, some really dangerous areas to study this wildlife. This left my mother very anxious.”
Her “conservative” mother always threatened: “I am going to speak to this Richard Leakey because it’s unacceptable that a young woman can live in the bush for months on end counting monkeys on her own.”
Her father, on the other hand, encouraged her. Kahumbu clearly broke boundaries.
“I remember my male colleagues were very angry with me because it was very uncommon for a woman, particularly a Kenyan woman, to be working in the forest usually by herself, so they would beg me to stop but of course I never did,” she says.
That did not deter her from her course.
“My son was actually born when I started working on my PhD and he was two-and-a-half years old when I had to spend extended periods of time in the wilderness conducting my research. I worked in a rainforest on top of a mountain with huge trees.”
Kahumbu and a small team of researchers were studying trees, a main source of nourishment for the elephants.
“We wanted to gauge how elephants living and eating in the forest was changing the landscape of the forest. My son was still so small, I would sit him on a mat, give him some toys to play with and go on measuring trees.”
“One day, the trees started moving as though they were being consumed by strong winds, it was actually a herd of elephants calmly making their way through the forest… But we were so busy we had not noticed they had moved in around us and I hadn’t really realized they were around us until I was about to measure what I thought was the trunk of a tree and then I realized it was the leg of an elephant,” she laughs.
“When I did [realize], I slowly tiptoed backwards and picked up the baby.”
Kahumbu was persuaded to study elephants after her bachelor’s degree and “was offered an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the stocktake of ivory in 1989 in Kenya”.
“I had to measure every single tusk, which is a great source of information about the sex of the elephant and age. We gathered data from about 3,000 tusks and drew a timeline as every tusk had a marker of when and where it was seized.”
What the timelines showed was alarming. The tusks got smaller and smaller. This showed poachers were going for smaller elephants, calves essentially.
“Juxtaposing the data with the demography of animals, we saw there were no adults left, the species was basically finished because there were no longer breeding individuals; poachers are going for any kind of elephant, even if it had half a kilogram of ivory.”
Following that, Kahumbu decided she was not going to study the pachyderms, not only because they were virtually extinct but also because there was the threat of her becoming a target for poachers in the area.
“So, for my master’s degree, I decided to study monkeys and even from time to time, when we were out doing research in the wilderness, we’d hear gunshots and subsequently come across dead elephants on our trail and I remember thinking, ‘thank goodness I’m not studying elephants’ because every single day, I would be heartbroken.”
For three years, she refused to study them.
After her master’s, she became a senior scientist at Kenya Wildlife Service. While there, the organization hired 30 young Kenyans to conduct research on elephants.
The ban on poaching was now in place so their task was to work out how to save the remaining elephants as well as replenish the population. This formed the thesis of Kahumbu’s PhD.
When she became CEO of WildlifeDirect, she led a campaign exposing the poaching crisis in Kenya, leading to major reforms in the laws and practices against ivory poachers and traffickers.
Poaching dropped by 80% in three years. Kenya burned her entire ivory stockpile of 105 tonnes in April 2016, an event that garnered global attention.
“The world was very surprised – how was it that a country suffering economically would forego millions of dollars’ worth of a payout to prove a point?” says Kahumbu.
It was a start, and conservation continues.
“Even after decades of working in this area, I still can’t understand the inhumanity and greed of poachers. The elephant is an extraordinary animal. They can live in any habitat except the ocean. They can climb close to the ice on Mount Kilimanjaro, they can live in deserts as they do in Namibia and northern Africa. They can live in forests and in savannahs. Elephants can also eat almost anything.
“They are a lot like humans in that way because they can easily adapt to an environment. Their brain is three to six times larger than the human brain, designed to store vast amounts of information. Further, elephant families are actually governed by females because the male leave the herd at an early age and only return to mate.”
The trade of ivory is inextricably linked to the trading of slaves. Kahumbu explains, in the late 1800s, the British could not take ivory out of Africa without the help of slaves because they did not have the means to carry it. Ivory was stolen from the homesteads of people in the Congo.
“In those days, Africans did not see the monetary value poachers saw; they would use the tusks as fence posts around their homesteads and the British would raid these villages and steal all the ivory and ship it to Zanzibar and Mombasa and then it would be taken to Europe. It was so valuable, 100 tons a year were being shipped out to be used as billiard balls.”
And then ivory found its way to America; the volume of ivory coming into one part alone gave birth to two cities on the back of ivory trade and slavery. Business boomed. Technology was developed to transform ivory into how we know it today – thin veneers used as piano keys and hair combs.
“That was a major driver. And by the end of the 1800s, there was about 1.2 million elephants – a drastic decline. In Japan, ivory was a symbol of luck, pens and stamps were made with ivory and of course this caused the trade to skyrocket in the region.”
At the moment, various species of the elephant are on the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) list of critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and threatened animals, sharing the list with another dwindling animal – the rhinoceros. The illegal rhino horn trade has decimated the world’s rhino population by more than 90% over the past 40 years.
But has the world awakened to the plight of these animals?
According to research, the common strategy adopted by many countries is to destroy stockpiles of ivory. An article in The Guardian quotes WWF: “This has been the case not only for African countries but also some developed countries that have intercepted ivory originating from Africa. The idea is to remove the ivory from the market and thus reduce the incentive for people to engage in smuggling. In Kenya, the problem of elephant poaching has spiraled out of control and destroying ivory has become the common practice in dealing with the stockpiles.”
The torching of stockpiles of ivory has not been the only way governments have tried to mitigate the poaching of elephants. Countries such as France, China, the United States, and the Philippines have destroyed ivory worth millions of dollars. However, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe oppose the destruction of illegal ivory; this according to an article published in National Geographic in 2016.
But does destroying ivory translate to less poaching? The Conservation Trust, a nongovernmental organization sites that in 2015, elephant poaching was at its highest level in more than three decades.
The ornaments made from the tusks form part of a billion-dollar industry – prevalent and as dangerous as ever.
Kahumbu’s Hands Off Our Elephants has generated unprecedented public and political awareness and support for wildlife conservation in Kenya.
According to WildlifeDirect, the most severe financial penalty for convicted poachers was $400, and fewer than 4% of convicted offenders were going to jail, a safe haven for poachers. Since then, the Kenyan government has allocated $20 million for anti-poaching activities.
In January last year, Kahumbu partnered with media and wildlife authorities to launch Kenya’s first wildlife documentary series, NTV Wild. It shines a light on issues of poaching and the very real prospect that in the near future, the world may be without elephants.
IN PICTURES | The glass ceiling is what she makes it
One of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, Nani Croze, has lived a life few could dare to
The journey to the Kitengela Glass estate begins like any other from Nairobi. Traffic is often heavy and there is frustration on the roads. But as you pass through the last of it, a different world unfurls. The road is murram (gravelly) and a new settlement is unfolding around it, overlooked by a new railroad track for the high-speed train to Mombasa, recent signs of development consuming the old Maasai plains.
But no less than a mile away, cushioned by the narrow gorges of the Nairobi National Park, is the entry into a wonderland where the life and work of German-born artist Nani Croze has concentrated for over the last 40 years. It is an eccentric paradise with a lush covering of indigenous trees and shrubs, canopies over stunning and colorfully outrageous architecture that announce the artist in her territory.
However, her life in Kenya was a gift of fate. Croze first came to East Africa with her first husband, the animal behaviourist, Harvey Croze, and their children at the end of the 1960s.
“I came to Africa in 1968 to study elephants in the Serengeti and four years later, the study was finished and we decided to go back across the continent back to Europe. I filled a VW van with my three kids, safely in the back, and we got as far as the Kenyan border. The car broke down and we stayed…and that was that,” she tells me in the aviary area outside her house as birdsong echoes around generous foliage.
Mother Nani, or ‘Mama’ to the community of artisans and their families that also call Kitengela Glass home, is a matriarch in this setting. Her hair is pinned up in a loose bun revealing tanned cheeks and piercing blue eyes.
A formidable painter and muralist, Croze is an artist of many mediums. However, a little-known fact is her life in science. As a young woman, she convinced the Nobel Prize-winning biologist and founding father of the science of animal behavior, Konrad Lorenz, to work under him. Her earlier works depict this scientific knowledge in lively wildlife motifs.
Nonetheless, she is perhaps most known, these days, for her work with glass. Her estate is testament to this; colored glass panels of all shapes and sizes line the structures at the entry of her world. The winding walkway is flanked by sculptures accented with thick glass. The outdoor seating is dalle-de-verre.
The workshop and furnace are open for passersby to see. Its products, ever-present at every corner of the estate, also decorate the balustrades of the estate’s gallery, roof to her personal studio, intentionally constructed around a formidable mogumo (African fig) tree, a souvenir from the early days. She found it growing on the barren plains of what would become estate when she arrived in 1979, a genus local legend claims can never die.
By this then, a single mother of three, Croze stumbled in to the glass arts out of economic necessity. She had purchased the land from the Maasai community of the area and was, at the time, a working muralist.
“My architect [told me] ‘you can’t pay school fees with murals, you better start something new, what about stained glass?’” she recalls.
An influx of Christian missions meant that stained glass windows were crucial for finishing new churches and, as an art, they were more profitable. This has since expanded to a wide-range of recycled glass products from blown glass to beads, mosaics, murals, sculpture and, of course, dalle de verre. However, the stained glass studio, the first on the estate, still remains, busy and peopled, tucked away in a quiet corner of the gallery building.
Croze, perhaps one of the most commercially successful artists in Kenya, is often credited for introducing this new craft to the region. She herself is self-taught and along with her son, Anslem, trained by glass-blowers in the South of France and Holland, built the first furnace in East Africa. He eventually took over the glass-blowing side of the business and now runs his own studio next door along with an eponymous retail brand in Nairobi selling decorative glass vessels, furniture and lighting.
In her own right, Nani is responsible for training the first Kenyan glass artisans, initially in stained glass and then in glass-blowing and mosaics.
“We started together, my first [assistant] was a man called Omondi. We started on stained glass-making and how it works and it’s quite a process but once you’re in it, like all my guys here… you get quite good at it. It’s a traditional and weary process but once you have [the finished window] you have something beautiful that can never be undone,” she says.
Of the things that cannot be undone is Croze’s legacy not only within the community of the estate and the industry she has created around it but in the lives of many in East Africa.
Kitengela Glass is home to more than 50 artisans and their families, many of whom have gone on to build independent careers in and outside of glass art. An example is Edith Nyambura, formerly the resident mosaic artist, who began her career at Kitengela and eventually wrote a book about her work in 2010.
There is also the young Patrick Kibe, colloquially known as ‘Mr. Dudu’ (Mr. Insect in Kiswahili), who arrived as a student at the estate almost a decade ago and is now carving his own niche, creating figures and sculptures of indigenous flora and fauna from recycled materials.
Then there is the school Croze founded, not far from the estate, often billed as the first of its kind in sub-Saharan Africa. Her motivation was to introduce to the country the creative education she had received as a young girl in Germany, which she regretted that her own children did not have attending local schools.
“We have such terrible schools in Kenya that are so bad for children! A child should grow up free, they should have music, art, new movement and environment,” she laments.
The Rudolf Steiner School started with a class of 10 in Nairobi’s leafy Karen suburb, popularly known as the setting of Out of Africa, Karen Blixen’s pre-colonial odyssey.
“It took its time. We had a very good worldwide sponsorship, especially from Germany. We’ve had our ups and downs but now we have two in Karen and the other one in Kitale [in western Kenya].”
In addition to her contributions in education, she is also a key campaigner for young artists across Kenya. She is the founder of the annual Kenya Arts Diary, a weekly calendar and catalog of up-and-coming contemporary artists in the country.
The ninth edition was released in November with an exuberant exhibition at the Nairobi Museum and since its founding has been produced by a group of passionate volunteers. Every year, she picks up two artists featured in the diary and invites them to a residency at the estate. The inspiration for the project, she says, was her father, the acclaimed German woodcut artist HAP Grieshaber, who also took a similar interest in his students.
“He would always help his students. Art is very expensive most people can’t buy it so you either make it yourself or you make sure it happens. The diary is just a venue to make sure people buy it and see it every week,” she notes.
Although the next issue of the arts diary will be her last, Croze remains ever passionate about her adopted home and community and hopes to continue giving back to it while she is still alive.
“I was the first mzungu [Caucasian] in Maasailand…we had a really good relationship and we still have with the Maasai community but my Ma is still not very good, I must say. I feel very much a part of the community,” she says.
Croze is a focal point at the Nairobi National Museum, from the dalle-de-verre mural that welcomes museum-goers at the main exhibition hall, to her mosaic path that snakes through the museum gardens to the goliath metal and glass sculptures that mark the way through the complex. She remains one of the few living artists in Kenya to have such a permanent and public showing.
Even away from the whimsical glass oasis that she has built, echoes of her are littered across Nairobi. Her commissioned murals on major commercial buildings such as the American Embassy in the city’s diplomatic district. She was the first to color the walls of the newly-established United Nations Environmental Programme, UNEP, in 1972. Her art is also at the Times Tower in the heart of the old city, home to the tax authority. There are also pieces dotted across the region, a recent commission at a call center in Eldoret, in western Kenya, and the windows at the Serena Hotel in Kigali.
“I just want to make sure that it all keeps going. There are always problems here and there, all the time, but I want to keep it going,” she says.
Croze, true to her word, is still going with plans for a vocational school to train a larger population of recycled glass artisans in the nearby township of Tuala. Plans are also underway for a devotional school to replace her personal chapel that was lost in a land dispute and, of course, more commissions while she is still able to work on them.On the future of the world around her, a life’s work, she is surprisingly indifferent. “I leave it to the Gods,” she ruminate
IN PICTURES | The ugly dress that made this designer
Gracia Bampile’s dislike for African print made her turn it around into a full-time obsession.
It all began with a pink dress – a present she received a week before her seventh birthday from her parents. Gracia Bampile put it away excited for the day she would wear it.
She recalls going to school and telling everyone about her new outfit. The enthusiasm, however, was short-lived. She changed her mind about her gift the moment she wore it and took a closer look at it.
“I remember thinking I would rather not celebrate my birthday. I was traumatized… The dress was just horrendous.”
The material felt like plastic, it was ugly, it was not the right fit, and even for a seven-year-old, she knew the design did not make the cut.
“I felt like I was wearing a granny dress. My birthday was just ruined by that dress,” Bampile recollects.
“I got so angry with my parents that I couldn’t let go. That’s how my passion for fashion started. I didn’t want to feel like that again.”
That was her epiphany, the start of a fashion journey, disliking African print as a result of a bitter experience. She thought it was too bright and stayed as far from it as she could.
Today, Bampile is a fashion entrepreneur setting the standard for African print. She is the founder of Haute Afrika, a contemporary brand that prides itself in affordability and class.
She was born in a small town called Goma in the east coast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in 1991 – on the border line of the DRC and Rwanda. At the age of six, Bampile and her family left the DRC, leaving her seamstress-grandmother behind. They moved to East Africa and lived in Uganda for about seven years, then Kenya, then arrived in South Africa when she was 19. They left due to the conflict in the DRC that still rages on.
“My granny was a tailor. At some point, she stopped making clothes. My gran didn’t teach me to sew on purpose… [Yet], on holidays, we would go visit her in Rwanda and I would be her assistant,” says Bampile.
Just two years later, her aging grandmother saw her resourcefulness and promoted Bampile to crafting complete garments.
That is how her style evolved, through her grandmother’s experience in sewing. She was big on quality and passed it down to the next generation.
“That is something that is seen in Haute Afrika’s designs today. My garments are not constructed to sell, we are big on quality and our sewing is impeccable,” says Bampile.
Her complicated relationship with African fashion changed, the more she interacted with patterns and the creation of garments.
“When I got to the age of 15, I thought maybe it’s not the African print [that’s the problem], it was probably the way it was presented to me. I went on a journey of rediscovering African print and design. My love for it was revived,” she says.
When she was a teenager, African print was not readily available. Her mind-set then was not to be a designer, she simply wanted to look good and got her clothes made by a tailor.
By 2012, when Bampile was 21, African print was rising in popularity – people started wearing it and it was easily accessible.
This was also a time when Bampile was in varsity and experimenting with African patterns. She says people would stop her and ask about her garments, and the idea of Haute Afrika began simmering in her mind.
“It started as an African fashion blog; I started an Instagram account, opened a Facebook page and reposted other people’s designs because I didn’t have my own stuff. I never saw this as an actual thing, it was just for fun,” she says.
“Clearly, it’s not the material or the tradition or the culture [that’s the problem], it’s just the way it was presented. And that’s what I’m big on – presenting African print as your normal everyday wear.
“I want to you to be able to wear this dress to church, work, a birthday party, a baby-shower or to a wedding.”
In her new collection, she aims to simplify African print as much as possible. There is less extravagance and the ordinary bright colors persist, to attract the everyday person who wants to represent Africa.
The brand was launched in 2016 after she started taking it seriously as a profession. She went back to her grandmother for design advice. She started doing research and did a short course in fashion to enhance her credentials.
Importing material from Nigeria, Congo, Ghana and Turkey, Bampile intends to expand her reach to other parts of the globe.
“The next step for the brand actually scares me. Sometimes I feel like my dreams are crazy. The name haute itself means height/high in French, so in fashion, haute couture means high fashion, but for me it’s Haute Afrika because this is Africa, I want Africa to have a brand that is big on its own and emphasize quality.
“This means taking Africa out of Africa. European brands are coming into Africa, but why aren’t African brands going out?” she says.
Haute Afrika mostly sells online, to clients outside South Africa. She says her biggest clients are in Europe and America. Her most recent buyer was from Indonesia.
Speaking about her progress in the industry, Bampile adds: “I previewed my stuff at the Free State Fashion Week and it was super-awesome.
“The reaction was just unbelievable. Some designers take years to showcase at a fashion week and I took two.
“Last year, I was really surprised. I did 10 weddings – three white and the other seven were traditional. I couldn’t believe people trusted me with their weddings when they haven’t seen [enough of] my work.”
In 2018, she scaled up, doing about 15 weddings.
“I am also proud of myself this year because I have more people buying Haute Afrika for everyday wear,” she says.
The requests from her clients have also diversified.
“A gentleman came in and he wanted a transformation of his wardrobe. We made 10 pants for him. That’s what he’s probably going to wear next year. I’m also proud of the fact that I’m not only attracting people that have events, but also the everyday person, which is what I wanted to do with my collection.”
Bampile employs two full-time and two part-time workers at her studio in Sandton, miles away from that first garment that wrecked her seventh birthday but made her whole life.
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