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.
Why Age Gives West African Women More Autonomy And Power
Several studies, covering about 58 countries across the world, found that as women get older they are more able to make decisions independently of men. But scholars have struggled to pin down explanations for this age dividend – why are women given more independence the older they get? We wanted to know what the reasons may be.
In a recent study, we looked at women’s autonomy across age in Nigeria, Togo, Ghana and Benin. These four West African countries are home to ethnic groups that practice “voodoo”, a religion that spread with the expansion of the Dahomey kingdom in the 17th century.
In these countries women are not equal to men. They sometimes won’t be able to make decisions about their own health – like negotiating safe sex – or on how household incomes could be used.
In our sample of 21,000 women aged 15 to 49, we found that autonomy in household decision-making increases with age. This was especially true for women who belonged to the four “voodoo-ethnicities”: Fon, Ewe, Adja and Yoruba. We also found that women had even more power if they are menopaused.
Our findings suggest that both age and magico-religious beliefs have a huge role to play in a woman’s independence. Menopaused women from “voodoo-ethnicities” are much more independent to make decisions on how they spend their own earnings, care for their own health, visit family or relatives and what major household purchases need to be made.
These insights are important for female empowerment strategies. To be effective, policies must identify potential agents of change who can, for instance, influence decisions that improve children’s schooling and nutrition or abolish female genital cutting. Despite their apparent agency, elderly women in West Africa have largely been overlooked.
Voodoo and menopause
So, why do women gain more independence the older they get, and especially if they are of voodoo-ethnicities and menopaused?
We analysed data on 21,000 women and their ability to make various decisions. We found that women’s autonomy was related to menstrual bleeding, particularly for voodoo-ethnicities. This was further explored in Benin, the birth place of Voodoo, where we conducted interviews with voodoo priests and menopaused women.
As one woman said:
[Women in menopause] are equipped with supernatural powers. Only she can talk to the ancestors and request their help, assistance and protection. And they respond to her worship and requests, not everyone can do that.
In the interviews we gathered that voodoo adherents worship collective deities (related to the sea, the earth, or thunder) and family deities: ancestors that turn into spirits after death.
The interactions with the family deities are led by a menopaused woman, referred to as the “Tassinon”. Only she can transmit the family members’ prayers and requests to the ancestors and consult the oracle to see if the spirits have accepted the offering and sacrifices.
These alleged powers, in their turn, increase the bargaining power of elderly women in their communities and households.
In situations where the supernatural power of menopaused women has faded, the cultural norm derived from it – increased awe for elderly women – persists.
Our analysis shows that the “Tassinon effect” is sizeable. We created an autonomy index – which looked at a combination of different situations where decisions had to be made and who made them – to measure this and found that it increased their ability to make decisions by about 10%.
As one woman said:
My opinion matters now in all important decisions or issues in the family and in my community. It was not the case before my designation as tassinon. I could not even attend or talk in certain audiences.
Our research provides support for the argument put forward in the African feminist literature, that seniority trumps gender in an African context.
It also adds to the evidence that voodoo continues to play a role in West-Africa. Adherence to voodoo has been proven to affect the governance of natural resources. For instance fishermen who adhere to voodoo are more likely to respect rules related to prohibited fishing gear. It also affects the uptake of preventive health care; for instance because mothers who adhere to voodoo will rely on traditional healers, they may not immunise their children. Now we know that voodoo also affects the level of independence women have in some communities.
The way ahead
A better understanding of cultural attitudes towards elderly African women will become more important for policymakers in the future. As fertility declines and life expectancy increases, elderly women will increase in numbers, both in absolute and relative terms. They could play an important role as agents of change in supporting both child care and female empowerment projects.
For instance in Benin the respect for elderly women is already relied upon in interventions targeting children’s health and nutrition, and in the abolishment of female genital cutting. This could be reinforced and extended to other sectors and to other countries.
–Marijke Verpoorten; Associate Professor, University of Antwerp
-Sahawal Alidou; PhD candidate and teaching assistant, University of Antwerp
Kenyan Hospital Opens Human Milk Bank – A Rarity In Sub-Saharan Africa
Kenya’s first human milk bank has opened at Pumwani Maternity Hospital. Moina Spooner, from The Conversation Africa, spoke to the team spearheading APHRC’s research efforts in the establishment of Kenya’s first milk bank.
How long has it taken to open? What were the biggest obstacles?
The process of establishment of human milk banking in Kenya started in 2016. It was spearheaded by the NGO PATH, in partnership with APHRC and Kenya’s Ministry of Health, among other partners. It was rolled out in two phases.
During phase one we assessed people’s perceptions and acceptability of using donated human milk. We also looked at how feasible it would be to set a bank up. The results were encouraging. About 90% of participants were positive about it, 80% would donate their breast milk, and about 60% indicated that they would allow their children to be fed with donated human milk.
A committee was also set-up to provide oversight and guidance on human milk bank work in Kenya. They were sent to South Africa to learn more about the human milk banking process. Finally, local strategies were developed.
We are now in phase two of the project: the establishment of a pilot human milk bank in Pumwani Maternity Hospital. This includes the launch of a research project which examines its feasibility, effectiveness, acceptability and aims to estimate the cost of establishing an actual human milk bank in Kenya.
There have been challenges. Being a new concept, there have been some logistical challenges, for instance some of the equipment wasn’t locally available so it took longer to get it all done and installed.
There have also been concerns by some community members and health workers over the safety and quality of the donor human milk.
However, we’ve had support from the government which has been critical in addressing the logistical challenges. Advocacy and communication activities are also being rolled out to create awareness on human milk banking and address any concerns.
What is a milk bank and how does it work?
Human milk banks are facilities that systematically collect, pasteurise, test, store, and distribute donated breast milk.
An effective system has many operational processes to ensure it provides safe, high quality donor milk. They start with screening and recruiting donors who must be healthy mothers with surplus milk beyond the needs of their own child’s. Donors must undergo health checks including tests that screen for HIV, syphilis, and hepatitis B and C. Diseases could be passed to children through breastmilk.
Donors must then express milk in hygienic conditions, after which the milk is pasteurised. This involves heating the milk in a water bath at 62.5°c for 30 minutes followed by rapid cooling.
At the bank, the milk is frozen and stored at -20c. When needed, it’s thawed to room temperature and issued to children who don’t have access to their own mothers’ milk. A prescription by a qualified health professional is needed for this.
Why are they needed?
Although breastfeeding is the most natural and best way to feed infants, many babies may lack access to their mother’s milk. This could’ve happened for many reasons – maybe the mother is sick, hasn’t got enough breast milk or is dead.
From our formative research, 44% of newborns in urban health facilities were separated from their mothers for varying periods of time. This ranged from less than an hour to more than 6 hours and even days after birth. Of these infants, only 14% were fed on mother’s own milk during separation. 36% of the newborns weren’t fed on anything during this period and an additional 23% were fed on formula or cow’s milk.
When breastfeeding is not an option, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends donated human milk as a lifesaving alternative. Particularly for babies that were born early, have low birth weight, are orphaned, malnourished or are severely ill.
Evidence paints a very strong picture in favour of donated human milk over infant formula. It’s more effective in reducing the risk of disease and infections – like inflammatory bowel disease, leukemia and respiratory tract infections – in newborn babies and is better tolerated by babies that are born prematurely.
In the US and Brazil, the use of donated human milk was reported to reduce the length of hospital stay for sick infants and save on the cost of health care.
Given the benefits of using donated human milk over infant formula, the WHO has called for the global scale-up of human milk banks. These are expected to increase access to safe donor human milk.
Is this the first of many?
Although WHO recommends that the milk banks be set up, Kenya is just the second, after South Africa, to establish a human milk bank in sub-Saharan Africa – even though it is a pilot.
We hope that human milk banking will be scaled up in Kenya and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa, using the evidence we generate from our research.
-Elizabeth Kimani-Murage; Research Scientist at the African Population and Health Research Center and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Brown University
-Milka Wanjohi, Taddese Zerfu, Esther Anono and Eva Kamande from the African Population and Health Research Center contributed to the writing of this article.
Simidele Adeagbo: What I Learned From The Most Terrifying Winter Olympics Sport
At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, I became the first African and black woman to compete in the daring sport of Skeleton.
Skeleton, in which athletes hurl themselves on a sled, head first, down a frozen ice track at 80 miles per hour, is considered by some to be the most terrifying Winter Olympics sport. I never imagined I would find myself hurtling down an icy hill on a metal, carbon fiber tray of sorts with no brakes, safety belt or steering mechanism.
But when I discovered the sport about 100 days before the Olympics, I was motivated to take it up in hopes to inspire others, break barriers and shift the narrative around Africa on the world’s biggest stage. I ultimately changed the course of Olympic history and learned about the power of having a vision and pushing the limits to break into unknown spaces.
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At the beginning of my journey, I asked myself two very simple questions. ‘Why Not Me? And Why Not Now?’ I knew that someone had to make history as the first African woman to compete in the sport of Skeleton at the Winter Olympics and I didn’t see any reason why it couldn’t be me and it couldn’t be right then. Despite coming from Nigeria, a place with no ice or snow and having no prior knowledge of Skeleton, I had a vision to become the first African woman to compete in Olympic Skeleton.
We often hesitate to establish a vision for the things we want to do thinking that someone else will do it, while also waiting for a perfect time for it to be done. As best-selling author Mel Robbins notes in The 5 Second Rule, “If you have an instinct to act on a goal, you must physically move within five seconds or your brain will kill it.” Through my unconventional path, I learned how to keep my vision alive by taking action instantly.
As I pushed to break barriers, I also learned the value of embracing chaos and how to keep moving forward. In the sport of Skeleton, you’re on the edge of danger and control at any given time. This taught me to expect and appreciate the chaos that comes with life.
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Before every run, I take down the track, I have a game plan. But when navigating down massive twists and turns going at speeds faster than cars travel on the freeway, things don’t always go as planned.
Through my experiences on the Skeleton track, I’ve learned to embrace life’s chaotic, unplanned moments and adapt as needed along the way. In the same way, as I was beginning the sport, I would painfully bump into the walls on my way down the track. These are called “hits”. Hits slow you down and are to be avoided as much as possible. But in Skeleton, just as in life, hits are inevitable.
On this journey, I learned to take the hits, no matter how big or small and keep pushing forward.
Finally, in Skeleton, flying down the track at crazy speeds, you have to make decisions in split seconds and the natural reaction is to panic. However, panicking is counterproductive as it causes the body to tense up and actually slows the sled down. Remaining cool, calm and collected is the best thing a Skeleton athlete can do.
With more time in the sport, I ultimately learned to trust my instincts, relax and enjoy the ride. Perhaps this is the most important lesson of all as this has become my personal ethos for achieving success in life.
By taking action instantly, embracing chaos and relentlessly pushing forward and relaxing and trusting our instincts, we can all apply these winning strategies for high performance in business and life. Who knew you could learn so much from the most terrifying Winter Olympics sport?
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