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Rhinos lend an ear in the fight against illegal wildlife trade

 

After a long flight, with my traditional seating position of legs around my head – did I mention before I’m tall? – I finally arrived in Nairobi. One thing certainly never changes in Nairobi – traffic. It always surprises me that anyone actually ever makes it to their destination, but make it they do. Cars and buses weave and dodge, duck and dive but no one seems to shout, no one gets aggressive. It’s almost like people have accepted that this is just the way it is when driving in Nairobi. I can’t imagine drivers in London being so patient.

I’m here along with my Kenyan colleagues and Green Renaissance – of flying rhinos fame – to document the Kenyan Wildlife Service’s (KWS) latest efforts to preserve and protect Kenya’s impressive black rhino. There are far fewer black rhino’s than white and with poaching incidents growing by the day, it’s critical that every effort is made to save this iconic species.

White Rhino calf leaning on his motherWhite Rhino calf leaning on his mother © Brent Stirton / WWF-Canon

So, what exactly is going on? Well, along with the regular anti poaching patrols, training of rangers and awareness campaigns that WWF are running, the KWS is taking on the impressive challenge of ear notching and microchipping every rhino in the Masai Mara. Ear notching helps rangers to identify individual rhino’s, while microchipping hopefully adds another barrier of security against poachers. The chips are embedded into the rhino’s horn (don’t worry, it’s apparently painless – don’t try it at home though) and if a rhino with a microchip is poached and the horn removed it, will set the alarm bell’s ringing if it’s transported through airport customs. Clever eh! This is just another example of KWS, with the support of WWF, fighting back against poaching and letting the poachers know that if they continue to carry out this vile trade, they will be caught – maybe not tomorrow – but one day soon.

This activity, carried out over a number of weeks – we only have three days to capture it though – involves many people, detailed logistics, a helicopter, a vet and the small matter of a one ton rhino. It’s not something carried out on a whim – it takes time and money to make this happen and therefore it deserves to be captured in film and photography.

It’s vital that we show our supporters, the wider public and politicians the positive actions that are being undertaken by conservation organisations, but we need more support from the international community in helping out with the practical work on the ground, but also recognising that the illegal wildlife trade is a crime and as such should be treated as one. We want our films and photography to inspire people to act. To see what it is like to be on the front line against poaching and to feel what it is like to be alongside a black rhino. By inspiring people, we hope they will in turn stand up and take the necessary action to stop the poaching of rhinos and all wildlife. But first we have to try and get out of Nairobi. This traffic is hell!

7 December

Filming is more art than science but when it comes to finding a suitable place to carry out an interview you have to combine the two. The art is in setting up the shot, making the subject look great and asking the right questions in order to get the right answers. The science is in finding a suitable place to conduct the interview. And when you’re in the city of Nairobi this is no mean feat. Noise pervades everything, the sunlight bleaches out your surrounds – including your subject! – and people seem to pop out everywhere, usually behind or in front of your camera. Now, everyone has the right to pop out, but after two hours of searching for a quiet spot it was beginning to get slightly frustrating.

We’d been recommended the arboretum in Nairobi as a beautiful, quiet location to film Robert Ndeti, WWF Kenya’s head of species. What Robert doesn’t know about rhino’s you could fit on a postage stamp (remember those?) – ironic considering the size of a rhino. Unfortunately Robert can’t come with us to the Mara, so this being film – and us wanting Robert to play his part – the idea was simple, get Robert in a green space with trees and hold a lovely interview and if all worked out, we could include a great sound bite from Robert and it wouldn’t look out of place in a film that was actually focused some four hours away. Ah, the wonders of editing – art once again winning over science! Anyhow, yes the arboretum is beautiful but quiet it isn’t – especially when you choose a saturday to hold the interview. Where did we expect half the population of Nairobi to go on their day off?

After two hours of searching we finally placed Robert on a hay bail (good seating material) and managed to hold the interview – but not before we had children screaming, music booming and with perfect timing a flock of buzzards screeching. I love my wildlife but just this once I could have seriously done with the buzzards… buzzing off!

The interview in the can (technical talk for completed) we set off for the wide-open spaces and fantastic wildlife of the Mara. Only four hours away from the hustle and bustle of Nairobi but a world away in terms of peace and quiet. Rhino’s were our focus but I couldn’t help thinking of all the other wildlife that we might see. I’m greedy see. I just hope those buzzards don’t follow us.

8 December

Some of you may remember in my last blog (if you haven’t read it I think you should) I mentioned the one (and only one) downfall of capturing imagery and film is the early starts and late finishes. The best imagery and footage usually come from a great deal of patience, a little bit of skill and fantastic light – and you only get that as the sun rises and falls. Kenya is no different. This is not me complaining, how could I when I am so fortunate to visit countries like Kenya, but I just felt the need to let you know it’s not all fun and games. My moaning is now over, on with the blog.

My alarm bell rang at 5.30am and by 6am we were in the Mara reserve set up for a beautiful sunrise. Although I don’t really do mornings I can’t deny that there is something magical about this time – this is especially true in a place like the Mara. The place teams with life and today is no different. As our camera’s roll, wildebeest stroll past in the golden sunlight, forever on the move. To see them here in the Mara at this time of the year is unusual. By now they have usually made their migration to the Serengeti in Tanzania but for some reason they have returned. Tiring for them but great for us. Selfish I know but a sunrise is all the much better when you have herds of wildebeest in shot.

As they continue on their way we spot two static vultures, casually resting in a tree, ready for the day’s adventure to begin. Their sinewy necks silhouetted against the morning sky. Strangely beautiful. All too soon the sun has risen and the light has shifted from golden to hazy –  breakfast time.

A rhino lies sedated, being cared for by rangers, ready for it's notching and microchippingA rhino lies sedated, being cared for by rangers, ready for it’s notching and microchipping. Masai Mara, Kenya. Copyright: Greg Armfield WWF-UK

Some of you may have noticed by now that after three days in Kenya we had still failed to commence with the rhino notching and micro chipping. As mentioned previously, organising and carrying out something like this takes a great deal of effort and everything has to be planned to a tee.

Much can go wrong and unfortunately the helicopter is the thing going wrong at present. Apparently a technical fault has prevented it from leaving Nairobi so that has meant the planned start of the activity today has now been pushed back to Tuesday – not good when you originally have three days to capture everything. We’re now down to one and a half days and the pressure is on. I can’t actually remember the last trip when something didn’t go wrong. At least my luggage has turned up this time, so compared to that we’re still laughing. This may change.

After a quick bite to eat and regrouping, we venture once again out into the Mara. First to capture some time-lapse imagery of the sky – and I promise you, Africa has amazing skies- and second to roam the plains looking for more spectacular species. Of all the species in the Mara, the lion is probably top of most people’s wish list to see. This apex predator used to be common across Africa but has of late suffered dramatic loses as it struggles to survive in an ever changing landscape. To see one is still fairly common but it might not be like this for long.

As we drive across the rutted track, our attention is suddenly caught by the site of a pride – five strong and lazing in the afternoon sun. Casual would be one word I would use to describe their state of mind. Even better, we failed to notice the female lion lying right by our side – always a shock when your attention is elsewhere. As we quickly pull our cameras out and start shooting, the male lion casually makes his way over to a lioness and mates with her. After a few minutes he moves on to the next lioness in the pride and mates with her too. Once again, this whole episode looked rather casual, but that’s the way it is I guess when your the top cat in the family. It’s not always like this – one day soon he’ll be challenged for the right to mate with his pride but for now it’s the good life. A great start for us too.

9 December

Film and photography commissions often fail to run smoothly and you always need a plan B. Or in my case a C and a D. You often have to think quickly and work smart. There’s no point sitting around when you have cameras in hand so after a quick chat with the team – and a few phone calls – we arrange to go out on a rhino patrol, led by the rangers from Narok county council. Although the state owns every rhino in Kenya and holds ultimate responsibility for their well being, it is down to the councils within Kenya to maintain their safety. As the Masai Mara sits within Narok and is actually a reserve, rather than a national park ( National Park’s are looked after by the Kenyan Wildlife Service) it is the Narok rangers who ensure rhino’s are protected.

We meet the rangers before sunrise and are soon heading off into the bush. While some of us drive in the truck behind the ranger’s land rover, Warren (Green Renaissance) has the honor of sitting alongside the rangers as they search for the local population of rhinos. When I say sit alongside, what I actually mean is hang off the side of the vehicle attached by a rope, camera in hand, swinging back and forth as he attempted to get the best shot possible. It’s a sight to see and I’m soon transfixed with the thought that he has to fall soon. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your mindset) he doesn’t.

Just as I think he can no longer hold on, the land rover comes to a sudden halt and there in front of us is a female rhino and calf, not more than three months old – trotting along behind its mother. I’m not sure trotting is a technical term but it certainly looks like trotting to me.

Quicker than a flash it senses our presence and disappears into the undergrowth. Even though to me this rhino is indistinguishable from any other, this brief view is all the rangers need in order to identify who they have just seen. They quickly note down its name and GPS co-ordinates. By maintaining this record the rangers can understand how each individual rhino moves around the Mara and in turn build a history of it’s life. All vital information in protecting it’s future. We only see one other rhino on our route but it’s been a fascinating and wonderful experience to come so close to a rhino and to be alongside those rangers who play such a key role in it’s protection. Without them, the rhino would be in a far worse place than it already is.

As morning turns into afternoon we capture some more time lapse photography of the Mara landscape before the heavens open and the rain begins to fall. Along with the broken helicopter, rain is the other thing that could put a hold on the rhino notching. Heavy rain leads to impassable tracks and regardless of a functioning helicopter, you still need vehicles to get you to the rhino. Four hours later as I sit on my bed and write this blog, the rain is still falling harder than ever and I’m beginning to worry that a technical fault with the flying bird (helicopter to you) is the least of our worries.

10 December

Did I tell you I am a light sleeper? My girlfriend swears I am permanently awake – she reckons I cat nap at the best of times. But as I find myself in a tent surrounded by wildlife I can tell you categorically it isn’t a good thing. For the first time in a long time, I am relieved to be woken by the alarm on my faithful Casio watch. The previous night’s cat nap has been punctuated by scraping noises outside my tent, the laughing of a crazed (crazed in my ears) hyena and the permanent belief in my mind that any moment now an elephant was about to come knocking on my door. They knock loud in Africa. It is a blessing to be up and out of the tent. And the rain has stopped – bonus!

As we gather round the helicopter for our briefing session from the head of the Kenyan Wildlife Service, it’s beginning to dawn on me how big an operation this is. I take a quick count of the people involved and although maths was never my strong point, I count 23 people – not including the Green Renaissance guys and myself. Why so many people? Well, let me tell you how this operation works and then you should get a good idea of what and why so many people are required.

The Narok rangers know the Mara better then anyone so they are the first people tasked with spotting rhinos. Once they have information on where a particular rhino is they pass this on to the helicopter pilot. Once spotted by the pilot the exact location details of the rhino are passed back to both the rangers and KWS. This allows the on ground team to approach the rhino before darting. It’s vital that the team are as close as possible before the rhino is darted, otherwise the rhino may fall in an awkward place and put itself and the team in danger.

A rhino's horn being notched, Masai Mara, Kenya. Copyright: Greg Armfield WWF-UKA rhino’s horn being notched, Masai Mara, Kenya. Copyright: Greg Armfield WWF-UK

The helicopter is now ready to move in for darting. I imagine darting from a helicopter is never simple but try adding in a charging and seriously angry rhino and that difficulty goes up by a scale of ten. Once darted, the helicopter continues to play a vital role – shepherding the rhino away from scrub and bush and ensuring that when it finally falls (and let me tell you, a rhino can keep running for a long time once darted!) it is in a clear and safe location. Once down, the ground team – including vet and a specialist team – can safely move in to notch the rhino’s ear, insert a microchip into it’s horn and carry out a number of other activities (measurement, DNA sampling etc.) that help create a record of that particular rhino. All this work has to be done quickly and efficiently. The longer the rhino is kept sedated the more likely it is that difficulties may occur so everyone knows what they have to do and how long they have to do it. Simple eh? I’m beginning to think 23 people is not enough.

No time to worry about numbers, a rhino has been spotted and Warren is soon flying high in the helicopter, while Etienne and myself are positioned in the back of an open top land cruiser. I quickly understand this is not going to be the most comfortable journey I’ve ever undertaken. This becomes all the more apparent as we realise the driver means business, hurtling through the bush and across the plains at breakneck speed, crunching through the gears and choosing to go straight through the pot holes rather than around them. Legs bang, bodies smash and camera’s dangle precariously over the edge. Imagine a washing machine at full pelt but in this one the clothes get dirtier rather than cleaner. It’s hard enough to hold on let alone take pictures.

As the rhinos appear on the horizon I realise I have the wrong lens. It’s useless to ask for help as Etienne has his own problems trying to film so I go for a gymnastic type move, diving into a roll across the seats, (avoiding the bemused smile of our local ranger as I do) and popping up with my bag and Etienne’s leg in my hand as I come up on the other side. I quickly realise Etienne’s leg will not work as a long lens so put this down and grab my 300mm. As I arise the jeep comes to a sudden stop and I am flung upwards and outwards, falling out of the jeep in an unceremonious heap. We are now 30 yards, rather than 300 yards from the darted rhinos and I have the wrong lens. The operation has not started well for me.

I never realised everything would happen so fast. By the time I’ve gathered my wits and dashed over to the two rhinos – both expertly darted and carolled into the same location –  the vet is shouting for everyone to step back and return to their vehicles. It’s time for both rhinos to wake up and you really don’t want to be in the vicinity when a rhino wakes up – especially when it’s just been darted in the bottom. I manage to squeeze out a few more images before making my exit but overall this first attempt at documenting rhino notching has not gone to plan. I have a few blurry shots of a grey thing in the distance (a rhino), a couple of shots of a rhino leg surrounded by people and a close up of the rhino’s snout. I new strategy is required.

Although the team manages to dart another two rhino’s during the day, on both occasions we somehow manage to be the last car on the scene (I thought we were supposed to be the first) and although I capture some good stuff I still don’t feel I have exactly what I need. It’s often the way in photography and film that planning is key but even with the best will in the world, there is nothing like hands on experience to teach you how best to capture what you want. Even though we only have one and a half days to document the work going on, this first day of notching and microchipping has taught me so much. I need to be quicker, I need to be in the first vehicle on the scene and most of all, I need to hold on tighter.

11 December

Our final day in the Mara. Our final chance to do justice to the work being carried out to protect rhinos. God it feels like a natural world drama on the Beeb – that 10 minute slot at the end of each episode where the cameraman moans about the weather, the bad luck and the fact that whatever particular species their filming has not played ball. In this instance though it’s more me than the rhino that hasn’t played ball. Time to put the rather chaotic experience of yesterday into the back of my mind and concentrate on what I’ve learnt. It’s also time to lose some of that British politeness and shove myself to the front of the queue. You can’t be overly polite when 20 odd people are fighting over a rhino!

As usual my determination to get things done is soon tempered by the fact that the helicopter is having serious issues spotting a rhino. The Mara might not be huge but it’s still hectares in size! Even though their big rhino’s like to keep to themselves, so spotting them is never an easy thing. It’s at times likes these – when surrounded by flies and sitting in the boiling sunshine – that patience is a fantastic attribute. One that I feel I could most certainly work on. I feel the need to do something or go somewhere, but when you’re in the Mara surrounded by wildlife, this is not the most advisable thing to do. Finally the radio bursts into life – a rhino has been spotted. Everyone jumps up and into their vehicles. And guess what? We’re first to leave the scene!

Finally it is all falling into place. Soon the blades of the helicopter are whirring overhead and a rhino is there in front of us. It’s a magnificent animal but seriously unhappy – well, it looks that way. Wouldn’t you be? Even though it’s been darted this particular rhino still has a lot of fight left. As the helicopter tries to guide the rhino into the open it takes a sudden turn to the left and down a short embankment, heading into a small stream. Our vehicle arrives soon after – not before my Casio watch falls off and I say goodbye to it forever!

We follow the vet and team down after the rhino. As mentioned before, it’s crucial that the rhino doesn’t fall awkwardly or hurt itself, so the team quickly cover its eyes with a towel to lessen it’s distress while guiding it into a safe location. It’s hard to watch such a beautiful animal being surrounded by people but everyone has the rhino’s well being at the forefront of their minds so the quicker they can do their job the better it is for them and the rhino.

We are finally allowed to approach the rhino as it lies on the ground and I get my first up close experience of a rhino. Although my main focus is on capturing the work going on – the drilling and insertion of the microchip, the notching of the ear, the DNA sampling – I can’t help but notice how beautiful a rhino is close up. Its skin is a mosaic of lines, criss-crossing over it’s entire body. Its horn is wondrous – magnificently curling upwards. A true symbol of its power. Occasionally the rhino snorts as the team works around it – it is a snort of a sleeping giant and it’s full of strength. I’m rather glad it’s asleep at this very moment but somewhere deep inside, where the mischievous part of me lives, I would love to see the rhino wake up and look at me.

This is also a great moment for the whole team involved, especially the rangers from Narok. Although they patrol every day and every night, keeping vital tabs on the Mara rhinos, they rarely get to see a rhino so close up, so this is a brilliant moment for them too. They certainly deserve it. As the rhino awakes and makes its way off into the scrub the feeling all round is one of relief and satisfaction. Relief that the rhino is safe and well and satisfaction that every effort is being made to protect this beautiful animal.

A rhino trots away after being ear notched and microchippedA rhino trots away after being ear notched and microchipped.
Copyright: Greg Armfield WWF-UK

12 December

Our time in the Mara has come to an end. It’s been a great but hard experience. Africa is certainly real. What you see is what you get. The sun seems to be hotter, the rain falls harder and the flies definitely bite harder. We came to document the good work being done by the rangers and KWS in the Mara and I feel we have done just that. Yes I lost my Casio watch, fell out of a truck and got scared in my tent but what a small price to pay for such a big reward.

Technology certainly has a part to play in helping to protect rhino’s, and it’s been a brilliant experience to see how microchipping and DNA sampling is being used, but what has hit me most is how vital rangers are on the ground. Alongside the rhino’s they are the constant factor here. Without them, any work related to rhino’s would be virtually impossible. They know how and where to find rhino’s, they know the habits and personalities of each rhino in the Mara. Most of all, they help to protect the rhino. And throughout my experience they have done it all with a smile. Now, there’s a good enough reason to photograph someone if you ever needed it.

Where’s that lens??

What’s your view on rhino notching and microchipping of rhinos in the Mara? Leave a comment on Greg’s blog.

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