The horns of Africa
A new project is using unusual methods to fight elephant poaching in the east of the continent, from taking beautiful photographs of the animals to hiring well-paid informers
The arc of Nick Brandt’s work over the past 15 years, from directing superstar rock videos (mostly in California) to setting up a cross-border anti-poaching network in two east African countries, seems a big stretch, and it is. But for Brandt it has also been an almost inevitable journey.
If you look back at Michael Jackson’s 1995 Earth Song video, you may notice a recurring grim motif: a dead elephant, its tusks bloodily torn out by poachers. It was while directing these sequences in Tanzania that Brandt first “fell in love with the animals and land of east Africa”, and became passionately concerned about the threat to them.
Nearly two decades later, his Big Life foundation is fighting, rather effectively when it can, to save elephants from poaching. Its creation less than two years ago was sparked by a huge surge in poaching, driven by soaring demand for African ivory and animal organs, generally from the Far East.
And just when it seemed that Big Life was making real progress, last summer its rangers found themselves in the middle of a troubling and violent new conflict between the Masai and the Kenya Wildlife Service that has made it very difficult for them to operate.
In the 1990s, Brandt’s first response to his new passion was, not surprisingly, to start filming the region’s charismatic big mammals. But he believed – he is a perfectionist by nature – that he could not do them justice in moving images. He returned again and again to Tanzania and Kenya and began to shoot still images with neither a zoom nor a telephoto lens.
This unusual technique means that he spends a lot of time getting very close to his subjects. This establishes a remarkable intimacy with individual animals, ranging from elephants to chimpanzees, lions to zebras. As he says himself, these shots have a lot in common with early-20th-century studio portraits of humans, an impression underlined by his use of black-and-white, often reworked in silvery or sepia tones.
His portraiture has an elegiac quality, almost as if these great creatures had already vanished into extinction. The sombre feeling that we are looking at a dying world imbues even the warmest images in his books, On This Earth (2005) and A Shadow Falls (2009).
His work has been acclaimed by figures such as the veteran conservationist Jane Goodall and the novelists Alice Sebold and Peter Matthiessen. His prints have been exhibited in galleries across the world.
But Brandt is a restless soul, unlikely to rest on his laurels in the best of circumstances. And the circumstances have become worse on each trip he has taken in search of new pictures, as it becomes harder and harder to find fewer and fewer animals. The explosion of elephant poaching over the past five years in particular has taken even the conservation world by surprise.
Seeing the grisly evidence mount, often in the mutilated bodies of elephants he thought of almost as friends, he reached a tipping point in 2010.
“I realised I could be angry and passive or angry and active, and one day I just found I could not be passive any more,” he says.
So he took the remarkable step of establishing Big Life, with a mission to build a network of rangers (and informers) to combat poaching in the huge “buffer zone” around Amboseli National Park, in Kenya. Because elephants don’t recognise national parks or national boundaries, this zone extends well into Tanzania, where many of the poachers come from.
Big Life rangers supplement the work of the Kenya Wildlife Service, which is overextended simply policing the park and, of course, cannot operate at all in Tanzania, where much of the poached ivory is stockpiled for export.
Brandt chose Richard Bonham, a Kenyan with lifelong experience of working with the Masai for wildlife conservation, as his cofounder and director of operations. And last month Bonham’s well-established Maasailand Preservation Trust merged with Big Life. The Kenyan had pioneered the idea of “community game scouts”, based on his recognition that, for the local community at present, “the cost of living with wildlife exceeds the benefits”. For example, most of Amboseli’s 1,300 elephants spend their nights outside the park and can cause serious damage to crops.
Only by channelling more benefits from ecotourism towards the Masai, and by creating local jobs in environmental management and law enforcement, can that fatal cost-benefit balance be reversed.
“Richard has a huge network of personal relationships in local communities,” says Brandt. “We simply could not have done this without him.”
One can’t help but notice, however, that white voices, albeit Kenyan white voices, dominate on the short film on the Big Life website, biglife.org. In an Africa understandably fraught with racial sensibilities, is this not a significant failing?
“Yes, it is,” Brandt agrees readily, adding: “Yes, the film plays like Bonham’s War right now!”
Brandt wants the rangers themselves, and other members of the local community, to have much higher profiles in a longer documentary film he is still working on. “However,” he continues, “currently Richard Bonham is the best qualified, the only qualified, person in the region to take this on, after 20 years’ practice on no money.”
In setting up Big Life, with its complex logistics across often poorly communicated territory, Brandt found that his experience as a music-video director, apparently so alien to his new role, was in fact a godsend. “I’m enjoying it in a similar way, marshalling things and people. You can’t mess around; you just make a decision and you do it. In terms of the action-related stuff, I’m good.”
He is not, he admits, nearly as comfortable with the other half of his new role, fundraising from philanthropists in California, where the English-born Brandt lives with his Irish wife, the actor Orla Brady. But to judge by the rapid expansion of his foundation, he cannot be too bad at that either, though he has to subsidise Big Life’s work with his own money.
Just two years after start-up, the foundation has 250 rangers, with 21 outposts and 14 vehicles attempting to protect 800,000 hectares across two countries. Brandt believes that local ranger recruitment, the use of tracker dogs, and the funding of informers have all been key factors in their effectiveness.
An informer may be paid as much as $1,500 – five times the average annual income locally – for intelligence leading to the prosecution of someone caught with ivory. They may also, Brandt agrees, get badly beaten up if discovered.
Until the recent Masai-KWS conflict (see panel, left), poaching had been significantly reduced wherever Big Life operates, and Bonham has claimed that in these areas today “almost every time poachers kill, they get caught”.
Brandt says he is torn between consolidating what Big Life has achieved in the Amboseli region and exporting the model to the many other places where poaching is escalating. But he also reckons that, unless there are major attitudinal changes in China, the most significant market for poached African ivory, demand will still fuel the problem. He believes that some of the most iconic big African species, including elephants and lions, could be extinct in the wild across the continent within 20 years.
“It’s going to be an almighty struggle,” he says, “to convert 1.2 billion people” in another continent. He is slightly encouraged by the recent visit to Kenya of the Chinese wildlife activist Yao Ming. “The best way to sway them is Chinese voices.”
Conflict in the park: Elephants killed in retaliation
Early last July the always delicate relationship between the Masai, who live in the Amboseli buffer zone, and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) fell violently apart.
A buffalo killed a boy and a KWS officer initially, and mistakenly, blamed the Masai for the killing, according to local reports. The Masai responded furiously, declaring open season on all big wildlife outside the national park itself, spearing any elephants or lions they could find.
Underlying these attacks is a long resentment of the minimal benefits local people receive from wildlife tourism, while they are expected to put up with animals destroying their crops.
A fragile “ceasefire” was negotiated, but the Masai have felt disrespected by the KWS in subsequent meetings, saying that KWS delegates were not sufficiently high-ranking and Masai demands for a greater share of the park were not being seriously addressed.
These tensions put Big Life in a very difficult position because, as the music-video director turned conservationist Nick Brandt puts it, they operate in Amboseli “at the pleasure of both parties”.
Big Life’s priority is to save animals, and the KWS can’t be seen to give in to “blackmail”, but he and his operations director, Richard Bonham, see a lot of justice in the Masai case for more resources.
“It’s become harder [to maintain good relations with both sides] since July,” Brandt says. “The Masai leaders are still angry with Richard for helping the KWS prevent more [animal] killing.”
How does he believe the conflict can be resolved? “By giving the communities a fair share of revenue from wildlife. If they continue to lose crops and livestock without share of revenue, and with an increasing population, there is a major problem that will only get worse fast.”
A recent increased financial offer from the KWS to the Masai has calmed this crisis. But, as Brandt says, the long-term problem of human population growth conflicting with the conservation of big mammals remains to be resolved.