Ella was doing her home-schooling work the other day, a lesson on the five senses. “What is a smell you like?”. “Flowers”, she says. “Ok, well what is a smell you dislike?” With no hesitation, “Dead elephants!”.
She’s five and says it like it is and she’s right, I hate it too and the air is full of it at the moment. We have lost twelve elephants in the last two months just around our camp. An armed gang of seven men, local and outsiders, making a living. We hear shots when we sit around the fire at night, while we are swimming in the river and sometimes we don’t hear them at all but are told via the grapevine. This is a new Niassa, a Niassa of the past two years.
There have been moments in the last few months when I wonder if K and I are just too stubborn for our own good and maybe this is not possible and we are sliding faster and faster into an empty woodland. I don’t feel depressed, just frustrated and angry. Not with the poachers but with all the focus on more guns and more boots, and talk of “shoot to kill” policies and of “teaching people a lesson”. Informer networks, witch hunts with no proof and the potential to destroy people’s lives without pause.
Anti-poaching is so important and part of the solution but this talk on the ground makes me feel sick and stressed and is not the side of conservation I have any interest in being involved in. I grew up in Apartheid South Africa where similar words were used and similar conversations were had across the dinner table. I am tired of being called naive because I don’t believe that using the military is the only way to combat this. I know that communities can help us find a solution. I fervently believe that we need “to meet face to face to see eye to eye”.
Yet still the old Niassa is here. Often elephants shuffle around our camp at night and the air is full of their distinctive , warm, grassy smell. A palm nut vulture comes down to drink in the river in front of my desk bombed by a plover while I write this blog. A wattle-eyed flycatcher chirrs in the tree above our bed during the kids afternoon nap while I read a book on “Poor economics” trying to understand how to fix this. A new lion cub is born to a lioness who herself was born in late 2006, her first cub and the next generation. K sees them on the road less than 40m from our camp. The kids are just getting into their plastic bucket to bath so we bundle them into their pyjamas and out we go. There is Fabio lounging in the road, he is a typical teenager at 18 months is not afraid of anything but with very little sense, the two lionesses slink away in the darkness and then we see the cub. Still little and playful, she jumps on her big cousin constantly, brave in the dark and we see her properly for the first time.
I miss spending days watching animals like we did in the Kalahari. Living and breathing what an animal does and trying to get under their skin and getting to know individuals. My head knows the theory and the reasons why conservation is important, food webs, umbrella species, cascading effects when species are lost. The numbers, the declines, the challenges.
I know my time is best spent time training and mentoring not doing it myself, finding funds, writing reports and analysing data. But my heart, is a different beast and beats erratically. My heart need a personal relationship with animals to keep going and believing in conservation. My heart needs time, quiet in the bush, alone or with K just watching and sometimes getting the ultimate privilege for being allowed into an animal’s world, just briefly. It doesn’t have to be dramatic, it doesn’t have to be for a long time, it just has to be real and wild. That’s what it is about for me and every few days I need my fix.
I suspect that people who live in Niassa will also see things differently when they can meet animals face to face in a non threatening way. Then maybe we can start to see eye to eye.