Introducing Lions To The Rave Scene: A Revolutionary Idea To Reduce Human/Wildlife Conflict In Kenya

It’s 6am on a cool morning in Kenya’s luscious and green Nairobi National Park. I’ve just rolled out of bed and got ready for the day, sacrificing the morning shower in favour of an extra ten minutes’ sleep, still easing off the jet lag from my arrival in-country a day or so prior. My expedition team – a school group from the UK – are just starting to stretch themselves awake too, presumably still a little overwhelmed by their new environment. We’d transited straight from the airport to our small outpost camp in the heart of the national park and, for many of them, this will be their first taste of expedition travel.

Nairobi National Park is truly stunning. Sitting at about 1500m above sea level, it is considerably cooler and wetter than much of Kenya year-round and its landscape is somewhat peculiar; vast plains of savannah with the prominent city skyline on the horizon. On the periphery of the park, and not separated by fences or artificial barriers, is ‘cultural land’ – in other words, small settlements and lone houses, surviving through subsistence farming and little else.

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Nairobi’s modern skyline sits on the horizon with Nairobi National Park in the foreground. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Think of Kenya and you almost-certainly think of the country’s world-famous wildlife. The mind naturally gravitates to images of elephant, lion, zebra or giraffe roaming free under the hot African sun. A beautiful thought. However, ask a Maasai villager or local farmer what they think of these animals and you may be shocked by their opinion.

“They’re a huge pest,” our camp manager Tony explains, “if you plant a field of potatoes, wait months for them to grow and rest all of your faith in them, you may wake up one day to find an elephant has dug its tusks into the land and uprooted an entire row like a plough in a single sweep.”

The same can be said for lions. As fascinating as they are, they are a predator. Predators need a good, meaty feast. And why bother hunting if just outside the park you can find a herd of fifty goats or thirty cows enclosed in a flimsy chicken-wire and wood ‘boma’ (livestock pen)? It is an easy meal for the taking. Often the lions don’t even need to enter the boma – they simply vocalise their presence from a distance, wait for the livestock to panic and break free, then strike from the shadows.

Following a raid by lions, hyenas or leopards, locals take up arms. They don’t take pleasure in killing the wildlife but retaliation seems to be a necessity. In a country where many people survive on under $1 USD a day a strong cow can be worth $400 USD or a goat about $200 USD. As far as a farmer is concerned, killing the predators is the only solution.

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Children living on one of the small sustenance farms on the park periphery, curiously watching the peculiar group of ‘wuzungu’ (Europeans) undertaking project work on the family boma. (Rich Holt. 2018).
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A snapshot of life in the settlements on the cultural land neighbouring Nairobi National Park. (Rich Holt, 2018).

To try and protect livestock, which stops retaliations too, a cheap and simple system has been devised that has already seen a 99% reduction in lion raids on the farms that it has been implemented. LED Strobe Lights, charged throughout the day by a small solar panel, are fitted to the wooden fence posts of the bomas. As soon as day turns to night the lights begin flashing, turning the entire skyline into a scene not dissimilar to a busy Ibiza nightclub! The purpose of the strobes? To convince lions that a Maasai hunting party has been despatched.

“We found that lions don’t fear static light,” David Mascal, a renowned lion expert and joint-manager of the Lion Lights project, briefs us over breakfast. “They will scope out a static light like soldiers conducting reconnaissance on a target then nail the herd, either by raiding or by creating chaos and waiting for the food to run into them. But when the local boys go out on a retaliation patrol they carry torches and bright lights, waving them around, so the lions bugger off as soon as they see flashing or strobing.”

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Lion conservationist David Mascal briefs us on the assembly of the Lion Lights, a box of electrical parts in his hand. (Rich Holt, 2018).

For Mascal the project is mainly about protecting the lions. They are his calling in life and he has dedicated his entire career to their conservation. But what could be a better conservation project than one that benefits the local community too?

“The idea was first devised by a young Maasai boy called Richard Turere. When he brought it to me I couldn’t say no. Now I work in a partnership with another conservationist and a small team, mostly crowdfunded through a facebook page we run, installing the Lion Lights at as many farms as possible. Farmers can come to me to request my assistance and I record any raids they’ve suffered so I can feed back the evidence of the project’s importance to our donors. So far we’ve installed around a thousand sets and displayed a success rate higher than 99%. It truly is a win-win-win situation. The locals are happy their livestock survive, I am happy the lions survive, and the lions can still hunt freely in the park. I even give a twelve month guarantee to the farmers on the condition they don’t tamper with the system – some of them have diverted the solar power into their house to charge their phones then wondered why they’ve suddenly suffered another lion raid.”

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Mascal assembling one of the lighting units. (Rich Holt, 2018).

On seeing the lights in action right across the horizon at night one could argue that perhaps it is tampering with the natural environment to an extent that animal movement would be harmed or hindered but Mascal assures me there has been no evidence of this being the case in the years that he has been working on the project.

As part of our expedition project work we joined Mascal for a day assembling the system at a farm just a few kilometres walk from our camp. After his briefing we set out on foot whilst he drove the necessary materials over in his truck.

The first stage of the process was to dig a trench around the boma in order to bury the cable. The earth was solid like rock and tough to dig but we had to ensure the trench was at least 30cm deep – as soon as the rains come the fine soil turns into a muddy quagmire and cattle churn it up.

Next, we assembled the lights themselves, fitting them to each wooden post around the boma. Digging had taken most of the morning so Mascal continued to fit the lights whilst I walked my group back to camp for their lunch.

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One of our Camp Kenya in-country team and our guide from The Wildlife Foundation Kenya assist Mascal in demonstrating the installation process. (Rich Holt, 2018).

After lunch we returned to refill the trench and trample it down before Mascal demonstrated the finished product. Covering the solar panel with the cardboard box it had come in, the lights kicked into action, strobing about 1.5 times per second. Mascal explained that the system would probably last five years if not tampered with, though possibly much longer if termites don’t get into the wiring (he coats the cables in termite powder to reduce this risk).

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Camp Manager Tony poses with our guard from the Kenyan Wildlife Service. Armed escorts are provided to expedition teams and ecotourists to mitigate the risk of lion attack. They are issued automatic weapons and tactical equipment because the reality of modern Kenya is that the KWS is waging a counter-guerrilla war against ruthless poachers too. (Rich Holt, 2018).

Since inventing and patenting the Lion Lights concept Richard Turere has gone onto international fame as Africa’s youngest patented inventor, speaking at TED Talks and featuring in documentaries. David Mascal and partners continue to assemble Lion Lights on an almost-daily basis. Throughout summer 2018 approximately fifteen sets have been installed by volunteers traveling on school expeditions with Camps International, an organisation for whom I have the immense pleasure of working as an Expedition Leader.

If you’re interested in the Lion Lights project you can find more information HERE or HERE. When I find the donation link for the project I’ll attach it here too. Thank you to David Mascal and the entire team at The Wildlife Foundation (alongside Camps International’s Camp Kenya team) for their hospitality.

To see more of my Kenya 2018 expedition photos follow my Instagram right HERE.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Struggle Of The Modern Maasai

The infamous Maasai tribe of East Africa is under considerable strain. Nearly gone are the days of roaming free across the plains and warrior culture. Many Maasai have chosen to abandon the traditional lifestyle; they want to ‘modernise’ and join common society, arguably at the detriment of their culture. But a few still fight to remain Maasai, keen not to forfeit their history.

Just outside of Tsavo East National Park in Kenya there is a traditional Maasai Village. It has modernised somewhat – corrugated iron being the material of choice for housebuilding now rather than mud – and the residents are aware of their position as a tourist attraction, selling their ‘curio’ wares (handmade souvenirs) to safari tours that stop to pay a visit and take photographs. But when every other visiting tourist is keen to avoid ‘ugly’ clutter in their photos, I found myself drawn to it.

China has invested in a super-railway linking Nairobi and Mombasa, cutting right through the middle of the Tsavo National Parks (it also cuts through Nairobi National Park). Now, rather than a seemingly endless expanse of savannah these Maasai Tribesmen and Women have a megalithic concrete structure as their backdrop.

After some persuasion I convinced this tribesman to pose for a portrait. He protested about the railway being in the photograph – not quite understanding that it was the contrast of his home and the railway that I wanted.

It is not my place to judge what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ for Kenya, but I think it safe to say times are certainly changing.

 

Follow my Instagram Here for the full series of photographs from my recent expedition to Kenya, plus many more of my global adventures!

 

 

A Magnificent Place With A Traumatic History

In the Malaysian part of Borneo there is a state called Sabah, known as the land beneath the wind. Within Sabah there is a district called Ranau, and within the district of Ranau lies a small, quiet village called Bongkud.

Set in the foothills of Mt. Kinabalu, Bongkud is a scenic village with a small population, still majorly reliant on agriculture and labour to sustain themselves. In recent years they have had the support of volunteers on expeditions with Camps International, a company I feel extremely proud and grateful to lead for, who have installed vital infrastructure and educational aid to improve the quality of life for locals, and given employment to many too. I have been to Bongkud on two of my three trips to Borneo with ‘Camps’ so far.

On the outskirts of the village, about a 500m walk from the Camp Bongkud facility, lies a hill known simply to locals as Bongkud Hill, or Bukit Bongkud in Malaysian. Standing at about 620m ASL, making it a mountain by UK technicalities, it is an imposing feature visible from anywhere in the village. It is coated in a sea of green ferns and rubber trees from bottom to top.

From below, Bongkud Hill looks stunning. However, an expedition wouldn’t be an expedition without going on adventures, so it is a Camps tradition that groups staying in Bongkud summit the hill at dawn at least once during their stay. As a Leader I’ve been fortunate enough to hike up there five or six times now – in 2016 I joined other groups each morning whilst my team remained asleep so I could recce it and get some exercise each morning before our own team ascent, and in 2018 I got up there with another team I was leading. I acquired a bit of a reputation for pushing my groups to do it early – leaving camp at 5am meant a much higher chance of catching the 6am sunrise from the top than the usual 5.30-6am schedule but this paid dividends when the teams witnessed why we’d done so.

The views are glorious from the moment you step outside the village centre. Within 20m of ascent, the misty morning valleys come into view to the right hand side. After a few hundred metres the path steepens to a sharp left turn up an even steeper earthen and muddy set of cut steps that eventually lead you to the top.

 

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A (clean-shaven!) author with Bongkud resident and local guide Euan about halfway up Bongkud Hill in 2016 (taken by team member).

As you near the top you step onto a wide, shallow-gradient ridgeline that eventually leads to a viewing area. In 2016 this was a dead end – a small wooden shelter marking the summit – but now it’s been cut back, providing ample space for groups to enjoy the view or even for vehicles to access it via a new gravel road on the other side.

Following the typical ascent route Mt. Kinabalu is visible to the left, its jagged rocky shape often encased in cloud or mist, and to the right is an endless expanse of jungle valleys and rises with morning mist rolling through them.

 

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Malaysian volunteer staff, Kendall, taking in the view from near the top in 2016 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

Once at the top, groups often take half an hour to celebrate, catch their breath and photograph views like this:

 

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View from summit of Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

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View from summit of Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

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Descending into the mist via the new track on Bongkud Hill, 2018 (Rich Holt).

 

 

 

But hidden within this magnificent scene lies a dark and little-known history of suffering that all Camps Leaders and Camp Borneo staff try to educate their teams about. It is something not taught in school history lessons. The rest of the world, unless they have visited Borneo or stumbled upon it for themselves, remains completely unaware despite it being branded the single worst atrocity to happen to Australian forces in history.

In 1945, during the Japanese occupation of Borneo during the Second World War, 2345 Australian and British POWs were marched from their POW Camp in the city of Sandakan, on Borneo’s east coast, inland to Ranau 250km away. The series of three major marches became known as the Sandakan Death Marches and were conducted when the Japanese believed allied forces were closing in on Sandakan.

These marches were an event of extreme suffering. Prisoners were tortured or murdered for the sheer sake of it. They were barely fed or provided any water. Those who fell too weak, or refused to continue, were shot or bayoneted on the spot. By the end only six men survived to tell the tale, having made their escape and reported on the atrocities. It was too late and logistically impractical for allied forces to conduct a rescue of anybody still out there.

The Sandakan death marches passed through the village of Bongkud en route to Ranau, and local elders still remember them happening. Any local who attempted to help the POWs, even by the simplest act of providing food or water, was met with the same fate as the POWs.

The Australian survivors spoke very differently of the scenery around Bongkud than I have in this article. They said that the sight of Mt. Kinabalu reminded them they were in an inescapable hell and, with every misty morning, they would question whether it would be their last day alive.

Today Bongkud could not be any more peaceful. It is a calm, friendly place where the sight of expedition teams puts a beaming smile on the face of every local. Local children and teens play football on the village pitch, or volleyball on any of the many courts. There is a thriving market once a week in the village centre and fresh fruit grows in abundance in every garden. But it is vitally important to remember how fortunate we are and to remain grateful that we live in a different time where we can enjoy the place for its peace and joy rather than the suffering that so many once would have associated it with.

 

For more photos of Bongkud Hill and its surrounding scenery check out my Instagram, or for more content like this article hit the FOLLOW button in the sidebar. Thank you for reading.

Rich

 

 

Exploring A Notorious Arms Dealer’s Abandoned Cargo Plane

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If you’ve seen the 2005 Nicholas Cage film Lord of War, you’ll be loosely familiar with the tale of Russian gun-runner Viktor Bout.  Whilst Hollywood chose to rename the movie’s protagonist and fictionalise various events it cannot be denied that Bout was the main influence for the story. Bout now sits in an American jail cell after a long hare-and-hounds chase around the world that culminated in his arrest by US and Thai Authorities in Bangkok in 2008. Weapons and ammunition were not Bout’s only cargo – he flew everything from flowers to electronics too – but it was his willingness to make dodgy gun deals that ultimately led to his demise.

Shortly after arriving in the United Arab Emirates to work for an Outdoor Education company in September 2017 I learnt that the UAE has its own little slice of Viktor Bout’s legacy. Bout based many of his (fully legal on paper) air freight operations out of the emirate of Sharjah, and is said to have lived for a brief period in the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, the emirate I called home for seven months and may again sometime in the future.

During induction for my role as an Outdoor Instructor and Field Studies Tutor our head of Senior Field Studies, Hugh, told us he had something cool to show us as part of our geography familiarisation. Whilst driving along a desolate desert road in the emirate of Umm al-Quwain, passing a couple of water parks and not much else, the silhouette of a great aircraft appeared before us, behind it a vast runway and a couple of dusty old hangars.

The jet was a Russian Ilyushin IL-76 – the centrepiece of Soviet aircraft engineering – and the aircraft Viktor Bout was known to have operated when he was in business. There’s mixed reports on how the Ilyushin came to rest at the now-abandoned UAQ Airport; some say it was grounded by local forces as the American DEA started to close in on Bout and the British intelligence services requested the UAE to evict Bout (a request the UAE complied with, catalysing the collapse of Bout’s empire). Another opinion is that a private investor purchased the body to use as a ‘gate guard’ for the airport, a more likely theory considering its location at the front of the facility, standing proud over the road. All that can be confirmed on a search of its serial number is that it was once part of Bout’s fleet.

Hugh stopped the truck and we disembarked for a quick snoop around. This initial visit was fairly uneventful, learning a little bit about the socioeconomic impacts of an area expanding beyond its means and poking our heads into a few hangars, then we headed off to conduct another tiresome beach survey. But I knew I had to get back there and explore a little more.

A week after my lust to explore had been teased, I asked around the outdoor centre for a lift to the abandoned airfield. Not long later and I and three workmates were setting off for the 90 minute drive south.

It was approaching sunset as we pulled up in a gravel layby in front of the facility. The perimeter was marked by patches of broken chainlink fence and a lazily-established line of barbed wire. It was evident that this was a popular site for the edgier or more-curious passer-by because there were many footprints in the sand and no real barrier to prohibit entry. Sun-faded “NO PHOTOGRAPHY” signs were sporadically placed along the fence, many hanging limp after years of disregard. We crossed into the facility over a trodden-down section of barbed wire and made a beeline for the huge silhouette of the cargo jet about 300m to our left.

 

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The view from the gravel layby at the front of the facility. (Rich Holt)
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The IL-76 in the distance. (Rich Holt)

 

As we approached the IL-76 we were ecstatic to find its ladder had been left down from its port-side door, meaning entry would be a walk in the park. To our surprise other people were here checking it out too and we nodded a ‘hello’ to them as they made their way back to their car.

Once we reached the plane we took a few moments to enjoy its beauty. At some point in history a hotel had come along and painted their logo along its sides but the sun and sand had blasted the logo out of relevance long ago.

 

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The IL-76 from the front, note my colleague near the belly for scale. (Rich Holt)

 

After two or three minutes we set about penetrating the vast carcass. One by one we scrambled up the ladder and into the door sitting about 2.5m off the ground. It was surprisingly tricky to get in; we each had to ‘mantle’ on the plane floor and scratch at the sides of the door to shift our bodyweight inside or, once somebody was in there, help the next person up.

 

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A friend approaching the top of the ladder. (Rich Holt)

 

The main hold of the aircraft had been torn to shreds; every last bit of its interior stripped. I don’t think it was a move to hide anything nefarious – just the level of degradation to be expected with any accessible abandoned site after long enough.

 

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Inside the main hold. (Rich Holt)

 

Once inside, we decided to check out the front spotter’s area (possibly the navigator’s booth?) and the cockpit, both now coated in several layers of dust with very few of the controls remaining intact.

 

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The lower viewing port, possibly a navigator’s booth. Small metal staircase up to the cockpit in foreground. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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The remnants of the cockpit. (Rich Holt)

 

Once we reached the cockpit we were gifted with an opportunity too good to ignore! Located just behind the pilots’ seats were a series of footholds in the bulkhead/wall leading up to an open roof hatch. It was time to enjoy sunset in style. One by one we each clambered up the holds and heaved ourselves on top of the aircraft. This was a fairly simple task for myself at 6’4 (193cm), the main issue being angling my shoulders and backpack through the narrow hatch, but the big reaches of the 2m climb were a bit of an epic for my shorter pals (who found getting through the hatch itself much easier).

 

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Squeezing my way through the roof hatch. (Jaime Chong)

 

The view once we were on top of the plane was glorious. 360 degrees of endless desert expanse. To the west, or facing aft, the sun was setting over Umm al-Quwain’s mangrove marshes. Treading carefully so as not to slide over the aircraft’s rounded convex edges we made our way to the midpoint of the wings and sat to enjoy the scenery, occasionally standing to grab a few more shots.

 

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Selfie on top of the IL-76. (Rich Holt)

 

 

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Author watching sunset from the midpoint of the IL-76’s huge wings. (Jaime Chong)

 

Once the sun had set we made our way back down through the Ilyushin and decided to get going. A coffee at the nearby Al Hamra Mall was starting to sound rather appealing! Over all, this short hour-long adventure remains one of my best memories from my season in the UAE; it truly did feel like ‘getting off the grid’…

If you find yourself in the UAE this cool feature is located about an hour’s drive north of Dubai, right next to the turn-off for Barracuda Bottle Shop and a short hop from Dreamland water park. I’d advise extreme caution in visiting; it is still technically off-limits and things didn’t go so smoothly when I decided to return in February. I’ll write about that in the future but hint: I got held at gunpoint!

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