I’ve been making wildlife films in East Africa with my partner, Vicky, for 25 years (www.deeblestone.com). Now, together with Etienne Oliff and a small team, we’re making a film about elephants. By the time it is finished, we’ll have devoted five years to it. In that same time about a quarter of a million elephants will have been killed in Africa, by poachers.
Perhaps not surprisingly, we think about elephants a lot, interact with them on an almost daily basis and would find it hard to imagine a world without them.
We are privileged to live within a national park while we make the film. We share a small grove of Dobera trees with all kinds of other creatures. We see lion, leopard and elephant in camp regularly; we are woken each morning, before dawn, by the resonant calls of ground hornbills. Baboons and vervet monkeys roost in the fig trees behind camp; hornbills nest in a tree next to our tent; squirrels and agama lizards run over the dining table and, were we to keep a bird list of all those we see from camp, it would run to hundreds of species.
As soon as we step out of camp onto the floodplain, we are surrounded by a Pleistocene diaspora of large mammals – giraffe, waterbuck, impala, kudu, grants gazelle, buffalo… A seasonal river runs through the floodplain. It is paradise, and it would be churlish to think that it isn’t.
Had we been here fifty years ago it would have been slightly different; there would probably have been more trees, more vultures to perch in them, and the river would have flowed for longer each year.
Most noticeably, it would have felt even more Pleistocene – there would have been more large mammals, perhaps four times as many elephants and there would have been rhino, and not just one or two – Tsavo was full of rhinos. The evidence for there being so many comes from accounts of early travelers, old hunting stories, and the reports of the first Tsavo warden, David Sheldrick. I knew all that when we started filming here, but what really brought it home to me was revisiting the films of veteran wildlife filmmakers Alan Root and Simon Trevor. Both worked in Tsavo in the sixties and seventies (Simon stayed on and has lived in the park for fifty years making wildlife and environmental films www.aeffonline.org).
What stood out in their films were sequences of aggregations of black rhino, visiting the shallow wells that elephants had dug in the sand of a seasonal river. It doesn’t happen any more.
In the 1960’s Tsavo had the biggest population of black rhino in the world – some 8000 of them. Their silhouettes, forged out of steel, still adorn the entrance gates to this self-proclaimed ‘Theatre of the Wild’.
Today, Tsavo rhinos number a mere handful and they exist in large, well-protected enclosures. If they didn’t, with rhino horn currently selling on the black market at over$60,000/kg (more valuable than gold), then they would have been poached years ago.
Fast forward then to 1987, when Vicky and I came to East Africa to make a series of wildlife films with Alan, for Survival Anglia. Since then, we have lived in camps in the bush, mostly in national parks. In all that time though, we’ve never had to consider rhino – neither when driving, nor on foot. We have met them a few times in Serengeti and been amazed, but they have never been part of our daily lives.
In the whole of East Africa there are now only a few hundred rhinos left, mostly on private ranches or in smaller, well-protected areas hived off from larger national parks. They are no longer part of the general ecosystem and in my mind, they are ecologically extinct.
For the likes of David Sheldrick, Simon and Alan, fifty years ago, it would have been inconceivable to think of Tsavo without rhinos. Just as today, it is inconceivable for us to think of Tsavo without elephants.
I find it staggering to think that there were probably as many rhinos then (8,000 in Tsavo East alone), as there are elephants today ( 11,000 in the latest KWS aerial census figures released this week for the Greater Tsavo Ecosystem).
We all have different points from which we measure change through time. Call it a ‘benchmark’, ‘baseline’ or ‘point of comparison’ – I can’t find a simple, elegant word that fully conveys it. That point of comparison is normally defined by our age or experience.
I remember when I first became aware of the concept. I was with a friend, walking on the Penwith moors, in Cornwall, when we stopped to admire the view above Zennor, with its rolling expanse of heather and granite outcrops – ‘Tors’, I’d have called them; here they are ‘Kopjes’. We were fresh out of university, proud of our zoology degrees and about to follow different paths in the world. We wondered aloud whether the moor would ever have been covered in woodland and, if so, what had happened to the trees – perhaps felled for shipbuilding in medieval times, for pit-props for the mines, for timber, or firewood to fuel boilers to drive steam pumps.
It dawned on me then that we don’t miss what we’ve never known. For the first time I looked around me with eyes wide open, and wondered what might have gone before.
In conservation, ‘benchmarks’ are crucial – without benchmark surveys, we just don’t know what we are losing and the rate that it is disappearing. Adaptability is a human trait that has been selected for by evolution over millions of years. It helps us cope and thrive in the face of changing environments, but at the same time I think makes us less inclined to look back at what we have lost. Too often we roll our eyes at the phrase, ‘It was better in my day’ – but, when it comes to habitats and wildlife, with very few exceptions, it was. Our elders’ benchmarks are not our benchmarks, and it is all to easy to ignore them. As a result, we lose both wildlife and habitat and we barely notice that it is happening.
For us, as new arrivals in East Africa, our ‘benchmark’ was dated September 1987.
When we arrived on the continent, rhinos had already been almost poached out of existence.
Because we have never known them, we haven’t missed them.
The tragedy now, is that it is happening with elephants.
One of the first films I saw from Tsavo, Simon Trevor’s ‘Bloody Ivory’ graphically illustrated the horrors of elephant poaching and the illegal ivory trade. Four decades later, his most recent film ‘White Gold’ does the same. In the intervening years, the elephants had a brief respite, and the population started to rise. The attrition now though, is worse than it has ever been, and elephant numbers are again in decline.
I would be devastated if, like the rhino, elephants fade into ecological extinction. If their decline continues to accelerate as it is, it is quite probable that the next generation won’t know them as we do.
That is why I think that in the future, we won’t miss them – as we simply won’t have had the chance to get to know them as we do today.
It makes it all the more important to put a stop to the ivory trade now – while we still know elephants and can experience them – not just intellectually, but emotionally.
© Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.