Published: March 5th 2011August 3rd 2010
It is a rare opportunity to participate in an animal conservation project in Africa. But as with much in life, opportunities revolve around who you know rather than what you know. The person I know in this instance is Shivani Bhalla, or Shiv to her friends. I met her at an Internet Cafe in Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, India in November 2004. Despite being unable to correctly guess her accent as Kenyan, I was correctly able to ascertain that she has one of the most enviable jobs in the world. Working in animal conservation is a dream job for many, but after meeting Shiv, I discovered that this is no easy profession.
Lions have always been Shiv’s passion, so in late 2006 she made the first tentative steps into establishing her own lion research and conservation project called Ewaso Lions. The Ewaso ecosystem encompasses the Samburu and Buffalo Springs National Reserves, one hundred kilometres north of Mount Kenya. In those early days, Shiv would write numerous funding applications, at which time she would send them to me for proofreading and comment. A conservation project can only progress as far as funding allows, and those early days saw continual frustration at rejected
I survey the West Gate Community Conservancy from Ndonyo Nanyekie - Kenya
Many thanks to Shiv for this amazing photograph - it is my favourite portrait from all my travels!
grants, but Shiv is not dissuaded from setbacks so easily.
Starting any new project, whether that be a commercial enterprise or conservation project, is similar to a large stone wheel that takes enormous effort to initially shift, but once movement begins it gathers a momentum of its own. Within a year, enough funding was sourced for Shiv to work at founding Ewaso Lions full time. By surviving on the barest of incomes, and with the growing support of volunteers and benefactors around the world, she oversaw the establishment of the Ewaso Lions website
and an alternate blog and fundraising site at Wildlife Direct
Ewaso Lions seeks to reduce the conflict between lions and humans and thus arrest the rapidly declining lion population that has suffered a staggering 90% population loss within the last 30 years. This is achieved through collaborating with the local Samburu community and tracking the movement of lions (via radio collars and personal reports) in order to determine where conflicts are most likely to occur.
After some testing travel times in Ethiopia, travelling to Kenya again was a comforting thought. A midnight flight followed by an early morning connection meant that I arrived at
the airstrip in Samburu still wearied. Shiv dutifully arrived with Jeneria, a Samburu moran
(warrior) who is a field officer for the project. We commenced a long drive that saw the usual collection of elephants, zebra and other fauna in this region. Shiv is highly respectful of the ecosystem where she lives and works, and engages in some practices that others should follow. She dreads imposing upon animals and abhors the practice of a single big cat being surrounded by a dozen vehicles with camera clicking tourists; thus she neither pursues nor loiters near animals too long. In all my time of being driven by Shiv, she has never faltered from this principal.
As we near the camp in the West Gate Community Conservancy, I experienced one of those amazing moments on safari that cannot be captured in a photograph or video. A leopard had taken fright at our approach and it landed as if from a great height in front of our vehicle before leaping into cover on the other side – a momentary appearance of mythical quality. Leopards are my favourite of the big cats, and it was stirring to see one again, albeit briefly. Ironically, this
was the only big cat I viewed during my time here, I never managed to witness any lions - but such is the luck with wildlife sightings.
We finally arrived at the Ewaso Lions camp. During my first visit to this nascent project in May 2008, the camp was rudimentary at best, but there was a stark difference now, with even a fully operating kitchen in service. Though many things had changed, some similarities remained. Camels owned by local Samburu people continued to graze nearby, and it was a pleasure to see them again. Their regular visits conferred the nickname “Camp Camel” upon the site in those early days.
Shortly after arriving, I was treated to a wonderful meal by the camp’s cook, Philip; it was a tasty change to the bland offerings throughout Ethiopia’s Omo Valley. Shiv showed me to my little orange tent and cautioned that if heading to the new tastefully designed bush toilet at night to watch for snakes and scorpions that slither and scuttle nearby – such are the joys of bush camping.
The afternoon was spent observing the time consuming activities surrounding lion preservation. Apart from long lion-spotting drives, Shiv sets
two motion-sensitive camera traps every afternoon to capture any nocturnal animal movements. One morning when retrieving the camera, she was disappointed to discover a camera trap had fallen to the ground, a situation even worse than obtaining no images at all. Upon reviewing the photographs, the culprit was revealed, an elephant had toppled the device as evidenced by a snapshot of its huge front legs at the final moment.
Shiv’s work is receiving an increasing amount of recognition, in 2007 she was only one of three people (from 21 recipients) from outside of the US to attend Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders
programme (run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare) and in 2009, Shiv travelled to Beijing to be presented with the Society for Conservation Biology’s Young Women Conservation Biologist of the Year Award
. But Shiv’s endorsement goes further, for a Samburu village even named a camel after her. This may not seem significant, but this recognition is more important than the other awards she has been bestowed with. Disregarding the important fact that it was a camel, this demonstrates that Shiv has been accepted by the local people, a decisive factor in the success of her work.
Shiv achieves this recognition with such programmes as Warrior Watch, a project based on the theory that an effective method to reduce human-lion conflict is to educate those normally involved with such conflict on the importance of conservation. Shiv and the team attend weekly meetings at the Ngutuk Engiron Primary School with the moran
who report on wildlife sightings and incidents of human-wildlife conflicts. For undertaking these tasks, they are provided with meals and a small stipend. Another benefit for the moran
is that they receive basic English lessons. Heather (undertaking a week’s volunteering work) and I taught the warriors basic English sounds and words. I was charged with instructing Lemeen, and in order to explain the difference between “walk” and “run” I demonstrated both by scampering around the classroom, which entertained Lemeen as much as it did in aiding his comprehension.
Back at the camp, whilst the team were attending to other duties, I wandered around on my own, and though working in the field on wildlife conservation is very appealing, it is not the easiest of lives. Here one has little electricity and minimal comforts. Basic supplies such as food are only available after long drives over
poor roads. Floods and storms also impact on Samburu and the Ewaso Lions camp has had to undergo significant repairs on more than one occasion. The fact that people would willingly subject themselves to such privations away from the comfort of a “normal” life is a testament for the passion many in the conservation area have for their craft.
That evening, Philip prepared a surprise farewell cake for both Heather and me which was topped with yellow icing, ingeniously made from turmeric! My final night of sleeping was partially spent listening to a porcupine sniffing around my tent, and the next morning I returned to the Samburu airstrip to commence the concluding chapter of this holiday. Whilst I continue indulging in my passion for travel or enjoying my comfortable life in Brisbane, Shiv and the team at Ewaso Lions will continue to grapple with long field days, dusty roads, and temperamental weather to prevent the disappearance of the resplendent lion from the Ewaso ecosystem; for if their presence is restricted to words and pictures in history books, it will be another tragic tale in the decline of one of the world’s most magnificent animals.
There are more photos below