To read the New York Times coverage about the travel situation in Kenya, click here.
Letter from Iain Douglas-Hamilton
Zoologist and founder of Save the Elephants, Iain Douglas-Hamilton has spent his life in Kenya, where he and his wife, Oria, have made enormous progress in preserving the endangered elephant population. To read about Oria’s Elephant Watch Safaris, click here.
There are so many friends who have written to us asking about what is going on in Kenya and how we are affected, and if the elephants and wildlife are surviving.
No one was more surprised than we who live in Kenya when this country erupted into chaos and violence following the rigged elections held late last year. There were so many horrific scenes of ethnic violence we saw, mainly between the Luo and their allies on the one side, and the Kikuyu on the other. How this affected us personally has been written by my daughter Saba to her grandmother, and I would like to share her letter with you as it gives so eloquently the facts and feelings of this time. Saba and Oria have been amazing in dropping all other commitments and devoting themselves to the cause of peace. Oria thought up a scheme where ordinary Kenyans could express their feelings in public through flowers in honour of the dead and suffering without defying the ban on all public gatherings.
So all that you have read in the papers is probably true. What you have not read, because it does not make news, it that peace still prevails in most of the country. An epic elephant count of the Tsavo national park went ahead as planned last week with a gathering of eleven aeroplanes and a harmonious team from all ethnic and tribal groupings of Kenya. The results show that Kenya’s elephants are still on the upward road of recovery from the devastating ivory poaching of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Save The Elephants played a key role in providing an aeroplane and crew, and vital trained ground staff for the advance computer analysis that was carried out on the spot during the count.
In northern Kenya all is peaceful too, and the nomadic tribes normally volatile and armed with firearms are surprisingly calm and stable at this time. There has been no surge in poaching. However in the longer term, lack of tourist revenues will undermine Kenya Wildlife Service law enforcement unless a solution to the politic impasse is found.
At Save The Elephants’ field station in Samburu, it is business as usual. We have continued unimpeded working with the BBC on a three part series on our work. We have also concluded our hosting of the amazingly talented National Geographic team that will come out with a special issue in the fall, which will be a great boost for elephants.
Oria and I fly frequently to the farm in Naivasha to help reinforce local efforts to keep the peace. Most importantly with our neighbours we keep our ears close to the ground to be forewarned of any troublemakers coming to our immediate area. So far this has worked well and people are still living peacefully together in this corner of Kenya.
I have intending to write to you personally, for such a long time, but please be patient as we are swept up in great events that need our full time attention.
With my warm regards
A letter from Dennis Pinto of Micato Safaris:
As I’m sure you are aware, last week was an uncharacteristically turbulent one in Kenya, due to disputed vote results in the nation’s presidential election. Now that tensions have cooled and President Mwai Kabaki and his opponent, Raila Odinga, appear to be reaching a compromise including the possibility of coalition style government, I thought it might be helpful to share our perspective on the events of the past week.
What Micato Travelers Experienced
The situation was neither as apocalyptic nor widespread as suggested in the media, with the violence taking place virtually exclusively in the heavily populated slum of a few major cities or in remote country areas that tourists never visit. Nearly two hundred Micato travellers were on safari during this period, none of which saw or heard any of the clashes that we witnessed on the evening’s news.
Nairobi’s city center, tourist and business districts remained unaffected by the troubles experienced in the city’s outlying slums. We had groups arriving from the United States and landing in Nairobi International Airport every day last week. Guests transited the airport, drove through the city and checked in to the Norfolk Hotel in the city center—and it was business as usual. Additionally, Micato safari directors and lodge managers in every game park reported complete peace and calm with the tribes peoples in their areas, thus we were assured that our guests in the bush were also untouched by the problems.
On the days when opposition rallies have been scheduled in Nairobi, we have taken the precaution of having Micato travellers bypass Nairobi and proceed directly to the next game park on their itinerary, chartering aircraft and securing additional accommodations in the bush to do so. In an amusing aside: two women refused to leave Nairobi early as suggested, because they had neither seen nor heard anything dangerous and wanted their city tour. After much deliberation, we provided a tour and then flew them to the bush later that same afternoon. They enjoyed a perfectly lovely day of sightseeing, saw no signs of trouble and informed the others in the bush that Micato had been overly cautious!
Kenya’s Recent Prosperity
It is worth keeping in mind that since Kenya’s independence forty years ago, whenever the country has experienced any sort of domestic incident—even a relatively minor one—pundits have predicted the demise of the country. This, of course, has never been the case. Kenya has always prevailed as an island of stability in an otherwise volatile horn of Africa. Before the presidential elections in 1992, Kenya also experienced severe ethnic fighting, not dissimilar to what happened last week. Needless to say, however, the country not only survived in its aftermath, but thrived….
In fact, Kenya has enjoyed a true Renaissance in the past five or so years. With its booming economy, it now enjoys a new and extremely healthy middle class—a large population of nouveau riche. This means a great many individuals have a great deal to lose should Kenya’s problems continue, which makes it almost a given that they will not. The swift response of foreign delegations including Nobel Peace Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Jendayi Frazer and a massive groundswell of behind-the-scenes maneuvers by a coalition of Kenya’s new moneyed class have helped to rapidly reduce tensions.
The Situation at This Moment
We are receiving updates from the Micato Kenya office several times a day. General Manager, Liz Wheeler, reported today as follows:
“All is extremely calm in Nairobi today. Junction [shopping mall} was full yesterday, albeit not as busy as normal on a Sunday. Nakumatt [grocery store} shelves were well stocked, and people busy buying. The best part, though, were the big piles of non-perishable foods stacked up at the front of the store – all donated by Kenyans to be sent to their fellow Kenyans in the worst affected towns. Everyone is trying to help each other.”
Micato Kenya’s general manager is also in daily contact with the Regional Security Officer at the U.S. Embassy, allowing Micato New York to be copied into every message from that bureau, as well as from the Kenya Tourist Police and Kenya Tourist Federation (an informational clearing house and security coordination body.) Suffice it to say, our information is as up-to-the minute and accurate as humanly possible.
Here in the United States, newspaper headlines are also beginning to reflect the new calm that the Micato Nairobi staff is reporting. Saturday’s New York Times headline read: “Opposition Seeks New Vote as Violence Ebbs in Kenya,” (with a droll opening sentence that read, “If the price of cabbage is any indicator, things here in Kenya’s capital may be edging back to normal…”).
The first sentence of an AP report filed on Monday afternoon begins, “Kenya’s president and his chief rival made key concessions Monday to end their election dispute, calling off protests and agreeing to talks…”
All good signs that the flow of current events is heading in the right direction.
Reports from the Bush
I also urge you to read a fascinating narration of the events from the perspective of Luca Belpietro, owner of the luxury “community eco-tourism lodge” called Campi ya Kanzi in western Kenya [click here to read Belpietro’s letter]. An Italian who has lived in Kenya for 15 years, Luca is a sincere and hard-working individual who is passionate about improving the life of the Maasai. He invested his own money to build Campi ya Kanzi, then gave ownership to the local Maasai community and established the successful Maasai Wilderness Conservation Trust. Suffice it to say, he’s deeply informed and in touch will the local communities.
Micato’s Risk Management Plan
Micato has a robust risk management plan, parts of which were activated in the days leading up to the election as a matter of routine practice. This included providing travellers with advance information on the state of the situation, arranging for key Micato management to be stationed 24/7 at Nairobi hotels with guests (should their presence be required on short notice), Tourist Police escorts for certain group movements, ensuring our fuel storage tanks were filled, securing additional vehicles, locating available aircraft, enacting back-up routes in/out of Nairobi, contacting security organizations, equipping staff with dual-system cell phones and initiating our communications plan. As it turned out, fortunately, most of our contingency planning was unnecessary.
It’s worth noting that Micato, unlike most U.S. safari operators, has its own affiliate staff in Kenya, with operations overseen by Felix and Jane who make their home in Nairobi. This gives us a significant advantage in obtaining first-hand information, the ability to closely monitor the situation and the power to pro-actively change guests’ itineraries at a moment’s notice, even if the modification are costly.
At this time, with all facts in hand and an end to the situation in sight, we can straightforwardly report that our safaris are operating as usual and we have no reason to believe this will change.
None of us at Micato has any doubts whatsoever about Kenya’s future—even the near future. Kenya’s four decades of democracy and peaceful independence will not be destroyed by one tight election marred by street violence and tribal clashes.
With its humming economy, growth rate around 7 percent, a billion-dollar-a-year tourism industry, vigorous free press, an engaged, democratic society and multiparty elections, Kenya has been thriving for decades and the envy of all Africa. As it will continue to be after this unfortunate moment along the developing path of the country.
~Posted January 9, 2008
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