Source to Sea

by Mark Downey -- August 8th, 2014

“Hey. Olaado. Do you see one?” The sergeant looks at me expectantly. I know I should, since he’s asking. See one, I mean. I know it’s going to be hanging between some saplings, a rusted coil of wire suspended by pieces of grass the poachers will have tied loose enough to snap the instant a wildebeest walks through.


I can’t see anything but sticks and leaves. “Uh…” I try to stall, but the sergeant sees right through me. He laughs and reaches his hand into the brush. I swear he conjured it: the snare appears in his hands and even as he lifts it before my eyes, I can’t tell where it’s coming from. The wire is the color of dirty nature and so disguised against any background that I think it must have been woven in Lothlorien.


“Olaado, it’s right here.” The sergeant shakes his head. “It’s because you don’t drink any blood.” He’s a Maasai, and does. That, milk, and roasted goat. And he attributes any perceived weakness in me to my poor, balanced diet. Maybe he’s right; the sergeant and the others of the joint AKTF-Mara Conservancy anti-poaching team can spot the poised snares from our truck as we ply the vast savannah.


They call me ‘Olaado’, which just means ‘tall man’ in Maasai. (I’m pretty sure.) I wouldn’t call it a term of endearment, but more of a call sign, like Maverick – or, honestly, more like Goose. The rest of the team has nicknames, too. I’m still working on learning all of them. There’s about seven of us out there, stalking along the Kenya-Tanzania border, checking as many stream crossings as we can for snares. It’s the middle of the day, so too late (or early) to catch any poachers themselves. They come down from the escarpment at night to lay their traps. Even though we’ll remove fifty or so a day, many will be replaced the following night.


The snares are made from any bit of wire that can be scrounged. A lot are from burned off tires. Some from fences. I don’t know where else. Poachers will put out dozens in an area, always on heavily used wildlife paths – especially at streams – but the poachers are usually only able to take one animal each ‘hunt’. The rest are left to die in their snares.


One of the Maasai rangers in the bed of the truck slaps the roof, signaling the driver to back up a bit. Down in the small gully to our left, even I can see the wire pulled taught and disappearing around the bend. It’s a wildebeest, we discover as we dismount for a closer look. It’s wheezing heavily from the wire choking its neck, which only tightens the more the animal struggles.


Demonstrating that theirs is a culture of livestock herding, the Maasai rangers easily wrestle the terrified animal onto the ground. Even with half-meter long bolt cutters, it takes a lot of effort to cut the snare free. Once liberated, though, the wildebeest catches it’s breath for a minute then bolts off through the bushes.


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We rescued one more wildebeest that day. Found another one dead, though, along with a zebra. And that was a slow day.


The anti-poaching rangers don’t take me on their serious patrols – like at night when they’re actually engaging poachers – just during the day to clean up snares. But I generally try to tag along when my schedule permits, and it’s part of the rhythm here.


What normally occupies my time, though, is visiting bomas – the traditional Maasai stockades – assessing their condition, and making plans to repair or build new ones as necessary.


Usually, we spend the day bouncing along rocky tracks through the acacia forests outside Maasai Mara National Reserve. With this tall man’s knees jammed into the Land Rover’s dash. We follow GPS readings or someone’s memory to the AKTF-fortified bomas. When we find the place, we chitchat with whomever we find there for a good half an hour. While this is happening, I’m making notes about the condition of the fences, and asking questions about the bomas history with predators: where did these holes come from, when was the last time the honey badger got in, he killed seven goats?


We do about five or six of those assessments a day if no repairs are necessary. Otherwise, we spend a lot of time patching holes with chicken wire, or burying logs under the doors to keep the honey badgers from digging under. The new bomas we’ll help build will hopefully be badger-, leopard-, and hyena-proof, as well as lion-proof, and also what one of the team has called ‘family friendly’ by which he means ‘low-maintenance’.


AKTF has been installing fortified bomas as part of National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiative since 2009, and even before NG-BCI existed. Now, though, National Geographic is asking how effective these bomas have been at preventing lion killing by angry herders, and what can be done to take the project to the next level.


I and the others at AKTF have some ideas.


Bomas, patrolling… and then there are times like right now, where I’m sitting in the grass, watching as our truck gets its jammed-up e-brake removed. We’ve been sitting here for about five hours now, trying to solve a couple of car problems that have caused us to miss an entire day of work. But I feel very relaxed. It’s another part of the rhythm here: the unexpected. You let go and enjoy what’s happening in the present, and try not to worry. Even when you know there are poachers, murderous herders, and expectant donors out there on the prowl.


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  1. Nat
    Aug 9, 2014

    You are such a great writer! Your vivid descriptions make me feel like I’m right there with you. Thank you for sharing your experiences, Olaado.

  2. Pam Buxton
    Aug 11, 2014

    Met you with Anne and Stewart along with our family in July. Wonderful to read your blog and can picture all you write about!
    Look forward to more. Take it all in! Cheers!a

  3. Ginger
    Aug 23, 2014

    Awesome experience! You see giraffes like I see birds!

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