In Kenya’s Amboseli, brief but powerful inspiration as UK Minister gets a tour of the field

Richard Benyon with KWS officers and IFAW at Amboseli Park HQ. The tusks, weighing 56kgs, were retrieved from an Amboseli elephant that had died from natural causesThree weeks ago my London office phone rang and now I’m sharing my experiences escorting Richard Benyon, The UK Environment Minister, around Amboseli National Park in Kenya.

Things sometimes move quite fast at the International Fund for Animal Welfare(IFAW).

The call was from the Minister’s office; his staff wanted some contact details in Nairobi as the Minister was due to chair a session of the United Nations Environment Programme which was meeting in Nairobi the week after next. Wisely, while he was there, he wanted to catch up with local conservation experts to find out what was happening on the ground. 

IFAW has extensive projects in Kenya and after giving the contact details I wondered aloud if the Minister would have time to visit one of our projects? 

His private secretary said it was a possibility but his schedule was tight. 

I said I would see what I could do…

An hour later after a quick call with James Isiche, my fellow country Director in Kenya, I sent the Minister’s office a schedule for a six hour total-immersion tour of Amboseli National Park with James, myself and Patrick Omondi, Head of Species at the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

“I think the Minister might be interested,” they replied.

To cut a long story short, Patrick, James, Richard (the UK Minister) and I met on the designated morning at 6.45am at the KWS Airwing hanger at Wilson Airport, Nairobi. 

Shortly after 7am we were airborne in a small KWS plane for the 30-minute flight to the Amboseli strip, in the middle of the park. 

It’s not every day that a UK Minister visits, so we had a KWS welcoming committee.

Richard signed the visitor’s book, salutes, broad smiles and handshakes were exchanged all round and we then got into our vehicle to head to the park HQ. “We might see some animals on the way,” mentioned James in passing. 

What an understatement that turned out to be.

Richard has an enormous Government brief – from flooding to fisheries plus all things relating to international wildlife conservation. 

As we drove through the park it was obvious that he was well versed in African wildlife.

“That’s a secretary bird, isn’t it? They eat snakes, I think.”

It emerged that besides visiting Africa a few times in recent years, he’d spent a “sort of gap year” in Africa and had also worked on a farm on Mount Kenya in his youth.

Travelling through the park we saw around 100 of Amboseli’s famous 1,500 elephants in the near distance. But just before we reached the HQ we turned a corner and came face to face with two huge elephants taking a mud bath in a waterhole less than 100 metres from us. 

As I took in a deep breath and held it, I heard Richard do the same. It was impossible not to be moved by the sight of these creatures. 

Elephants taking a mud bath.Towering above us, they regarded us silently and got on with their bathing. Mud was sprayed, trunks were raised high and ivory tusks gleamed in the sun.

Reaching the HQ we were led to the Head Warden’s office and one of KWS’s experts gave us a presentation on Amboseli and the challenges it faces. 

The park is comparatively small, but has a rich, diverse pool of biodiversity. Unplanned growth of local agriculture and tourism, alien plant species and above all, poaching turned out to be KWS’s greatest challenges.

We were told of IFAW and KWS’s five-year project to work together towards better local community planning of both agriculture and tourism and how IFAW was helping equip the rangers to deal with poachers.

I was really impressed by how closely IFAW and KWS were working together on the ground. I shouldn’t really have been surprised because I knew that James, IFAW’s Director here, had been a high ranking KWS officer for more than 18 years before he joined IFAW.

After the presentation, we headed back out into the park. 

The sun was higher, the temperature around 40 degrees centigrade and most of the animals were keeping a low profile out of the sun. Not that a group of around a dozen crested cranes seemed to mind. Nor the hyena that lazily and unsuccessfully crept up on a Thompson’s Gazelle. Six or seven hippos had the best idea.They were up to their waggling ears in a small pool gurgling, snorting and yawning as all around fried in the heat.

After a quick lunch in one of the park lodges we filmed some interview footage of Richard for the IFAW website and James recorded a personal thank you to a US movie star who had recently made a donation to IFAW’s work in Amboseli. 

Our filmic and social networking duties done, we returned to the vehicle and headed for the airstrip. 

The KWS outriders couldn’t resist one more detour and before we knew it we were within a couple of metres of an elephant with an egret on her back enjoying a wallow in a swamp not far from the airstrip.

Our six hours in the park was up and it was time to head back to Nairobi.

There are times when I’m in London with my suit and tie on, talking to journalists, IFAW supporters or politicians when I yearn to return to the field to experience IFAW’s work at first hand. 

A lot of my job is about persuading people that animals matter and that even in times of financial austerity we need to go the extra mile to ensure their welfare and their survival. 

I got the sense that Richard has a similar yearning. 

I hope the fact that we were able to help him reconnect with his passion for elephants and African wildlife was as invigorating for him as it was for me.

--RM

For more information about the International Fund for Animal Welfare efforts to protect elephants around the world, visit our campaign page.

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Experts

Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Peter Pueschel, Director, International Environmental Agreements
Director, International Environmental Agreements
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Regional Director, South Asia