The week that was: 17 – 24 November 2014


In the mix this week are train travel nostalgia, Angelina Jolie’s pending biopic about Richard Leakey, IUCN’s new Green List to acknowledge excellence in protected area management, and a sobering report on African infrastructure. But there are also a couple of video clips to lighten the heart – one of Barbara, Amboseli’s 65-year-old elephant matriarch, playing – yes playing – in the water, and the other of two rescued caracals being reintroduced into the wilds of Ethiopia. Heart-warming stuff.

In praise of trains

Train travel, not commuting but real train travel across wide open spaces and crossing country borders, brings on a full-blown nostalgia attack  about my younger years of exploring Africa. It was cheap, fun and you met wonderful fellow wanderers as you chuffed your way across the veld.

I remember one trip up to Zambia when I shared a coupé with an elderly Catholic priest. He was Irish, of course he was, and was on his way back to his mission after extended ‘home leave’. He was a delightful travelling companion and a great raconteur – but I’m not sure of the veracity of his yarns especially as the day wore on and the large quantities of ale quaffed in the dining car increased the rate of conversational embroidery. But no matter how sozzled the old boy got, once the pub closed and after much decidedly unpriestly language as he struggled into his pyjamas and hunted around for his rosary beads, he would kneel at his bedside and mumble his way through his prayers. He didn’t always make it into bed though as on one occasion daylight found him still on his knees, his torso sprawled out in supplication across his cot. But he woke without the trace of a hangover and with a cheery ‘Isn’t this a fine day to be in Africa’ he would launch straight into a repeat performance.

STimela1853680923At a time you could go almost anywhere in Africa as tracks crisscrossed the entire continent. Sadly, as in so many parts of the world, railway infrastructure has taken a bit of a nose dive. But if tales about engines and rolling stock light a fire in your belly then try to get hold of a copy of The Great Steam Trek a splendid tome that celebrates all that was great and quaint in Africa’s age of steam. The book is probably well out of print but you will always find a copy from an antiquarian bookseller or Amazon

A slightly more expensive way to peruse the book would be to travel on Rovos Rail – I am sure there will be a copy in the train library. Rovos Rail is certainly not cheap but it is very, very splendid and it goes to some incredible places. The best of all for me would be to take the itinerary that boards in Cape Town and then lazily winds its way northwards through into Botswana and Zimbabwe, across the Vic Falls bridge and onwards via the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania to Dar-es-Salaam. Fifteen blissful days on what is hailed as the most luxurious train in the world, and yours for only … Well I leave that for you to research. Read Griffin Shea’s article for CNN to really whet your appetite.

Rovos Rail Pride of Africa on the bridge across the Mpanga River in Tanzania. This viaduct is 160 feet high and the tunnel that it heads into is one-half mile long. David Brossard/Wiki Commons

Rovos Rail Pride of Africa on the bridge across the Mpanga River in Tanzania. This viaduct is 160 feet high and the tunnel that it heads into is one-half mile long. David Brossard/Wiki Commons

Filming the Life of Leakey

Someone who could definitely afford the Rovos experience would be Angelina Jolie who plans to spend a bit of time in Africa directing and producing a movie about Richard Leakey. With her name attached to the project it will be assured of a lot of attention – even more if her husband is persuaded to play the lead role.

Screenshot 2014-11-24 18.12.46Leakey is no shrinking violet and no doubt the film will appeal to his not inconsiderable sense of self. I hope, though, that it does justice to the rich, indefatigable and controversial life that has made him a towering giant in the world of African conservation. If the script and acting manages to capture even a fraction of his adventures and experiences it will be entertaining at the very least. I’m not convinced by the title: ‘Africa’ – a bit sweeping perhaps?

Leakey’s long-time friend Graham Boynton who writes for The Telegraph has his own reservations about the ‘Hollywoodisation’ of the man’s life. Boynton’s article is worth a read for a quick resume of an extraordinary life force that continues to flow.

Fortress Parks

I cannot claim to know Leakey as Boynton clearly does, but I have met with him on several occasions and have always enjoyed the sparring nature of his conversation.

I remember asking Leakey for his thoughts on the future of Africa’s protected areas; he was not sanguine. He furrowed his brow and growled: ‘If we want to keep them, we’ll have to put a bloody great fence around them and patrol the borders’.

I was somewhat taken aback as I had always believed him to be a protagonist of the unfenced tradition of East African parks and rather caustic about the fenced approach here in South Africa. I thought for a moment that he was winding me up, but he wasn’t and we went on to discuss the context of his comment in light the ever growing people pressure on wild spaces for living, farming, mining and just about every human activity in between, including poaching.

I hope that we don’t end up with fortress parks but when you see what is happening on the poaching front alone it is hard to believe otherwise. But then we will have lost the battle anyway as alienating people from nature holds an even greater long-term threat. Some how a balance has to be found for people and parks to coexist.

All the major NGOs know this and it is the top of agenda item for most of them. Certainly it was at the recent IUCN 2014 World Parks Congress in Australia where Dr James Watson of the Wildlife Conservation Society told delegates that they need to ‘think big and act fast’ in the effort to maintain and expand protected areas that safeguard wildlife, ecosystems, and the services they provide to animals and people alike.

The new green standard

The Congress also saw the launch of the IUCN’s Green List. Most of us are familiar with the Red List, a precise set of criteria to evaluate the extinction risk of thousands of species and subspecies. The aim is to convey the urgency of conservation issues and to motivate strategies to reduce species extinction. The companion Green List sets out the criteria that will ‘define success for protected areas’, said Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN’s Director General. ‘It is about recognizing those sites that successfully respond to the challenges of the 21st century and contribute to the wellbeing of people and nature.’

The Green List evaluation process includes the quality of protection of natural values, the demonstration of fair and transparent sharing of the costs and benefits of conservation, effective management and long-lasting conservation outcomes. These criteria are tailored and measured according to the challenges and opportunities faced in each country.

Camel-back game viewing at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Lewa and Ol Pejeta, also in Kenya, are so far the only two protected areas in Africa to have been placed on IUCN's Green List.

Camel-back game viewing at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. Lewa and Ol Pejeta, also in Kenya, are so far the only two protected areas in Africa to have been placed on IUCN’s Green List.

So far only 23 of the 50 candidate sites put forward have been listed as part of the first phase of the Green List. The only ones from Africa to make the cut so far are Kenya’s Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy where pastoral ranching is allowed within the protected area. Its management runs a community cattle ranching programme providing monitoring, protection and livestock health services. This ensures protection for both wildlife and cattle and provides a safe haven and rich pastures for local herders.

Listed sites have to commit to improve continuously in order to maintain compliance. According to the IUCN, the Green List standard will bring greater international recognition to the listed sites and increased political support. It will also help improve the quality of tourism within the sites.

I do think that the list is a step in the right direction, but I fear that so many of Africa’s parks, that are already badly underfunded or not funded at all, will not ever be able to meet the criteria to be listed without serious interventions both financial and political. If this doesn’t happen then there seems to be a danger that greater funding and political favour will be bestowed on already well run parks leaving the rest to languish. There is something in that that doesn’t quite add up for me.

Poverty, the greatest destructive force in the world?

Poverty is a killer of people and wildlife and quite possibly it is the greatest destructive force in the world as it goes hand in glove with poor education, poor, corrupt government, and poor health care. The latest report on infrastructure by AfroBarometer makes sobering reading as it points to inadequate access to basic infrastructure and development services remaining a key impediment to improving health, welfare and security for many Africans.

Mobile use in Africa is expected to increase 20-fold in the next five years. Despite unreliable electricity and a lack of physical connectivity, Africans both urban and rural have embraced mobile technology, making it fertile ground for the expansion of the telecoms industry.

Mobile use in Africa is expected to increase 20-fold in the next five years. Despite unreliable electricity and a lack of physical connectivity, Africans both urban and rural have embraced mobile technology, making it fertile ground for the expansion of the telecoms industry.

While large majorities have ready access to schools and cell-phone services, many Africans still do not enjoy adequate access to health clinics and police posts, as well as to electricity and water supply services, especially in rural areas. (The term ‘access’ refers to the availability of services in a given area, without reference to the specific capacity of any individual or household to actually obtain the services such as they might be.)

A standout point of the report is that while access to mobile-phone networks (93%) and schools (88%) is quite widespread, other services fall far behind. Less than two-thirds of surveyed areas have ready access to an electricity grid (64%), health clinic (62%), and piped water (59%).

Averages and continent-wide statistics, however, can be very misleading so you need to drill down into the country and urban/rural sub categories to get to the real stuff. You will see immediately that it is no coincidence that the three countries hit by Ebola and Madagascar where there has been an outbreak of plague have notoriously inadequate services.

The spread of mobile technology in Africa is staggering and surely a massive opportunity for education, not only in the formal sense but also in getting important news into communities. DailyVox has some interesting comments on the mobile phone phenomenon in Africa.

Elephants, ivory and play

Back to Leakey. In a powerful editorial for CNN he makes a strong demand for the universal banning of ivory as a tradable commodity ‘…nations – and even states and cities – should ban any domestic sales or trade in ivory (which has in theory been banned already by many countries).

‘The public should demand and support such bans. It should be illegal for stores anywhere to sell products made of ivory. The ban on all sales or trade in ivory will save the elephants and will not eliminate any product of vital importance.’

I couldn’t agree more. For as Leakey states: ‘The fight to save the elephants is not simply an admirable cause for a beautiful animal. It shows that we cherish the world and appreciate its complexities. It’s essential to preserving the biodiversity of our world and to continuing our ongoing understanding of its evolution – how we became what we are today.’

’Every time a species becomes extinct, or no longer able to live in the wild, we lose something in our capacity to understand ourselves and our relationship to the world.’ Richard Leakey

And, as if one really needs convincing, you only have to watch elephants at play to realise what a privilege it is to share the planet, albeit not very equitably, with these amazing animals. The following video by Vicki Fishlock, an IFAW funded researcher for The Amboseli Trust for Elephants, was filmed in September 2013 and shows just how incredible elephants are even in their later years in life. Barbara who is ones of the oldest females in the Amboseli ecosystem is playing as though she is a young calf, enjoying life to the full. What joy.

‘Play amongst young animals trains growing bodies and develops skills and reflexes crucial for survival. This is especially true for elephants,’ writes Fishlock. ‘But both male and female elephants continue to play even into adulthood, and it’s an important factor in their social charisma.’ (Read the full article.)

Freedom for two young cats

Elephants and rhinos tend to dominate conservation news from Africa, and so it’s nice to have a happy story about one of the smaller animals, in this instance the caracal or ‘desert lynx’. It is a strongly built feline with tufted ears and reddish brown fur, except for a white chin, throat, and belly, and a black line running from each eye to the nose. Caracals are well adapted to drier regions and can survive without drinking for a long period—their water demand being met by the body fluids of their prey. They feed on a variety of smaller animals and are skilled bird catchers – they can leap two metres into the air from a standing start.

Caracals are solitary by nature but Terrs and Tuffa were so young when their mother was killed and they were stolen from the wild that they still had their eyes shut. Two years ago Born Free’s rescue centre in Ethiopia took in the two caracal kittens, that were rescued in neighbouring Somaliland when a farmer tried to sell them as pets. Bewitchingly beautiful, the three-month old brothers were a first for Born Free as the rescue centre had not dealt with any caracals prior to the arrival of Terrs and Tuffa (‘tooth and claw’ Amharic). They quickly settled into their large natural habitat enclosure, but this was just the beginning of their adventure. Over the months they were increasingly encouraged to hunt their own prey and in the summer 2014 they were successfully returned to the wild where they belong. The accompanying video is the story of their release.




About Author

Peter has a career in publishing and conservation spanning more than four decades. His most recent project has been the development of Untold Africa, a meeting place for intelligent, engrossing and entertaining dialogue for a global community of like-minded people - people who share a common passion for the wild places of Africa, the creatures that inhabit them, and the breadth of African culture. See more


  1. Peter, your writing skills are absolutely “Out of this World”. Fantastically descriptive, enthralling, exciting, inspirational & encouraging for us mere mortals! I look forward to them every week, many thanks for the passion you put into keeping us informed!

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