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Sepetember 16: Ol Pejeta

Back to Ol Pejeta, I am brought to greet two of the world’s remaining seven Northern White Rhinos – Najin and Suni. I am not sure if they remember me from our last meeting however they give me a sniff and continue grazing their meal of hay. I learn that three of the seven are beyond breeding age and that crossing the Northern whites with the Southern is perhaps the only chance of keeping the bloodlines going. So far there seems to be little interest in mating.

Najin and Suni.

Najin and Suni.

The two huge southern whites in the enclosure keep trying to muscle in on the hay action. Their keepers raise their arms to shoo them away. It’s quite comical seeing these huge animals backing off from the keepers.

Feeding time.

Feeding time.

Poaching has become worse since I was last here and in South Africa the number of animals poached continues to increase.

We must reach rhino horn consumers and persuade them that the theft, killing, cruelty, and threat of extinction is not worth the imagined benefit they believe they are getting from using the horn. It will be their friends, relatives, neighbors, and business colleagues, who can persuade them. Perhaps that might be you. Please do what you can to save these incredible animals from oblivion.

September 15: The Young Rhinos

After visiting The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust we drive through the outskirts of bustling outskirts of Nairobi north to Ol Pejeta, arriving late at Kichepe Camp to overnight (read more about my first visit to Ol Pejeta).

The next morning we make the short journey to Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, another private reserve with spectacular scenery and wildlife. As we enter we see the rare Grevy’s zebra, which have different markings to the regular zebra, giraffes, and a white rhino, who shows no fear of our vehicle as we drive by.

We go off-road through the bush to meet Yusef and his three charges, this time male black rhinos. The eldest – Nicky – is a bit of a handful and I have to watch he doesn’t step on my toes. He is blind and so had to be cared for. He’s fine as long as you get out of the way.

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Meeting three orphaned black rhinos (from left: Nicky, a blind baby rhino, Hope, his mother was poached earlier this year, and Kilifi, his mother is blind and cannot care for him).

Hope is from Ol Pejeta originally his mother fell victim to poachers earlier this year. The smallest Kilifi is very sweet – a tiny miniature rhino. His mother was also blind and so he had to be adopted.

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Saying hello to Kilifi.

As they trundle along next to Yusef and their other keepers the most striking thing is the gentle sound they make, more like a cat than the great powerful beasts they will grow into. Someone remarks they are like dinosaurs would have been, but their temperament and need for contact makes me think they are more like dogs.

So we take the “dogs” for a walk. I never thought I’d be walking a rhino!

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Just like all babies they love their milk.

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Feeding Kilifi, the smallest of the rhino orphans.

Indeed they try to suckle your fingers if you’ll let them. Yusef warns me to watch out for their powerful molars, but I get to feed them a bottle. And then of course they’re ready for a nap. Thankfully no burping!

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Feeding Nicky.

As they nap, Yusef asks me about China and why people in Asia still buy rhino horn. I explain that there is a traditional belief, but that legal traditional medicine stopped using rhino horn in 1993 in China and now uses alternative treatments. But some people don’t understand the price the rhinos have to pay for the use of horn and we hope with our film that we can raise awareness.

After a roll in the mud, its time for a snack and I get to see the lips of the black rhinos in action. While the white rhino has a flat wide mouth for maximum grass intake like a living lawn mower, the black rhino has pointed lips enabling them to nimbly negotiate the murderous spines most of the bushes and trees have here to graze on their leaves. I’m impressed they can manage it.

Later in the day we see the adult rhino in this beautiful setting and I hope that these young rhinos will safely grow to grace the landscape for years to come.

September 14: Dozens of Orphans and Old Friends

We started out early this morning with a short drive to The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which should be on everyone’s list when visiting Kenya (read more about my first trip to the orphanage and the work they do).

Meeting the baby elephants is an amazing experience, but also saddening, especially when most are orphaned by the unnecessary trade in illegal ivory.

Last year, photos of me next to tiny baby elephant Kinango went viral. He was so tiny he looked like he had been shrunk and photoshopped in next to me, a perfect miniature of his elders, but sadly he was just too small and traumatized to survive without his mother and passed away shortly after my last trip. I learned that it is all too common for the very young to lose their will to live after their mother and sometimes whole herd have been brutally taken from them. The caretakers have to sleep in the small elephants’ enclosures at night so they feel safe.

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Fortunately, the caretakers at the orphanage do not let stories like Kinango get them down, but redouble their efforts with the next arrival. I met up again with Julius, a passionate and gentle elephant caretaker.

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Despite the mounting poaching crisis, leaving more elephants in need of support, Julius has retained his broad smile even when the elephants try to steal his hat.

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It is easy to understand why the elephants take to him. The caretakers have another tiny ward wrapped in a blanket who I think and hope will beat the odds, Komak. He seems to already be closely attached to Julius.

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As we head towards the open feeding area, the elephants crowd around us, knowing that if Julius trusts me I must be okay. I also get to touch ivory for the first time on a living elephant. It’s incredible that this fuss and tragedy is all over this tiny part of the animal. It reminds me of the small tusks I saw in the ivory room last year.

Then its feeding time! There’s always a stampede at feeding time and you have to watch they don’t step on your foot in the rush. Then they glug down the giant bottles in a matter of moments. Thankfully they don’t need to the burped.

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Boy, can they down that giant bottle quickly! A few seconds and they’re done.

As the elephants roam around with their caretakers and enjoy their meals I speak with Julius about the poaching troubles. He confirms everything that I have heard and much worse.

As we leave the orphanage I am happy to have met Julius but troubled that the flow of baby orphans has not slowed. The Yao Ming Foundation, WildAid, and our partners Save the Elephants and African Wildlife Foundation will redouble our efforts to get the word out in China. Jiang Wen, Li Bing Bing, and some of China’s top CEOs are involved, too. In the US we have partnered with NBA Cares and Tyson Chandler has recorded a message as well as actor Edward Norton. He helps wildlife through the Maasai Wildlife Conservation Trust, too. And in England, Prince William and David Beckham.

We hope you can join us all and together we can help to ensure an end to the illegal ivory trade and that the only orphans here are from natural causes.

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September 13: Back to Africa

We touched down in Kenya late this evening, a little over a year since I first visited this beautiful country. In London we have just been filming public service announcements with the Duke of Cambridge Prince William and soccer icon David Beckham, who are helping to get the word out on the rhino horn and ivory horn issues.

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It was a real pleasure to meet both of them. Wildlife conservation is a team effort and I really look forward to working together in the future.

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I was very impressed with the Duke’s personal warmth and his dedication to conservation. He even recorded the message “when the buying stops, the killing can too” in Vietnamese and Mandarin. I’m not sure how good my Vietnamese was but I gave it a go!

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I am looking forward to tomorrow’s visits to some of the wonderful organizations that I met with last year. I am eager to hear how they are doing and the progress they are making. I am worried that the poaching may of even of got worse but at least we are starting to get the word.

As I landed in Nairobi my cellphone told me “Welcome to Saudi Arabia” which was pretty confusing!!! However, I was very encouraged to read a message from the Chinese government asking people not to buy ivory and rhino horns. This kind of thing should really help.

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TRANSLATION: The State Department wishes you safe travels. Please follow Kenyan law, do not carry illegal ivory, rhino horn, or any other wildlife products. Please do not feed or disturb wildlife. Respect local customs and remain polite and friendly. Please be aware of your surroundings, do not travel alone at night. Cars drive on the right hand side. Chinese consulate in Kenya phone number: 00254719235543.National Forestry Warning: Please do no poach, take, or use wildlife or plants to sell, carry, or mail. Pay close attention to ivory, rhino horn and other products derived from endangered animals. 

I hope that this trip will open more eyes and bring additional support to stopping the demand for endangered wildlife products like ivory and rhino horn.

Yao’s Return to Africa

On September 13, 2013, Yao Ming returned to Africa, nearly one year after his first visit. He visited Kenya and the animals he works to protect. This is the diary of his journey.

RHINO REFLECTIONS

The next morning, we see five magnificent white rhinos in the Park, sizing us up before crossing the path in front of our vehicle. It’s refreshing to see them as they should be, with their horns intact.

Back in Johannesburg, I meet Pelham Jones of the Private Rhino Owners Association. Pelham has been very active in assisting law enforcement officials track down poachers.

It is no longer the occasional shooting from an AK-47 obtained in a neighbouring civil war. Now, it might be a professional single shot from a high calibre hunting weapon or a dart from a veterinary tranquilizer. In some cases, helicopters have been used.

The war is escalating. Perhaps it’s time to defund it.

From my trip it’s clear that South Africans feel the same way about their rhinos as we Chinese do about our Pandas. They are a source of inspiration and great national pride as we brought them back from what looked like inevitable extinction.

For South Africa, it’s also an important source of tourism revenue, which is now under threat.

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

Unfortunately, a very small number of people in Asia are still buying rhino horn, either as speculation or for what they may believe is a medicine or a tonic. The horns are made of keratin, the same type of protein that makes up our hair and fingernails.

Legitimate traditional medicine in China ended rhino horn use in 1993.

As I leave Africa, I go with incredible positive memories of the beauty, the wide open spaces, the incredible diversity of large animals wiped out elsewhere on the planet, but also with sadness that the actions of just a few people in a world of 7 billion can jeopardize the future of the two largest animals walking the earth.

Collectively these people are sabotaging African economies and stealing from us all.

As the vast majority, we need to let them know that this is not acceptable and is damaging China’s relations with our friends and trading partners in Africa.  We would be outraged if people were killing our pandas, we should be just as upset with what’s happening to rhinos and elephants in Africa.

From the conversations I’ve had, and the conversations WildAid has had with Chinese officials, there is a clear government commitment to collaborating to solve this. Peter Knights tells me Vietnam is also willing to collaborate.

But laws will only go so far. We need a drastic increase in awareness to reduce markets. Myself and other prominent Asians will be working with WildAid, African Wildlife Foundation, and other organizations to this end and we hope you will join us.

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

That means any of us who know people buying rhino horn or ivory need to ask them to stop, explain to them what is at stake and ask them to be part of the solution and not the problem.

Yao Ming Meets an Orphaned Black Rhino

Photo by Kristian Schmidt

CSI: SOUTH AFRICA

Kruger National Park is one of Africa’s oldest national parks and South Africa’s flagship. It covers an area nearly the size of Israel and is home to roughly half the world’s white rhinos. It is manned by thousands of staff, who study and protect the animals, and look after the 1.4 million tourists who visit every year.

Yao Ming and Crew in South Africa

Photo by Kristian Schmidt for WildAid

Kruger is home to between 9,000 and 12,000 white rhinos and approximately 600 black rhinos. Given the size of the park and the number of animals, it’s a difficult task to monitor the wildlife, even for the 2,500+ staff members.

The black rhinos are harder to keep and breed than the whites. They are more temperamental and solitary.  From 100,000 in 1960, their numbers in Africa dropped to a low of 2,400 in 1995 before climbing back to 4,880 following a sales ban for rhino horn in China and other parts of Asia and increased protection in Africa.

We meet with the Director of Public Relations for South African National Parks, William Mabasa, who tells us the greatest challenge currently facing the park is poachers from both South Africa and Mozambique. Here elephants have been untouched, but rhinos are being hit constantly.  Things have gotten so bad that now the South African army has been called in. But, finding poachers is still like looking for needles in a haystack.

Between 1990 and 2005, rhino poaching in South Africa averaged 14 animals a year according to trade monitoring group TRAFFIC and the populations were growing steadily. But in recent years, rhino poaching has risen again, with 440 animals killed in 2011, and this year’s figure expected to top 500.

On our very brief visit, we learn of seven rhinos recently killed in a reserve near Pilanesberg and four more in Kruger. Peter Knights of WildAid again apologizes for having to put me through the unenviable experience of seeing the results of this poaching.

We visit the body of a black rhino with Kruger’s Crime Scene Analysis team, searching for clues, like bullets or discarded debris, and collecting DNA samples so that if the horn is found, it can be traced back to here and not claimed to be an old horn.

Yao Ming Encounters Body of Poached Black Rhino

Photo by Eric Steinhauser for WildAid

The smell is so intense that I have to step away. This magnificent beast has been reduced to carrion for a horn.

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