Kenya: The Aberdare Conservation Project

Written By: Chris Shane

96% of Africans who have admitted to poaching say they would not poach if they didn’t have to. Poaching remains an exclusive activity to poor, uneducated men acting by means of survival – not for hobby, and not because they are evil.

The militarization of tracking, investigating, and fighting poaching has been well documented and it sends an undoubtedly strong message. However, it doesn’t address the critical root of the poaching problem. Laws like Kenya’s “shoot to kill” policy, which rangers strongly enforce, don’t dis-incentivize illegal actors. Ultimately, this is because the risks of poaching and being caught, versus not poaching at all, are often the same. It’s a means for survival, and in their world, poaching is a rational action to survive.

With this in mind I traveled to Kenya with two Merrell ambassadors, Mike Chambers & Simon Donato, to team up with the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) on a conservation project in the Aberdare National Park. As a team we would head into the Aberdare, one of the most vulnerable regions to poaching in Kenya, with the goal of installing 15 motion activated cameras. With consistent monitoring, our hope would be for KWS to use the images to identify, find, and prosecute illegal actors in the park. It was my job to document it.

When on assignment in the outdoors it’s crucial to have reliable and versatile gear. My go-to setup was the Sony a7rII paired with the Sony G Master 24–70 2.8, a combo that maximizes the camera’s autofocus system while providing a focal length range that covers landscape, portraiture, and can thrive in a documentary style setting. Anticipating that we would be in the bush in low light conditions, having the ability to stop down to f2.8 was also crucial. Having the ability to switch to Super 35 Crop mode for extra reach also comes in handy when traveling light.

On my first day in the park, I had high hopes of spotting an elephant. No more than 10 minutes into our drive I found two – dead. Later we learned they overdosed on tranquilizers while being moved to a safer region of the park. This is more common than the veterinary world might like to admit. Conservation is hard, and our project ahead all of sudden felt very real.

Two elephant carcasses just a few minutes past the Aberdare National Park entrance gate.

We met KWS every morning, heading out to key locations that Tsuma Sydney, the Sector Warden of the park, had identified as most vulnerable. Usually, these hotspots were where game trails crossed roadways or ran alongside a small community enabling easier access. 

The entire park is bordered by a live wire fence intended to keep large game in. When elephants, leopards, or cape buffalo enter into communities that practice subsistence farming, their presence can have dire consequences for any family who has their crops ruined or cows killed. 

Rafael holds a short circuited fence up for us to pass through.

To enter the park we had to crawl under the fences running at a voltage intended to restrain elephants – not something any human would want to brush up against. To do this a ranger would short-circuit the fence while we all cautiously contorted our bodies under the wires. With a heavy pack holding a few lenses and extra camera gear, I rolled my pack under first, then slipped through. 

Since we wanted the cameras to be hidden and out of view from trespassers, we placed them as high as possible, thinking that anyone illegally in the the forest would likely have their head down and moving quickly. Getting a person to the proper height often required a bit of teamwork.

Left: Simon finishes up installing our second camera. Right: Simon Senegy gets a boost from a few team members.

We were also followed by suspected poachers. We had heard rumors the Kenya Forest Service (KFS), separate from Kenya Wildlife Service, might be allowing illegal activity under their watch. With hopes of finding the truth behind this, we set off down game trails that bordered KFS and KWS jurisdictions to install a single camera trap. Within minutes, we were tailed by “guards” from KFS, deep in the park. As we tip-toed through the jungle, I switched to “silent shooting,” mode on the a7rII, to stay as quiet as possible. Tsuma Sydney acted quickly, sending some of his men down an alternate trail as decoys. It worked, and we didn’t see them until we re-emerged from the forest. Despite this, things were tense while we searched for and installed the camera. 

Left: Mike looks back along the game trail with poachers closing in on us. Right: KWS Rangers make their way along rough roads. 

Simon makes a mad dash for the car during a flash downpour.

On another day, Tsuma and his men led us to an Elephant carcass from 2015. They found the animal a day after with its tusks hacked off. Seeing this and hearing the frustration in Tsuma’s voice took me back to my own first experience in the park, coming across the two dead elephants. How can we help these magnificent creatures survive? We spent a long time with Tsuma and his men on that day, and they graciously shared their thoughts and perspective on the impossible task at hand. 

At its root cause, they all pointed to poverty as the indisputable reason for poaching in Africa. Extreme poverty enables the market for ivory to thrive and allows for exploitation of the desperate man. Without access to individuals willing to risk their life to put food on the table, the market for ivory would crumble. In truth, the fate of the elephant and Africa’s big game depends on the economic future of the local communities surrounding their natural habitat. 

A frame from Camera 4, taken two weeks after we installed it.

After five days in the field with KWS and successfully completing our mission, we thanked the rangers for their help and friendship, and talked about how we would without a doubt, be back. 

Knowing there was so much more in Kenya to see, we planned a safari into Hells Gate National Park and a few hikes before heading home. Thankfully I rented the Sony G Master 100–400, the perfect lens to shoot wildlife.

Wildlife of Hells Gate National Park, shot with the Sony 100–400mm G Master

It was raining on the last day, but I still convinced a ranger to take a portrait for me. I showed him the photo and he asked if I could send it to him. Knowing it would likely never get to him if I didn’t give it to him immediately, I exported the file to my phone via Sony PlayMemories, edited in Lightroom Mobile, then paired our phones via bluetooth. I watched as he stared at the photo and sent it to his friends while we rode home. He was proud, and so was I.

Gear Used:

Bodies: Sony a7rII, Canon 5D MkIII, DJI Mavik Pro

Lenses: Sony 24–70mm 2.8, Sony 100–400mm 4.5–5.6, Canon 14mm 2.8

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