Elephant Research & Hog Ranch

by Ross Turnbull

March 23

We’re faced with an easy day of it. Hubert sleeps in for most of the morning. I take a long walk down Ndorobo Road, off of which runs Kassie’s laneway. At the bottom of the dead-end road, on a long downward slope that looks east, someone has cobbled the road surface. It may well be the work of some employed by the denizens of an enormous villa being finished here. This is clearly the other side of the wealth divide in Kenya; someone possessed of tremendous resources and able to create a large estate a half-hour outside of East Africa’s most modern city.

In the late afternoon, Hubert and I walk ten minutes to the Douglas-Hamilton’s Nairobi-area property (not to be confused with their previously mentioned Naivasha compound), where the Save the Elephants organization has its offices. Like many houses I’ve seen in Kenya, “Orio’s house” — she is Sir Iain’s partner — is a low, rambling affair with what appears to be a casual, build-on-as-you-need-it architecture. Parts of the house are open to the exterior.

We find three staffers from the StE organization working at their computers. One young man explains what we’re seeing on his screen. It displays a Google Earth image of Kenya with a set of superimposed boundary lines, demarcating townships, for example. Within these various areas, he is able to zoom in and examine the elephant data, if there is any. Concentrated in the south part of the country map is an area with many elephant icons dotting the screen. Each icon represents an elephant and if it is a female icon, it also effectively represents a herd. The males are more likely to be on their own, as after a decade or so as a juvenile, they are ejected from the matriarchal herds to fend for themselves.

The icons have squiggle lines around them, which represent the elephants’ movements over a given period of time. The subject animals have been collared with GPS transmitters, so the StE organization can precisely track where the creatures are, their migration patterns, whether they’re likely to be moving into peopled areas, etc. StE works closely and shares its data with the Kenya Wildlife Services. Together, they can help to create corridors for the animals to move from one area to another. Obviously as the country becomes more developed and the human population increases, the potential arises for conflict with such enormous creatures as elephants. StE is making every effort to carve out a place for them in their shrinking wilderness habitat.

Affiliated with StE is a safari company run by the Douglas-Hamiltons called Elephant Watch Safaris. For a substantial fee, one can journey to the Samburu reserve, where a posh camp has been set up and where close-up and personal encounters with elephants are arranged. I don’t know whether the safari camp helps to fund the preservation organization. Today, we find Freddy working in the E.W. Safaris office alongside a young Kenyan, Resson. She has one of the best smiles in the world and in her pleasingly-accented English, tells us a little about her education at the University of Nairobi.

Close to Orio’s house her daughter, Saba, has a tiny cottage as well, with another, larger house under construction next to it. The older cottage has a faded charm; slats that make up the walls let light through, the rooms are cozy and the various levels in the house, a step down to the kitchen, 3 more steps down to the office/ bedroom, give it that appealing, improvised quality I suggested of Orio’s house.

Standing in high contrast to the ramshackle old cottage is Saba’s new construction. It is made from concrete and smooth plaster walls, the door and window frames are being ornamented with hand-fashioned plaster trim work, the bathroom is enormous, with a huge window that looks out to the Ngong Hills in the distance, the shower has a stunning, scalloped basin, and the ceilings are 12 and 14 feet high. The whole is frankly gorgeous, if arguably slightly out-of-step with the other construction on the property. I say that with the hypocritical acknowledgement that I’d happily reside in the new house.

Where we are is minutes from “Hog Ranch”, so it is a brief walk through rocky scrub to the site of Peter Beard’s famous artist colony. Beard is an artist in his senior years and renowned for his photography/ painting collages of wildlife and supermodels. He attracted the rich and famous in the 60′s and 70′s and hung out with the likes of Andy Warhol and Mick & Bianca Jagger. Giraffes are known to appear in the evening at Hog Ranch, as Beard’s people give water and feed kibble to the animals, so Hubert and I are interested to see whether they will show.

When we approach the encampment, the place seems deserted. Scattered about are a number of sizeable, roofed, open-walled structures, with tents pitched on the interior platforms and each furnished with a comfortable-looking bed. They’re very much the actualization of my mental image of a “safari” encampment (safari is a Swahili word that means journey, by the way). Giraffe droppings are numerous underfoot. Hubert and I take pictures of each other next to a dishwasher-sized elephant skull. In fact skulls and bones abound, from crocodiles, buffalo and other creatures.

Eventually we encounter a group of 3 younger men and an elderly gentleman with a gaptoothed grin. A couple of guitars stand close by. We greet them and are welcomed. Two of the young men take up the instruments and play us a ragged, reggae tune. One plucks bass notes while the other strums the rhythm.

The elder is Beard’s ‘master embellisher’, E. Mwangi Kuria, and has worked for Beard since 1984. The men take us to their studio to show off their work. Three of Beard’s photographs are laid out on a big table, black and white wildlife shots that wouldn’t be out of place in National Geographic magazine. But Mwangi and his apprentices paint the wide borders of the large prints with whimsical images of animals, insects, people, habitations and whatever strikes their fancy. There is much ink stippling. The drawings are brightly coloured and sort of child-like; perspective, for example, is not really employed. They remind me of images I’ve seen of medieval, illuminated manuscripts, the main text surrounded by illustrative drawings and colour. In this instance, the ‘illuminations’ are somewhat crude.

The men are well pleased by their work and are genuinely committed to it, as artists of course have to be. The studio is an excellent environment in which to work; Beard’s image factory still functioning 50 years on. Each of the three works-in-progress is signed in the margins: “Embellished by E. Mwangi Kuria”. So he at least takes credit for his contribution and, who knows, perhaps this is part of the cachet of acquiring a Beard artwork.

Mwangi shows us a book representing Beard’s work assembled by the prestigious European art publisher, Taschen. Some of the works represented are genuinely striking and resonant, although none of those are recent. (The work that I see being done at the studio today, for example, doesn’t hold up as well.) One of the materials Beard used was blood, perhaps his own as well as that of whatever creature might be the subject of a given photograph. So there is a fine image of a rhinoceros with blood smeared in elaborate whorls around the print. Beard also kept detailed journals and these are excerpted in the book. They are rich, dense diaries of writing, scraps of images, and drawings. It reminds me of Jennifer’s fine journal-keeping in their eclectic, affecting inclusiveness.

We walk out of the compound with the three younger men. Mwangi lives on-site, while his apprentices have to travel each day to their work. “365 days a year,” one man tells us, suggesting the attraction of working as assistants to the assistant of a famous mzungu artist. “Blessing,” the young man says on leaving us, “welcome.”

Later, after sundown, I grill lamb chops on the barbecue and make a tomato and basil salad. Hubert’s appetite is back and the greasy, rich, charred meat is delicious.

Afterwards, we video-call to Toronto on the computer and visit with Jennifer, Max and Meg. I miss seeing LuLu but it is wonderful to visit with some of my beloveds. Fantastic too that we can show them our tiny bit of African, summer-like paradise, while they show us that winter still grips the streets in Toronto. Ensconced as we are, neither Hubert nor I are particularly eager just yet to quit Kenya for Europe, which promises to be much colder and greyer; it’s still shaking off its winter coat.

Hubert then computer-calls (voice only) Adam Hochschild in California, and the three of us have a long, interesting conversation about his Congo book, the recent goings-on there, flying, Hubert’s project and Hochschild’s latest book. It is called To End All Wars and is about World War I and the largely untold story of war-time resisters. There were some in countries on both sides of the conflict, but they were particularly concentrated in the U.K., where there were approximately 20,000 resisters, according to Hochschild. At least 6,000 were imprisoned in harsh, brutal conditions.

Hochschild also tells us of a recently published, as yet untranslated book by a Belgian author that attempts to refute the story of the Congo told in King Leopold’s Ghost. It seems to me that Hochschild’s marshalling of evidence was so careful that his assertions (which, to reiterate, are backed by decades of methodical research and publishing undertaken by the Belgian, Jules Marchal) are by and large irrefutable. And yet there seem always to be right-wing cranks willing to excuse the brutality of much of the imperial project. To my way of thinking, apologists for such as Leopold are delusional at best, and frankly anti-democratic, verging on frighteningly authoritarian, not to mention racist, at worst. Some are akin to Holocaust-deniers, people willing to dismiss the factuality of overwhelming evidence in favour of some misbegotten ideology.

Hubert mentions that the bombing of Libya taken up this very day marks the 100th anniversary of the first aerial bombardment in human history, which also occurred in Libya, by the nascent Italian air force. Hochschild laments that human beings don’t seem to have learned a whole lot in the past century. I suggest that methods of bombing and aerial invasion have been vastly improved and that the possibility of mass killing is much more efficient than previously. This dubious technological advance represents learning, of sorts, if not exactly in the service of humanity. Hubert finds an internet article entitled “Libya’s Century as a Target.

Kassie arrives home at the end of our conversation and before he signs off, Hochschild is interested to hear of her background as the daughter of an American diplomat in Africa.

I’m wilting with fatigue and when I turn in to catch up with Theroux, it is well after midnight.