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The man who saved African elephants in 1980s:

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Dr. Richard Leakey and what Sri Lankan conservationists can adopt from his work

By Tharindu Muthukumarana-

Author of the award-winning book “The Life of Last Proboscideans: Elephants” tharinduele@gmail.com

Richard Leakey was an inspirational and courageous conservationist and I was privileged to meet him. He transformed the Kenyan Wildlife Service and valiantly spearheaded efforts to stop elephant poaching. Conservation has lost a true visionary.  – Prince William

“Ivory must be seen as only valuable if it is on an animal. It should not be ever seen as a valuable commodity for trade”. This was the very words of a man larger than a life by the name Richard Erskine Leakey. He passed away peacefully at aged 77 on January 2, 2022 at his home in Kona Baridi, Kenya. But his life was brewed with adventures. It is fair enough to say Leakey was an all-rounder as his walk of life composed as a paleoanthropologist, pilot, civil servant, politician, professor, philanthropist, author and above all a conservationist. His persona can be described as a straightforward-confident man with courage, integrity, accountability, rectitude, humanist, freethinker and something of a daredevil. That could be the very reason why Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie wanted to direct a movie about Leakey’s life.

I find his speeches mesmerising and always appealing to listen. If a Sri Lankan conservationist can relate to Leakey’s speaking skills it would be Dr. Sumith Pilapitiya. This is because they both talk to the point-straight forward and more realistic in their ideology.

He had authored about 12 books, on topics related to wildlife, memoirs, environment and paleoanthropology. Throughout his life he was showered with 15 honoris causa doctorates and more than 30 awards.

Coming from British ancestral lineage but continued way towards Kenya

Leakey was born on 19th December 1944 in Nairobi to illustrious parents Louis and Marry Leakey. His grandparents were British missionaries that arrived to Africa in early 20th century. Any person concerned about paleoanthropology knows Leakey’s parents- work on fossil discoveries of early humans. Louis being an alumnus from University of Cambridge, it was he who discovered the earliest human origins from Africa. Since then, Africa became the cradle of mankind. Prior to that it was thought to be Asia. Young Leakey learnt most of the fossil hunting techniques from his parents work which made him to become a paleoanthropologist.

Pretty much rewarding for doing research under scorching African sun

At age 23 in an expedition to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley he found two early Homo sapiens fossil skulls that were named as Omo I and Omo II. Dating to 160,000 years those were the oldest of the species found at that time and was the first find contemporaneous with Homo neanderthalensis. In 1968 Leakey was appointed Administrative Director of the National Museums of Kenya.

Once while flying to Nairobi, he discovered a place that was suspected to be a fossil-bearing sedimentary rock near Lake Turkana. From the late 1960s he led expeditions there together with a team of scientists and found more than two hundred hominid fossils of excellent quality. Another remarkable discovery happened in 1984 when Leakey’s team discovered a nearly complete skeleton of a Homo ergaster that was estimated to be died about 1.6 million years ago at age of 9-12. This specimen is the most complete early hominin skeleton ever found and was named as “Turkana Boy”.

He came to save elephants during the most needed time

In 1989 Leakey had a twist in his career when Kenyan President Daniel Arap Moi appointed him as the Director of Wildlife Conservation and Management Department (WMCD) which was later renamed as Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS). At that time, it was a bankrupt institution and this put a heavy challenge on Leakey’s shoulders. He had to start from scratch. At that time Kenya’s second largest foreign exchange earning was from tourism industry, exceeded only by coffee. So, the wildlife tourism played a crucial role. During the late 1970s to 1980s ivory poaching was a major threat to Kenya’s elephant population and this turned wildlife parks more of a war zone. It may be a researcher, tourist, conservationist or even an individual from an anti-poaching unit; they all face threat by the poachers. The anti-poaching units deployed by wildlife programme was very ineffective to take down poachers since they were ill-equipped, demoralised, ill-clothed and under paid. In 1979 the continental population of African elephants was estimated to be 1.3 million and by 1989 the figure was 609,000; over half of Africa’s elephant population was poached within a decade. If that rate is going to be continued the jeopardise African elephant population could be wiped off.

Thanks to Leakey he was able to raise $ 136 million from overseas and strengthen the anti-poaching units. Leakey authorised the anti-poaching units to shoot poachers on sight. He had to take even more bold decisions such as firing nearly 50% of the work force. Those dramatic changes did have a positive influence in terms of reducing poaching activities. Until Leakey’s time the orthodox was to sell confiscated ivories for other countries and used the beneficiary to the nation’s revenue. But Leakey decided to destroy the confiscated ivory in the presence of the public. He believed ivory trade should be stopped if elephants are to be saved. Somehow, he persuaded the President to burn the confiscated ivory stock that belongs to more than 2,000 elephants. Leakey pointed out that $ 3 million worth burned ivory, cost was an insignificant amount compared with country’s tourism industry, which makes $ 230 million a year and can be the largest foreign currency earner.

The ivory burning event captured the global attention and this gave an insight of the plight of the African elephant. In return it impacted profoundly to bring the ivory ban in the following year initiated by an international-multilateral treaty known as the “Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora” (CITES). Leakey said “within six months the number of elephants been killed dropped from 3,000-4,000 per year to rate of 300 per year. In the following year, it went down to 30-40 per year”. If anyone is interested in learning more on Leakey’s mission to save the elephants, I would recommend to read Leakey’s book the “Wildlife Wars: My Battle to Save Kenya’s Elephants”.

Life after his resignation from government’s wildlife service

However, Leakey’s incorruptible attitudes displeased some of the government politicians and he even lost the support of the President. In 1993 the light aircraft piloted by Leakey crashed injuring both his legs which were amputated. For the rest of his life he had to navigate the influence of prosthetic legs. Leakey suspected of sabotage but there was no evidence. Some of government interference on KWS disgruntle Leakey and in which he decided to resign from KWS in 1994.

In 1995 Leakey decided to enter politics by setting up a new political party – the Safina Party. But his political career did not last long. In 1998 he was appointed as Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service. Later, in 2002, he became the professor of anthropology at Stony Brook University, New York. Four years after he establish a charitable organisation named Wildlife Direct. In 2015, President Uhuru Kenyatta gave Leakey a helm as chairman of board of KWS.

An example that Sri Lankan conservationists can consider to adopt

One message that we can take from 1970-1990 African elephant conservation issue is that “high scale awareness” plays a vital role in conservation projects. Research and policy making relatively to strategies proposed by researchers are also important. But if high scale awareness is absent such policies would be in vain. This was the thing that happened even in Africa before the 1989 ivory ban. In time of early as 1979 research by zoologist Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton proved that African elephant population was in a decline trend due to ivory trade. Nevertheless, due to lack of proper awareness there was a difficulty in saving elephants from poaching holocaust (more about this could be read in Hamilton’s book “Battle for the Elephants” co-authored with his wife Oria Douglas-Hamilton). When conservationists including Leakey, Hamilton and others embarked on a high scale awareness only the authorities came under right track in favour of conservation. Except for some loopholes in CITES treaty which caused the modern-day poaching crises; otherwise, it was massive victory.

In Sri Lanka, during 2006, an Elephant Conservation Policy (ECP), that even address human-elephant conflict (HEC) was made by a committee that was appointed by the government. The committee did consist of wildlife experts. The cabinet ministers gave approval for this policy and requested the policy to be implemented in September on same year. But until today the policy hasn’t been implemented fully which is the reason why for HEC keeps on increasing rather than getting mitigated. Political interventions are to blamed for not implementing it fully.

On the other hand, the average Sri Lankan believes that elephants should be conserved but unfortunately how many Sri Lankans are aware about the ECP? For sure not many. So, this is where a high scale awareness should come into action. If the Sri Lankan that believes in elephant conservation is also aware about the ECP then there is a high chance of it getting implemented fully.

As a final note, I would like to conclude with a popular English saying that says “pilots don’t die they just fly higher” so I would wish Leakey likewise!



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Is it impossible to have hope?

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So, a woman has lost again to a man. I refer here to Matale District SJB MP Rohini Kaviratne having to concede her bid for Deputy Speaker of Parliament to some bod of the Pohottu Party, who, sad to say makes only a negative impression on Cass. Conversely, Kaviratne looks competent, capable, trustworthy, able to communicate and command, and most importantly speaks and conducts herself well balanced. So different from most of the MPs, particularly of the government side, who lack education, and in appearance and behaviour – decency. Please, take my word for the fact that I am not a party person. What I want in our representatives is education and decorum. And they should at least once in a while use their own heads and make decisions that are good for the country and not follow the leader through sheep like, sycophantic obedience. Of course, even more than this is self interest that prompts the way they act and decisions are taken, especially at voting times.

Rohini Kaviratne made a bold statement when, as Wednesday’s The Island noted, she told Parliament “the government was neither run by the President nor the Prime Minister but by a ‘crow.’” Utterly damning statement but totally believable. Deviousness as well as self-preservation is what motives action among most at the cost of even the entire country. And, of course, we know who the crow is – kaputu kak kak. Cass lacks words to express the contempt she feels for the black human kaputa, now apparently leading the family of kaputas. Why oh why does he not depart to his luxury nest in the US of A? No, he and his kith are the manifestation of Kuveni’s curse on the island. Strong condemnation, but justified.

You know Cass had a bold kaputa – the avian kind – coming to her balcony in front of her bedroom and cawing away this morning. Normally, she takes no notice, having developed sympathetic companionship towards these black birds as fellow creatures, after reading Elmo Jayawardena’s Kakiyan. She felt sorry for the crow who cawed to her because his name has been taken to epithet a politico who landed the entire country in such a mess. And he is bold enough to attend Parliament. Bravado in the face of detestation by the majority of Sri Lankans! Cass did not watch afternoon TV news but was told father and son, and probably elder brother and his son attended Parliamentary sessions today – Wednesday May 18. May their tribe decrease is the common prayer; may curses rain on them. Cass recognises the gravity of what she says, but reiterates it all.

I am sure Nihal Seneviratne, who recently and in 2019, shared with us readers his experiences in Parliament, moaned the fact that our legislature always lacked enough women representation. Now, he must be extra disappointed that political allegiance to a party deprived Sri Lanka of the chance of bringing to the forefront a capable woman. Women usually do better than men, judging by instances worldwide that show they are more honest and committed to country and society. The two examples of Heads of Government in our country were far from totally dedicated and commitment to country. But the first head did show allegiance to Ceylon/Sri Lanka in fair measure.

As my neighbour moaned recently: “They won’t allow an old person like me, after serving the country selflessly for long, to die in peace.” Heard of another woman in her late 80s needing medical treatment, mentally affected as she was with utter consternation at the state of the country. One wonders how long we can be resilient, beset on every side by dire problems. But our new Prime Minister was honest enough to voice his fears that we will have to go through much more hardship before life for all Sri Lankans improves.

Thus, my choice of pessimistic prediction as my title. Will we be able to hope for better times? Time will be taken but is it possible to have even a slight glimmer of hope for improvement?

There is much debate about the appointment of Ranil W as PM. We admire him for his knowledge and presence. But the greatest fear is he will defend wrong doers in the R family. Let him be wise, fair and put country before saving others’ skins. He has to be praised for taking on the responsibility of leading the country to solvency. He said he will see that every Sri Lankan has three meals a day. May all the devas help him! The SJB, though it refuses to serve under a R Prez, has offered itself to assist in rebuilding the nation. Eran, Harsha, and so many others must be given the chance to help turn poor wonderful Sri Lanka around. And the dedicated protestors, more so those in Gotagogama, still continue asking for changes in government. Bless them is all Cass can say at this moment.

Goodbye for another week. hoping things will turn less gloomy, if brightness is impossible as of now.

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Lives of journalists increasingly on the firing line

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Since the year 2000 some 45 journalists have been killed in the conflict-ridden regions of Palestine and senior Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was the latest such victim. She was killed recently in a hail of bullets during an Israeli military raid in the contested West Bank. She was killed in cold blood even as she donned her jacket with the word ‘PRESS’ emblazoned on it.

While claims and counter-claims are being made on the Akleh killing among some of the main parties to the Middle East conflict, the Israeli police did not do their state any good by brutally assaulting scores of funeral mourners who were carrying the body of Akleh from the hospital where she was being treated to the location where her last rites were to be conducted in East Jerusalem.

The impartial observer could agree with the assessment that ‘disproportionate force’ was used on the mourning civilians. If the Israeli government’s position is that strong-arm tactics are not usually favoured by it in the resolution conflictual situations, the attack on the mourners tended to strongly belie such claims. TV footage of the incident made it plain that brazen, unprovoked force was used on the mourners. Such use of force is decried by the impartial commentator.

As for the killing of Akleh, the position taken by the UN Security Council could be accepted that “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation” must be conducted on it. Hopefully, an international body acceptable to the Palestinian side and other relevant stakeholders would be entrusted this responsibility and the wrong-doers swiftly brought to justice.

Among other things, the relevant institution, may be the International Criminal Court, should aim at taking urgent steps to end the culture of impunity that has grown around the unleashing of state terror over the years. Journalists around the world are chief among those who have been killed in cold blood by state terrorists and other criminal elements who fear the truth.

The more a journalist is committed to revealing the truth on matters of crucial importance to publics, the more is she or he feared by those sections that have a vested interest in concealing such vital disclosures. This accounts for the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, for instance.

Such killings are of course not unfamiliar to us in Sri Lanka. Over the decades quite a few local journalists have been killed or been caused to disappear by criminal elements usually acting in league with governments. The whole truth behind these killings is yet to be brought to light while the killers have been allowed to go scot-free and roam at large. These killings are further proof that Sri Lanka is at best a façade democracy.

It is doubtful whether the true value of a committed journalist has been fully realized by states and publics the world over. It cannot be stressed enough that the journalist on the spot, and she alone, writes ‘the first draft of history’. Commentaries that follow from other quarters on a crisis situation, for example, are usually elaborations that build on the foundational factual information revealed by the journalist. Minus the principal facts reported by the journalist no formal history-writing is ever possible.

Over the decades the journalists’ death toll has been increasingly staggering. Over the last 30 years, 2150 journalists and media workers have been killed in the world’s conflict and war zones. International media reports indicate that this figure includes the killing of 23 journalists in Ukraine, since the Russian invasion began, and the slaying of 11 journalists, reporting on the doings of drug cartels in Mexico.

Unfortunately, there has been no notable international public outcry against these killings of journalists. It is little realized that the world is the poorer for the killing of these truth-seekers who are putting their lives on the firing line for the greater good of peoples everywhere. It is inadequately realized that the public-spirited journalist too helps in saving lives; inasmuch as a duty-conscious physician does.

For example, when a journalist blows the lid off corrupt deals in public institutions, she contributes immeasurably towards the general good by helping to rid the public sector of irregularities, since the latter sector, when effectively operational, has a huge bearing on the wellbeing of the people. Accordingly, a public would be disempowering itself by turning a blind eye on the killing of journalists. Essentially, journalists everywhere need to be increasingly empowered and the world community is conscience-bound to consider ways of achieving this. Bringing offending states to justice is a pressing need that could no longer be neglected.

The Akleh killing cannot be focused on in isolation from the wasting Middle East conflict. The latter has grown in brutality and inhumanity over the years and the cold-blooded slaying of the journalist needs to be seen as a disquieting by-product of this larger conflict. The need to turn Spears into Ploughshares in the Middle East is long overdue and unless and until ways are worked out by the principal antagonists to the conflict and the international community to better manage the conflict, the bloodletting in the region is unlikely to abate any time soon.

The perspective to be placed on the conflict is to view the principal parties to the problem, the Palestinians and the Israelis, as both having been wronged in the course of history. The Palestinians are a dispossessed and displaced community and so are the Israelis. The need is considerable to fine-hone the two-state solution. There is need for a new round of serious negotiations and the UN is duty-bound to initiate this process.

Meanwhile, Israel is doing well to normalize relations with some states of the Arab world and this is the way to go. Ostracization of Israel by Arab states and their backers has clearly failed to produce any positive results on the ground and the players concerned will be helping to ease the conflict by placing their relations on a pragmatic footing.

The US is duty-bound to enter into a closer rapport with Israel on the need for the latter to act with greater restraint in its treatment of the Palestinian community. A tough law and order approach by Israel, for instance, to issues in the Palestinian territories is clearly proving counter-productive. The central problem in the Middle East is political in nature and it calls for a negotiated political solution. This, Israel and the US would need to bear in mind.

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Doing it differently, as a dancer

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Dancing is an art, they say, and this could be developed further, only by an artist with a real artistic mind-set. He must be of an innovative mind – find new ways of doing things, and doing it differently

According to Stephanie Kothalawala – an extremely talented dancer herself – Haski Iddagoda, who has won the hearts of dance enthusiasts, could be introduced as a dancer right on top of this field.

Stephanie

had a chat with Haski, last week, and sent us the following interview:

* How did you start your dancing career?

Believe me, it was a girl, working with me, at office, who persuaded me to take to dancing, in a big way, and got me involved in events, connected with dancing. At the beginning, I never had an idea of what dancing, on stage, is all about. I was a bit shy, but I decided to take up the challenge, and I made my debut at an event, held at Bishop’s College.

* Did you attend dancing classes in order to fine-tune your movements?

Yes, of course, and the start was in 2010 – at dancing classes held at the Colombo Aesthetic Resort.

* What made you chose dancing as a career?

It all came to mind when I checked out the dancing programmes, on TV. After my first dancing programme, on a TV reality show, dancing became my passion. It gave me happiness, and freedom. Also, I got to know so many important people, around the country, via dancing.

* How is your dancing schedule progressing these days?

Due to the current situation, in the country, everything has been curtailed. However, we do a few programmes, and when the scene is back to normal, I’m sure there will be lots of dance happenings.

* What are your achievements, in the dancing scene, so far?

I have won a Sarasavi Award. I believe my top achievement is the repertoire of movements I have as a dancer. To be a top class dancer is not easy…it’s hard work. Let’s say my best achievement is that I’ve have made a name, for myself, as a dancer.

* What is your opinion about reality programmes?

Well, reality programmes give you the opportunity to showcase your talents – as a dancer, singer, etc. It’s an opportunity for you to hit the big time, but you’ve got to be talented, to be recognised. I danced with actress Chatu Rajapaksa at the Hiru Mega Star Season 3, on TV.

* Do you have your own dancing team?

Not yet, but I have performed with many dance troupes.

* What is your favourite dancing style?

I like the style of my first trainer, Sanjeewa Sampath, who was seen in Derana City of Dance. His style is called lyrical hip-hop. You need body flexibility for that type of dance.

* Why do you like this type of dancing?

I like to present a nice dancing act, something different, after studying it.

* How would you describe dancing?

To me, dancing is a valuable exercise for the body, and for giving happiness to your mind. I’m not referring to the kind of dance one does at a wedding, or party, but if you properly learn the art of dancing, it will certainly bring you lots of fun and excitement, and happiness, as well. I love dancing.

* Have you taught your dancing skills to others?

Yes, I have given my expertise to others and they have benefited a great deal. However, some of them seem to have forgotten my contribution towards their success.

* As a dancer, what has been your biggest weakness?

Let’s say, trusting people too much. In the end, I’m faced with obstacles and I cannot fulfill the end product.

* Are you a professional dancer?

Yes, I work as a professional dancer, but due to the current situation in the country, I want to now concentrate on my own fashion design and costume business.

* If you had not taken to dancing, what would have been your career now?

I followed a hotel management course, so, probably, I would have been involved in the hotel trade.

* What are your future plans where dancing is concerned?

To be Sri Lanka’s No.1 dancer, and to share my experience with the young generation.

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