COLUMN

Death, politics and protected species

Alas, now one protected leopard is dead, and a bright-eyed boy of 16 is gone. There isn’t much to say about it, except to muse on the irony.

BARBARA AMIEL August 26 1991
COLUMN

Death, politics and protected species

Alas, now one protected leopard is dead, and a bright-eyed boy of 16 is gone. There isn’t much to say about it, except to muse on the irony.

BARBARA AMIEL August 26 1991

Death, politics and protected species

COLUMN

Alas, now one protected leopard is dead, and a bright-eyed boy of 16 is gone. There isn’t much to say about it, except to muse on the irony.

BARBARA AMIEL

When I left Kenya last week, one of the two young men who had been guarding the tent in which I slept was dying. A leopard had mauled him, slashing his groin and leg and ripping his eyes.

The boy was 16 years old, I think. He was a Masai, and most of the Kenyans in our camp couldn’t speak his Eastern Sudanic language, so we never knew his name. The boy arrived each evening wearing his brightly woven shawl and carrying a spear, along with a metal-tipped throwing stick strapped to his body. All night long, he moved around the camp.

His eyes were extraordinary; if I hadn’t known better, I would have thought that they glowed in the dark, fluorescent, just like the eyes of the predators he was guarding us from. Our party was made up of three Americans and myself, with 11 Kenyans cooking and cleaning for us as we “roughed” it. One night, when the weather was very chilly and wet, one of our group tried to persuade the boy to come in out of the rain and warm up in the mess tent. He wouldn’t, and he looked curiously at the black English umbrella offered to him.

At seven o’clock in the morning, he would leave our camp to walk back to his village five kilometres away. The leopard got him at noon when he was herding about 300 cows. Three other Masai were attacked before the leopard fled to her own certain death with four arrows sticking in her.

I knew the leopard, sort of. She was territorial, said the camp staff, which means that she was based around our area, and we all had watched her the evening before. We followed her in our Range Rover for over two hours as she tried desperately to avoid us and hunt. When we came upon her, she was in the long grass stalking a small Thomson’s gazelle, a perfectly decent supper for a well-bred leopard. The noise of our motor aborted the kill. We meant no harm to the leopard. All we did was photograph her—and muck up her feeding time.

The leopard was a touch less enlightened. She hadn’t read the small print about game parks being places where tribes, species, predators and cows exist in an oyster of jolly multiculturalism. Alas, now one protected leopard is dead and a bright-eyed boy of 16 is gone. There isn’t much to say about it, I suppose, except to muse on the irony.

The Masai are a pastoral nomadic people of a Neolithic culture. They seem rather happy, and speaking as a member of the Western technological society, nothing could be more astonishing than to see these tribes perfectly content to live in their huts made of cow dung surrounded by an eight-foot-high thombush fence. Reasonably clean, members of the tribe bathe in the river once a day or so and defecate on the ground a good number of yards away from their dwellings. The flies that crawl over them come from the cattle they own and are worn proudly as a mark of wealth—more flies, more cows.

The government of Kenya wants to turn the Masai into an agricultural tribe. But governments being what they are, they cannot leave the Masai alone. If they did, nature would take its course, and some Masai would gravitate to urban centres and others would succumb to the

natural problems of living as nomads in an environment that is made fairly iffy by lions, leopards, elephants, malaria—and tourists.

Instead, they are vaccinated against the diseases that ravage them, and are periodically given pills to make them live longer and title deeds to try to anchor their wandering. I don’t suppose there is any other way to handle the matter, but the results are predictable. What is given with one hand is taken away by the other. Thus, one young boy not yet grown, but desperate to be a man, had to fight my protected leopard and, shocked and bleeding, his young body had the further difficulty of being ferried over rough roads on the backs of tribe members to the nearest government medical centre—which in reality is not much more than a dispensary with some bandages and a nurse.

Getting the Masai into the 20th century is part of what is crucial, I suppose, to turning Kenya into a grown-up, modem democracy. If Africa is to come out of the Dark Ages, it will have to transplant some of the fundamental institutions of the West which do not root easily, especially among illiterate nomads. Meanwhile, the stagnant air of authoritarian regimes and despots clears only slowly. No doubt Jomo Kenyatta, who led the nation to independence in 1963, had his fine qualities, but prominent among them was an ability to do well for himself, family and friends. That attitude quickly colors an entire society in which the rule of law is, to put it generously, not all that it should be.

“Do you have any contacts at the National Geograph ici” asked a friend of mine in Nairobi. “They insist on sending each copy through the post in marked envelopes, and the post office employees single them out and sell them to the hawkers you see on street comers.” Once upon a time, it might have been the bare breasts, not naked theft, that made civil-servant hands confiscate the magazine.

Genuine representative government under the rule of law is difficult to effect in a country that has nomadic tribes and dozens of dialects. Still, I don’t think the Africans are a new and different species of mankind. Their countries, so rich in resources and population, have no need of dependency on the West for aid, food and loans. But no economy can function efficiently when corruption is a way of life.

Still, for now, the Mercedes-Benz cars are parked on Nairobi streets with chauffeurs lazing in the sun waiting for elegant black Kenyans making deals over fine meals. At the markets, you can buy cooking oil and other supplies from America that were destined for famine relief in stricken African countries. “It’s heartbreaking,” a young aid worker told me after a year’s stint in Ethiopia and the Sudan. “The agencies don’t seem to care that after the supplies are unloaded, they go straight to the black market.” As for the actual nitty-gritty business of Kenya, well, that is largely dependent on its Asians, while the export farming is mainly done by expatriate Europeans, drinking their sundowners and wondering how long they have. Which matters little to my Masai friend and the leopard whose time ran out last week.