By Ami Vitale, National Geographic photographer
Growing up, I always thought I would be a veterinarian. Being surrounded by dozens of furry critters was the dream career for an introverted, gawky young girl. Then I found photography. As soon as I had a camera in my hands, it transformed my life. It gave me courage to engage with the world around me. Later, I realized I wasn’t just empowering myself, but I was also empowering the people and animals I was photographing. I never lost that love for animals, but I don’t exactly have the lifestyle of a proper animal owner. Having only spent two weeks at home in nine months, I can barely keep my houseplants alive.
So last summer, when I visited Loisaba Conservancy, 56,000 pristine acres in northern Kenya that had been protected by The Nature Conservancy and others, I became smitten with two fellows named Warrior and Machine. These bloodhounds are 200+ total pounds of loving, slobbery goodness. Not only are they adorable, but they are true heroes. These big lads are protecting a better-known group of gentle giants: elephants, in one of the most enchanting landscapes on earth.
The Beauty of Northern Kenya
Northern Kenya is special because a 10-million-acre mosaic of community, government and private lands conserve wildlife habitat and movement corridors in a way that creates meaningful benefits for people.
Elephants are an integral part of the landscape here, and their disappearance would have ramifications much bigger than the gap it would leave in the scenery. Elephants help keep forests and grasslands healthy for other species and are a cornerstone of the tourism industry, which provides jobs and income for thousands of Kenyans.
We have become accustomed to reading the depressing news about the poaching crisis: More than 25,000 elephants are killed each year for their ivory. But in northern Kenya, there is reason for hope. People in community conservancies, such as those supported by Northern Rangelands Trust, understand that these animals are worth more alive than dead. Tribes that once fought each other to the death over land and resources, the Samburu, Rendillie, Borana, Somali, and others, are cooperating to extraordinary lengths, working together to build community, find peace, and protect the creatures that have been a part of their lives and culture for millennia.
Healthy adult elephants generally have no natural predators and have thrived on Earth for millions of years. It is heartbreaking to think that these hulking, gentle creatures could be wiped off the planet by humans. I am committed to joining the millions of people around the world who refuse to let this magnificent species disappear in our lifetime.
Keeping Elephants Safe
As poachers become more sophisticated, tracker dogs like Warrior and Machine are increasingly becoming an important component of anti-poaching security forces. When poachers know that they are likely to get caught and potentially face a harsh penalty, they stay away.
Research is now showing that in areas where investments in security are being made — especially when they involve local communities committing to conservation efforts — poaching rates are beginning to decrease.
At Loisaba Conservancy, Warrior and Machine are helping protect the more than 800 elephants that spend significant time there, and are also providing benefits to local communities. They use their powerful sense of smell — up 1,000 times stronger than a human’s — for good, helping communities with incidents of theft and even locating missing children. At NRT, a Belgian Malanois named Zack has just joined their anti-poaching unit to track suspected elephant and rhino poachers and provide support to the community conservancies.
These dogs and their human handlers — Ekaran, Christopher, Ryan, Lawrence, Joseph, and others — are helping us fulfill our dream that the next generation can grow up in a world where elephants and a whole host of species still roam the African savanna.
This World Elephant Day (#WorldElephantDay), please join me in supporting these dogs and their brave human handlers who are giving elephants in Kenya a peaceful place to live. Learn more at nature.org/RangerDogs.