31 July 2023
IN CONVERSATION: SHADRACK KIMEU, TWIGA TEAM SUPERVISOR
To celebrate World Ranger Day 2023, we spoke with Born Free’s Twiga Team Supervisor, Shadrack Kimeu.
The Twiga Team is dedicated to securing the habitat and protecting the wild animals of Meru National Park, Kenya. The team conducts daily patrols into the bush to remove indiscriminate snares – set illegally by poachers – from harming an individual animal and to halt illegal activity within the protected area. Shadrack Kimeu leads this inspirational team of passionate and committed conservationists. His story, from poacher to leader in the conservation of wildlife in Meru, is truly inspiring.
Why did you become a conservationist?
I was raised in Machakos County, Kenya, adjacent to a wildlife corridor to the south of Nairobi National Park. Being a reformed poacher myself, I met Born Free in my village in 2004, where they were making a film about illegal bushmeat by the name Mizoga (meaning ‘carcass’ in Swahili). The film shocked me, clearly describing the devastating impact poaching can have on wildlife and the fatal dangers involved in the consumption of bushmeat (which can spread disease). I knew then that I had to do something. I made the decision and joined Born Free as volunteer where we retrieved over 4,000 snares. Through my dedication and passion for wildlife, I have worked my way up in Meru from volunteer, to Field Assistant, to leading our rangers as the Twiga Team Scout Supervisor.
What does World Ranger Day mean to you?
World Ranger Day is celebrated to commemorate rangers who lost their lives or have been injured in the line of duty. It also celebrates the work rangers do all over the world by bravely protecting the wildlife habitats, cultural heritage, and natural treasures. I celebrate World Ranger Day by devoting myself to protecting wildlife for future generations to come, and by organising events and inviting loved ones to mark the occasion by learning what rangers do in their ecosystem.
Why is the Twiga Team important?
The Twiga Team works hard conducting de-snaring patrols to remove indiscriminate snares and monitor for evidence of illegal activities, halting any activities we come across. Many animals in Meru have been killed or severely injured by snares. Since January 2019, we have recorded six instances of lions that were caught in a snare and recorded catastrophic injuries such as a young bull elephant, known as Mutia, whose trunk has been severed in half by a snare. The Twiga Team does a fantastic job, dedicating their energy trekking into the Meru landscape in search of indiscriminate snares – which are not easy to find due to thick bushes and tall grass.
“In the field of conservation, every day is a learning day and marks new experiences. This makes me a happy conservationist, learning skills across different ecosystems and gaining knowledge of a range of biodiversity. Hence, my job makes me the happiest and most passionate person for the work that we do.” – Shadrack Kimeu, Twiga Team Supervisor
The exercise is tough, risky, and cumbersome due to presence of wild animals and the uneven terrain. We conduct our daily patrols alongside at least two Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) rangers and our five Twiga Team members. We track our daily movements and routes that we use, and we record any collected or destroyed snares and evidence of illegal human activities. The Team have removed over 800 snares during the last year, thus preventing these snares from ever harming any animals.
Tell us about a typical day?
We plan each de-snaring mission as a team, including the area to patrol and the time spent patrolling. We set off early in the morning at around 06:00am, armed with our de-snaring tools: bolt cutter, pliers, phones for data collection, radio, GPS, and a compass for directions. Using data from previous patrols, we have identified snare-hotspots, which helps us to understand the landscape and know where the snares can be found.
After reaching the area of patrol, I brief the team on how to move in the bush. We must be silent as we move through the thick bush so that poachers do not hear our approach and we can listen out for any other threats. When we find a snare, we measure the length, height off the ground, and the diameter of the wire. We patrol for an average of about three to four hours and walk over three miles (over five kilometres) a day, combing through the bush, shrubland and open grassland. We endure nasty experiences with bee attacks, tsetse flies and wasps, and sometimes come across dangerous snakes like puff adders, red spitting cobras and pythons. Through the patrols we collect data on snaring hotspots to allow us to focus our efforts, remove snares and treat animals, and collect and destroy active snares to prevent them from injuring wildlife.
Your most memorable wildlife encounter?
The most memorable encounter in my life was when I met a baby elephant in 2016, which had got caught in a snare. It was very traumatised as the poor young elephant had the snare trapped around its head. The KWS vet was called to the scene, and he darted the young one. The worst part of the situation was separating the mother from the darted baby. This is necessary whist the young elephant was treated to prevent the mother from injuring her baby, or any of the team.
During treatment, the young elephant’s family, together with the mother, were constantly moving around the scene. Thankfully, the treatment of the baby was successful and later the young one was united with the herd after he woke from the anaesthesia.Not all stories like this have a happy ending, but we continue to fight for each and every animal.
How do you feel when you see a snared animal?
When I see an animal caught in a snare, I really feel uncomfortable and frustrated. It is hard to watch an animal in extreme pain. Snaring results in agonising pain, stress and panic, and the wound can quickly become infected and could results in a prolonged and excruciating death for animal. The snared individual will be fearful and may suffer from hunger, thirst, and exposure to attacks from other animals. The pain I feel when seeing an orphaned baby animal who has lost their mother to a snare is one of the worst experiences.
Why are communities so important in conservation?
People and the communities are important to the conservation since they are the key stakeholders. They need to be recognised and valued because they are the immediate partners to conservation. The community involvement builds a sense of ownership and responsibility, which improves the project effectiveness and promotes sustainability by protecting biodiversity.
It’s imperative to engage communities living around the conserved areas through education and creating awareness campaigns to increase understanding of conservation issues. This is exactly how I came to work with Born Free. Education and conservation awareness means conservationists and communities speak the same language, giving both space to air their views and opinions.
What is your favourite and least favourite thing about your job?
In the field of conservation, every day is a learning day and marks new experiences. This makes me a happy conservationist, learning skills across different ecosystems and gaining knowledge of a range of biodiversity. Hence, my job makes me the happiest and most passionate person for the work that we do.
Nevertheless, waking very early in the morning and walking through the dense bush every day, is quite challenging. The danger is immense; sometimes we find ourselves accidentally surrounded by herds of elephants or walking under dangerous snakes hanging from the trees.
What else do you enjoy?
I like to research on what other people in conservation are doing to combat wildlife poaching and promote peaceful coexistence between people and wildlife. Mostly I do this through reading articles and publications and watching documentaries. I’m also a big fan of football: I spend some of the evenings and weekends watching and at times playing football with friends and colleagues.
Any big Twiga Team successes?
The Twiga Team has successfully removed over 800 snares within a period of less than two years. Whilst we haven’t been able to save them all, we have saved and released animals including lions, birds and small herbivores trapped by snares. The team have successfully trained our ten Conservation Ambassadors on the importance of conservation and de-snaring, allowing them to educate and create awareness in the surrounding communities.
How do you and your team keep safe?
De-snaring patrols can be tedious – it is not an easy job. Therefore, staying safe requires proper planning, understanding of landscape, teamwork, and partnerships. We work closely with Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), who provide at least two personnel for each day we are out in the field. Because of the density of the vegetation cover, we regularly deploy bushcraft techniques and skills such as moving in a single file or extended line and keeping appropriate distance from each other, ensuring we don’t get separated when out in the field. Moreover, the KWS security personnel are always in front and behind or on both sides of my team. Maintaining silence and being alert is a key priority. This helps us to realize any danger or threat ahead.
What special skills help you?
The team underwent training by KWS at the law enforcement academy, gaining special skills and experience which have made work easier in the bush. These skills include communication (understanding the use of radios); disaster management to help us control fires during the dry seasons; bush tracking skills to helps us monitor the presence of poachers and wild animals; and navigation skills which include use of GPS and their maintenance. Also, we gained skills in camouflage and concealment, that help us not to disturb wildlife.
Any advice for budding conservationists?
Conservation starts at home and every conservationist should be willing to work hard, speak to the public and educate them, and they should be able to relate well with local people. They should be proactive about volunteer opportunities and engaging in conservation programmes. Advocating on behalf of the environment and understanding and appreciating the necessity to conserve the natural world is key. Lastly do not give up, we can always make a difference, no matter how small.
Anything you’d like to say to Born Free supporters?
I personally appreciate our supporters who have been tirelessly supportive of our projects through donations and fundraising. Their contributions have allowed Born Free and the Twiga Team to meet our targets and realize our goal of protecting the wildlife of Meru from the threat of indiscriminate snares.