Friday, March 22, 2019

Njeru’s Passion

Mr Justin Njeru has devoted his life to coffee farming in the lush tropics surrounding majestic Mount Kenya.

But the first time he tasted his own quality coffee was when I visited from the UK and stayed at his hotel and gave him a bag of freshly ground beans grown on the slopes of Mount Kenya that I’d bought from a supermarket in London!”

Sitting together on the shady balcony of the Snow Peak hotel, he slowly pushes down the plunger and chuckles with glee at the irony!

At the age of 76, married to wife Sylvia for 47 years, father of six and grandfather of 13, Mr Njeru has a renewed sense of purpose!

Revenge is Sweet

He is finally defying the British colonialists! And the taste of revenge is sweet!

He explains that in the 1950s the British rulers made it illegal for the local people in the fertile coffee-growing region of Meru to drink their own coffee.

Instead the lucrative product was exported for the burgeoning mass markets in the UK and profits were greedily grabbed by the wealthy elite.

Hard-working Kenyan coffee farmers were paid peanuts!  

He reflects: “I remember when coffee was first introduced to this area, people, even the growers were not allowed to drink coffee because it was not available in the shops. The only way one could drink coffee was to use crude means like grinding the beans with stones and boiling it. If you were caught you would be prosecuted. You would be taken to the Chief and punished.

“Our coffee was all being exported. It was for export to Britain, for the white man.”

Passion of a Lifetime

Mr Njeru grew up learning every aspect of coffee growing from his father. He has witnessed green berries turn into ruby cherries for countless seasons and he’s harvested and processed millions of sacks of beans.

“When coffee was first introduced in 1950 my father planted coffee. We didn't have farm implements so the children would dig the holes and watch as the trees were planted. So I developed an interest in growing coffee as a child. It has been my life-long passion.”

He nurtures 15,000 trees spread over 17 acres of idyllic farmland of volcanic red soil, basking under blue skies of endless sunshine and generous rainfall, producing the finest coffee in the world.

A Champion of the Growers

He has championed the rights of hundreds of coffee growers in the region as Chairman of the Mount Kenya Fine Arabica Coffee Growers’ Association. And yet, even today, 56 years after Independence from British Rule in 1963, farmers are still exploited by the middlemen and paid peanuts for their delectable beans.

“Growing coffee is very difficult and the regulations are stringent, especially during harvesting. You must take only the ripe berries of the finest quality.

“The coffee grown in Kenya is mostly Arabica which is better in quality because of the aroma and the acidity. And growing Arabica is more demanding, the care is more tender, than growing Robusta coffee.

“We are proud that Kenyan coffee is renowned as the best in the world.”

Justice for Justin

While coffee connoisseurs around the world are insatiable for their daily caffeine fix, the farmers of Kenyan do not receive a fair price for their top quality product, their arduous labour and their loving dedication to perfection.

But all that can change. Justice for Justin and his fellow coffee growers is possible if they can by-pass the controlling grip of the Coffee Board and sell directly to independent buyers from other countries.

Talking about his hopes and dreams, he states: “Growers should be allowed to do their own marketing and sell to the willing buyer. We are fighting for the right to sell our coffee freely.”

“Development in this region is all pegged to coffee as a cash crop. Coffee has supported education by building schools and allowing parents to pay school fees.

“I dream of processing and exporting my own coffee as a finished product, rather than a raw material, at fair price.”

As international trade markets relax, there is hope that Kenyan farmers will finally receive a fair price for their quality coffee, their expertise and their labour.  And maybe the local people will even get to enjoy a freshly ground brew of this elixir of life. 

Talented young film makers Victor and Mike made this delightful film about Mr Njeru's passion for coffee growing  

Friday, January 4, 2019

Brave Lion Cub Finds Freedom

This feature was published in the Real Life section of My Weekly Christmas magazine December 2018. I wrote the story on behalf of Born Free's Chris Draper based on my interview with him describing his emotional experiences of transporting little King to freedom. 

A Lion Called King 

Born Free wildlife expert, Dr Chris Draper shares his emotional story of returning little King to his African homeland.  

King the lion cub was rescued from a filthy dog crate in a Paris apartment, the victim of the illegal pet trade.

Born Free first got wind of his sad plight after he’d been taken to a refuge in Belgium and we decided to relocate him to his African homeland.

When I first saw King in Belgium he was traumatised and terrified of humans. Just a few months old and shaking with fright, he bolted up a branch and refused to come down.

A few weeks later it was a different story. After care from expert staff, he trusted that we wouldn’t hurt him. He became less fearful and much more alert, interested and playful.

The epic journey to our big cat rescue sanctuary at Shamwari Private Game Reserve in the Eastern Cape of South Africa was a profoundly emotional experience, a highlight of my 18 years working with many species of animals.

It was the first time I’ve moved such a vulnerable animal over this distance and with so many hopes riding on the outcome.

I had the comfort of knowing King was going to an idyllic habitat but the poor little chap didn't know what was happening! We tried to make the transport as comfortable as possible. But it’s never going to be a natural experience for a big cat to travel in a truck and fly in a plane!

The gruelling transportation stretched over two days and began on the hottest day of the 2018 summer. King was loaded into a cool, sturdy crate and we travelled by lorry across Europe and crossed the English Channel by tunnel to London.

At Heathrow Airport, I waited with King in the cargo area and checked on him on the tarmac as we loaded him into the hold of the plane. I was as nervous as if he was my own child!

Passengers of that Kenya Airways flight were unaware as they drank their G&T that a little lion cub was travelling just a few feet below them!

We flew through the night to Nairobi and on to Johannesburg where our precious cargo was transferred to a light plane to fly to Port Elizabeth.
Finally in the last leg of the incredible 6,200 mile journey, we travelled by road to Shamwari.

Freedom for King 

Next morning at first light we allowed King into his new home. It was such a joyful experience.

We can get strange reactions from animals as they’re released from a travelling crate. Some refuse to leave the crate and some are disorientated. But King jumped straight out and bounded into his new home. He had never felt grass before and never explored such a vast open space.

The other lions in the neighbouring camps came over to have a look at the little newcomer and started calling to him. We expected him to run in fear but he approached the fence and studied the big male lions. He wasn't fazed at all. Such a brave little lion!

Everyone was exhausted but relieved and elated! We watched the happy cub for hours, mesmerised as he played with leaves and twigs!

Our dedicated animal care team loved him straight away and I knew he was going to be well looked after.

Since then I’ve had glowing reports about his progress. King is thriving alongside other rescued lions and leopards, now living in our sanctuary in natural habitat under the African sun.

The big cats live in massive natural enclosures. We don't want to keep them in captivity but they would not survive in the wild having not learnt hunting or other survival behaviours from their mothers.

For many of our cats at the Shamwari sanctuary, the damage done by early physical abuse and neglect has caused lifetime health problems. One lioness has a wobbly head due to a neurological disorder. Others have stunted growth.

Lions are iconic to Born Free’s history however we help a wide range of endangered species around the world including tigers, cheetahs, elephants, primates, bears, whales, dolphins and many more.

Our adoption programme is vital. As a charity we rely on people’s generosity to care for King and other rescued animals at our sanctuaries, to campaign for change to the lives of animals in captivity in zoos, circuses and as ‘exotic pets’ and to support our work to keep wildlife where it belongs – in the wild.

African lions are facing a crisis with an alarming drop in their wild population over the last 20 years. King is a little champion, a symbol of hope for all lions.

Healthy and Happy King at 18 months old, enjoying life at the Shamwari Sanctuary, South Africa  

Protecting Animals

Dr Chris Draper, 42, and his wife Lianna have two toddlers and a rescued poodle and live in West Sussex near UK Born Free headquarters.
Chris is Head of Animal Welfare and Captivity with the Born Free Foundation, which works across the world to end exploitation of wild animals in captivity and the wild.

Legendary actors, Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna OBE and their son Will Travers OBE started the charity as Zoo Check in 1984. The couple became passionate wildlife conservationists after starring in the classic 1966 movie, Born Free portraying George and Joy Adamson and their pioneering work with lions in Kenya and the miraculous release of their hand-raised lioness Elsa into the wild.
For more information visit

Adopt King for Christmas

By giving your family member or friend the gift of adopting King, you will help fund his lifetime care – food, veterinary care and enclosure upkeep.
For just £3 a month, or one payment of £36, they will receive an exclusive King adoption pack with a soft toy, King’s story, a lion fact sheet, certificate and glossy photo.
Available from

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

For the Love of Elephants

Dame Daphne Sheldrick

Legendary Champion of the Elephants, Dame Daphne Sheldrick passed away in April, aged 83, after a courageous battle with cancer.  

Her devoted daughter, Angela Sheldrick paid tribute to her my mum saying: “Her legacy is immeasurable and her passing will reverberate far and wide because the difference she has made for conservation in Kenya is unparalleled.”

Photo by Michael Nichols

Angela is determined to carry on her mother’s work to save and protect endangered elephants.

In October 2017, I travelled to Nairobi for an exclusive interview with Angela reflecting on her life growing up with pioneering parents and the future of her important work.

A brief version of this story was published in the UK magazine My Weekly Special in June 2018.

Here is the long version of my inspiring interview with Angela.

Angela's Love Story

Angela Sheldrick, elegant in a pretty long floral dress, is seated serenely in a comfy armchair. In contrast, she usually spends her days outdoor in khakis, handling adorable baby elephants that delight in frolicking in rust-red mud!

Angela, 55, is the dynamic CEO of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust that runs the world famous Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, Kenya, caring for rescued babies left stranded when their mothers are brutally killed by poachers for the abhorrent illegal ivory trade or succumb to devastating drought.  

She talks eloquently in a perfect British accent about her passions and growing up wild and free in the untamed African bush in an idyllic landscape surrounded by exotic animals and cuddly pets with her big sister Jill and her legendary, pioneering parents, Daphne and David.

“I had a very unique childhood living in Eden. My father, a warden in the late 50s, 60s and 70s, was charged with the protection and creation of a national park out of 8000 square miles of virgin wilderness at Tsavo. So those kinds of experiences can never be duplicated in today’s world because such uncharted wildernesses don't exist any more. It was an extraordinary privilege and I can’t imagine a more perfect childhood!”

Earthy and Arty

While at home in the bush, Angela is also a talented artist. Her highly acclaimed whimsical watercolours capture the fragility and gentle playfulness of elephant babies. 

One of Angela's beautiful watercolours that help raise money for the Trust

Angela was catapulted into the glamorous film industry when she landed a job on the epic movie, Out of Africa, as one of the assistants to the dress designer, Milena Canonero, and later became a make-up artist and lived a carefree life travelling the world on job assignments throughout her 20s.

After graduating from art school at the University of Cape Town, Angela was living in the cosmopolitan city between film shoots. But returning home to Kenya for a holiday, she fell in love with her soul mate, Robert Carr-Hartley.

Angela's husband Rob shares her devotion to elephant conservation

The partnership was a match made in heaven. Robert was also raised in the wilderness of Kenya in a hardy, pioneering family.

She says: “I married a man who also grew up riding rhinos as a child! He is the only other person I know who had an unusual childhood like me. We instantly understood each other!

“Both of us had been struggling to find someone who could transverse both parts of our lives; the worldly and the wild. Rob was in the high-end luxury safari industry mixing with sophisticated international clients as well as being a competent bushman.”

Angela had a preconceived picture of an ideal man from her blue-eyed, charismatic father, whom she adored, for his rare combination of masculine strength and empathy and kindness for all living things; qualities she found in her husband.  

Married 20 years, the devoted couple have two handsome teenager sons, Taru, 19 and Roan, 17 who are training in the challenging work of the Trust, monitoring the magnificent national parks from planes and helicopters and rough road vehicles.

Angela with sons Taru and Roan

An Inspiring Love Story

Angela and Rob’s love story echoes her parents’ passionate romance and shared dedication to protecting the habitat and endangered wildlife of Kenya.

When David died suddenly from a heart attack at the age of 57 in 1977, his grief-stricken wife carried on his remarkable work through the Trust established in his name.

Angela says: “My father was a hugely respected conservationist and naturalist and in the wake of his death, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust was set up in his memory by his peers who felt that his vision for conservation in Kenya must continue.”

David Sheldrick in the 60s

Daphne in her 20s

David and Daphne and baby Angela 1963
Daphne and Angela with orphaned buffalo and rhino

Her mother, Daphne was tough and resilient having once survived being hurled against the rocks by a wild elephant. The bones in her leg were shattered and after enduring 15 months of agonising pain, operations, infections and bone grafts, Daphne’s love for elephants was undiminished.

In 2006, Daphne was made Dame Commander of the British Empire by the Queen in recognition of her meticulous research and conservation work as the world’s leading authority on elephants.

And in 2012, Dr Dame Daphne Sheldrick published her enthralling book, An African Love Story, documenting her fascinating life of purpose, passion and adventure.

Daphne’s heartfelt memoir recalls how she and David were the first people to hand raise a playful pair of orphaned African elephants, Samson and Fatuma, in the 1950s.

Caring for Orphans

Since then, the renowned Elephant Orphanage has rescued, nurtured and released more than 200 orphan elephants back into the herds at Tsavo.

“In our wildest dreams we never imagined that over 200 would come through our care over the last 40 years, says Angela.

The success rate is most gratifying because caring for infant elephants is extremely challenging, due to the intricacies with the milk formula but infant elephants also require intensive, round the clock care, bottle-feeding every three hours, for three to six years by a team of devoted keepers, who even sleep in the stockades with the milk-dependent babies. 

Peter with baby Pili, just three weeks old when he was rescued.

Angela explains: “It’s one of these jobs that comes with its fair share of stress and heartache. But it’s also very stimulating with immense satisfaction. We do feel at the end of every day that we have made a difference and that’s a real gift. Not everyone has that luxury.”

While the picture of adorable rusty baby elephants being bottle fed by green-coated keepers and cavorting in their morning mud bath attracts elated, camera-toting tourists from around the world during the one hour noon visiting time when the Nairobi Nursery is open to the public, the orphan project is a small part of the Trust’s important conservation work.

“We have to take care of the bigger picture of protecting the habitat and wild herds or else rescuing and releasing orphans would be futile, states Angela.

“The Trust has 10 anti-poaching teams and five mobile veterinary units and a sky vet unit to attend to injured and sick animals based in Tsavo, Amboseli, Maasai Mara, Meru, Mount Kenya and Laikipia.

“We have a strong aerial surveillance unit comprises two helicopters, three small bush plans, two Cessna’s, a team of highly skilled bush pilots and an advanced communication network because coverage from the air is essential, with limited road networks throughout the vast landscapes of the national parks.”

The elaborate daily operation is dedicated to preventing poachers from killing elephants for their tusks. Millions of magnificent elephants have been savagely slaughtered in the past 50 years for the lucrative ivory trade in China.  

Working in close partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Service, the Trust has assisted in reducing poaching by 60 per cent since 2015. 

 “With the helicopters, we can have boots on the ground to catch poachers within minutes. This is a strong deterrent. Previously poachers knew they had hours before planes could land and the rangers catch up to them. And we now have tracker dogs that fly in the helicopters to assist the ground teams.”

A rescue mission using the Trust's helicopter

Sinister Threats

However Angela and fellow conservationists are concerned about other sinister threats to elephants such as loss of habitat and climate change.

She says: “With the burgeoning human population of Kenya the footprint is sprawling into habitat without much thought for land use policy. Kenya is having a China-led development boom very often at the expense of the environment without enough attention placed on the impact this can have on elephant migratory routes.

“The government needs to ensure that Kenya’s natural resources are kept in tact. The developed world is everywhere but what the world doesn’t have is this extraordinary jewel of wilderness that Kenya and East Africa can claim. You cant’ possibly put a value on that.

“While the West appreciates the natural environment having lost much of its own wilderness and wildlife, unfortunately in Kenya there’s a desire for development and not enough appreciation for their natural heritage. This attitude is changing with the younger generation but maybe not fast enough.

“One of the worrying trends is climate change. We’re seeing some desperate droughts and livestock incursion because of dry seasons and the destruction of habitat, which affects elephants the most.”

Orphan Pili was found clinging to a pepper tree near the river after his mother died in the drought

Surprisingly for large animals that look so robust, Angela explains that elephant are in fact the most fragile of all species.

“Sadly elephants are the first to die in a drought. Nature has made them that way. They are the most vulnerable to lack of food and water.

“Due to climate change Kenya is prone to drought. To see these beautiful animals under such stress at the hands of humans is heartbreaking. The planet is so messed up.

“Sitting here in the perfection of nature, we realise that humanity is on such a destructive path. We can learn so much by saving such a glorious species and quite frankly if we can’t save the elephant then we’re not going to save ourselves.”

What’s so Special About Elephants?

 “If you had asked my mother this question, her answer would have been the same. It’s not that elephants are our favourite animals. If you asked Daphne she would say her favourite orphan was an impala called Bushy and mine was a little gazelle called Jerry. All animals are extraordinary when you are able to know them intimately.

“The Trust also cares for a host of orphaned wildlife including hippos, rhinos, buffalos, zebras, impalas, Thompson gazelles, duikers, kudus, warthogs and monkeys and many more in our Tsavo centre.

“But what’s so special about elephants is their huge capacity for compassion and forgiveness. It’s humbling when you think what they have suffered and very quickly they can overlook human cruelty and give love in exchange for saving of their lives.

Elephants feel and express a powerful love for their mates and babies and herd, other animals and their human carers

“Their compassion transcends species as elephants are nurturing to all our orphan animals.”

“The intriguing thing about elephants is they are so like us.”

Elephants have the same lifespan as humans, living 80 or more years, with the same stages of mental and emotional development. Babies are dependent for a long childhood, and only come into maturity in adolescence.

“Whenever a new orphan is rescued, says Angela, it will need 10 years of care before being released into the wild. Just like a child isn’t ready for a sleep-over until about five or six, an elephant is about the same age before being confident enough to leave the keepers and stay with wild friends overnight!” 

Elephants form deep bonds with their families and herds and suffer extreme, prolonged grief, mourning loudly and shedding copious tears, when a loved one dies.

“Because we’ve had the luxury of knowing 200 elephants intimately, we know that when an elephant is killed by poachers, it’s not just a statistic or object that dies, it's a real individual with a personality and vital relationships in the herd. None of our orphan babies were raised by a single mother. It is always a collection of females in a circle of love.

“We know the magnificence of that animal, the inbuilt wisdom that is so needed by the population. A dead elephant is a fallen monument, not just a carcass.”

And according to Angela, baby elephants have their own quirky, loveable personalities.

“Some are of our orphans are shy and introverted, or insecure clinging vines while others are gregarious clowns and kooky nutcases!”
Yet the intelligence of mature elephants is profound and the matriarch faces daily moral dilemmas in leading her herd in drought conditions.

“She is anchored to waterholes because the calves can’t walk 70 miles in a day in search of food but she has her whole family of three generations and their offspring to care for. So she has to make the terrible decision to abandon an ailing calf so the others can survive. It’s heart breaking.”

Elephants are Pivotal in the Ecosystem

Many people do not realise that elephants are crucial in the survival of other species.

“Without elephants, many other species would die off. Other animals are dependent on elephants because they knock down the dense woodlands and create grasslands for all the browsing species; zebras and buffaloes and all the herbivores. They dig the water holes in dry seasons and create paths to the waterholes.

“Elephants play a vital role in this intricate, inter-dependent system.”

Fostering is the Key to Saving Baby Elephants

Although daily visitors to the popular orphanage on the edge of Nairobi National Park generate some revenue, most vital funding comes through the Foster Programme, with people from all over the world sponsoring baby elephants through the Trust’s website.

Because of the drought last year the Trust rescued numerous desperate collapsed cases on the verge of death, and the Foster Programme makes it possible to care for the precious babies giving them a second chance.

The question is, if we are not motivated to save our precious elephants, can destructive humans save themselves?