Ann Olivecrona: Protecting Kenya’s wildlife

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    Ms Ann Olivecrona with chimpanzees. Photo: Tim Freccia.

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    Ms Ann Olivecrona. Photo: Tim Freccia.

Blessed with an amazing wildlife, Kenya holds assets of great biological and cultural value, forming a backbone for the tourism industry. But for a long time these assets have faced severe threats. Zoologist and conservationist Ann Olivecrona talks about her work to save Africa’s wildlife for the last forty years against poachers, smugglers and corruption.

Wearing casual blue jeans, a khaki shirt and adorned with a couple of funky bracelets, you can still see the fire of the young Ann Olivecrona who came to Kenya forty years ago staring through her steely blue eyes and silver blonde hair.

Ms Olivecrona was born in Gothenburg, Sweden in 1951, as the daughter of journalist Gustaf Olivecrona and granddaughter of the famous brain surgeon Herbert Olivecrona. ”Annie” as she likes to be called, left her secure life in Sweden in her twenties to come to Africa and pursue her dream as a zoologist despite her grandfather wanting her to become a doctor.

Ann Olivecrona lives on the foothills of Mount Kenya with her two dogs. While she is not out saving chimps or working on feature films, she takes out Swedish tour groups all over Kenya and Tanzania. For many people she is more famous for her work in over thirty feature films. This includes directing lions in the film Out of Africa and working with nature filmmaker David Attenborough for his television series Life on Earth. Her recent autobiography in Swedish - called ”My Africa: A woman’s struggle for wild animals” – tells about her life-long struggle to save monkeys. But the book is also a witness of her rich and diverse experiences, including being captured by Idi Amin’s soldiers, shopping with Robert Redford, meeting a naked Jimi Hendrix, and rescuing Swedish singer Eva Dahlgren from a deadly snake.

Ms Olivecrona – a fluent Swahili speaker - has been battling on the frontline to save Africa’s wildlife from extinction by poachers, smugglers and the biggest enemy corruption. Her main focus is on apes and more specifically chimpanzees that she says are most commonly abused and mainly smuggled for zoos and circuses abroad. They are also being killed now for their meat that is seen as a new delicacy in some places in Africa and Asia.

“They are our closest relative but there is no political will to try to protect them and preserve them. They’re quite literally eradicating them because of the short sightedness and fast money,” says Ms Olivecrona who has saved close to eighty chimps in her lifetime. “Bush meat especially that of apes is the new champagne and caviar of today because it is expensive and not easily available,” she adds.

Kenya outlawed game hunting as early as in 1977, and has never rescinded the ban. In an African context, Kenya is often brought up as a positive example. Ending one unwanted tradition, however, may just nourish another.

There is a rising trend of poaching, kidnapping and killing wildlife as the appetite from Asia for these “delicacies” continues to grow hand in hand with their expanding economies. This poses a serious new threat to wildlife in Africa, where numerous elephants and rhinos have been killed for their ivory tusks in the past. The Kenyan government banned trade in ivory in 1989, and levels of elephant poaching subsequently declined, but there has been a rise in illegal ivory trade in recent years.

“It’s because CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) allow China to be a legal buyer in ivory. There shouldn’t be any legal ivory at all,” Ms Olivecrona says. “If the market wasn’t there then this wouldn’t happen,” she adds.

Ulf Aschan, the famous Swedish veteran safari guide and godson of Bror Blixen, says the escalation of poaching is now reaching uncontrollable levels.

”It was only after hunting was banned that poaching really took off. One main reason for this was that the Government still allowed the trade in wildlife products,” he says, and adds that the unchecked construction of lodges and camps in places like the Maasai Mara exacerbates the problems.

Ann Olivecrona grimly points out that if the world does not make a stance about this ecological catastrophe, Africa’s wildlife will disappear in about five to ten years:

“We won’t have any elephants, rhinos or lions for sure. It’s scary. And the world has not woken up to that fact yet. You know they always seem to react when it’s too late,” she says.

Already the effects of the population and economic boom in Kenya can be seen all over the country, with the capital Nairobi and main towns growing at a staggering rate. Villages have expanded, national parks are teeming with lodges and the developing road network has had far reaching effects on the wildlife.

“I mean, you used to drive out of Nairobi and you had the tiny little village of Mai Mahiu at the bottom of the Rift Valley. That was it, the rest was wildlife. You even saw cheetahs down there and giraffes, zebras and all sorts. Of course today it’s just farms and villages,” Ms Olivecrona says.

For ten years Ms Olivecrona was the manager for Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Kenya, and her hard work gave it worldwide recognition. The sanctuary is the only one of its kind in Kenya and comprises of a 250-acre purpose built enclosure divided in two by a river where rescued chimps can spend the rest of their lives in almost natural conditions. It was opened in 1993 after an agreement between the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and the Jane Goodall Institute and is home to nearly fifty chimpanzees from west and central Africa.

Looking back, Ms Olivecrona describes this as one of the highlights of her career.

“If you stop fighting for what you believe is right, then you might as well just lie down. You have to always keep believing you can win, or make people to realize how bad it is and what needs to be changed,” she says.

Although the picture Ms Olivecrona paints about the state of wildlife conservation in Kenya and in the rest of Africa is very bleak, she does draw a distinct silver lining for the country. She believes Kenya can lead the continent in conserving nature and wildlife because the government and its people realise that the country cannot survive without tourism.

Kenya is at the forefront promoting ecotourism. Steps are taken to encourage sustainable tourism, conserving natural flora and fauna and protecting four million acres of endangered species habitat, including important elephant migration areas.

“It seems like this government has got some foresight. It is looking forwards rather than backwards. The government is really trying to conserve, and they want to stop the poaching,” Ms Olivecrona says.

“Kenya has got an enormous amount of resources because it’s got a whole lot of young extremely well educated people. They know that we’re facing major environmental issues that require urgent attention. That resource is not tapped yet, and hopefully it will be...”

Text: Natasha Elkington.