It's lunchtime in Tinga Tinga and we're led out of the Masai village and towards a clearing in the bush. Here, beneath a tree, our hosts are cooking a goat that has been slaughtered in our honor. Its bloody skin still lies beside the fire as a pertinent reminder that meat is not born in a vacuum wrap. The only condiment is a pile of salt and there's no fluid to wash it down. "Diaphragm," says an African voice, as I'm handed a liver-like substance.
To refuse the food would be to offend my hosts so I munch as best I can and admit that this is an unusual start to a story about poaching in East Africa. I had arrived in Tanzania to catch up with the Born Free Foundation, the charitable organization that works to preserve the African wildlife. Armed with a Land Rover Defender we are to journey from Kilimanjaro on the northern edge of the Masai Steppe to the heights of Mount Kenya to learn more about the illegal poaching that is threatening the survival of many of Africa's most precious species.
After three courses of biologists-know-what, we return to the Defender and take to the bush. Land Rover's old stalwart is a staple vehicle here and it looks as relevant in Tinga Tinga as it does stupid in Chelsea. Four Masai hop into the rear for what is, for them, is an unusual experience. The village is 16km from the main road but while the lucky few have bicycles, most go everywhere on foot, wearing shoes made of old motorbike tires.
Our Masai host, Joseph Lendiy, is anxious to show us the carcass of an elephant bull that the fieldmen discovered just a few days ago. We find it lying in a ditch with the tell-tale scar of a spear in its left shoulder. The tusks are gone but everything else is intact. "In Japan and China, ivory is still a major status symbol," Lendiy explains, "elephant hunting was banned in 1989, but it still continues. Our spears are no match for their helicopters and guns."
Lendiy is an extraordinary character. Born in the village but educated at the Colorado State University in the early '70s, he spent nearly 20 years working for the Tanzanian government before returning to his native land. Ferociously intelligent, he now runs the East Kilimanjaro Fieldmen Project, which seeks to improve the lives of his fellow Masai. One of his duties is to inform the authorities of any incidents of poaching.
The Masai seem genuinely moved by the macabre image. Although they rely on cattle for food and income, they are dismayed by such wanton killing. Theirs is a fascinating but controversial culture. On our return to the village, we are taken to witness a festival. The younger Masai are dressed in costumes and their faces are painted in garish colors. The home-made music is loud and both genders are dancing together. It is a happy, vibrant and emotional scene but they are celebrating an illegal practice. We are witnessing the celebration of female circumcision.
Next morning, we leave Lendiy and begin the 700km journey north towards Nairobi in Kenya. To drive a contemporary Defender is to appreciate just how far the Land Rover brand has traveled in recent years. It's as strong and capable off road as it is crude and unrefined on the terra firma. To drive one for even a short time is a tiring experience and in the UK, its novelty would soon wear off.
But while it's easy to criticize the old Landie when you're used to a Range Rover, it's still preferable to 95% of the vehicles found on the East African roads. According to the latest statistics, there are 161 deaths per 100,000 vehicles in Tanzania each year. Even the worst "developed" countries muster no more than five. To drive here is to witness a frightening cocktail of bad roads, bad driving and bad cars. And ambulances are a luxury to be found only in the major cities.
It doesn't take us long to see the reality behind the statistics. On the main highway from Moshi to Arusha we pass a small circle of people surrounding a body on the roadside. A mangled bike lies by his side and a pick-up truck is in a ditch. Then, less than a mile later, we witness an almost identical scene. Two young lives have been lost in the last half hour but the atmosphere seems remarkably subdued.
"Most people believe in 'God's will'," explains Winnie Kiiru, our traveling companion from Born Free. "People accept that the person's time has come, which is why the reaction isn't as extreme you might expect." I'm finding it impossible not to feel vulnerable. Driving here is a leap of faith--you stick to a familiar path, hit the horn and hope for the best. Some of the overtaking is kamikaze and even our well-serviced vehicle has no rear seatbelts.