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.
It's also impossible to escape the poverty. On numerous occasions, we pass tiny metallic shacks, which have been daubed with the phrase 'demolish order'. Needless to say, they are all inhabited. "The poverty is worse now than it was ten years ago," says Kiiru. "There's no middle-class so there's no social ladder for people to climb. Young families today have very little hope." Little wonder that so many turn to poaching.
But for all the deprivation, there's also a buzz about the place that's rarely portrayed in the Eastern media. Kiiru agrees: "although we appreciate their work, charities such as Live Aid portray Africans as sad and helpless. We're really a happy people--we don't have much but we share what we have."
It's dark by the time we arrive at the outskirts of Nairobi and we're delayed by yet another accident. Peeking out through the dust, it's possible to make out tiny wooden shops that service a community of truckers. The mood feels threatening - Kenya's capital boasts an explosive mix of rich and poor and all must tread carefully. It's a relief to reach the sanctuary of our hotel.
We're up early next to complete our journey to Mount Kenya. The landscape north of Nairobi is dominated by pineapple fields and the poverty is less acute here than south of the border. Although Kenya has suffered its fare share of corruption, it has not had to endure the Socialism that blighted Tanzania's economy for a generation. But the driving is just as bad and we witness another fatality involving a cyclist.
The lush vegetation on Mount Kenya could almost be Alpine. For this part of the journey, we've been joined by two members of the Youth for Conservation (YFC) charity and Susie Weeks, a white Kenyan who works for the Mount Kenya Trust. Weeks shows us a macabre treasure chest of snares found on the mountain. Some are horrific in their barbarity.
"Wild game is poached and then sold as beef in the local butchers," she explains. "It's a big operation but the people who actually do the poaching tend to be the poorest of the poor. The middle-men make the money."
We take to a rock-strewn path and point the Land Rover up the mountain to meet up with two paramilitary members of the Kenya Wildlife Service. We are to join them on poaching patrol and both men are armed and licensed to kill. Scrambling through dense woods with two paramilitaries who speak no English is an unnerving experience. And it isn't long before they find what they're looking for.
Lying across our path is a crude piece of wire, bent into the shape of a lasso. It's incredibly basic and horribly indiscriminate. We're told that just a few weeks ago, the rangers found an elephant that had lost its trunk in a snare. Unable to eat, the animal had to be shot.
We stumble on further, only to discover the remnants of a poached Buffalo. It's stinking, rotting head has been dumped on the forest floor beside a camp fire. "The poachers probably stopped to eat here before carrying off their prey," says Peter Muigai of the YFC. The sheer effort required to lug a buffalo out of the forest surely offers some indication of their desperation.
Having camped at 8,000 ft among the baboons, we point the Defender back in the direction of Nairobi and our flight home. The last few days have provided a fascinating insight into a world alien to our own. Africa has obvious problems, of which the poaching is both an effect and a cause, but it also has a vibrancy and a rich culture that's often overlooked.
And it's no surprise that after a thousand adventurous miles, I've also developed an affection for the Defender. It may be crude and uncomfortable, but it still possesses a sense of integrity that none of the more modern range can match. If would be a shame if in its pursuit of a chi-chi image, Land Rover turned its back on the true spirit of adventure.