As I looked out of the airplane window over the wing, the sun was just starting to rise, creating the sort of views of the horizon you only get to see from 40,000 feet. The roof of the clouds below shimmered and reflected the beautiful rainbow of colors from the rising sun. As I glanced out of the plane I suddenly noticed a mountain peak rising through the clouds. At first, I thought the clouds must be really low, but as I looked up at the GPS tracking screen on the airplane, I immediately knew what I was looking at. I began to feel quite euphoric. To see the gigantic mountain rising up through the clouds gave me the feeling I was in some far away land dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter. Yet it was not a movie, I was looking at Mount Kilimanjaro, and more importantly, my first glimpse of Africa and the place I had been dreaming of visiting since I was a child.
I landed at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) in dense fog and my first reaction as I got off the plane was that I thought Africa would be warmer, not realizing how high the altitude was in Nairobi. (It was only 9°C when I landed.) Nonetheless, I felt almost like a child visiting Disneyland. After all, Kenya is renowned for its amazing wildlife and I couldn’t wait to not only see some of it, but also to do my part to help protect it. As I made my way through the airport, I couldn’t help but notice how many people there were of Asian descent and instantly I wondered, “Is it ivory that they are after?” After all, the ever-increasing trafficking of wildlife through airports was exactly the reason I was here.
In my years at Freeland, I have seen countless cases of animals being smuggled on airlines and some of them were very saddening. Of course we usually see the common ivory and rhino horn smuggling, but I remember one case where one passenger had nearly 500 live turtles rammed into three different suitcases, another case where a man had slow lorises sedated and stuffed into tiny boxes and then into a suitcase, and yet another where a man had leopard cubs drugged and hidden in a suitcase. Imagine what it would be like if we were stuffed into a suitcase and going through the process that we all know our luggage goes through when we fly.
To help combat wildlife trafficking through airports, Freeland developed the Wildlife Friendly Skies Awareness Program. The aim of the program is to provide every employee who might come into contact with smuggled wildlife the skills and knowledge needed to detect and report wildlife crime and protect themselves from any risks when encountering trafficked wildlife. Traditionally, this type of training is reserved for law enforcement, but as every person – regardless of occupation or status – has a role to play in ending wildlife trafficking, Freeland’s Wildlife Friendly Skies program is for all staff based at airports.
When I landed in Kenya, I have to admit I was a little underwhelmed. For all of these years I had anticipated visiting Africa, dreams of a tropical, warm, wildlife-rich nation had influenced my perception. As we drove down the underdeveloped roads to my hotel, my initial feelings were, for lack of a better word, disappointment. I quickly realized, however, that this was exactly the place where our work was needed most.
Despite the long days and challenges that come with working with so many partners and government agencies, the closer we got to the workshop, the more confident I was that not only was this event going to be a success, but more importantly a benchmark for which the airline industry could base all future efforts on to protect endangered species from illegal trade.
On the morning of the event, I arrived at Kenya Airways’ (KQ) world-class training facility ‘The Pride Centre’, early, as I was nervous. As soon as I entered the building, I was greeted by Mbuvi Ngunze, the CEO and Group Managing Director of the airline, and with his presence, my anxiety quickly turned to confidence. It was very humbling that the head of the company was part of this event, and at that moment I knew that our partners believed in this as much as I did.
The press conference went smoothly and I was honored to be at the table with the CEO of KQ and the VP of Africa for IATA, who both spoke about the multi-stakeholder approach and strategic partnerships required to effectively combat wildlife trafficking.
After the press conference, I was delightfully surprised to be given a model airplane by the CEO. It might seem like a small gesture, but the effort of the airline to show their appreciation of the work we do was encouraging.
We began the workshop with more than 100 participants and despite the nerves, each of the presenters did a wonderful job.
Just as many airlines have formed alliances such as Sky Team, Freeland constantly works to form strategic partnerships that bring together local partners, regional connections and international knowhow. This Wildlife Friendly Skies was no different. After the opening remarks from all partners, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) provided a technical overview of the scale of wildlife trafficking within the country. After that, Freeland provided an overview of wildlife trafficking, along with in-depth insight into the reasons why demand for ivory is high in China. It was clear that the majority of the participants had never heard, or for that matter never thought of, the reasons behind the desire for elephant ivory in Asia that are fueling the poaching of African elephants. I was personally shocked when KWS revealed their seizure figures. In 2013, KWS seized more than 15,000 ivory pieces, yet they recorded 300 poached elephants. It was clear to all of us that Kenya, and Nairobi specifically, was playing a crucial yet unwitting role in the global ivory trade.
The workshop continued with specific case studies from Nairobi’s airport presented by the Association for Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Wildlife Enforcement Network’s Law Enforcement Extension Office, commonly known as ASEAN-WEN LEEO. ASEAN-WEN is the leading example of how governments can come together to stop wildlife trafficking. We all know that drugs and guns are smuggled from one country to another, but what many of us overlook is that wildlife is smuggled the same way. ASEAN-WEN, launched 10 years ago, is an agreement between the 10 Southeast Asian countries to share information and work together to combat wildlife crime.
Just as the civilian employees of the airport were intrigued to hear why Chinese and others wanted African ivory so much, the law enforcement officers in attendance were eager to learn how different regions of the world were working together to combat this illicit trade.
The final session of the workshop focused on what I personally believe is most important. No matter who we are or what our job is, each of us as individuals has a role to play in protecting wildlife and the critical biodiversity that they represent. In my final presentation, I told the participants what to do if they see wildlife being trafficked – always avoid touching animals and wait until experts arrive; if you must handle the animals, protect yourself from disease with a mask and gloves, and most importantly, if you have any suspicions at all, report them.
After the final presentation, we were lucky enough to have a demonstration from the KWS Officers working at the airport with sniffer dogs. They set up 10 suitcases right in the middle of the room and hid an ivory tusk in one of them. The handler then let loose ‘Dick’, an aging German Shepherd who proceeded to run through the entire crowd until he found the row of bags. After taking a quick sniff of each one, he had found his target and proceeded to tear the bag apart until he had his tusk. Everyone, myself included, was impressed.
We conducted the same workshop for another 100+ staff in the afternoon, and after working for so many hours, I realized I wasn’t even tired. I was only aware of having truly made an impact.
After the workshop and through many emails sent over the following days, I received many forms of praise from both participants and organizers. Even one of the cabin crew on our return flight, who remembered each of us by name, enthusiastically talked about the event and shared how she had never realized that she too could do something to help stop wildlife trafficking.
I left Kenya feeling very proud that the Freeland team and our amazing partners had managed to pull off a very successful event and the results of this would be heard throughout the industry, and ultimately lead to change among airlines.
I am extremely passionate about my job and the work I do but, honestly, there was a part of me that wanted to visit Africa for my own reasons. I wanted to see the place I have dreamt of and talked about exploring with my father since I was a child. However, in the end, and after talking to the participants, I realized that my trip to Kenya had a profound effect on more than myself. “I never knew that I could help, and that all of us have a role to play in stopping wildlife trafficking,” the flight attendant said as we got off the plane in Bangkok. That pretty much says it all.
The Wildlife Friendly Skies workshop was conducted for Kenya Airways with support from the International Airline Training Fund. Key partners for the event included the African Wildlife Foundation, The Association of Southeast Asian Nations Wildlife Enforcement Network’s Law Enforcement Extension Office, the International Air Transport Association and the Kenya Wildlife Service.
Written By: Matthew Pritchett, Wildlife Friendly Skies Project Manger