This is the second installation in the story behind Orlando von Einsiedel's breakthrough poaching documentary Virunga which is released on Netflix today. Read the first part here.
Let's fast forward a couple of years to 2009, when Peter sent me a few photographs he had taken of a beautiful young girl named Tiva Moller, then six years old, on a visit to the daughter of a friend, Richard Moller, who runs the Lewa Preserve in Kenya. All Tiva wanted was a pet dog, but dogs were not allowed on the Lewa Preserve. But instead, Tiva ended up with an adorable baby pet rhino named Lola. They would eat together, sleep together, and even take mud baths together-every kid's fantasy. Based on the photos Peter had sent me, I asked him if he could shoot more -enough for another book that became another one of our books with Scholastic, entitled "Lola & Tiva." This charming story of a girl and her inseparable baby rhino companion almost didn't need any words. Peter's stunning pictures became the basis of what has been described as a "non-fiction fairy tale," and a favorite of hundreds of thousands of young readers.
Ironically, Richard Moller would move on from Lewa to running the Tsavo Trust, also in Kenya, whose expansive territory is twice the size of Israel. Tsavo serves as the home to the largest remaining population of "Tuskers," elephants with highly-prized ivory tusks that literally reach the ground. This past June the largest Tusker, named Satao, was senselessly killed by ivory poachers with poisoned arrows. Satao, by many accounts, was one of, if not the largest, bull elephant on the planet. He was one of the dozen bull elephants at Tsavo whose symmetrical, long tusks weigh 100 pounds each. So rare are these elusive specimens that they unfortunately have become the prime targets for sportsmen and ivory poachers.
Moller, a dedicated preservationist, and the Tsavo Trust, work closely with the Kenya Wildlife Services. Together they are overseeing the most ambitious elephant preservation program and the world's last best hope to save these magnificent creatures. Richard and WCS personnel are forever tracking the movements of the elephants across Tsavo's 1,000 square kilometers. from his piper cub airplane.
Shortly after taking the photos for "Lola & Tiva," Peter left the BBC and joined Al Jazeera. He definitely had a high tolerance for risk. His stint at Al Jazeera would lead him to Egypt to cover the unrest there. He was a highly respected journalist, having won the prestigious Peabody Award for his work in Somalia. In December 2013, Peter found himself with the other Al Jazeera journalists arrested as "suspected terrorists"-they had been interviewing the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been deemed a crime in Egypt. So much for freedom of the press! They were imprisoned, and it was months before formal charges were even brought; their crime actual was portraying Egypt in an unfavorable light.
Emmanuel De Merode
On March 4, 2014. I received an unexpected email from Emmanuel De Merode:
Dear Craig, it has been a long time. I wanted to reach out, after what is probably an unreasonably long silence on my part, because I have some friends who recently completed a film on Virunga. Your colleagues at the Tribeca Film Festival have been extraordinarily supportive and helpful with the world première, and I realize that this was certainly your doing. I am extremely grateful for that. I don't know if you were able to see the rough cut, but it is a film that will, more than anything else, determine the future of the park. We couldn't have hoped for a better launch for the film.
For my part, I am still working as a park warden in Virunga, and I still have the most extraordinary team of rangers. It's up and down, but your gorilla, Miza, is well and now almost adult. Interestingly, she left the Kabirisi group and joined a wild group, so it is much harder for us to see her, but one of the rangers thinks he saw her with a baby. She has opted for a life deep in the forest far from human contact. It's something we can sympathize with and understand... You should come, one day, perhaps you'll find her.
OMG! After seven years Miza had been found! And she had a baby! And now a film about Virunga was going to premier at the festival!
Two weeks later Emmanuel emailed again and asked if I would introduce the film and one of the film's key backers and his good friend -- conservationist, philanthropist, farmer extraordinaire Howard Buffett. I had had the privilege of spending the day with Howard back in 2008 on his farm in Decatur, Illinois. No one person knows more about mountain gorillas or has done more to help save them than Howard. He puts both his wallet and his life at risk trying to help these majestic creatures survive. Howard does not mess around when it comes to his mountain gorillas!
On my visit with Howard we talked about the root causes of the gorilla crisis: partly about corruption, partly charcoal, partly the warlords, and partly poachers. We even came up with a "plan" to remove one of the great destabilizers, the warlord General Nkunda, who had brought much-needed eco-tourism in Virunga to a grinding halt. Rebel soldiers parading around with AK 47s usually don't make it into the tourism brochures. The ICCN Park Rangers, which Emmanuel De Merode was now running, who are charged with protecting the gorillas, were expelled from the Park by Nkunda and his thugs. Nkunda was ultimately arrested in 2009.
As I watched the screener of Virunga so I could prepare my remarks, I came across one of the more pleasant shocks of my life. Rangers identify mountain gorillas by their nose prints. While I was watching the final scene of the film, there is a close up a grown gorilla's face peering out from the bushes. The gorilla's nose print was clearly visible when I hit the pause button on the DVD player.