The big hearts in the wilderness

Humphrey Osundwa and Dr Albert Strauss are selfless individuals working tirelessly to ensure endangered animal species are safe from extinction

13 Apr 2018 . 4,618 Views

Humphrey Osundwa had it all. A C-suite job with an NGO, a massive fuel guzzler, a home full of paintings done by his daughter and son. He was what you could call a success story. Then, suddenly, he quit his job, relocated to Njoro with his family, and eventually, fell off the radar from his friends. That was five years ago.

When he sent an email asking if I would be interested in adopting a baby bongo, it came as a surprise, because first, I had limited knowledge of bongos and second, I reckoned it was illegal to adopt them in an age where animal species are primed for extinction.

I met up with Humphrey in Nanyuki, and immediately thought he had gone nuts. Donning jungle fatigues and spotting an overgrown beard, I questioned his state of mind. The simple 4 wheel truck was a far cry from the luxurious Range Rover he used to drive.

“I am very fine, don’t look at me like I am a nut-job,” he said opening his arms for a bear hug. It took two cups of coffee and buns to finally realise, he ditched his expensive suits for wildlife conservation!

“I was stuck in the same boring routine- work, pub, home, and I realised I was not happy,’ he says, his eyes wandering into a faraway gaze like an oracle who’s just been summoned by the spirits.

While still at work, the organisation that he used to work for used to encourage employees to contribute towards conservancy efforts. They were also encouraged to take part in the Safaricom Marathon. He took part in two races. The work that he saw the conservationists do sparked a desire in him to give more than money to ensure that endangered animals are kept free from harm.

Humphrey went to Egerton University, did a short course in Wildlife Management and dedicated his life to tracking and saving wildlife. He says the first animal he ever adopted was a mountain bongo.

Adoption, in this case, does not mean taking the animal home with you, rather, paying for its upkeep in a controlled environment.

There has been a discernible explosion of monitoring and recording projects of species by NGO’s and individuals to supplement government efforts.

To increase monitoring capabilities, organisations have turned to technology and one such effort used is a chip which, as Humphrey explains, is used to track and monitor movement of animals, know when they fall ill or alert game wardens if in danger.

“It is a very small chip which is either placed on a collar or inserted into the ear or leg, and transmits data back to this,” he says pointing to a satellite-like device, full of dots, which he later explains are animal locations.

“I can tell when an animal stops moving, or moves too fast and immediately know there is danger. We are now onto drones, and if the area to be covered is vast, we equip drones with surveillance cameras and deploy them to the coordinates of the said animal, and it relays data back to us instantly,” he says.

At the Mt. Kenya Wildlife Conservancy, he is accompanied by Dr. Albert Strauss, a German conservationist who decries basic human intelligence.

“Can you tell me how foolish one has to be, not to learn from their mistakes?” he asks. “We have just killed the last male Northern White Rhino, we only have 2,000 Grevy’s zebras left in the entire world, and the javan rhino is nearly extinct, but we humans still insist on trophy hunting or just killing wildlife for fun. How stupid?”

Dr. Strauss has been researching on endangered species for close to 40 years and is using primers – short, complete known sequences of genetic material  and comparing them to databases of known species to study co-relations.

His research efforts are currently focused on the patas monkey.

“To be able to save a species, you need as much information as possible to help distinguish what is headed to extinction and what can be saved, and that data is hard to come by,” he says.

“In Kenya alone, aided by Humphrey, I have 50 camera traps set over 55 conservancies which collect data,” Strauss says adding that it is a tasking and costly venture. A single camera trap is close to two million shillings ($24, 000).

As he kneels to collect a dried dung sample, he cracks it open and extracts a small chip.

“This is just for data on Elephant DNA. We realised capturing them exposes them to stress and sometimes injury which might negatively influence collected data, so we use such chips to collect samples for testing over time,” he says.

According to statistics from the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF), there are currently more endangered species than any other time in history.

The species ranging from the amur leopard, black rhino, and the javan rhino to the cross gorilla are listed as critically endangered. Meaning, they are on the verge of extinction.

Others like the whale shark and the blue whale are listed as endangered, putting into focus the ecosystems man has destroyed.

Humphrey says it is the efforts of individuals and organisations like The Rhino Ark, which was established as a charitable trust to save Kenya’s black rhino population, that keep some species alive.

The black rhino is Kenya’s most endangered large mammal. Poached for its horn, its population has sunk from 20,000 in 1969 to slightly over 500 today.

As we settle down for a late lunch, a yellow eyed black headed bird perches on the rail of the open restaurant.

“That is the Abbott’s Starling and I can bet it is the only one within a radius of 50 kilometres,” says Strauss, looking so sad it becomes infectious.

“It is a bird species on the edge too. Very few left in Kenya and Tanzania,” explains Humphrey looking at the bird until it flies away, probably not to be seen again for a while.

I fully come to terms with why a man could leave his work, home and friends to come and save these animals. They deserve the time.

By David Wesonga, writer and poet


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