Evgeny Lebedev

Into the wilderness with my bloodthirsty warrior friends

The Independent Monday 23 December 2013

The issue of what was on the menu had been complicated by the fact no one spoke much English. Yet the sound of an animal screaming in terror as it was dragged through the pitch darkness of the surrounding forest indicated that, for better or worse, dinner was imminent.

It was only a few hours earlier that I had arrived in the hinterland of northern Kenya to be met by my two local guides. The communication problem had quickly become apparent as I was led up into the surrounding hills.

Questions about where we were going and how we might best sleep on the forest floor were met with blank expressions. Only an enquiry about what wildlife surrounded us, delivered with elaborate theatrics and hand movements, garnered a response.

“Lion,” I was told by one of the guides, who was dressed in a yellow cloak and multicoloured bead headdress.

“Many lion?” I asked.

“Yes,” came the answer.

“Where we are camping?” I ventured.


Evgeny Lebedev in the Pokot villageEnlisted to the cause: Evgeny Lebedev in the Pokot village


“Yes,” was the response, this time with a broad smile. “Many lion. Very close.” Then he emitted a disturbingly lifelike rendition of a lion’s roar.

I was in the Kirisia Hills as part of my recent trip to East Africa to gain a better understanding of the poaching crisis devastating wildlife in the region, which is the target this year of The Independent’s Christmas campaign.

An elephant is killed on average every 30 minutes in Africa to meet the seemingly insatiable demand for ivory in the Asian markets. So great are the profits that criminal gangs which used to focus on drug smuggling or people trafficking are focusing on this new line of business too.

Any solution can only work if it has the wholehearted support of the local communities in combating this threat. At Kirisia, I was told, there was a unique example of how the ancient Ndorobo people were being enlisted by our charity partner, Space for Giants, to the cause. They are using their ancient knowledge of the local elephant herds and their migration patterns to help rangers protect them. Intrigued, I had gone to look for myself.

It was two members of the Ndorobo who met me and then led me on our trek into the wilderness. Once we reached our camping spot, a fire was lit and a pot appeared.

Half my team were still dwelling on the lion issue, with a pair deciding to share a tent for protection through the night. Their nerves were not helped when a series of squeals came from the tree-line. Something was clearly having a terrible time out there.

As we stared fixedly into the darkness, a goat appeared heading hell-for-leather into the distance followed by a couple of Ndorobo men. Shortly afterwards they returned animal-less, looking embarrassed. Dinner, it was explained, would now be late.

When the time came, fresh squeals announced the food. On this occasion it was accompanied by four men emerging from the forest carrying a sheep, its eyes bulging with terror.

I had always known that an animal would have to be killed for our dinner — but I never conceived it would be killed in the manner it then was. What was to follow was a truly horrific spectacle that, however much we appreciated that this was the Ndorobo’s custom, nevertheless shook us with our Western sensibilities to the core.

Holding its flailing body to the ground, one of the Ndorobo produced a machete and started to skin the animal alive, cutting the skin from around its throat as the sheep screamed so shrilly it was enough to reduce one of my party to tears. Then they used the tip of the knife to nip its jugular vein.

Blood spurted everywhere. Seeing it, the Ndorobo fell to their knees to lap at where it was coming from. Eagerly they took it in turns to drink, wanting to taste the blood as it was pumped out by the animal’s still-beating heart. Taking a break, they looked up — their soaked faces now stained red and lit by the flames of the camp fire — and invited me to join them. “For warriors,” they said.

Shell-shocked, I declined as politely as I could, noting to myself as I did that this was a particularly unusual kind of wildlife conservation visit.

Show me the honey

Ndorobo means “people without cattle” and they have lived for centuries off what they can gather or hunt in the forests that are their home. Their speciality, however, is finding honey, a search in which they are aided by a bird they call the “Honey Guide”.

Emitting a warbling trill, they summon the bird that supposedly leads them to a hive. Or rather it does, so I was told, if it believes the hunters who summoned it to be good people. If it doesn’t, then it leads them into the path of an elephant to be trampled.

The bird was clearly uncertain about me and my team. We spent hours traipsing around the forest looking forlornly into the crooks of trees, our local guides whistling to the bird and the rest of us beseeching it and them to find us honey. The search, however, proved elusive.

Even the Ndorobo’s own hives — wooden structures suspended in the branches of trees under which fires were lit and the bees smoked out — proved frustratingly empty.

Nevertheless we were not trampled either, despite the huge elephant footprints we kept coming across in the forest which prove the new conservation approach is working. This, at least, was a positive. There is clearly hope for me yet.

Childhood memories

I first came to Africa when still a child. My grandfather was head of biology for the Soviet Union’s Academy of Science, a position that also made him responsible for the state’s research projects worldwide. Because of the USSR’s close links with the Derg — the Ethiopian military government which, it should be pointed out, in the 1970s and 1980s imprisoned, killed and starved tens of thousands of its people — this often involved visits to the Horn of Africa. On occasion he would take me with him.

Even then, I knew it would always be special to me. The savannahs, the sunlight, the ferocious majesty of its wildlife (and people), the scale of its lands: all force you to re-evaluate yourself and your place in this world.

Although I am now an adult, and one with a number of businesses to manage, reaching Africa still brings a peace and perspective I find nowhere else. For once, the mobile phone can be put away and ignored.

Yet tragedy and violence go hand-in-hand with Africa’s vibrancy and beauty, as I had seen only too visually when the sheep was killed in such a brutal manner. I was reminded of this again when visiting another tribe being encouraged into assisting conservation in East Africa — the Pokot.

They have a history as one of the most warlike in the region, and constantly defied the British in colonial times, and were prolific elephant killers. Hunting was a precondition for males to marry, and the larger the animal killed the more beautiful the women who could be wed.

Arriving in their village, I was greeted by a display of native dances. It was an uproarious affair as the men and women, dressed in traditional robes and ornaments, showed off their hunting and courting rituals. Again and again they pulled me into the heaving mob to join them, the sweat by now pouring down their faces from the exertion of the dances.

It was when I asked about the women’s headdresses that I gained a glimpse beyond the pageantry and fun, however. Made from strings of red, yellow, blue and purple beads, they symbolised who had undergone one of the tribe’s key rites of passage: female genital mutilation. Looking again, I realised that every woman who had reached puberty wore one.

The men’s ornaments were as revealing. Bands on their arms celebrated kills in battle: a bracelet around their right arm to indicate a male victim and – less commonly – around their left for a woman. Fighting between tribes remains common, I learnt, mainly over cattle. Just a few days earlier a 13-year-old boy had been killed during a raid in West Pokot region by neighbouring Turkana rustlers.

Fighting is not done with the weapons that were being paraded in front of me, spears or bows and arrows. The AK-47 is king here, like on much of the continent. I asked if I could see them. Absolutely not, I was told. For visitors, that part of their lives is kept hidden.

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