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Burning Kenya’s Ivory: A 360 perspective & CITES 2016

Low angle ivory pile

6am. Adrian was still asleep, I was praying that he felt better after his terrible bout of sickness…. to no avail. I felt so bad for him, that he couldn’t share this moment with me as a friend, filmmaker and fellow conservationist. Today was the largest Ivory Burn in history- 105 tonnes of ivory and all of Kenya’s leaders, wildlife activists were ‘joining the herd’ in Nairobi National Park to stand up against the illegal wildlife trade that has caused over thousands of elephant deaths due to the simple sake of man’s greed.

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Heavily guarded ivory, the Kenya Wildlife Service Rangers on patrol. 

However….

Rain…rain…not so beautiful rain! It HEAVED it down, the ground was quickly assimilated into a large soup bowl of red earth. My already worn out boots seemed to cling to the ground like roots. We had to queue outside the National Park gates and collect our press passes, much to my horror mine wasn’t there, but I was reassured when I had my UK Journalism (NUJ) Press Pass and the brilliant Tim Oloo to help us by pass the armed KWS rangers (the novelty of people with AK-47 guns hadn’t worn out..)

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They searched our pockets and bags for any explosives (I certainly didn’t fit the bill), and we were ushered into a packed mini-bus to drive us through the park in safety. Journalists, reporters, filmmakers and conservationists clutched their camera gear and tripods with gusto as we bumped along the muddy path. It felt rather like we were entering Jurassic Park inside one of their vehicles with its dense scattered Acacia bushes and thick highland trees.

We then we piled out of the bus as we arrived at the site we had done before on the 28th, and once again went through security with all our kit. Droplets of rain began falling, just teasing us as we hauled our kit across the already quagmire site.

The press stands were soon filling up and I bagged two spots with my tripod for good measure. Rather than on the journalist podium, I placed it just offside where a direct shot of the flames and president could be had (we’re talking photographic terms here, not actual shooting!) Then it began raining lions and hyenas…and I schlumped my way across to the press tent…which was like a rather nice watering hole– not the like where you could find drinks but the literally the ground meant your calves were submerged. I got the kit to high ground and worked out a plan of action. Wides and close ups on the tripods with the 200-400mm lens, and roving with the 17-200mm kit lens on the shoulder rig. Tim and Will were busy liaising and so all we could do now was wait for instructions and people to arrive. To say I was excited about seeing Leonardo Di Caprio was an understatement…. I wondered if Elton John would be coming too?

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 The rain at the ivory burn event, Nairobi National Park. Press avoiding the rain 8:45am, 30th April, 2016. © Tania Esteban

 

Being among top journalists from around the world made me laugh and smile, I was nothing if not a minute fly in comparison to their expertise… but I felt thrilled to be among them and curious as to what camera equipment they would be using. A lovely guy from the Huffington post asked me about my Richo Theta camera I was using and showed him my model, his was the updated grey version. Everyone wanted to be part of the new trend! Well I only saw two other people with one, so check out my 360 videos for some exclusives!

I thought I’d leave some of the kit back in the little white tent opposite the main presidential one, and follow Will. Again the floor wasn’t any better here. Heels would not be useful for any dignitaries! There I saw Will talking to Charlie-Hamilton James! One of my fave wildlife photographers, I was very excited to introduce myself and ask about his recent trip to film for Disney Nature. He told me he had just come from filming lions in the Mara, and I told him about my own film I was wishing to find in Meru. Then I bumped into Michael Owino, a local Sound Technician who offered to hold an umbrella for me in the rain- thanks Mike! He was such a help, I managed to get a few steady shots of officials as they prepared the ivory and rhino horn for the main event.

SO much was happening at this point (11am), and many journalists were beginning to set up and capture the events. Also bumped into Ian Redmond, Born free ambassador and Ape Alliance chairman who actually put me in contact with Will about the film, I owe pretty much the entire trip to him- thank you! He was busy filming for the BBC’s new exciting series (more revealed soon!) and I happily agreed to shoot an interview with him for it. So whilst milling around in the mud inside the tent, we shot outside when the weather cleared up. Ian was piece perfect and hit the key points, balancing the emotional and logical science on the issue.

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Ian Redmond at the Ivory Burn talking to Ian Douglas-Hamilton. ©Tania Esteban

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After that I went celebrity spotting! Was quite fun and I did see Kristine Davis who is an ambassador for the Sheldrick Trust (Sex and the City!), the modern lion man himself Kevin Richardson, and I met legendary wildlife photographer Jonathan Scott! Was such an honour to meet him towards the end. Also another of my conservation heroes Iain Douglas-Hamilton! I shook his had with enthusiasm before I realised they were covered in mud…I apologised profusely but hopefully he didn’t seem to mind, I doubt that a bit of mud will perturb this great man, father of one of my heroines Saba Douglas.. what I wouldn’t give to roam around Samburu bear foot and searching for elephants.

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Actress: Sex and the City star Kristin Davis, who is a patron of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.
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Kevin Richardson, the  modern Lion Man himself at the burn.

Anywho! I also filmed the legendary Dr Richard Leaky as he walked among the crowd and then approached the main ivory pile. Then it was time to film the events going on inside the tent. I bumped into my new friend Michael as he was setting up his C300 onto the stage. There were dancers and performers as well as upcoming rising eco warrior, actor and musician Luca Berrardi, aged 12 he has accomplished many great things in Kenya, raising awareness about the plight of their wildlife. Check out his twitter profile.

Then after a few more roaming shots I decided to head out and capture the president when he came out to the podium outside. Journalists were clearly thinking a similar strategy…and we all crammed together in mud like penguins looking lost. The ivory gleaned in the afternoon sun, wet from the mornings downpour. Thank goodness I had placed the tripod earlier! Long lens on one camera, the other with the zoom…we were ready for the president and the lighting of the ivory. In the tent the words ‘Worth more alive” echoed in our ears, its staggering to think of the mindless bloodshed because of mans greed. Virginia herself quoted that ivory carvings represent”little symbols of death.” Charlie Hamilton-James and Jonathan Scott also lined up alongside us to capture that perfect shot of the president lighting the ivory pile- the symbol of Kenya’s strength and determination to eliminate the horrific trade as well as all others (including lion body part trade).

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Jonathan Scott at the Burn site, ready to take photos of the president. ©Tania Esteban

The president made his way along the muddy path and took questions from the press, I filmed away in awe of what I was witnessing. Kenyatta then lit the ivory and to our disappointment there wasn’t much of an all-explosive-light-up of the pile; a rather puffed out cough of smoke. But soon enough the smoke billowed and the flames grew

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Surrounded by the world’s media and press, all eyes on the president. ©Tania Esteban

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Billowing smoke as the president looks on and the world’s media. ©Tania Esteban

 

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President Kenyatta taking questions at the ivory burn. ©Tania Esteban

The flames were flickering up towards the heavens as the light fell, and a silence fell upon all of those witnessing this momentous spectacle. 105 tonnes of ivory, 6000 elephants…generations of elephants wiped out because of the simple sake of mans greed. I often reflect upon humanity, and my own existence as a human because of the terrible atrocities many people commit. The smell was overwhelming, a mixture of kerosene but more prevalent still the smell of death…burning carcasses and bone of once living creatures. The sound of the cracking of the ivory was equally powerful, and the burning hiss that resonated across the field. And then the carnage….

We all literally legged it as soon as the tape was removed to get the first shots of the flames up close an personal, the solemn meaning of the event was temporarily forgotten. But first there was a ditch to cross…

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Not pleased with the ditch to cross…its deeper than it looks!
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A solemn moment…Very privileged to have been given access to film but equally overwhelmed by the numbers of elephants slaughtered.

Once over the rangers patrolled the ivory like rottweilers with rifles, their heavy boots sinking into the ground, and posing for eager photographers. You could really feel the heat coming from the 11 stacks, the smell billowing away into the inky darkness

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I continued to film and photograph away, staring in awe at my surroundings. A drone engine suddenly pierced the air and we looked up to see an Inspire capturing a unique view of the burn, something we all would want to shoot! Check out the video by Barny Trevelyan-Johnson.

Here’s me in a 360 video filming at the front where the piles are burning, don’t forget to pan around!

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Filming at the ivory burn was a privilege, I was happy to be there to document this as a my first proper shoot, but I felt truly overwhelmed by what I had seen…
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10 tonnes each; up in flames….On the tusks are individual identification names, with information regarding the origin, weight, elephant sex, age and herd.
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The haze moving in, the smell was very powerful.

After capturing further shots I was the introduced to another one of my heroes, Jonathan having seen him photograph all day, and Ian Hamilton. What a privilege. Also saw the fabulous News anchor/presenter for NTV Wild, Smiriti Vidyarthi there interviewing Patrick Omondi and the KWS officials.

And so dear readers, the emotional rollercoaster of a day came to an end, and Will, Ian, Tim and myself readied ourselves to leave the sight…one last GoPro video….

But before you go, remember that THIS September  over 180 countries will convene in Johannesburg at the CITES meeting to decide the fate of lions and elephants– to upscale the protection afforded for lions and ban the illegal wildlife trade in ivory. Hong Kong’s chief executive C.Y Leung recently stated that they would attempt to phase out all trade in of ivory. Others are yet to act. In fact Zimbabwe and Namibia are planning to ask CITES to approve new legal sales of ivory – a dreadful idea.

SO..

Keep the FIRE BURNING…share on Social media, tweet, Facebook, Pininterest, about how YOU CARE about the fate of not only elephants, but ALL wildlife. In the next 30 years they could be gone forever. The greatest threat however is habitat destruction and this is something I will be addressing in the next few blog post. In the meantime, have a look at this clip by Wild Aid at the end of this article and start talking to your world leaders and politicians to act!

Also some of my ivory burn footage can be seen here in a preview of A lion’s Tale! See what you think (at 1:43 min in):

 

 

Diving into BBC’s Big Blue Live

Going Digital: Social Media and 360 Filming

We dived into the BBC Big Blue Live Masterclass in Bristol to learn about the secrets of their latest live wildlife-drama hit.

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Laura Thorne, Paul Deane and Sam Hume took to the stage to reveal the digital highs and lows of this new immersive and multiplatform series celebrating the wildlife of our oceans co-produced by the BBC and PBS. “Bringing the world to Monterey Bay” created many logistical, technical and editorial challenges for the team. The boats out in Monterey had been rigged with live cameras but nobody knew which individual animals would be filmed! Back in the UK we’re used to seeing the similarly formatted Springwatch with a more regimented character appearance, but as experienced producer James Honeyborne said, “Nature is literally writing our script!”

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However the adorable Southern Sea Otters at the Bay offered the crew a life line, allowing them to follow the story of a female mother, Bixby and her young pup. There’s nothing cuter than a literal ball of fluff- a single looping vine clip had over 4 million views on social media. Now that’s transoceanic!

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The social campaign was hugely successful with experienced Digital Development Lead Paul Dean on board, where the stories, wealth of archive material (70% digital exclusives) and hot-off the platter video-bites were served up on the BBC Earth Unplugged social platforms to some of the largest audiences the broadcasters have seen online. In a world of increasing content, there is little time to grab an audience’s attention.

And so the wealth of GIFs, videos, Vines, stills and infographics kept both UK and American audiences entertained and enthralled by this little known oceanic part of the world.

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Even 360 got a test dive… a virtual interactive reality video where you can dive among the verdant and colossal kelp forests, or have a swim with seals and Steve Backshall in an equally engaging virtual world. The BBC were however careful to choose the right video clips to fit a particular platform, and were able to partner with PBS and Monterey Bay Aquarium to promote their content.

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Influencer campaigns of people with ‘big accounts’ such as conservationists and presenters were also targeted to “re-tweet” material, with the Blue Whale’s last minute appearance stealing the headlines.

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This indeed proved to be a crucial element in making Big Blue a splashing success worldwide. Co-branding the BBC and PBS worked surprisingly well for the team as well, despite traditional ways of publicising programmes. The team shared their top tips for getting your content out there:

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  • Know your audience
  • Be patient
  • Try out material
  • Know your team
  • Be multi-skilled
  • Pre-release your best content
  • Listen to you audience

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But most of all, be HUMAN. Audiences want to be entertained on Digital Platforms as well on TV, with stories that are risky, humorous and inspiring. Big Blue Live was a truly ground-breaking and thrilling interactive experience. The Live Team are now looking for the next big series where the logistical issues of filming at different times of the day can be overcome, but not at the expense of finding amazing wildlife. We racked our brains for a few places we thought might fit the bill- let’s hope they have potential!

From Shoals to Social media: Global Intelligence, a Science to predict and create the future

Swarms of bees, shoals of fish, flocks of birds and a rowdy crowd of students. Ever wondered what fish and medical decisions have in common?

 

The ability to congregate and act collectively as a group- collective intelligence (CI). The study of CI in humans is a relatively new field in biology, which describes the universal distributed intelligence which arises from the collaboration and competition of many animals and the ability of an animal group to perform a wide variety of task. Scientists for centuries have been fascinated by the theory and mechanisms behind which such behaviour arises. Originally during the 1970’s psychologists and sociologists were primarily interested in looking at an individual’s viewpoint, how they are influenced and change their decisions based on others, peer-pressure and bias.

However the more modern consensus proposed by biologists focuses on the information that each individual has which, above a certain threshold, will take into account other individuals decisions as well as their own to result in one collective movement. Several mathematical models have been used to describe the complexities seen across nature, from the movement of birds to large herds, and is radically transforming the way we share information, communicate and work.

 

The possible use and value of tapping into the CI of species is endless. Biomimetics in particular has been implemented in many different areas of science to make our lives easier and to solve complex tasks. For instance, medical decisions with true and false positives, has recently concluded that the opinions of 3 skin cancer doctors can match that of the best qualified doctor. In terms of the use if this information, society will have to decide whether or not it’s worth paying the extra money to invest in more accurate decision making in medicine.

This basic principal can be seen in shoals of fish when deciding whether or not to flee or stay when an approaching shadow looms. An individual would be stuck in this false or true positive feedback loop on deciding whether or not it should stay or leave, where it could either gain or lose a feeding opportunity. Living in groups beaks this feedback loop as each follows its next nearest neighbour, above a certain threshold number.

The nutritional state of the fish will determine their position within the shoal. Those that are hungry with remain near the front or periphery, at the risk of being predated. Those that are well fed will remain at the centre but at the cost of gaining less food. This, with the simple “nearest neighbour” rule, means shoals take on information around them as well as their own personal preference and move in that direction to form one collective movement with the shoal.

Equally, humans have always possessed a deep desire to predict the future and indeed the collective intelligence of humans through the power of the media is showing promising signs of being able to just do that. Through analogous mechanisms seen in the natural world and the application of mathematical metric models to translate similar mechanisms into our modern world, CI has begun to radically transform the way we live our lives for the better. Can we tell the future with science? It seems that we can.

Prediction markets are used in politics for example, whereby large sums of money will be placed on different markets according to their own personal research and information, the decisions of others (in terms of how much they are willing to bet) which results in the resolution of a decision or problem. The hypothesis here is that the collective wisdom of many people is far greater than the conclusions of the few. Political betting has only recently made it to the UK compared to our American counterparts who have taken advantage of this powerful predictive tool, with correct predictions for almost every election between 1868-1940. Indeed our most recent elections in the UK was correctly predicted by the Betfair market, whilst the polls where postulating Ed Milliband would be at No.10, the markets it seems had the best information regarding the trends, and Mr Cameroon did remain Prime Minister as predicted.

Companies such as “Recorded Future” actually use the information already made available on the internet by people, through powerful data mining and search engines- to predict future trends with remarkable accuracy, as seen on social sites such as Twitter. Rather than the traditional prediction markets as mentioned above where peoples opinions are asked with responses to questions, the use of “web intelligence” to look at what people have already said on the internet is search via automated speech processing.

Others companies and institutions such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology work have produced Climate CoLab, were it sets challenges and asks its members to think of collective solutions to tackle global issues related to climate change and energy use. It is a crowd-sourcing platform where citizens work with experts to create, analyse and propose ideas. The members of the community are invited to submit their proposals as well as make comments on others, which then are evaluated by experts to select the most promising ones. The MIT centre for collective intelligence stands at the forefront of this revolutionary use of global intelligence and information and uses new technology to harness the power and change the way people work together.

In terms of design, solutions to smart cities and how we can monitor traffic more efficiently through social media as well as pay for parking through mobile devices has already sparked interest in many countries with increasing congestion due to urbanisation.

This will inevitably determine how we are able to keep up to pace with our ever increasingly changing world, having implications for society, economy and our environment. So next time you tweet…you may be helping to support future decisions. And that it’s not who you are but what you know which feeds into this most fascinating and little covered area of scientific research.