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Protecting and Preserving Wildlife in East Africa. Mike Silvestrini of Big Life Foundation
Episode 15717th January 2022 • Your Positive Imprint • Catherine Praiswater
00:00:00 00:20:15

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Is mitigation between humans and wildlife enough to preserve habitats, elephants, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, giraffes, and other African wildlife on the Massai land culture? Conservationist Mike Silvestrini of Big Life Foundation shares critical conservation efforts for 1.6 million acres of Africa’s remaining natural habitat and wildlife migration corridor in Amboseli-Tsavo-Kilimanjaro ecosystem.

(Photos: Art Tower, Theuns, LeeShyPooh, Gærtringen.)

Transcripts

Mike Silvestrini:

It's a lens that you're developing.

Mike Silvestrini:

A lens through, which you can view the world

Mike Silvestrini:

not exclusively as a white male born in Connecticut, but just as a member of history and a participant in a global society.

Mike Silvestrini:

And I've always tried to get that lens, right.

Mike Silvestrini:

And to balance my own views,

Catherine:

Well, hello,

Catherine:

thank you so much for listening to all of these amazing and exceptional, positive imprints.

Catherine:

Well, I'm Catherine, your host for the podcast, your positive imprint, the variety show, featuring people all over the world whose positive actions are inspiring positive achievements.

Catherine:

Exceptional people rise to the challenge.

Catherine:

Music by the talented Chris Nole., check out his music and learn so much more about his background.

Catherine:

Download his music and also some of his written compositions for piano.

Catherine:

For the podcast, Chris composed elevated intentions, a perfect title, which I use at the end of the show.

Catherine:

And Chris's music may be found at ChrisNole.com.

Catherine:

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Catherine:

Your positive imprint.

Catherine:

What's your PI.

Catherine:

Mike Silvestrini's life changed.

Catherine:

He joined up with the Peace Corps and spent time in Africa as a small enterprise development officer.

Catherine:

During his time in Africa, he observed the extreme need to protect precious ecosystems and wildlife.

Catherine:

Hence the Big Life Foundation.

Catherine:

Mike Silvestrini welcome to the show.

Catherine:

Hey,

Mike Silvestrini:

Catherine.

Mike Silvestrini:

Thanks for having me.

Mike Silvestrini:

How's

Catherine:

it going?

Catherine:

Oh, it's going great.

Catherine:

I'm so excited to have you and to learn more about these investments and just your past, your history to where you are today.

Catherine:

The big foundation.

Catherine:

Anxious to hear.

Mike Silvestrini:

Yeah, absolutely.

Mike Silvestrini:

Yeah.

Mike Silvestrini:

So big life foundation , just to set the record straight.

Mike Silvestrini:

I joined, , several years into an existing organization who was based in Kenya, and there was this fantastic group of individuals had gotten together and decided to take action against the poaching

Mike Silvestrini:

And they were doing such a great job.

Mike Silvestrini:

W when we discovered them, had to be part of it and, , joined the board, going on about five or six years ago now.

Catherine:

You went out there when you joined The Peace Corps not really realizing how much that experience would change you.

Mike Silvestrini:

I think it started off, Catherine as a just a love affair with traveling and experiencing different cultures and hanging out with other travelers and, seeing different places, at a young age, it

Mike Silvestrini:

I tried to figure out ways that what types of lifestyles would allow me to professionalize my life as I grow and you know, want to eventually have a job and a family, but still

Mike Silvestrini:

And that kind of forced me to think about international diplomacy.

Mike Silvestrini:

Maybe we need to take a step back and look what are the current events in the world saying to us?

Mike Silvestrini:

And we had the Nobel prize going to the scientific community who proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that climate change was a significant concern for humanity.

Mike Silvestrini:

For me, it was quite clear that renewable energy and wildlife conservation were going to be two industries that I wanted to be part of.

Mike Silvestrini:

Two things that must thrive to have a longterm sustainable world and, and relationship with the world.

Mike Silvestrini:

So, that became obvious to me because of those traveling and that synthesis of global perspectives.

Catherine:

Let's look at the peace Corps when you went down into Africa.

Catherine:

What were some of your experiences that obviously changed you?

Catherine:

But you went down there already with the notion of changing the world because you joined the peace Corps,

Mike Silvestrini:

well, peace Corps is really a fascinating and incredible experience that I can't recommend high enough for anybody.

Mike Silvestrini:

I joined the peace Corps in 2005 and was stationed in Mali a country in west Africa.

Mike Silvestrini:

And the Republic du Mali.

Mike Silvestrini:

It's a French speaking country.

Mike Silvestrini:

Their main language is Bombora, but it was a French colony.

Mike Silvestrini:

So there's traces of French and Bombora in their dialects.

Mike Silvestrini:

And it's an ancient culture.

Mike Silvestrini:

And it was really fascinating, cause I'd never really knew much about Mali before I was on a plane on my way there.

Mike Silvestrini:

It was exciting.

Mike Silvestrini:

I go to someplace just totally foreign to me.

Mike Silvestrini:

A lot of people assumed it would be dangerous.

Mike Silvestrini:

It is an extremely poor country, but it is also one of the happiest places I've ever been, which was bizarre- what a juxtaposition of characteristics of a place simultaneously being the second or

Mike Silvestrini:

, And just having a laughter based culture.

Mike Silvestrini:

They even have this concept that we call in English joking cousins, where when you greet another person on the street in Mali, you might grab their hand and make a series of jokes that are almost standard

Mike Silvestrini:

(unknown) which is kind of a, just a Malian cultural thing.

Mike Silvestrini:

And, you know, you might stand there for five or 10 minutes, just greeting that person to make some jokes, have a laugh at each other's expense and then go on with your day.

Mike Silvestrini:

And we couldn't imagine that like, if the bus is ten seconds late in the United States, horns, start honking, and people have a panic attack, but in this culture you could take an entire

Mike Silvestrini:

So like they have that in spades.

Mike Silvestrini:

They have really strong communities and societies in Mali that I think was probably overlooked by whoever views it as just a scary poor place.

Catherine:

Oh, isn't that interesting.

Catherine:

There is so much to learn in the world and I think reading is certainly an awesome way.

Catherine:

And most people can't make the type of traveling trips that you have fortunately been able to make.

Catherine:

So big life foundation, you talked about the poachers and you talked about trying to save the wildlife.

Catherine:

So what is it that big life foundation is doing to help preserve the wildlife in its natural habitat?

Catherine:

Is there a way that you're able to sustain the habitats?

Mike Silvestrini:

We don't know yet.

Mike Silvestrini:

We've certainly had tremendous progress.

Mike Silvestrini:

The, the hard part about conservation is you have to be successful for eternity for it to matter at all, because if we're successful for 50 years, And then regress and

Mike Silvestrini:

And I can't say that we've solved for that, but I can say that we solve some short-term problems.

Mike Silvestrini:

Number one, there's a very important place in Southern Kenya called the Amboseli Ecosystem.

Mike Silvestrini:

Amboseli is the name for a series of natural underground Springs.

Mike Silvestrini:

And it's always wet there.

Mike Silvestrini:

There's about a foot of water with some tall grasses growing out of it throughout what is essentially a big swamp and it's a national park and it's very important place because when it's dry, season

Mike Silvestrini:

all the surrounding areas, which includes Kilimanjaro.

Mike Silvestrini:

It includes Savo national parks, Savo east and west.

Mike Silvestrini:

It includes places like the Chu Lu Hills.

Mike Silvestrini:

It's very important ecologies.

Mike Silvestrini:

All the wildlife will during the dry season, migrate its way to the Amboseli Springs to have a drink.

Mike Silvestrini:

And once it has a drink, then hopefully it rains.

Mike Silvestrini:

And as it rains and grasses start growing and sprouting all throughout the ecosystem, the wildlife disperses.

Mike Silvestrini:

So it's this constant ebb and flow of migration towards the water.

Mike Silvestrini:

Then the rains come and dispersal.

Mike Silvestrini:

And what the problem is is that these wildlife is crossing in and out of about four or five different national park boundaries on their journey to Amboseli to have a drink, they're passing

Mike Silvestrini:

interacting with several hundred thousand humans.

Mike Silvestrini:

That's where you create human wildlife conflict.

Mike Silvestrini:

And so when we first got really engaged in big life there was about 400 poached elephants a year in the greater Amboseli ecosystem and it went unchecked.

Mike Silvestrini:

Because most of it was Al Shabaab and a lot of Somalian kind of gang groups kind of coming down and taking the Ivory's selling the ivory to the Chinese on the black market and in funding, their combat.

Mike Silvestrini:

But there was also sort of indifference amongst the local communities to allow this to happen.

Mike Silvestrini:

So first we had to stop that.

Mike Silvestrini:

I'm happy to say that you know, that it's zero now there are no poached elephants in the Amboseli ecosystem, and that's largely because of the more

Mike Silvestrini:

Mostly Maasai warriors who have been repositioned as wildlife Rangers to protect this ecosystem.

Mike Silvestrini:

And there is no poaching in our ecosystem, in our area of operation, which is about 2 million acres.

Mike Silvestrini:

So I can say that that's a huge success and that came through more or less firepower.

Mike Silvestrini:

Training, Rangers training, you know, warrior aged Maasai boys mostly and girls,

Mike Silvestrini:

to become Rangers.

Mike Silvestrini:

Training them how to engage with this wildlife and to shoo away, an elephant who's wandered too close to the avocado patch and things like that.

Mike Silvestrini:

So a lot of training; we have a couple of planes.

Mike Silvestrini:

We have tracker dogs.

Mike Silvestrini:

We made a lot of arrests over a thousand arrests of potential poachers who were there setting up snares in the specific intent to kill wildlife illegally, and

Mike Silvestrini:

Um, And that was really our major effort for the first few years that started before I got there and continued through the first few years of my being involved with big life foundation.

Mike Silvestrini:

And it grew a lot, you know, we went from sort of a one to a $7 million annual spend as an organization over the course of the last five years.

Mike Silvestrini:

So that's been exciting.

Mike Silvestrini:

But now we're incurred countering new problems.

Mike Silvestrini:

We have full capacities of lions, cheetahs, leopards, elephants.

Mike Silvestrini:

They all live in maximum carrying capacity in our area of operation.

Mike Silvestrini:

But here comes the new problem.

Mike Silvestrini:

The only reason why those animals really exist there in modern day in the first place is because the Maasai have

Mike Silvestrini:

territory divided among group ranches.

Mike Silvestrini:

So Maasai don't have private property like you and I, we might both own our own house, our own land.

Mike Silvestrini:

And the Maasai, you might have 30,000 people who share a massive piece of tribal land, and that's great for wildlife because it's really hard to develop that type of tribal land into farms and

Mike Silvestrini:

It saved this wildlife.

Mike Silvestrini:

The Maasai, the bizarreness of the Maasai land culture has saved this wildlife.

Mike Silvestrini:

It's the only reason why it's not already a farm cause most of Kenya already is.

Mike Silvestrini:

So long story short they're starting to subdivide the Maasai land

Mike Silvestrini:

and giving out those parcels as private property to the individual members of the community.

Mike Silvestrini:

And that's petrifying us because we know and are already seeing the Maasai start to quickly sell that property for a quick buck which is a bad investment

Mike Silvestrini:

And they wind up, you know, moving to Nairobi and, having a hard time acclimating to the modern job culture.

Mike Silvestrini:

So we see that a lot, but also ecologically speaking, that land is going to be now developed.

Mike Silvestrini:

So we have spent the last few years really trying to help the Maasai navigate a process of privatizing the group ranches

Mike Silvestrini:

and individualizing the group ranche in such a way that they can still have the ecological value of their Homeland because our argument to them is that being one of the last places in the world where

Mike Silvestrini:

And you want to hold on to that.

Mike Silvestrini:

And you want to protect that and charge tourists for that.

Mike Silvestrini:

And eventually, mint biodiversity credits or carbon credits or whatever the heck else we can invent for you guys and sell that stuff to primarily American massive

Mike Silvestrini:

And that's our argument to them.

Mike Silvestrini:

And, you know, it's, it's been a fantastic interpersonal and intercultural relationship between big life our multi hundred , force and the surrounding communities who are

Catherine:

Wow.

Catherine:

This is really wow.

Catherine:

I mean, it's, it's heart wrenching because we certainly want to preserve the wildlife, but we also know that people need to live and survive.

Catherine:

And so they make decisions which may or may not be good decisions for tomorrow.

Catherine:

I had a gal on the show from Africa and she is a beekeeper.

Catherine:

And of course on my podcast, I have exceptional people on the show.

Catherine:

She goes above and beyond beekeeping where she found that number one, the trees, the habitat for bees were being cut down because of the charcoal industry.

Catherine:

And the other is that villagers would poach elephants because the elephants were coming in and tramping all over their gardens and that's their livelihood as well.

Catherine:

So what she did is she talked to the villagers and said, let's put beehives all around the perimeter of the village to keep the elephants out.

Catherine:

And in order for you to not take down the trees I want you to build beehives in your village.

Catherine:

And I in turn will buy the honey to provide income to you so that she gives something back to save elephants and to save trees and so on.

Catherine:

So she did that and it's very successful.

Catherine:

And granted it's a smaller, it's not a million acres.

Catherine:

Still it's something that somebody is doing and it's a positive imprint and it's working.

Catherine:

And so the people are happy.

Catherine:

They're making money.

Catherine:

They're keeping the elephants out.

Catherine:

They have honey, they have bees.

Catherine:

They're no longer afraid of them.

Mike Silvestrini:

That's fascinating.

Mike Silvestrini:

Unfortunately, we've had to, you know, we're not as creative as this, as that guest.

Mike Silvestrini:

We've had to install hundreds of kilometers of electrified fencing because it's the only way it stinks you have to take one of the most beautiful terrains left in the world and to build a fence, but we had corridors

Mike Silvestrini:

that were just shrinking to zero.

Mike Silvestrini:

And one of our corridors is only a couple of kilometers wide now.

Mike Silvestrini:

And the farms just keep on encroaching and encroaching encroaching, and it would have swallowed up that corridor.

Mike Silvestrini:

So we didn't really build the fence to keep the elephants out , we did it to keep the humans overrunning this critical artery of that migratory process I was telling you about earlier.

Mike Silvestrini:

So, we deal a lot now in, in many ways, a big chunk of what entered, what Big Life Foundation does today is fence building and maintenance so that we can keep a separation between the farmers who

Mike Silvestrini:

They have to have that, right.

Mike Silvestrini:

But we can do our best to keep the elephants out of there.

Mike Silvestrini:

And then it actually allows our limited security forces to stretch much farther because when those, those fences there, the number of instances of

Mike Silvestrini:

So unfortunately, it looks from our perspective that the future of wildlife security and ecology on a broad scale is going to have to require some level of fencing.

Mike Silvestrini:

But I like to beehives a heck of a lot better than I like electrified fencing.

Mike Silvestrini:

So that's a really cool concept.

Catherine:

It's not a million acres, but a village reaping the benefits of the beehives because she buys the honey.

Mike Silvestrini:

I tell you, I would like to speak with her.

Catherine:

Her name is Mmbatho.

Catherine:

She might have other alternatives, but right now that's what she's been doing.

Catherine:

And it's been working for a number of years.

Catherine:

Learn more about BIG LIFE FOUNDATION by going to their website, BigLife.org.

Catherine:

And the episode that I am referring to with Mmbatho is episode 121 Saving Africa's Honeybees.

Catherine:

Sustainable Beekeeper Mmbatho Portia Morudi.

Catherine:

Take a listen to that episode, to learn more about her positive imprints with the honeybees, villagers, and elephants in Africa.

Catherine:

Next week Mike Silvestrini shares information on climate change and his company Energea.

Catherine:

And please hit that.

Catherine:

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Catherine:

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