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Zoo employee shares ‘lunch with elephants’ at Metroparks talk

By Nicole Hennessy

North Olmsted

When Nancy Hughes first saw a giraffe roaming the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, her face lit up in excitement. She stood in amazement, watching a herd of them lope up a hill.

But by the third day of her trip, she had grown unimpressed by the sight of them, as they were everywhere.

Still, recalling the confined version of what was freely roaming before her, back at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo – where she works as a sustainability, composting and recycling coordinator – she knew she was in a special place.

Originally built to protect black rhinos, which are often the victims of poaching, Lewa is a 40,000-acre conservancy just north of the equator.

It’s been a while since Hughes’ 2005 trip to Kenya; but, she said to a group at the Rocky River Nature Center Feb. 26, “I love sharing my pictures, telling a story,” and taking people to places they may not have a chance to go.

She said poaching is still a huge problem in Africa, explaining that 85 percent of Kenya’s elephant population has been wiped out. In 2005 alone, she said, 25,000 elephants were killed. And rhino horns, which go for about $25,000 per pound, are worth more than gold. Some Asian countries use animal tusks in medicines and pay a lot to acquire them. They’re also used as decorations and souvenirs.

Totally fenced in to cut back on poachers, only a small section of Lewa remains open to allow for animal migration. More than 70 species of mammals live in the conservancy, and of those, Hughes estimates her group saw about 43.

During bumpy rides on open safari vehicles, large rhinos would stand in the way and cheetahs would lurk in the tall grass. Crocodiles, hippos, zebras and lions went about their business as Hughes snapped photographs of them and the flat-topped acacia trees characteristic of Africa.

One night she found herself on a safari. The group she was with heard a lion roaring in the distance.

Eager to find it, the driver wildly drove off-road, headed in the direction of the sound, and within minutes, Hughes saw the huge animal, its glowing eyes staring back at her.

She was constantly amazed by how accurately the local guides were able to traverse Lewa. In fact, when she first spotted the lion that night, she stood to get a better view of it, and forgetting that her binoculars were on her lap, she dropped them.

Thinking it hopeless to ever find them, she wrote them off as a loss – only to have a guide take her back to the exact spot the next day to pick them up.

In general, she became impressed with the culture of the people who lived on Lewa, on which eight primary schools are located, giving area children a sometimes rare education.

Even rarer, for any child, is the chance to learn about animals that they are surrounded by each day.

Summing up her trip up as an “awesome experience,” Hughes finished up her slideshow with a few photos of side trips to other wildlife parks nearby and the Maasai people who lived there.

Hughes said, but not many others can say, “We had lunch with a group of elephants” that day.

 

SIDE BAR: This lecture is part of a series called Friday Nights With Nature, which takes place at the Rocky River Nature Center every Friday night in January and February beginning at 7:30 p.m. There is no fee for admittance but seats fill quickly, so people are advised to arrive early.

 

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