Daniel Zuma, a son to a charcoal burner, is now preventing wild species and their habitats from extinction. He narrates how and why he decided to embrace wildlife conversation amidst growing up in human-wildlife conflict zone. He was born in Kale, a drought stricken village that sits on a wildlife corridor- the migration path to thousands of elephants traversing from Tsavo East National Park to Tsavo West National Parks and vice versa. Growing up he experienced the loss of livestock to elephants and lives to the lions, hyenas, and leopards.
Having lost his father while still in primary school, Kenya’s youngest wildlife conservation pilot couldn’t imagine an alternative source of income rather than poaching or charcoal burning. Nobody imagined that he would grow to become one of the few gyrocopter pilots in Kenya.
Upon the turn of events Mr. Daniel vowed to work hard in order to salvage the situation of his family depending on wildlife destruction for survival.
“Though difficult, since childhood, I did not want to follow my late father’s footsteps of destroying the environment. My parent’s death taught me the hard way – it was a wake-up call for me to start laying a strong foundation in search for a better option to earn a living,” says Daniel.
His wildlife conservation journey started at the age of 15, back in 2007 when he won a full scholarship from Kelimu Trust Organization (an organization founded by Matthew and Alice with an objective of providing bright children from disadvantaged families with an opportunity to achieve their goals) through Wildlife Works, to pursue his secondary school education at Kenyatta High School, Mwatate -Taita.
In 2009, Daniel sat for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination and performed well.
Daniel together with other children sponsored by Kelimu used to spend a better part of their holiday’s at Wildlife Works green house as volunteers attending to tree nurseries. To increase forest cover in the region, they also planted trees in water towers during rainy seasons.
In 2010, his hard work earned him a job as an Assistant Mechanic at Wildlife Works.“Rob’s impact in my life is remarkable and cannot be equated with anything – he left an unforgettable souvenir. He was a pillar in my life, his death was a tragedy that I have never overcome up-to date.” -Daniel
The young man started dreaming big after the company bought a new gyrocopter and the Director Wildlife Works Sanctuary Limited and Vice President of African Field Operations, the late Rob Dodson appointed him as hangar assistant. He would report to work early in the morning to prepare the gyrocopter so his boss could begin his aerial surveillance work as early as 6am.
He was lucky to secure such a job at the age of 19 years.
Though the sense of responsibility had dawned upon him to take care of his siblings following the death of his mother who died while giving birth through Cesarian section(CS) five months later.
“I had to take care of my siblings –something that was financially and psychologically demanding but I had no alternative. I knew they deserved a better life. I denied myself luxurious lifestyle to brace the situation,” says Zuma with a sombre mood engraved all over his face.
Back in his village, very few valued education but to Zuma his studies were a do-or-die affair that would determine his family’s future living standards. He had to defy all odds.
“I became the first Aeronautical Engineer which increased my chances of becoming a pilot- a profession I developed after my promotion as hangar assistant,” said Daniel.
On 3rd March, 2017 sad news of the untimely and sudden death of Rob Dodson broke the walls of the Taita hills causing panic to thousands of Africans who depended and considered him a role model and selfless God-sent leader.
Rob’s untimely death got all including the organization’s founder and President Mike Korchinsky by surprise as there was nobody groomed to take over looking after the safety of Kenya’s wild animals from the sky.
Fortunately, Rob had cultivated Zuma’s dream to fly high across the Tsavo ecosystem in a thirst to protect wildlife.
“Rob’s impact in my life is remarkable and cannot be equated with anything – he left an unforgettable souvenir. He was a pillar in my life, his death was a tragedy that I have never overcome up-to date.” Notes Daniel
The young African conservationist was left hopeless following the death of Mr Rob who had promised to sponsor his training on how to fly in South Africa. He thought all hope was lost but fortunately Rob had spoken to Alice Owen about Daniel’s ambition. She came to his rescue by initiating a crowd funding project to enable him travel to the United Kingdom where he was trained on how to fly gyrocopters.
“Training at The Gyrocopter Experience for my Private Pilots License for Gyrocopters was a great miracle. I am much grateful to Alice Owen, Wildlife Works fraternity, all friends and well wishers who made my dream of protecting wild animals from the sky a reality,” says Daniel.
Everyday, Zuma spends at least two hours in the sky from 6am in the morning. Zuma’s inspiring story has since revolutionized the mind-set of his community –where everyone has now become a wildlife conversation ambassador. Local youth have abandoned poaching and charcoal burning business thanks to Wildlife Works Sanctuary for absorbing a good number as rangers and environmentalists.
Harrison Kamwana is a Kenyan based Journalist specializing in political, health, wildlife and development journalism. He is also a renowned social media branding and crisis communication expert. He is currently a Public Relations Officer at the County Government of Taita Taveta – Twitter @HarrisonKamwana