With his perfectly suntanned bald head and carefully trimmed white mustache, Shunpei Kanbe may remind some people of a lion tamer, or maybe an explorer from the Belle Epoque.
Actually both of these guesses are not that far from the truth, as the 66-year-old Japanese veterinarian has spent the last 40 years in Africa. He is chairman of the Africa and Shunpei Kanbe Fellowship (ASKF), a nongovernmental organization he founded in 1994 in order to better pursue his environmental conservation activity.
Kanbe’s love affair with African wildlife began in Tokyo. “My parents took me to Ueno Zoo when I was a child,” he says. “I was so fascinated that I decided then and there that one day I would visit the savanna and see the animals in their natural habitat.”
Fast forward 20 years and after graduating in veterinary medicine from Nihon University, Kanbe finally fulfilled his dream and went to Africa, where he backpacked around the continent for five years, traveling from Alexandria in Egypt to Cape Town in South Africa, before settling down in Nairobi. “I wanted to work in Kenya, but my university degree wasn’t recognized there, so I had to enroll at the local college and do it all over again, with the added handicap that I barely spoke English,” he says.
That was when the first of a series of fateful encounters happened that would change his life.
“Apart from the language, my biggest problem was that I had no money to pay the tuition costs. So one day I was sitting at a Japanese restaurant in Nairobi, looking sad and dejected — even more so because I was sick with malaria. The place was packed, so I shared a table with two other men,” he recalls. “One of them was an old classmate of mine I had met by chance in Kenya. The other one was a rich American whose ‘hobby,’ it turned out, was helping poor students. After listening to my story, he offered to pay my college tuition.”
Though financially secure now, Kanbe was still struggling with the English language. “It took me six years to complete my studies,” he says, “but when the time came to write my graduation thesis, I hit a wall. That proved to be an impossible task for me. I had done all the research myself, and gathered the necessary data, but putting it into English was just too difficult. However, just when I had resigned myself to give up, I met an American journalist who offered to write the thesis for me. My professor agreed, and this is how I eventually managed to start my career in Kenya.”
By that time Kanbe had adopted a baby chimpanzee he had received as a present from a group of pygmies he met while traveling in Congo. He called the little chimp Kiki, and took him to Nairobi. However, Kenyan law did not allow people to keep wild animals at home as pets. “So I had to take Kiki to a state-run animal orphanage. People there asked me to help, so I started to work as a volunteer. That experience was immensely important in helping me expand my professional knowledge and strengthen my commitment toward environmental protection.”
Eventually Kanbe mastered not only English but even Swahili, Kenya’s official language, by just interacting with local people. “If you are going to live for a long time there, you need to speak the local language. First of all, even though only a few million people speak Swahili as a mother tongue, it is used as a lingua franca throughout East Africa. Besides, if you want to buy food at a market, and you only speak English, you are treated as a tourist and are going to pay more.”
After graduation, Kanbe started his practice in Nairobi and gradually strengthened his ties to the local community, both in Kenya’s capital and the savanna. For many years he has been active in wildlife conservation by joining, among other things, the resettlement team of rangers who move elephants and other animals from their original habitat to safer areas every time they are threatened by poaching.
Nowadays he divides his time between his clinic in Nairobi and the Masai village he regularly visits. “When I’m in Nairobi I also take care of the children living in the slums, in collaboration with Nagasaki University, which has a branch in Kenya where they study tropical diseases,” he says. “About once a week I visit a Masai village and we work on inoculating cattle against a number of illnesses, such as east coast fever, which is similar to malaria, and foot-and-mouth disease, of which there is an outbreak about once every two years. I have an assistant in the village who helps me as an interpreter because I don’t understand their local language.
“I’ve been going to this village for a long time, so much so that they made me an elder member of their community and I have my own house there.” Kanbe shows pictures and videos of a recent coming-of-age ceremony. “They still live according to their old customs, and even for longer residents like me it is sometimes difficult to penetrate the deeper layers of their culture. Lion hunting, for example, is a typical rite of passage they haven’t abandoned even though it is now illegal.”
The Masai area is actually some 200 km away from Nairobi, and Kanbe has to drive on very rough roads to reach the place, so he usually spends a few days with them each time he goes. “I also have to drive long distances to reach the two animal dispensaries located in the savanna. These drives can be tricky because there are no roads. You basically look for familiar landmarks and follow the tracks left by other vehicles, like the smugglers’. What you want to avoid at all costs is getting stuck in mud, especially at night, because you run the risk of being attacked by animals. Not so much lions or cheetahs, which know human beings and won’t approach you unless they are very hungry, but elephants, buffaloes, sometimes even hippos.”
Talking of smugglers gives Kanbe a chance to vent his opinions against his home country. “We Japanese are notorious for consuming a lot of ivory. As a consequence, poaching runs rampant in Africa. To give you some figures, in the 1970s elephants in Tsavo National Park numbered 30,000, but they were reduced to just 6,000 during the 1980s. Unfortunately the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (today’s Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry) has strong connections with ivory traders, which is very disappointing. ASKF has been lobbying against all this, and we regularly attend the biennial conferences organized by the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species of flora and fauna.”
ASKF was born out of Kanbe’s need to increase his wildlife preservation efforts. “After graduation, I began my practice in Nairobi, and most of my clients were Japanese, among them correspondents for the Asahi and Yomiuri newspapers and NHK. After some years practicing, I felt what I was doing wasn’t enough, so I came up with the idea to start an NGO, but getting the funding was a problem. So I came to Japan, and I paid a visit to my longtime acquaintances, who were more than happy to write articles about my activity and spread the word about ASKF.”
Through the years, ASKF has been active not only in campaigning against poaching, but also in preventing epidemics among the animals belonging to the Masai community, educating the street children who live in the Nairobi slums, and providing counseling for HIV/AIDS victims.
For several years ASKF has been running an internship program as well, which always attracts many university students, especially young women. “They pay for their own airplane ticket, and the Kenyan government provides a three-month visa that can be extended to six months. More in general, we are mainly supported by Japan-based churches and individuals. All in all we now have about 450 supporters who help us in different ways. That’s how we can keep working.”
For 40 years, Kanbe’s life and work have been shaped by what he calls “compassion to wildlife.”
“We must be careful to reduce, reuse and recycle natural resources. If not, we will eventually destroy our planet. If we stop buying ivory, it will lose value and the poaching of elephants will be greatly reduced,” he says. “We should seriously think of ways to protect wildlife because biodiversity is something on which our children will depend for their survival.”
For more information on ASKF: www.s-Kanbevet.org