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Paul Githinji Kabochi 1942-2003
Paul Githinji Kabochi 1942 - 2003

An extraordinary talent for habituating wild animals earned Paul Kabochi, who died tragically on the morning of his 61st birthday on 8 February 2003, a near-legendary status among wildlife researchers and filmmakers the world over.

At the time of his death, he was - as on countless previous occasions - paving the way for the filming, near Kenya's Tsavo West National Park, of a wildlife documentary for television, this time on the behaviour of a pack of Dwarf Mongooses.

The visiting film crew, from France's Aster Productions, was operating from the Taita Discovery Centre (TDC) run by East African Ornithological Safaris (EAOS), for whom Kabochi was for many years a Senior Guide. On that fateful morning, neither Kabochi nor the crew could locate the mongoose pack they had been working with. So they drove around for a while, searching for their subjects.

Instinctively, Kabochi pointed to some termite mounds where he felt the pack might be hiding. His hunches, born of a lifetime spent in the bush, were nearly always vindicated. But he offered to "stalk" the anthills first, just to make sure. His lean, sinewy form soon disappeared amid the intervening "cover" of dry thorn scrub.

Paul Kabochi was never seen alive again. Hours later, when EAOS trackers located his body, it was more than three kilometers beyond the nearest of the anthills. The cause of death was plain to see. Kabochi had been trampled to death by an elephant.

For Steve Turner, managing director of EAOS, Kabochi's employer for the last 17 years, Paul's death came as a terrible shock. "I have often told people down the years," Turner says, "that, if ever I were to be cast into some remote jungle, and told I could choose only one companion in the ensuing battle for survival, I should pick Paul Kabochi. For Paul would always know exactly what to do in such a predicament - which fruits to eat (and which to avoid), which plants to use in treating different ailments, and so on. His intuitive understanding of the natural world really was extraordinary."

Ethnobotany was Kabochi's lifelong passion, and he was often described as a "walking encyclopaedia" of African medicinal plants and their properties. Turner admits that, "At first, I was sceptical about some of the things Paul said about plants. But when, a few years ago, he took a party of U.S. Food and Drug Administration scientists out on safari, they were all amazed by the soundness, and breadth, of his knowledge."

Paul Githinji Kabochi was born in 1942 near Nyeri, on Kenya's Aberdare Mountains, of mixed Ogiek and Kikuyu parentage. He received some formal education at the nearby Kiriti Primary School, but his real training ground was always the forest. This he would enter at every possible opportunity, while tending the family goats as a boy.

The Mau Mau uprising and the ensuing State of Emergency, declared in 1952, brought this idyllic childhood to an abrupt end. Like other families, the Kabochis were relocated to pyrethrum plantations at Ndondori, North Kinangop, to serve as farm labourers. But the life of a farm hand was not for Paul, and in 1960 he drifted to Nakuru, in the Rift.

There, in 1961, he landed his first "real" job: that of a tracker on "leopard control" duty for Colonial cattle ranchers in what is now Lake Nakuru National Park. This was risky work, and he emerged from one skirmish with a leopard minus a large chunk from one of his buttocks. Ironically, he was arrested in 1963 for possessing the skin of a leopard he had been paid to kill. But, instead of being jailed, he was drafted into the Kenya Armed Forces and sent to the then Northern Frontier District to help track down 'shifta' bandits.

On leaving the army in 1966, he became a collector and skinner of specimens for the National Museums of Kenya, accompanying ornithologist John G. Williams and other eminent naturalists on field trips throughout East and Central Africa. During the 1970s, while still with the Museums, he prepared casts for the conservationist and sculptor of wildlife bronzes, Rob Glen, under whom he was able to hone his taxidermy skills.

This work led to associations with the likes of naturalist Jonathan Kingdon and Alistair Fothergill of the BBC Natural History Unit. With the proliferation in the early 1980s of wildlife filmmaking and field-based wildlife studies, came an unprecedented demand for animal trapping and handling skills. For both activities required habituated wild animals.

Such skills were second nature to Kabochi, who had kept wild animals (usually injured individuals he had rescued and nursed back to health) as pets since the earliest days of his childhood. He could have a wild serval eating out of his hand in just three weeks. These talents were to keep him busy for the rest of his life on a succession of wildlife documentary films set all over Africa, including some in Sir David Attenborough's Trials of Life series.

His great cunning was instrumental at times in enabling scientists to examine little-known species. Three years ago, in nets mounted atop "rugby poles," he succeeded in catching some giant African free-tailed bats for researchers from Bat Conservation International, a feat described in SWARA (Vol 24:3). Until then, this high-flying species had been well out of the researchers' range.

Kabochi was himself the subject of a 30-minute documentary, Der Tiermagier (Animal Magician), made in 2000 by Sam and Armin Dhillon for German Television.

He was remarkable, above all, for always putting the welfare of the animals first. This did not always endear him to film crews, who were often behind schedule and eager to force the pace, even at the expense of harming the animals they were filming. Kabochi walked out on one crew who, protesting that "Time is money," refused to accept that an elephant shrew that was clearly stressed and hyperventilating needed a timeout.

Kabochi was a tireless promoter of nature's smaller creatures - reptiles, bats, insects. "While at TDC," his EAOS brochure entry reads, "be sure to explore the fascinating world of the 'small game' that is overshadowed by Africa's famous megafauna."

Less well known, but no less important, is the legacy of conservation awareness he spread among communities of local people, especially in the Rumuruti area where his family still lives. There, he will long be remembered as Awa ('father' in Kikuyu), "who loved animals and who liked to carry a chameleon around on his head."

The chameleon stunt was Kabochi's way of discrediting a superstition, rife in Africa, that chameleons attach themselves to the tops of people's heads and never let go. The result of this irrational fear is that chameleons everywhere are needlessly battered to death.

Never less than totally at home in the bush, Kabochi himself had no fear of wild animals. "And it was this loss of all fear, maybe, that got him in the end," laments Steve Turner.

Paul Kabochi leaves his wife, Margaret Wakuhi, one son Daniel, and six daughters: Mary, Virginia, Catherine, Florence, Caroline and Ann.

- Gordon Boy, editor, SWARA, journal of the East African Wild Life Society with reporting by Gichuki Kabukuru and Trupti Shah

Reprinted from SWARA by permission