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Kenya’s fossil treasury contains unearthed mysteries

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly.

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Newly-discovered giant 'simbakubwa kutokaafrika

The only hint that something extraordinary lay inside the plain wooden drawer in an unassuming office behind Nairobi National Museum was a handwritten note stuck to the front: “Pull Carefully”.

Inside, a monstrous jawbone with colossal fangs grinned from a bed of tattered foam – the only known remains of a prehistoric mega-carnivore, larger than a polar bear, that researchers only this year declared a new species.

“This is one-of-a-kind,” said Kenyan palaeontologist Job Kibii, holding up the 23-million-year-old bones of the newly-discovered giant, Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, whose unveiling made headlines around the world.

But the remarkable fossils were not unearthed this year, or even this decade. They weren’t even found this century. For nearly 40 years, the specimens – proof of the existence of Africa’s largest-ever predator, a 1,500 kilograms meat-eater that dwarfed later hunters like lions – lived in a nondescript drawer in downtown Nairobi.

Museum staff knew the bones were something special – they just didn’t know what exactly. A source of intrigue dusted off on occasion for guests, Simbakubwa lay in wait, largely forgotten. How did these fossils, first excavated on a dig in western Kenya in the early 1980s, go unrecognised for so long?

Kibii – who presides over the National Museums of Kenya’s palaeontology department, a collection unrivalled in East Africa and one of the world’s great fossil treasuries – has a pretty good idea. “We have tonnes and tonnes of specimens… that haven’t been analysed, Definitely there are things waiting to be discovered,” he said.

Out of space

The main wing has changed little since legendary paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey first started stockpiling his finds there in the early 1960s. A card-based filing system is still used to find a specific fossil among the trove, the entries written by hand. 

Reconstruction image shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika
This handout reconstruction image released on April 18, 2019, by Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, shows a Simbakubwa kutokaafrika, a gigantic mammalian carnivore that lived 22 million years ago in Africa and was larger than a polar bear. (Photo by Mauricio ANTON / Ohio University / AFP)

But the collection has grown exponentially, faster than Kibii and his team can keep up. “We’ve run out of space,” said Kibii, pausing between dusty archival shelves crammed floor to ceiling with finds, dating back more than half a century. “In this section alone, we have more than a million specimens.” 

Gigantic skulls of ancient crocodiles compete for space with a bygone species of horned giraffe. Nearby, the behemoth tusks of an early African elephant take up valuable real estate. Even the windowsills are littered with the petrified remains of all manner of weird and wonderful creatures. 

Between 7,000 and 10,000 new fossils arrive at the lab every year, Kibii says, overwhelming his 15 staff who must painstakingly clean and log each specimen. By law, fossils uncovered in Kenya must go to the museum for “accessioning” – the process of labelling, recording and storing for future generations. The backlog is enormous.

Chipping away

In a dark room, a lone staff in a protective mask blast away rock from fossil using an air-powered brush, as Kenyan pop tunes crackle through an old radio. Outside the door, metal chests sent from dig sites filled to the brim await his magic touch – literally years of work stretching before him.

If a specific expert is not on hand to identify a specimen, things can get wrongly categorised or waylaid. In some cases, they’re sent to the dreaded “waiting area”, where faded cardboard boxes, sagging with unknown and abandoned fossils, gather dust.

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“We have fossils from the 1980s that have not been accessioned,” said collections manager Francis Muchemi, chipping away at a giant elephant molar.

Cradle of humanity

Simbakubwa met a similar fate. Thought to be a type of hyena, it was filed away in a backroom and unstudied for decades, until stumbled upon by American researchers. Specific finds unearthed at one of Kenya’s many digs by researchers writing academic papers are given priority and fast-tracked for assessment by the museum.

Even today though, the museum lacks specialists and resources. Kibii is one of just seven palaeontologists in Kenya. He trained in South Africa because there was no course available at home.

“It’s important because Kenya is the cradle of human evolution,” said Muchemi, who learned his skills on the job. “We have very few Kenyans doing this job. Ninety-nine per cent of the people who work here are foreign.”

Kibii said palaeontology was considered a lower priority than conserving Africa’s endangered wildlife. “This one has been in the ground for millions of years. What are you saving it from?” he said, of the prevailing attitude to the science.

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He hopes to acquire collapsible shelves to create space in the collection. Even better, a micro-CT scanner – a powerful tool driving breakthroughs in the world of palaeontology – would allow a fresh look at the museum’s most-forgotten corners.

“I always wonder what lies in there on some of these shelves,” Kibii said. “Simbakubwa is telling a new story. What if, among these thousands, we have 10, 20, new stories that are lying, waiting to be told? That’s always the mystery.”

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Culture and Tourism

Being Kenya’s International Tourism Ambassador is a Privilege – Naomi Campbell

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English model and actress, Naomi Campbell, has described her confirmation as Kenya’s international tourism ambassador as a privilege and an honour.

Najib Balala, the Cabinet Secretary for Tourism, had announced the appointment of 50-year-old Campbell as Magical Kenya International Brand Ambassador in January, a development which was widely criticised by Kenyans.

News Central reports that Kenyans had queried why the appointment was not given to Hollywood’s Kenyan-Mexican actress, Lupita Nyong‘o. But, Balala defended his decision by saying Campbell had taken up the role pro bono.

He also added that his ministry had not been able to reach Nyong’o for at least three years.

Gushing over her role as the face of international tourism for Kenya, a country famous for its wildlife safaris and beach resorts, Campbell in an Instagram post said:

“I feel so privileged and honoured to be confirmed as Magical Kenya International Brand Ambassador. Not just because of the obvious benefits that tourism brings to an economy but also I am proud to be able to represent such an important country as Kenya.

“We all know about the astounding areas of natural beauty, the beaches and of course the wildlife but there is much more.

“Kenya has a history going back 100 million years and is considered by many to be the cradle of civilisation so I am humbled to be talking about the country.

“Of course the people are the wealth of any nation and it’s no different with Kenya. It’s people have excelled in the arts, sciences, political thought and sports just to name a few.

“Tourism does of course bring jobs to the local economy, vital for so many small and big entrepreneurs. It helps unleash ideas, creativity, talent and makes for worthwhile and productive lives.

“Tourism is vital on many levels and it is my hope that I can play a small part in helping remind the world about Kenya and on a bigger level wouldn’t it be wonderful if Kenya could help inspire the world after this terrible pandemic we have all been through. Reminding us to be grateful for nature’s beauty and enduring history of our wonderful planet. #NAOMIAFRICA🙏🏾 @magicalkenya 🇰🇪🇰🇪🇰🇪”

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Conservation News

Three Endangered Rothschild’s Giraffes Die of Electrocution in Kenya

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The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) has confirmed that three Rothschild’s giraffes have died after being electrocuted by low-hanging power powerlines at a Soysambu conservancy in Nakuru.

News Central reports that Rothschild’s giraffe are one of the most endangered species of the animal with estimate putting their population at less than 1,600 in the wild.

Kenya has about 600 Rothschild’s.

KWS said officials from the state-owned power distributing company, Kenya Power, would replace the poles.

“Preliminary reports indicate that the height of the electricity poles crossing Soysambu Conservancy are low, below giraffe’s height,” a statement read in part.

Dr Paula Kahumbu, the Producer and Host of Wildlife Warriors CEO WildlifeDirect, alleged in a tweet that the deaths could have been prevented if experts’ advise was heeded.

In another tweet, Kahumbu added that these deaths were not the first, and that they could have been prevented if expert advice had been followed.

“These power lines have been killing giraffes, vultures and flamingos. Advice from experts was ignored. RIAs [Risk Impact Assessments] are notoriously poor on many development projects. Sad that it takes these kinds of deaths to wake some people up!” she tweeted.

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Culture and Tourism

Icons on Nigeria’s ₦10 Note Inspired Oscar Nominated Movie, ‘Milkmaid’ – Ovbiagele

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It may no longer be news that Nigerian movie, ‘Milkmaid’, is in contention for an award in the 2021 Oscars International Films Category, what is news is the revelation that the film was inspired by a denomination of the Nigerian currency.

“The screenplay was inspired by the two iconic figures at the back of the 10 Naira note, those are the Fulani milkmaids who were carrying their calabashes.

Desmond Ovbiagele, who produced Milkmaid, said his film was inspired by two iconic figures on the ₦10 note. The movie, itself, tells the story of two sisters who were abducted from their village during an insurgency in Northeast Nigeria.

“So I sought to imagine what would happen if the two characters were caught up in an insurgency situation. How would their lives play out and how would they adjust to the new way of life that would be imposed on them.

On the choice of language used in the movie, Ovbiagele said “one could have chosen the easier decision to shoot the film in English language, but because we were striving for authenticity, we didn’t think it would be authentic enough for people in that rural area setting to speak `Queens English’.

The former Investment Banker turned movie producer said he was overwhelmed by the nomination of the movie for the Oscars adding that it was an accolade to reward the efforts of the cast and crew.

“… to fly the Nigerian flag at the Oscars, a Nation of 200 million people, the most prolific film making industry in the world by volume is a tremendous honour,” he said.

The film has already won five Africa Movie Academy Awards, including Best Film.

Oscars organisers, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, will announce nominations for the Academy Awards on March 15 in Los Angeles, U.S.A.

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