If this hippo and this tortoise can get along, why can't we?
Today journalist Peter Greste has become a symbol of all that is wrong in the Middle East. He has been in solitary confinement for the past 40 odd days and was first being held without charges awaiting trial as a suspected terrorist. He and two other Al Jazeera journalists have just been charged with creating “a negative impact on overseas perceptions of the country.” Hard to believe this is the same Peter Greste who has taken some of the most breath-taking wildlife photographs that have captured the world’s imagination most notably the iconic photo of an orphaned baby hippo being cared for by a 130 year-old giant tortoise in Kenya.
I have had the privilege of working with Peter Greste as photographer on three children books in over twenty languages. His poignant photos have enchanted millions of children and adults around the globe. I met Peter back in 2005 when he was a journalist for the BBC and was on assignment in Kenya. He happened to be around when two very unlikely bedfellows a hippo named Owen and a tortoise named Mzee - struck up a remarkable friendship that lasted for over two years. Owen had been separated from his family off the coast of Malindi during the Asian Tsunami.
This friendship was chronicled in a book that I wrote along with my young daughter and a conservationist Dr. Paula Kahumbu who now runs Richard Leakey’s WildlifeDirect. But it was Peter’s stunning photographs that really told the story. Peter was dating Paula at the time and serendipitously had his camera on the ready to capture every extraordinary moment of the fable-like relationship that developed between these wonderful beasts. If Peter hadn’t been there to take pictures no one would believe it was true. Peter also shot and directed a 25 minute documentary on Owen and Mzee that can be seen online at owenandmzee.com.
Two years later Peter once again captured amazing photos of a family of mountain gorillas in Kenya shortly after the Gorilla Massacres the horror of which flooded the covers of Newsweek, National Geographic and other international newspapers and magazines. One young female mountain gorilla named Miza was a member of the a 23 gorilla-strong troop, under the protection of a magnificent silverback named Kabirizi, was separated from her family amid all of the confusion. Kabirizi disappeared from his troop for several days only to return with little Miza in hand. Miza’s mother, named Lessinjina, was presumably part of the massacre but her body was never found. With no mother to raise her Miza’s care was undertaken by a half sister -- a very unusual situation to say the least.
Peter had traveled into the dangerous terrains of the Virunga National Park to take amazing photos of the Kabirizi family. (Shortly after the photo shoot, Virunga National Park was taken over by the war lord General Nkunda who threatened the survival of the mountain gorillas of the Congo. Peter’s photos became the basis for another children’s book, “Looking for Miza,” again written with Paula, my daughter and myself. The book was the centerpiece of a Clinton Global Initiative commitment to bring awareness to the world of the plight of the 720 remaining mountain gorillas left on the planet located only in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and Rwanda.
Peter subsequently went back to his first love hard journalism and moved on to join Al Jazeera. He was almost killed in the Sudan (where his fellow journalist was killed by an assassin’s bullet just a few feet away.
Peter reporting from the front in Somalia several years ago.
Other journalists in Peter’s situation have been held in prison for six months or more. Perhaps if all of us animal lovers bind together to thank Peter not only for his work as a fearless journalist but also for his great contribution to preserving the world’s most magnificent beasts we together could pressure the Egyptian government to release Pete rand his fellow journalists. If only the confused beasts around the world--who can’t tell the difference between journalists and terrorists -- would act more like the wonderful beasts that Peter has captured with his camera the “negative impact on overseas perceptions” might actually improve. Please help us support Peter. He is all of us.
This piece originally appeared in The Dodo.