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(CNN) — Up until recently, most travelers, and even some locals, had no inkling of the aquatic mammals that occupy or pass through Kenya’s waters.

Known as a safari destination, with the wildebeest migration in the Maasai Mara between July and September considered its pinnacle, the African nation’s expansive marine life was something only fishermen knew the true extent of.

But largely thanks to the efforts of a former lawyer from London, the country now has a burgeoning marine tourism industry, with tourists seeking out the coastal town of Watamu, located 140 kilometers north of Mombasa, for its humpback whales.

The tide began to turn around 10 years ago, when Jane Spilsbury, who had been living in Watamu with her marine biologist husband for several years, began hearing tales from local fishermen of dolphin and whales sightings.

Determined to prove their existence, the pair spent six months boarding local fishing boats armed with just a few scraps of paper and a cheap camera in order to document and photograph any visible evidence.

Whale seeking

Jane Spilsbury spent months recording whales sightings in coastal town Watamu, Kenya after learning of their existence from local fishermen.

Jane Spilsbury

The Spilsburys went on to help found the Watamu Marine Association — a collaboration between hotels, local fishermen, divers and other members of the public — in 2007.

Their aim was to simplify communication channels, as well as work on conservation, but the pair found they were constantly being asked about the country’s marine life.

“People were asking us about our whale and dolphin situation in Kenya, and we just didn’t know because the cost involved in researching mammals was way too expensive,” she explains.

“So we spoke with some boat operators, and asked them ‘when you take people out snorkeling what else do you see?’ And they said ‘well, there’s dolphins out there too.’

The discovery of humpback whales in the area has been a game changer, but Spilsbury says she learned about them in a similar casual way.

“It was as simple as talking to a fisherman at the bar and asking if he’d seen any humpback whales and he said ‘Sure, we’ve seen them for 30 years.'” she says.

‘Citizen scientists’

Finding whales in Kenya - images from Watamu Marine Association

197 humpback whales were reported in the area in 2018.

Courtesy Watamu Marine Association

Labeling themselves “citizen scientists,” they began hitting the waters together in search of the migratory mammals, building a research database of their sightings.

“We didn’t really know what we were doing,” Spilsbury admits. “We weren’t scientists, but we each had our own set of skills.”

They were floored to discover a bountiful Indo-Pacific dolphin population — and then came the humpback whale sightings.

Over time, they were able to discern that the whales were making an annual pilgrimage past Kenya between July and September, traveling from the waters of Antarctica to Somalia to reproduce.

And so another tourism industry was born; one anchored on posters of the pristine, white beaches and azure waters of the Kenyan coast, and now, the odd image of a humpback whale leaping out of the water.

Their main information gathering platform is a WhatsApp group set up to encourage locals to regularly report sightings and strandings of marine mammals.

Between May 2011 and December 2019, the group, which now has 100 members, reported a total of 1,511 sightings.

In 2014, with records and databases growing haphazardly, the team received a boost with the arrival of Michael Mwang’ombe, a young self-taught scientist from Taita in south eastern Kenya.

Mwang’ombe, who wasn’t scientifically trained either, had spent his high school years formulating a plan to get into marine research work and arrived in Watamu to begin working with sea turtles.

After meeting Spilsbury and learning of the research being undertaken, he convinced her to let him help with data collection.

“I remember my first time seeing dolphins, I can’t explain the emotion that I felt then,” he says.

“But then with the whales, I was a bit disappointed, because in school we were taught that they were vicious and dangerous and huge.”

Working with locals

Researcher Jane Spilsbury and her team collecting data on whale sightings in Watamu, Kenya

Spilsbury and her team have documented at least 24 species of whales and dolphins in the area.

Jane Spilsbury

When Mwang’ombe returned home, he was disappointed by the reaction from locals when he spoke of Watamu’s fantastic marine life.

“I came back all excited and was telling people about my experience but no-one believed me, even with the pictures,” he says.

“They thought I’d downloaded them from the Internet. That moment changed my life — realizing these people who are close to the coast had no idea what was happening out there.

“People were asking if whales eat people, or if they attacked people. I knew this would be my next challenge — educating the locals.”

Mwang’ombe set about working with local fishermen and teaching them how to leverage the whale and dolphin populations as potential income streams for tourism.

Between 2016 and 2018, the fishermen were provided with cameras and asked to snap pictures of any whale sightings while out at sea in order to aid the team’s research.

“People were calling me all the time, they were loving it. It’s just these simple things that make me see the value of the work that I do,” Mwang’ombe says.

“And this from a community that doesn’t really trust anyone — they’ve tried to be directed into a new age before, when they don’t want that.

“For us it’s about listening to them and giving them suggestions, rather than forcing them to do anything.”

Local hotel Hemingways Watamu soon came onboard, offering the team a boat and paying them to take tourists out on whale watching trips.

According to Spilsbury, this means research and sightseeing trips are one and the same, which is a novel experience for tourists.

The fishermen are also relied on to provide updates — a simple WhatsApp message if they see any action, so the boat knows where to head.

‘Whales to Wildebeest’

Finding whales in Kenya - images from Watamu Marine Association

Travelers have been choosing to visit Watamu specifically for its whales.

Courtesy Watamu Marine Association

Over the years, the country’s tourism and research efforts have grown hand-in-hand. Both international and domestic tourists began flocking to Watamu for the chance of seeing humpback whales.

As a result, Spilsbury was able to convince the Kenya Tourism Board to try out the marketing moniker “Twin Migration — Whales to Wildebeest” for size, due to both occurring at the same time of year.

Up until that point, the nation’s white sand beaches were often an infrequent tag-on for international tourists on safari holidays.

The migration months were typically low season for the coast, as strong offshore winds blow in seaweed that coats the pristine beaches.

But this seasonal lull is experiencing an upswing, buoyed by the whales.

In 2018, 197 humpback whales were reported in the area, the highest number since records began.

That dropped to just 35 in 2019, due to environmental conditions, but sightings in 2019 have soared once again.

In August, the team at Hemingways had only one whale watching trip that failed to sight any mammals.

Most of these trips were populated by domestic tourists, as international tourists remain elusive in the midst of the pandemic, despite Kenya’s relatively low coronavirus cases.

Domestic tourism bonus

Melinda Rees, general manager at Hemingways Watamu, says the pandemic has “forced Kenyans to explore their own country, and they’re realizing how amazing it is.”

Pre-Covid, and whales, the hotel would experience 20% occupancy at this time of year, largely due to the unsightly seaweed.

But this September, occupancy levels were hitting 80 to 100%, with bookings almost exclusively from domestic tourists.

“We’re geared to having both markets in Kenya, if one disappears it creates a real challenge,” Rees says, noting that while domestic tourism has been a huge bonus, reinvestment into the hotel hasn’t been possible this year.

And while the advent of tourism has been heartening for Spilsbury, she remains focused on research and conservation efforts. The team has now documented 24 species of whales and dolphins in the area.

They’ve also been “embraced” by the global scientific community, fielding invitations to international marine mammal symposiums and receiving regular external funding.

“The scientists are saying this is really local and important data and it has incredible value,” Spilsbury says.

“And here we are, just ordinary folk with ordinary skills.”

Now heavily invested in the country’s growing marine tourism industry, Spilsbury, who worked for the UK government’s legal service before packing up and moving overseas, believes she’ll see out the rest of her days in Kenya, as “there’s too much to do.”

“Local people didn’t even know where Watamu was [before],” she adds. “But there’s a huge shift now. It’s exciting.”

Correction: A headline on an earlier version of this story overstated Jane Spilsbury’s role in finding whales in Kenya. She was instrumental documenting their migration. An earlier version of the story also included two quotes from Spilsbury that overstated her role. Those quotes have been removed.

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Pelosi to move forward with impeachment if Pence doesn’t act to remove Trump

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“In protecting our Constitution and our Democracy, we will act with urgency, because this President represents an imminent threat to both,” Pelosi said in the letter to Democrats on Sunday night laying out next steps.

The House will try to pass a measure on Monday imploring Pence to invoke the 25th Amendment, through which he and the Cabinet declare Trump “incapable of executing the duties of his office, after which the Vice President would immediately exercise powers as acting president.” If Republicans object, as is virtually certain, Democrats will pass the bill via a roll call vote on Tuesday.

“We are calling on the Vice President to respond within 24 hours,” Pelosi wrote. “Next, we will proceed with bringing impeachment legislation to the Floor.”

But it’s not clear when exactly the Senate will take up the House’s measure. The Senate isn’t scheduled to return until Jan. 19, but will hold pro forma sessions on Tuesday and Friday. In theory, a senator could try to pass the House resolution by unanimous consent, but as of now it appears unlikely that it would pass.

On Monday, multiple House Democrats plan to introduce impeachment resolutions that would become the basis of any impeachment article considered by the House later this week.

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who will introduce an article of impeachment against Trump on Monday, said on Sunday that roughly 200 Democrats have co-sponsored the measure.

Currently, 211 voting members (plus three nonvoting members) support Cicilline’s legislation, and they are hoping to reach 217 voting members by Monday morning, enough for the House to impeach Trump, one Democratic source familiar with the matter told POLITICO.

A small number of Democrats have opted not to co-sign the bill, but privately say they will vote to support the resolution on the floor, the source added.

The impeachment effort in the House is likely to be bipartisan, with Democrats expecting at least one GOP lawmaker — Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois — to sign on. A handful of other House Republicans are seriously weighing it, according to several sources, though those lawmakers are waiting to see how Democrats proceed, and some are concerned about dividing the country even further.

Among the GOP members whom Democrats are keeping an eye on are Reps. John Katko of New York, Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, Fred Upton of Michigan, Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington.

Across the Capitol, at least two Republicans — Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — have called on Trump to resign. On Saturday, Toomey told Fox News, “I do think the president committed impeachable offenses,” but told CNN the next day that he does not believe there is enough time to impeach.

Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) has also said he would consider articles of impeachment.

Another option has emerged among some Republican and moderate Democratic circles — censuring Trump — though it remains highly unlikely to advance.

A censure resolution would gain far more support in the GOP than impeachment. Some Republicans have privately been pushing for that route and are trying to get Biden on board, according to GOP sources. That group of Republicans is also warning that impeachment could destroy Biden’s reputation with Republicans.

But censure is considered a nonstarter in an incensed House Democratic Caucus, where members see it as a slap on the wrist that gives Republicans an easy out.

The Democrats’ enormous step toward impeachment on Sunday comes after Pelosi and other top Democrats held a private call on Saturday night in which they discussed the potential ramifications that a lengthy impeachment trial could have on Biden’s presidency.

Democratic leaders discussed several options to limit the political effects on Biden’s first 100 days, with one option — floated by House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) — for the House to delay the start of an impeachment trial in the Senate by holding on to the article of impeachment.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has sent out a memo to senators explaining that the Senate could not take up impeachment until Jan. 19 at the earliest, absent unanimous consent.

A final decision has not been made, and House Democrats will discuss the matter on a 2 p.m. caucus call on Monday.

Lawmakers are already privately expressing concerns about returning to the Capitol for multiple days this week, worried about both a potential coronavirus outbreak and whether the building is secure, given how easily an armed pro-Trump mob invaded on Wednesday.

The Capitol physician urged House lawmakers and staff to get tested in a memo Sunday, saying they might have been exposed to someone who had the virus while huddling for safety in a large committee room for hours on Wednesday. During the hourslong lockdown, several Republican members refused to wear masks despite being offered them by Democrats worried about the spread of the deadly virus.

Melanie Zanona, Olivia Beavers and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.

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Matt Hancock Scraps “Unnecessary Training Modules” Blamed For Slowing Vaccine Rollout

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Matt Hancock has agreed to remove some of the training modules required for volunteers to sign up to deliver the Covid-19 vaccine (PA)


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Matt Hancock said people will no longer need to undertake training including an anti-terrorism course to give the coronavirus jab after MPs said “bureaucratic rubbish” was delaying mass vaccination.

It comes as MPs called for the government to produce targets for the number of people given immunity before lockdown can be lifted.

The health secretary said a series of “unnecessary training modules” are being scrapped to speed up the process of getting people qualified to deliver the jab.

Speaking in the Commons, Sir Edward Leigh said he was shown by his fellow the Tory MP, a qualified GP, the “ridiculous form” he had filled out to start delivering the vaccine.

“When he’s inoculating an old lady, he’s not going to ask her if she’s come into contact with Jihadis or whatever, so the Secretary has got to cut through all this bureaucratic rubbish,” he said.

In response Mr Hancock said: “I am a man after Sir Edward’s heart and I can tell the House that we have removed a series of the unnecessary training modules that had been put in place, including fire safety, terrorism and others.

“I’ll write to him with the full panoply of the training that is not required and we have been able to remove, and we made this change as of this morning and I am glad to say it is enforced.

“I am a fan of busting bureaucracy and in this case I agree with him that it is not necessary to undertake anti-terrorism training in order to inject vaccines.”

Dr Fox had earlier challenged Boris Johnson to drop the “bureaucracy” and “political correctness” of the forms vaccine volunteers must fill out.

He told MPs: “As a qualified but non-practising doctor, I volunteered to help with the scheme and would urge others to do the same. 

“But, can I ask the Prime Minister why I’ve been required to complete courses on conflict resolution, equality, diversity and human rights, moving and handling loads and preventing radicalisation in order to give a simple Covid jab?”

Mr Johnson said he had been “assured by the Health Secretary that all such obstacles, all such pointless pettifoggery has been removed”.

The government has been attempting to recruit thousands of volunteers to help with a mass vaccination programme, and with the recent approval of the more easily deliverable Oxford/AstraZeneca version has today revealed the location of seven mass vaccination centres set to open next week.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told journalists at a briefing they would be at Robertson House in Stevenage, the ExCel Centre in London, the Centre for Life in Newcastle, the Etihad Tennis Centre in Manchester, Epsom Downs Racecourse in Surrey, Ashton Gate Stadium in Bristol and Millennium Point in Birmingham, and it is expected they will be run with a combination of NHS staff and volunteers.

But so far the government has not said how many people need to be inoculated before it has an impact on the coronavirus restrictions.

Mr Hancock was asked by a number of MPs if the measures could be eased once the top few tiers in the vaccine priority list had been clear.

Former Conservative chief whip Mark Harper said once the top four groups, which includes care home residents and staff, frontline NHS workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and everyone over 70 “we’ve taken care therefore of 80% of the risk of death”.

Adding: “What possible reason is there at that point for not rapidly relaxing the restrictions that are in place on the rest of our country?”

The health secretary replied: “We have to see the impact of that vaccination on the reduction in the number of deaths, which I very much hope that we will see at that point, and so that is why we will take this – an evidence-led move down through the tiers, when we’ve broken the link, I hope, between cases and hospitalisations and deaths.”

The ex-Tory minister and another doctor, Andrew Murrison, said: “The logic of anticipating what is going to happen in two or three or four weeks’ time from the number of cases we are getting at the moment is that we can do the same in reverse.

“That is to say, when we have a sufficient number of people vaccinated up we can anticipate in two or three or four weeks’ time how many deaths have been avoided. 

“That means, since it cuts both ways he will be able to make a decision on when we should end these restrictions.”

Mr Hancock replied: “The logic of the case that Dr Murrison makes is the right logic and we want to see that happen in empirical evidence on the ground.

“This hope for the weeks ahead doesn’t take away, though, from the serious and immediate threat posed now.”

The Cabinet minister said the challenge for the government is to increase the amount of doses available, claiming “the current rate-limiting factor on the vaccine rollout is the supply of approved, tested, safe vaccine”.

He added: ”We are working with both AstraZeneca and Pfizer to increase that supply as fast as possible and they’re doing a brilliant job.”

But Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth called for the government to ramp up its vaccination programme to six million doses a week.

He told the Commons: “The Prime Minister has promised almost 14 million will be offered the vaccine by mid-Feb. That depends on around two million doses a week on average.

“Both [Mr Hancock] and the Prime Minister have reassured us in recent days that it’s doable based on orders.

“But in the past ministers have told us that they had agreements for 30 million AstraZeneca doses by September 2020 and 10 million of Pfizer doses by the end of 2020.

“So, I think people just want to understand the figures and want clarity. Can ministers tell us how many of the ordered doses have been manufactured?”

Mr Ashworth added: “Two million a week would be fantastic but it should be the limit of our ambitions, we should be aiming to scale up to three, then five, then six million jabs a week over the coming months.”

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How South African police are tackling pangolin smugglers

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Quiet, solitary and nocturnal, the pangolin has few natural enemies, but researchers believe it is the most trafficked mammal in the world. The tough scales covering its body are sought after for use in Chinese medicine, in the erroneous belief that they have healing properties.

The animal has also been of interest to researchers during the coronavirus pandemic. Related viruses have been found in trafficked pangolins, though there is continued uncertainty around early theories that pangolins were involved in the transmission of the virus from animals to humans.

After South African police seized a pangolin from suspected smugglers, BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding witnessed how vets tried to save the animal’s life.

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