BY LAURA HEATON | PHOTOGRAPHS BY NICHOLE SOBECKI,
After sunrise on April 1, 2008, the renowned English ecologist Murray Watson left the Saakow Hotel, a modest concrete guesthouse in rural southern Somalia, heading off for work in a Nissan Patrol. He and a Kenyan colleague, an engineer named Patrick Amukhuma, along with a translator and two guards, were on their way to finish up a survey of flood-prone areas for the United Nations using an aerial and ground survey technique Watson had pioneered decades earlier.
One of the more lush regions in a largely arid country, the area covered by Watson’s survey was also among the most hazardous. It was crawling with al-Shabab extremists, who had taken to extorting the banana and sugarcane farms that unfurled along the banks of the Shabelle and Jubba rivers. Increasingly erratic rainfall, a phenomenon scientists have linked to climate change, was further threatening the farms by causing frequent floods that Watson hoped his survey could help mitigate. Though the 69-year-old Englishman wouldn’t have described it as such, he was leading a groundbreaking climate adaptation effort in a country that is among the most vulnerable to climate change — and to the conflict that often follows in its wake.
Watson knew the dangers of working in this region, but over the years he had honed a set of instincts that usually kept him out of harm’s way. He had lived in Somalia on and off for more than a decade (from the late 1970s until the government collapsed in 1991), spoke basic Somali, and was married to a Somali-Kenyan woman. He was fluent in the country’s ever-shifting power dynamics. But no amount of local knowledge could have saved him that spring morning.
About an hour after they left the hotel, as they bumped along a dirt road that ran parallel to the Jubba River, Watson and Amukhuma came upon a vehicle blocking their path. Six gunmen lay in wait. The driver attempted an evasive U-turn but got stuck in a gully as the attackers opened fire. Watson was hit, and blood soaked through the sleeve of his shirt. One of the guards surrendered his weapon; the other fled on foot after firing a few rounds. The gunmen tied up the driver and translator, leaving them behind. Then they pushed Watson and Amukhuma into the car and sped off deeper into the wilderness.
One of the guards managed to call the Saakow Hotel and a band of local militia quickly mobilized to search for the researchers. When they got to the scene of the ambush, they found Watson’s driver, the translator, and the guards. The kidnappers and their victims were long gone.
For days, authorities from Britain’s embassy in neighboring Kenya worked to track them down. So did a number of Watson’s friends and acquaintances, including the veteran BBC reporter Owen Bennett-Jones, who was based in London but had contacts at the BBC Somali Service. The Brits sent at least two search parties to case the area around Jilib — a town where they believed he was being held, about 100 miles south of Saakow — and assess the feasibility of an extraction, but they were never able to establish exactly where the kidnappers were holding Watson.
A few days after the abduction, Bennett-Jones started getting calls from a Somali man who spoke excellent English and claimed to be a negotiator for the kidnappers, whom the journalist by then believed to be members of al-Shabab. The man’s demands ranged from $2 million to $4 million for the ecologist’s safe return. Watson’s family couldn’t pay, his country wouldn’t, and the trail has been quiet ever since. No group has claimed his killing. No remains have ever been found.
For years after the kidnapping, the small cadre of environmentalists still working in Somalia had assumed that decades’ worth of scientific knowledge compiled by Watson had also been lost. Without vital land surveys that vanished during the civil war, it would be hard to determine precisely how or at what rate the country’s climate was changing — and therefore difficult to design measures that could limit the damage. But a recent discovery, made more than 4,000 miles away in Britain, has suddenly resurrected the possibility of continuing Watson’s environmental work. It has also revealed the extent to which his legacy may be intertwined with the fate of Somalia itself.
Somalia is a country long beset by extremes. In its harsh and arid scrublands, where temperatures can exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit, nomadic people eke out a living on just inches of rainfall each year. The margin for survival is razor thin, and drought has often sparked bloody conflict over livestock and other resources. When the rains fail, herds of camels and goats wither and die, often wiping out the communities that depend on them. Somalis “give names to the droughts, and they give names to the wars,” said Abdullahi Ahmed Karani, whose work as one of Somalia’s pioneering environmentalists spanned too many of both.
It was a massive drought that propelled Karani, who is now almost 80, into the job that defined his career. Somalia typically has two wet seasons each year: The long rains, gu, last from April to June and the deyr from October to November. But in 1974 and 1975, the rains never came. The Dabadheer drought, as it became known, translates to “the long-tailed one,” because “it stayed for a long time,” Karani explained. Some 19,000 people starved to death, and a quarter-million nomads lost most of their livestock, leaving them destitute.
After the Dabadheer drought, Somalia’s president, the Marxist-Leninist military leader Siad Barre, decided that more needed to be done to help people cope with recurring dry spells; they should be prepared for the next inevitable drought. So Barre established the National Range Agency to spearhead conservation efforts, and he tapped Karani to run it. Housed in a beautiful building with arching arabesque corridors, the agency established the country’s first national parks, most famously the Lag Badana National Park in the fertile southern region, where the Jubba River sustained old-growth forests and visitors could see giraffes, elephants, and lions. The agency also protected pastures from overgrazing and banned charcoal exports in order to protect trees. “He was a dictator — I know that,” Karani said of Barre. “But actually he was doing very good things [for the environment].”
Under Karani’s leadership, the National Range Agency blossomed from a tiny organization with just one Somali forestry specialist to a government agency with about 2,000 people on its payroll by 1988. The agency put 3,000 more employees to work in the countryside on forestry and sand dunes projects in exchange for food rations. Karani’s goal was to get all Somalis to see conservation as their duty: Environment Day was celebrated three times a year, with the main event in April, the start of the rainy season. Throngs would gather at the National Theatre in Mogadishu to hear Barre’s annual speech about the value of trees, and the following morning, people would turn out to public spaces in their neighborhoods to plant seedlings.
Like other government agencies, the National Range Agency benefited from Somalia’s Cold War alliance with the United States, which channeled hundreds of millions of dollars into Barre’s coffers. Leading researchers and technicians from around the world were drawn to the work — botanists from Pakistan and Sweden, Indian forestry managers, a Canadian ecologist. Donor countries sent staff to projects housed at the agency, and foreign universities set up partnerships. A young Somali named Abdi Dahir, who had studied plant curation at the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, came home to direct the new national herbarium that contained 50,000 plant specimens, all displayed in wooden boxes.
Of all the international experts attracted to the National Range Agency, a Cambridge University-educated British ecologist stayed the longest. With his mop of curly hair, signature khaki vest, and a penchant for flying low over the savannah in his Piper Super Cub bush plane, Murray Watson had already made a name for himself in Africa, tracking herds of wildebeest in Tanzania and hippos in Zambia. But it was Somalia that captured and held his fascination.
Watson arrived in Mogadishu in 1978, just as the National Range Agency was starting its work. Through much of the 1980s, he led a small team of scientists who, with international funding and Soviet maps, carried out the most comprehensive land and natural resource survey of Somalia ever completed.
Watson took his work seriously, and he expected diligence and even perfection from his researchers. In many ways, he was like a strict father: On the rare occasions they returned from the field to stay in Mogadishu — then a cosmopolitan hub known as the “pearl” of the Indian Ocean — cavorting with other expats was discouraged. But rather than alienate his team, Watson’s dogged commitment won him their fierce loyalty. There was also a lighter, irreverent side to him. During the 1970s, he appeared on Jacques Cousteau’s hit adventure television series, which featured Watson in his element, studying hippos in Lake Tanganyika in Zambia. As the crew unveiled a life-sized hippo costume intended for the photographers who were attempting to get close to the animals, Cousteau asked Watson for his expert opinion on the suit. The scientist’s grin broadened as he confirmed that the plastic hippo appeared to be female. “If I was a hippo, at 10 meters, I’d consider this one of the more attractive specimens,” he said. “So whoever’s in the back better be ready for action.”
Watson engaged easily with all types, possessing a kind of dynamism that won him a vast social circle. He was friendly with British commandos, with whom he loved to talk aviation; Somali elites including President Barre’s son; and even the future militia leader Mohammed Farah Aidid, whom American soldiers would target in the infamous “Black Hawk Down” operation in 1993. But he was close to few aside from his researchers. Together, Watson and his team crisscrossed the country by Land Rover and airplane to document the environment in minute detail at some 1,400 sites. They divvied up tasks by specialization — flora, water, soil, wildlife — and produced intricate, hand-drawn maps of vegetation and topography, conducted a census of livestock, gathered thousands of samples of flora and soil, and took nearly 10,000 slides and photographs. Though they didn’t know it at the time, they were creating a detailed record of a place on the cusp of calamity.