Monday, July 6, 2020

The Elephants in the Room

Over the last few months there has been an enormous amount of debate surrounding sustainable use, wildlife trade, hunting and bans. There has also been a flurry of activity on the international stage of how to tackle the upsurge in illegal activities including crushing of ivory stocks and offers of huge amounts of money from the donor community to bolster law enforcement efforts.

This has culminated in a high-powered meeting that was held in Botswana in December to discuss what can be done to curb elephant poaching. Feeding into this furnace have been strong opinions singing the praises of the recent closure of hunting in Botswana, and vociferous sentiments that describe the pros and cons of whether to trade in rhino horn and ivory products. All hollow victories.

For those who work in the wildlife arena on a day-to-day basis, the support for the removal of yet another tool from the suite that is used to support wildlife conservation outside of protected areas, like well regulated and supervised hunting, is depressing.

I do not attack the authors who do not support or are against hunting. Their articles and papers are well written and within the framework of their knowledge. Their conclusions are perfectly logical, given their protectionist outlook and their confessed or implied rejection for sustainable utilization. The trouble is that their focus is often too narrow, often blurred by emotions that hide the reality. The resulting picture therefore is only postcard size. They either choose to ignore the underlying causes which are the reasons why poaching thrives in rural Africa or try to cling to the status quo. The reality is that despite the bravado in the media, the void left by the closure of hunting is, in all probability, not going to be filled by non-hunting tourist enterprises, at least not in the thousands of “miles and miles of African bush” that were once viable hunting concessions. These are deemed unattractive to the normal photo tourist (and unprofitable by the tourist companies).

Instead indiscriminate poaching will replace legal and supervised hunting. Elephant poaching operations do not need high-tech back-up ÔÇô mere poison attacks, as recently seen in Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and the abundant AK47 work well enough in the African bush where governance is diminished. On the other side of the spectrum, the well-protected rhino populations in South Africa are under sophisticated high-tech attacks, and losses are exceeding all previously imagined.

Trade bans for ivory and horn will not stop this disastrous development: the economic incentives and rewards offered are far too tempting for the local poachers and their international masters-in-crime. Together, they fill the gap left by ineffective trading policies. Despite of the obvious failure of trade bans, most international animal welfare groups and quite a few serious conservationists feverishly lobby for their continuation.

The reality is that those people that live alongside elephants welcome the men who will provide them with cash to acquire motorbikes or smart phones. If the people who live alongside elephants don’t get the cash through opportunities provided by regulated sustainable use, they probably and understandably will be prepared to sell information and offer otherwise assistance to those with sinister motives.

Trying to suppress the demand for the paraphernalia of modern life in rural Africa within the existing policy framework is impossible. Those that advocate increasing the number of anti-poaching boots on the ground, strict law enforcement and stiff penalties in the fight against elephant poaching do not understand that this narrow focus does not offer solutions to fulfill the understandable economic desires of rural Africans. Therefore all these efforts combined will not only be unsustainable, but also ineffective. There were many elephants in the room at the meeting in Botswana. It remains to be seen whether those that are involved can see the big picture on the wall instead of the postcard in their suit pocket.

*Vernon Booth is a Wildlife Consultant based in Harare

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