Cranes & Other Conservation

Cranes & Other Conservation

Wattled Crane - Copyright © Grant AtkinsonAfrica’s beautiful cranes have become a maypole for world conservation, but I don’t believe the birds – or the world – will be saved by private initiatives.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Founded on the fairy tale conservation story that saved the Whooping Crane, the Foundation today extends its work around the globe, protecting fifteen species of crane worldwide.

I was particularly interested in their work with the four African breeders, the Black Crowned, Grey Crowned, Blue and Wattled.

Each of these birds is incredibly spectacular; the crowned and the other two types have distinct behaviors, and they all get the attention of my clients even those who are not birders per se.

And all of us guides have watched their decline… and, in the case of the wattled, the promise of a comeback.

Hardly a decade ago, flocks of black crowned cranes were common on every grassland wilderness. Although they peal off in pairs to nest, large flocks were common before nesting and among the fledglings.

Their funny low-decibel honking, very much like a goose, often introduced them long before the explosion of colors and ballet of flying together got everyone’s attention.

But the crane in general is an indicator of much more than beauty alone. Cranes are wetland birds. Like so many birds in a variety of ecosystems, cranes indicate the health of the world’s wetlands.

And wetlands – at least for the time being until new technology is developed – is the way the world cleans itself while simultaneously producing more clean water.

Now Africa’s cranes are often found as I’ve seen in near desert environments – they’ve adapted nicely to the desertification of Africa. But they tend to nest in as wetland an environment as possible.

So we might deduce that Africa’s cranes are in the forefront of the decline of wetlands, managing to adapt historical behavior to the decline of good water resources, because Africa’s wetlands are in a more serious decline than elsewhere on earth.

But we may have reached an untenable point in that decline. Over my forty years I’ve watched the crowns “come and go,” so to speak in terms of their anecdotal visible numbers. But in the last 3-5 years they’ve been going and not coming back.

And this stands in marked contrast to the Wattled Crane of southern Africa, which while more threatened to begin with than the crowned, seems to be making progress, albeit slowly.

And this little bit of evidence is why I don’t believe that despite the invaluable work of organizations like the Crane Foundation, the cranes – or for that matter, any world ecosystem – will be saved without massive government involvement.

A lot of people don’t agree with me. Another recent visitor to the Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Carl Gibson, wrote recently in the Huffington Post, “Cranes and Climate Change: Why Our Survival Depends on Local Solutions.”

In a somewhat convoluted way Gibson claims that private initiatives like the Crane Foundation can ultimately control climate change, which he correctly faults for much of the world’s current conservation crisis.

Gibson lauds “small business” and business green initiatives for being “ahead of the federal government … find[ing] ways to generate our own power, run our businesses sustainably, and conserve natural resources and biodiversity if we’re to survive extinction as a species in the next century.”

Like the leadership of the Crane Foundation and many other good conservation organizations, there’s a belief that government either can’t or won’t address the problems they do.

They’re wrong, and it’s time that we change this destructive attitude that’s arising between well-meaning conservationists and their governments. I find so often today a nihilistic attitude by private conservation organizations towards governments. This has got to change.

The reason the Wattled Crane has a current better trajectory for long-term survival than the crowneds is because the governments of southern Africa have more aggressively dealt with wetland issues. It’s that simple.

The remarkable effort by the Botswana government to create boreholes in the dried up Ngami River and its tributaries … for 26 years until they refilled two years ago!… is a case in point. And it’s just one of dozens and dozens.

Now to be sure the Crane Foundation and similar conservation organizations perform just that type of work. But they are uncoordinated with overall environment strategy and often fall well short of what a government-funded project is capable of.

The Crane Foundation is an outstanding organization. And like many others like it, one of its greatest legacies is the scientific expertise that it builds over the years. That is critical to saving the world.

But so are governments. And Carl Gibson is wrong. Our personal resources and initiatives should be directed first to guiding and controlling our government then towards private organizations.

Without government involvement, there is no hope.

Animals, Plants or People?

Animals, Plants or People?

East Africa’s hirola antelope may soon become the second antelope in 100 years to go extinct. So what?

There are 91 species of antelope left in the world, 90 of which are native to Africa. There are currently 350-450 hirola left in the wild in East Africa, down from 14,000 in the 1970s.

If hirola become extinct they would join the Bubal Hartebeest as the two antelope which went extinct in the last 100 years. An allied species, the Schomburgk’s deer, would make three.

And the extinction in all three cases is due to habitat loss, aggravated by hunting. All three would likely be survivors if man were not also competing for their territories.

In the last hundred years 12 other larger mammals (in addition to the 3 mentioned above) have gone extinct:

5 predators: 3 tigers, 1 lion and 1 wolf.
Plus 1 rhino, 1 seal, 1 ibex and 2 wallabies.

The rhino, wallabies and seal were hunted to extinction. The ibex suffered the same fate as the antelope above (habitat loss aggravated by global warming and human competition). The predators likely went extinct because the food source they depended upon diminished.

So what? This doesn’t seem like very many.

Wrong. Big mammal extinctions are the itty bitty tip of the iceberg, and you’d have to go back multiple centuries to obtain the next 12 bigger mammal extinctions. And mammals represent only a very tiny fraction of the life forms on earth.

The rate of extinctions of all life forms in the last century is massive, exponential in fact when compared to previous centuries; indeed, when compared to millennia.

So… what?

Species conservation as a social and political goal began about a 100 years ago with Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir. In those early days its justification was mostly to preserve lovely things for future generations when preservation did not require considerable resources to succeed.

A half century ago preserving lovely things for future generations became trumped by the mandate to maintain as great a biodiversity on the planet as possible. The arguments for biodiversity are powerful but often complicated. They’re best summed up by a 2010 Cornell University study that essentially argued that biodiversity is a defense against the greatest threats to humankind like viruses.

Lately, though, the public isn’t buying the science. Most polls show that a very slim margin but more than 50% of Americans no longer believe there is anything wrong with extinction.

But I tend to ignore about half of America, that also disbelieves global warming and evolution. Ignorant Americans are a danger to the future, but they haven’t at least as yet deterred good science. And we can hope that in a relatively short time, good science will prevail, again.

But what about the hirola? Should Nature Conservancy and its partners conduct a fund-raising campaign that will net tens of thousands of dollars for land purchase and management, anti-poaching and veterinarian services to protect a single species of antelope in the wild?

Or, should the tens of thousands of dollars that need to be spent to do so better be used to manage the Dadaab refugee catastrophe that is very nearby?

Or, should the tens of thousands of dollars better be spent to save 100 species of plants in the Amazon?

Or, should the tens of thousands of dollars to create and maintain The Ishaqbini Hirola Community Conservancy better be spent to actually pay for building the rerouted Serengeti Highway?

I could go on and on. Northern Kenya where the hirola exist is one of the most stressed areas on earth. The focus there should be on the Dadaab refugees first, not the hirola. And the loss of the hirola in the wild does not mean an extinction of the species, just of the species in the wild.

And the resources that seem would be required to do this job are enormous relative to hundreds of other projects to maintain the planet’s biodiversity.

Should the hirola be saved. Yes. But not at the cost of so many other possible species rescues.

No matter they might be little green vines that don’t elicit tears from rich people.

Frostbite Kills: Help Norwegians

Frostbite Kills: Help Norwegians

Recent climate change has led to extreme climate conditions, everywhere, and in Norway temperatures are at historic lows. Africans are mobilizing to help.

Young people from all over South Africa are responding to the climatology crisis by collecting radiators to send to Oslo.

“Frostbite Kills Too” is the slogan embedded in a new South African music video by South African lead rapper Breezy V. The mission: “help freezing Norwegians by donating a radiator today!”

So in solidarity with the generous South Africans my Thanksgiving family household joined in the movement which is sweeping across the world. We have a particular attachment: we have Norwegian roots.

The day after Thanksgiving is traditionally at my house a time of baking Norwegian Christmas cookies: Berliner Kranz, Fattigmandsbakkels and other multiple syllabic overly consonant cookies.

As is custom, the men go out to bars and the women bake. At the end of the day, the women divide the cookies.

This year in solidarity with the South Africans we set aside one cannister of Fattigmandsbakkels to send to the poor Norwegians. It’s a particularly ironically sad moment when you return to a certain sector of humanity something that was once theirs to begin with.

(Like survival.)

Norwegians, of course, are speechless. At least in English. Except Norwegian students, who are embracing the aid as an indication of heart-felt human compassion.

As one told me, “Du har frelst oss fra kulde med fattigmanbukels!”

This gesture to help warm a freezing part of the world ranks right up at the top, not just of earth, but of goodwill. It meets my minimum standards of what my clients should bring to Africa to help out.

Like Bic pens and used clothing. Especially shoes.

Outpourings of shoes, for instance, will go a long way towards helping Africans to walk the walk. And for talking the talk, we can leave them our unused throat lozenges at the end of the safari.

For once we’ve all demonstrated, here as we bake Christmas cookies, and there in South Africa as they rap up the radiators, that government aid is nothing but a corrupt monster of goodwill, and that our individual efforts alone can change the world.

Think, for example, of how warm Norway could be if everyone in Africa sent them a radiator! It’s mind-boggling.

Climate change would no longer matter, because it would never be cold in Norway.

There are many fewer people in Norway than you think. So just one radiator from every South African household which usually has at least two would more than completely solve the problem.

It’s messages of this sort that we must spread across the world. Breezy V’s next music video will be sponsored by Coca Cola and we will all hold hands.

Warmed, at last, by radiators!

Redistributed Marriage

Redistributed Marriage

We should be incensed by the privileged often American tourist to rural Africa who characterizes want and poverty as some kind of pristine Garden of Eden that should just be left alone.

After her “first visit to Kenya,” a recent American tourist asked in her blog: “The Maasai culture and traditions are pure, so why would you want to change them?”

The question makes me scream: because the Maasai want iPhones, and sleeper posturepedic mattresses, and Brita filters, and slim notebooks and a hope for a better life. Anything wrong with that?

Today, the UN and hundreds of other organizations worldwide, celebrate the Day of the Girl Child which specifically condemns child marriages and which pointedly teases out much of American conservative ambiguities about freedom and individual rights.

Most forced wedlock for girl children occurs in Asia, but a close second is sub-Saharan Africa and specifically in East Africa’s still deeply rural areas.

“Some people sell their daughters at a tender age so they can get food. It’s common but people are silent about it,” a rural Kenyan told Reuters TrustLaw.

The Reuters TrustLaw story interview also described Somali traditions intended to preserve virginity prior to wedlock by arranging very young child marriages.

Now to some that may seem all so noble, right?

Such practices as female circumcision, child marriage and prostitution, and even child slavery are time and again reported in equivocal ways.

“Here’s a troubling fact: 60 million girls world wide are forced into marriage before the age of 18…,” that American tourist wrote in her blog, “But when it comes to cultures that practice child marriages, not everyone agrees that change is a good thing.”

Exactly who is everyone? A few locals you photographed on your $10,000 safari while being completely incapable of speaking to them them in their own language? Might their smiles had something to do with the 200 shillings you gave them for the shot?

I concede there are issues specifically relating to children that teeter on that sharp fence separating individual from human rights and perhaps this contributes to why some Americans believe that poverty and deprivation is fated to “just be left alone.”

Few argue that each child is different, capable of assuming independence at earlier or later ages. The UN and many organizations, though, set 18 years as the first age societies should presume a child is fully able to assume whole responsibility for herself.

Only a few generations ago, that was absurd. My grandmother married at 13 years old, a lost immigrant from Croatia. If she had not married she would likely have died in the mayhem that followed the flow of thousands of immigrants out of Ellis Island.

But that’s the point. That was more than 100 years ago. Although communities in Bangladesh or Mogadishu may not seem much different today than Ellis Island was at the turn of the 20th century, the global awareness of poverty and deprivation has increased enormously.

Fortunately, we all now care more about one another than ever before, if for no other reason than we’ve the tools to see further and deeper, everywhere.

The resilient human spirit, which burns greater in my opinion among the poor and deprived, will find moments in even the most awful situations for satisfaction and happiness. The beautiful nostalgia of my own boyhood may indeed not be so different from that of a successful African businesswoman of her own childhood in a rural hut.

But the effrontery of we privileged to wonder if earlier she might have chosen to remain deprived and under privileged is astounding. I believe it’s evil. It’s racist and the result of greed, a fear that to make things better for others means they will be made worse for ourselves.

Redistribution. Shudder at that word.

And the point there is that redistribution is only the beginning. With more of the world raised from deprivation, the productive capacity will be so remarkably increased that there will be more for all.

So get a grip. Redistribute some of that wealth that got you to Kenya to the poor little Maasai girl who would very much like to visit you in Columbus.

Poopooing Philanthropy

Poopooing Philanthropy

Bill Gates’ “Reinvent the Toilet Fair” in Seattle next week illustrates perfectly the limits of philanthropy and why real generosity must come from governments not individual rich people.

The Gates’ Foundation work to prevent and cure malaria is outstanding. The battle against the disease is perfect for individual philanthropy for two reasons. But most philanthropy, if not the vast majority promulgated by private foundations and individuals is wasteful and destructive.

The first reason the Gates’ Foundation work in malaria is valuable is that global agencies and governments from the developed world dare not tread on the mechanisms of global capitalism. Developing a vaccine, or a super small X-ray machine, or the Mars’ Curiosity, takes enormous capital. It’s the reason cancer drugs are so expensive. The drug company must recover not only the huge initial investment for a successful drug but it must also cover the huge losses of failed drugs.

Governments are capable of making these investments to be sure as are multinational corporations, but developed world interest in eradicating malaria in Africa doesn’t reach the threshold of importance developed world society does place, for example, in Mars’ Curiosity. Whether this is right or wrong isn’t my point. It’s just the case that developed world priorities do not extend to malaria eradication in the developing world.

Last year U.S. aid for developing world disease control and prevention – concentrated principally to fight tuberculosis, AIDS and malaria – was $503 million (from an HHS agency budget of $30.5 billion.) Gates alone has spent nearly four times this amount just on malaria research and prevention.

Because that is how much it takes to develop a malaria vaccine. The disease is among the most complex diseases on earth, a legendary evolutionary battle between man and his greatest nemesis, disease.

Neither will the developed world’s capitalist markets undertake a project to eradicate malaria. A malaria vaccine would not generate enough financial return to warrant the investment. Once malaria was controlled in the developed world — just as with polio more recently — the developed world will not provide the additional capital investment from either governments or markets for control in the less affluent developing world.

So it’s a perfect project for a rich man.

The second important reason malaria control is perfect for western philanthropy is because it’s so political. Malaria was eradicated in the developed world by DDT. The developed world now believes that DDT poses too great an environmental hazard to be used, now.

Whether this is rank fiscal hypocrisy or a cold prioritization of self-interest I’m not certain, but the door to quick eradication of malaria in the developing world, using the only historical method we know, has been slammed shut. DDT manufacturing is mostly controlled by the developed world, but more importantly, the threat of sanctions against developing countries that would dare to use it is real.

But most philanthropy cannot be justified by these two reasons. The vast majority of philanthropy funds projects that societies are fully capable of funding themselves. By that I mean not just through government services supported by taxes but more so by the albeit much smaller capitalist markets in the developing world.

They include almost everything from education to sanitation to energy development. When a philanthropist steps into areas like these it’s usually because of a failing in society’s planning or an oversight by market developers. To that extent pointing these out becomes the greatest justification for philanthropy.

But once pointed out philanthropists should move on and the implementation should be left to society. Society, of course, can’t do everything so it picks and chooses its priorities and that process of choosing is the very essence of a society. It should not be usurped by individuals. The best example is education. There’s no doubt that education is fundamental to almost all other development. Everyone agrees with this.

The components of successful education may be innumerable. There will always be a myriad of ways to better society’s educational efforts. Philanthropy has a major role in discovering society’s failings and to discovering innovative components otherwise overlooked by society.

But once discovered it should be left to that society to implement. Implementing it outside of normal societal mechanisms (such as through individual philanthropy) distorts any social plan and usurps the right of the majority.

Community sewage disposal is as fundamental to organized communities as education is to a workable society as a whole. A multitude of techniques are known, the engineering is fully developed, none of the essential technology is protected by copyright, and it’s fair even for a laymen to conclude there aren’t many alternatives to waste disposal except disposing waste.

So the Gates Foundation’s $42 million grants to “reinvent the toilet” are absurd. Like our own current infatuation with ethanol from corn in gasoline, more energy is being used by the so-called innovation than if we just didn’t do it at all.

The reason Nairobi’s sanitation is so underdeveloped is not because Kenya lacks either the resources or technology to lay appropriate sewers in the city’s ground, but because in part the country’s resources are being used instead to fund a war in Somalia.

I’m not arguing whether the war in Somalia is right or wrong, I’m arguing that Kenya should not assume its expense. The turmoil in Somalia was not caused by Kenya. It was caused by the developed world.

So the problem in poor sanitation in Nairobi is that the world as a whole — including Kenya itself — hasn’t owned up to its social obligations even though it’s fully capable of doing so. And this dynamic is propped up by western philanthropy.

If the Gates’ Foundation is successful in creating a “better toilet” for the developing world it could not possibly be more efficient than community sewage works. But it might indeed discover a device that can produce sanitation for a given few who have the wealth to enjoy it, and then delay even further extending sanitation services to the greater society at large.

In a nutshell it divides the rich from the poor, and it accelerates the dividing.

Frankly, I think even Gates’ officials and associates realize this. A blog widely disseminated in the developed world yesterday by Gates associate Diane Scott was rife with self-deprecation and embarrassment and proves what foolishness is going on. I can just imagine my friends in Nairobi reading this and chuckling madly.

Utopia is not in the cards, I know. But philanthropy in the main delays most utopian visions. Gates should be commended for so much of his work, but this – and most philanthropy in general – is just not right.

Not so Nobel

Not so Nobel

The Nobel concept of microfinance is being revealed as little more than a business whose effects on poverty are no better than any other banking enterprise. Darth Vader sits on many of their boards.

There’s something sweetly compassionate in the pure Islamic concept that money should never be lent at an interest rate. It’s also anathema to modern capitalism. Periodic negative cash flows are intrinsic to many successful businesses; and many genius if awkward ideas would never have come to fruition in our modern economies.

But the two radically different concepts have one thing in common: you’ve got to have money to make money. White angels might have existed in medieval times; today you need collateral.

About two decades ago microfinance emerged as a charitable bridge between the despised money lender and the little guy in need of a few bucks to run his gristmill:

Or buy his heifer, or paint his school house, or open his corner café, or buy his first bicycle so go he could go to work, or plant his half acre of white beans.

It was deemed so successful that many of its original proponents received world bonuses … like the Nobel Prize.

Bangladeshi Muhammad Yunus became the world’s poster banker for helping the poor while helping himself. But, of course, he didn’t intend to help himself; he just meant to help the poor.

The concept is simple. Lend very small amounts of money to responsible people who are very likely to pay you back and keep the interest rate down.

It’s also been around for a very long time. Self-help groups in India formed during the British colonial period and continue throughout the developing world, today. U.S. credit unions were originally formed to provide the service here, although they’ve “grown up” in recent years.

This is a huge capitalistic market, and especially in emerging economies where the only big thing is the urban slum. And since “small” banks don’t exist anywhere, not even in Dhaka, it wasn’t a job banks were doing or wanted to.

Win-win, right? Yes, except it became win-win-win.

The Heifer Project was more or less an early type, and after Yunus won the Nobel Prize in 2006, microfinance became all the fashion. Three Cups of Tea followed on its heals, and today a slough of so-called microfinance charities exist. One of the largest in the U.S. is KIVA whose young female founder and CEO is now the star of a number of national television commercials.

But as New York Times’ Nicholas Kristoff so aptly put it, Three Cups of Tea … spilled. Three Cups of Tea was a patent scam. Money solicited for schools was used for the founders’ own increasingly lavish lifestyle. Moreover, his claims and promises about the why and wherefore of his projects proved widely untrue.

But to be fair, most of the microfinance groups are not like Three Cups of Tea. Their missions aren’t made up. A reasonable percentage of donor money actually gets to the developing area.

The problem is a problem with the concept of microfinance more than with the individual entities that do it. And I think it fair, today, to claim that lofty claims of goodness no longer apply. And there are some critical thinkers who believe microfinance actually increases poverty.

The first discoveries made by analysts in the early 2000s applied to organizations like the Heifer Project where growth spurned greed in the organization. Salaries went up, administrative costs became so high in the Heifer Project that the founders created a shadow foundation board to hide some of the money. In some states this is a felony.

That’s been remedied and today the Heifer Project looks more like it did when it first started, and illegalities are no longer assumed. And the attention that was poured on the Heifer Project about ten years ago reigned in much of these tendencies by other micro finance groups.

But after the scandals of Three Cups of Tea and the early Heifer Project dual foundations, criticism of microfinance in general exploded.

KIVA, America’s microfinance dandy of the here and now, was first harshly criticized almost three years ago by a charity whistle-blower, David Roodman.

Roodman doesn’t claim that like Heifer or Three Cups of Tea, KIVA’s practices may be illegal. Rather, he claims that KIVA manipulates donor money (in the way any good bank would) to maximize effect, and in so doing is misleading donors about what they are actually doing.

KIVA solicits your funds by showing you a number of uplifting small business projects to which you can donate. You then open an account with your donation, which immediately depletes and then fills back up as the debtor repays the loan. You can then, as most do, elect to place your money and its modest earnings into another project.

The problem is that your money is pooled with everyone else’s, and KIVA’s directors disperse it as they see fit.

There’s nothing illegal about this, although it does strike me as sort of a ponzi scheme with yourself. But the point is that it’s grossly misleading.

KIVA realizes that if you as a small benefactor were simply solicited to “fund a small microfinance bank” you’d be much less likely to give than if you supposedly target your money for helping a Congolese self-help group “to buy 2 tubs of tomatoes, a tub of peanuts, and 50 kg of sorghum.”

Thirty thousand people weekly are now contributing to KIVA. And as Roodman rightly points out, “In short, the person-to-person donor-to-borrower connections created by Kiva are partly fictional. I suspect that most Kiva users do not realize this. Yet Kiva prides itself on transparency.”

It remains unclear if Three Cups of Tea has remedied itself like the Heifer Project did. The American Institute of Charity ( gives Heifer an “A-“ rating, today.

And that’s the other maybe biggest part of the problem: organizations like CharityWatch and GuideStar are widely used by charity givers to determine if their noble intentions can find Nobel placement.

And through no fault of their own, charity rating agencies use the most basic business criterion to determine honesty if integrity of mission. Nothing wrong with this. It’s exactly what you as a donor should demand.

Except that the mission might not work. Or might even be wrong.

And that’s often the case, especially in the Africa I know. When I sit above my little yellow pad and start adding the millions – billions – of dollars Americans have given to so-called charities in Africa, and then understand how little development was actually produced, it’s heart-breaking.

Roodman has recently published a book, “Due Diligence, An Impertinent Inquiry into Microfinance” which I’d paraphrase in a simplistic way by the above statement, that the mission(s) of microfinance rarely work. And when they’re wrong, they contribute to poverty, they don’t alleviate it.

Roodman himself has been scrutinized, and that scrutiny is widely favorable. Both NGOs here at home as well as those in the developing world are increasingly critical of microfinance in general.

And the reason is pretty simple, too. Bad projects probably outnumber good projects. The private world of giving is probably no better – indeed, probably much worse – than government to government aid.

The net result of microfinance, like most private aid in general, harms the developing world, doesn’t help it.

Bipartisan Balderdash in Africa

Bipartisan Balderdash in Africa

We in America can’t agree to increase taxes for better education or health care, but we can all agree to pay an extra ten million or two to obsess about a fallen Africa criminal.

The absolute farce with Invisible Children reached the otherwise empty halls of Congress this week. The viral YouTube video based on much false information, laced with syrupy emotive gimmicks, and which caused riots of disapproval in the country in which it was all supposed to have happened, brought America’s otherwise vicious opponents together in a marvelous Spring Love Fest.

Blood enemies Sen. John Kerry (D-Ma) and Johnny Isakson R-Ga) held hands before the camera and announced new measures to increase the bounty on criminals in Africa while Dept. Asst. Secty. Amanda Dory applauded herself, her country, her State Department and the world for having “significantly degraded” Joseph Kony’s murderous and barbarous crusades against humanity.

The man is probably dead.

They can’t find him.

“It’s a very challenging terrain in which to find a small number of needles in a haystack,” Dory said. She Kony is now in an “evasion and survival mode.” And then she delighted in explaining how Obama’s 100 special forces were pursuing the criminal through “through hanging vines” and “crocodile-infested rivers.”

I just can’t believe this. I can’t believe the 100 million saps who watched the Invisible Children’s video and the good percentage of them who then complained to their elected officials about this fantasy.

But I can believe the response by our elected leaders. They can’t pass a budget, but by god they’re going to send the calvary out after the bad guy, and what better place to pursue a figment of their imagination than the crocodile-invested jungles of deepest, darkest, dimmest Africa.

The power of fiction.

Click the video below to see Ugandans’ attempt to respond to all this nonsense. What the Ugandans want us to know is that the legacy of Kony, not Kony, is the problem. They need Sen Kerry’s bounty money to rehabilitate children, distribute grain seeds, provide counseling.

They above all know we don’t need 100 special forces at a half million dollars or more daily to pursue a man who might be dead, and if he isn’t, is long gone from the scene.

Correction, as I get rather emotional about this. Kony’s dwindling maniacs who probably number around a 100 is a horrible, brutal criminal gang that rivals the 1930s Chicago mob. With or without Kony, whether he’s a live or not, the left over gang has found an occupation that provided they can continue to buy bullets and machetes will continue some blood letting.

And just the thought of that continues even greater terror. I don’t mean to suggest anything Obama or a Green Beret wants to do to reduce the 100 to 90 to 50 to 10 isn’t a good idea. I’m just saying that in terms of the use of available resources, American money, I think the Ugandans have a better idea.

Watch below.

The Children Are NOT Invisible

The Children Are NOT Invisible

Invisible Children has produced a viral YouTube video that is dangerous. Like other U.S. organizations embracing an African cause they exploit part truths to make a buck.

My young hero, Conor Godfrey, wrote an incredibly balanced and unemotional blog about this that you must reread to understand the facts of the case. That way I can just continue screaming in good conscience.

I’ve written disparagingly about Invisible Children before. Among their most outlandish accomplishments was accepting money from naive high schools in America’s heartland for a cause that no longer existed. IC did this by teasing emotions and grossly ignoring details.

IC’s raison d’etre is to tell the stories of child soldiers who played such unspeakable rolls in mostly Uganda and The Congo in the 1990s, while under the control of a still wanted fugitive, Joseph Kony. That’s true.

But when the Windsor Colorado high school (and presumably others, too) raised money for the effort at the behest of IC, the cause was already over. There have been no child soldiers or Joseph Konys or Joseph Kony wanabees in Uganda since 2006.

IC’s response was to change its website slightly and go on accepting money from lots of naive high schoolers, much less pensioned widows and disabled truck drivers. The teachers, administrators and even local newspaper reporters in Windsor refused to comment on my blog or even talk to me about it.

I am so incensed by this exploitation, and watching the video that’s gone viral on YouTube makes my blood boil. IC is continuing its false cause campaign by generalizing to the point that details be damned!

Of course we all care about children! Can’t criticize the palsy filmmaker Jason Russell for spending two minutes at the beginning of the video showing baby pictures of his son, followed by a minute segment showing the birth of a very white child. Warm us up, so to speak.

The entire video is so tweaked with these generalized but irrelevant emotive gimmicks that I feel I’m watching a drug company commercial on the evening news. Russell’s honey coated commentary belies a very disturbed psyche, someone whose deepest soul is daring pushback against a blind evangelical drive to tell a story … that really isn’t.

The true story, as Conor reviews above, actually has parts with happy endings, not particularly conducive to a charity campaign.

Joseph Kony is a fugitive, probably in the Central African Republic (CAR), not Uganda. He hasn’t been there since he was roundly defeated by the Ugandan military in 2006.

We should presume Kony continues his sadistic ways of conscripting, drugging and brainwashing young children to be killers – the heart and soul of IC’s craven drive for wealth and fame. But we have little hard evidence of a scale anywhere near his robust days in Uganda.

Voice of America reported in March of his redeveloping presence in The Congo near the CAR. But as one of my all-time favorite journalists, New York Times reporter Jeffrey Gettleman explains in his March essay in the New York Review of Books, Kony is involved in only one of “dozens of small-scale, dirty wars” that while absolutely terrible doesn’t begin to achieve the magnitude of murder and destruction Kony leveled on Uganda in the 1990s.

But if IC owns up to the facts it might kill the golden goose.

The warehouse of emotion that IC has harvested from an unwitting American population, much less its cash charity, corrodes to the core the intention of every good person donating to it.

IC is especially being denounced in Uganda, where it all began. Ugandans are proud that they’ve routed Kony, so when the video was shown there last month it nearly caused a riot.

The excellent blog, Upworthy, tells a more sinister fiscal tale about IC in the recent post, “Share This Instead of the New Kony Video”:

IC recently accepted $750,000 from the National Christian Foundation (NCF). The NCF designed then funded the campaign in Uganda to pass a “Kill the Gays Bill” about which I and so many others have written. NCF gives other big sums of money to “The Call” which sends youthful missionaries into “dominions of darkness” like San Francisco to retrieve gays from their purgatory.

Also on NCF’s big recipient list with IC is the Family Research Council and The Fellowship. These mega right-wing organizations are well known and so dangerous, not just to Uganda but America. Just spend a few minutes on Google to build your Darth Vader tome.

This is the recipient pool that IC shares. And its message, methods and racist causes are also the same.

Weep when you watch the video. But let the tears dry before besmirching a check. You’ll realize that your clenched fist is packaged for IC not Kony.

Volunteerism Not Always Good

Volunteerism Not Always Good

I often receive requests by sincere travelers who want to volunteer in Africa. The latest is from an enthusiastic woman who wants to help the mountain gorillas. She doesn’t want to pay “some tourist company thousands and not directly help.” Like many well meaning people, she’s got it very wrong.

Particularly with regards to the mountain gorillas, it’s my opinion that tourists doing nothing more than “paying thousands to tour companies” do as much if not more to help the mountain gorillas than scientists.

Read In the Kingdom of the Gorillas by Bill Weber and Amy Vedder, the two scientists who began the mountain gorilla project in the 1970s. From that book alone (and there are many more) you’ll see that without tourists paying the huge fee to the Rwandan government just for the privilege of seeing the gorillas, plus the funds paid local transporters and hoteliers, it is likely there would be no mountain gorillas left.

The sentiment to volunteer is a hopeful one, to be sure, and shared by many enthusiastic conservationists. And it is typical of caring travelers and crosses well beyond animal conservation into all areas of volunteerism.

Volunteerism can be good, please don’t mistake me. But there are several negative sides to it which send up serious red flags to the organizations involved.

Casual volunteers usually cause more difficulties than they expect. The most important one is time. Unless you have a half year to dedicate to some project, it’s unlikely you’ll be invited to assist. This is as true for mountain gorilla research at Kinigi as it is for AIDS education in Soweto.

Someone coming for just a month, for example, causes tremendous housekeeping problems such as food and housing (which you cannot try to do yourself).

Integrating the skills of a new team member into the team is as hard for an experienced field researcher as a casual volunteer. It takes careful analysis and if done wrong can compromise the goals of the entire project.

Analyzing your skills by a potential project takes time and money. Mistaking your capabilities, or inappropriately allocating your skills, will cost the project even more time and money. And today, time and money are scarcer than ever.

The mountain gorilla project in particular is not your down-the-street food bank. The people who work there are highly educated, generally postdocs, in highly specific fields. Of course any organization can use someone to paint the walls, but doing that robs part of the high intentions of the project: it takes those types of jobs away from Rwandans.

Remember that a principal goal of practically any aid project, whether it be animal conservation or public health, is to ultimately turn that project over to locals. The first stage of this implementation is turning over the least skilled jobs, something that is almost always the rating of a casual volunteer.

And finally, there is a negative side that is extremely important to me personally that people must try to understand. Volunteering in any sense can coopt one’s support for the grander projects that carry real potential. Projects that are government to government, or foreign aid support of organizations like the Mountain Gorilla Project.

Our first and foremost responsibility as true conservationists and sincere volunteers is to support politics at home that will continue to fund the organizations we support. If you were able to expend energy, for example, in making sure that your political representatives supported USAid projects of the Mountain Gorilla Project, and you and others were successful, you will have achieved a much greater goal in helping the gorillas than anything you could do personally in a short time there.

I am happy and willing to link anyone with trained skills appropriate to projects in Africa with any of a number of organizations, provided you have a half year or more available. Let me know! Otherwise, recognize that it is we paean tourists who have done the greatest good for the mountain gorillas, just by going there and “paying thousands” to the local government and local businesses!

Student Do-Gooders Beware

Student Do-Gooders Beware

The right way: Cottonwood Institute's many student programs.
Summer is coming and throngs of young people are getting ready to screw up the world. That’s the effect of most volunteer tourism. Here’s why, along with a few stellar exceptions.

During the last fifty years of America’s descent into conservative misery, America’s philanthropy has increased substantially. There’s a good reason for this, and a bad reason for this, and they impact tourism as we never expected they would.

The good reason was because community compassion developed as funding for good social programs was withdrawn. What else could we do? Institutions like museums and zoos, which should be a part of the public domain, became privatized for budgetary reasons. Today we even see public funds withdrawn from any type of arts (and often recreation) programs in public schools!

Fiscal concerns in America trump virtually every other concern except to wage war (in the guise of security). After we bought our ten billionth gun, there just wasn’t any money left for public aid.

We are now ailing as result.

Education is a mess.

In virtually every category America has declined. The most talked about one is health but health and everything else in life declines first and foremost because education declines first. America is now 33rd in the world. The education accomplishments of countries like Russia, Mexico and Brasil outperform us.

The need to do something in the face of government suppression of public services became overwhelming. And public response in terms of charity was good. What was bad was that charity was often not charity, just a ruse and self-disguise. And one of the principal tools for accomplishing that self-deception was tourism.

Frankly, I have serious doubts about philanthropy in general and have written about this before. The current controversy with Three Cups of Tea stands as a perfect example.

The bad effects of so-called voluntourism are acute when it involves children. I love guiding kids on safari, because I love watching their minds open to the vast mysterious of places far away and lifestyles never imagined. But I cringe terribly when they try to plan this in advance.

The number of requests I personally get by misguided parents who want to spend “a day or maybe three depending” on charitable activities when they go on safari drives me insane. It’s counterproductive. It’s a blatant indication of how badly their children are being raised.

One of the world’s finest social psychologists says it much better than me:

IN a research paper specifically addressing youth tourism programs for specially young AIDS orphanages in Africa Prof Linda Richter writes, “Programmes which encourage or allow short-term tourists to take on primary care-giving roles … are misguided for a number of reasons.”

1. They end up costing the orphanage more than the benefits received.
2. The volunteers generally perform badly.
3. Low-skilled volunteers squeeze out local and indigenous workers who not only need the work but could create a long-term benefit to the community since they don’t disappear after a few days.

But the zinger is indelible, long-lasting:

“The formation and dissolution of attachment bonds with successive volunteers is likely to be especially damaging to young children. Unstable attachments and losses experienced by young children with changing caregivers leaves them very vulnerable, and puts them at greatly increased risk for psychosocial problems…”

This is no old tour guide’s biased balderdash.

Professor Linda Richter (PhD) is a Distinguished Research Fellow at the Human Sciences Research Council in South Africa. She’s an Honorary Professor in Psychology and an elected Fellow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal; an Honorary Professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health at the University of the Witwatersrand; a Research Associate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Oxford (UK) and has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University USA) and Visiting Researcher at the University of Melbourne. That’s only the beginning of her resume.

Prof Richter concludes:

– “Children out of parental care have a right to protection… In particular, they have a right to be protected against repeated broken attachments … exacerbated by care provided by short term volunteers.
-“Welfare authorities must act against voluntourism companies … that exploit misguided international sympathies to make profits at the extent of children’s well-being.
-“Lastly, well-meaning young people should be made aware of the potential consequences of their own involvement in these care settings, be discouraged from taking part in such tourist expeditions…”

It is impossible to provide meaningful assistance FOR ANYTHING in a day “or maybe even three”. You can learn. You can become aware that it is unmeaningful, but you can’t MAKE A DIFFERENCE.

Yet again and again I have parents calling me about the spring break or summer safari, and they want to make sure their kids volunteer for a “day or maybe three.”

This is an unexpected further decline in America’s descent into greed and lack of real community compassion. It’s a way of “feeling good” without really doing anything meaningful. It’s believing you can do something meaningful when it’s impossible to do so.

You go on vacation for R&R and to expand your world view. You help the world afterwards, with that expanded world view. You help the world by getting deeply involved at home, not abroad. You personally have to suffer or benefit from the accomplishments or mistakes that you, yourself, make. That becomes increasingly difficult the further your charity is placed from home.

There are excellent student groups – (important: all not-for-profit and in never linked to commercial tour companies) – that do great work. Note that it is mostly local, and I believe that’s how it should be.

The Cottonwood Institute and Students Today Leaders Forever especially impress me. I bet there are dozens, but the point is there is no way to approach even a modicum of these organizations’ accomplishments on a commercial vacation.

And for adults Earthwatch rules the planet. It’s so good, in fact, that there really aren’t any viable competitors.

In all three cases, and I’m sure many more, volunteerism is not the point. It may be used, and when used creates real benefits as much for the individual (without jeopardizing the situation because of that individuals’ lack of skills) as for the situation itself.

That ultimately, is the only test. And if that standard can’t be met, then the self-styled “volunteer” does more harm to the situation than any benefits that might accrue. Voluntourism does more harm than good. And significantly to the voluntourist him/herself.

Do-Gooders, don’t get on the plane.

U.S. Kids Duped / Africa Disparaged

U.S. Kids Duped / Africa Disparaged

The International Club of Windsor High School, Colorado.

Here’s a perfect picture of what’s wrong with part of America: Kids, yes kids, duped by charity.

No one doubts the generosity of Americans. But charity must be researched first. And that’s what so many Americans just don’t do.

It would bother me less if it weren’t adults misleading kids. And I wouldn’t be quite so enraged if a series of subsequent adults didn’t affirm the original lie.

According to the Windsor, Colorado newspaper, The Beacon, Windsor High School students in northern Colorado are holding a big fund-raiser November 3 to help children fleeing a war zone in Africa.

The problem is, there is no war zone.

I don’t know if the lead teacher, Jackie Doman-Peoples, believes this. I tried to find out by calling her school and sending her an email, but she didn’t respond. So I don’t know if she just went onto the website of Invisible Children and didn’t dig deeply enough into their pages for the “current history” of Uganda and just got spell-bound by the movie about Invisible Children which no longer applies.

I don’t know if she then just decided, wow, that looks good, just like thousands of American idiots read a Sharron Angle’s poster and decide, wow, that looks good.

Doman-Peoples could have set me and lots of people in Uganda straight, but she didn’t. And I worry that she is leading her students to believe that their hard earned donations would be used to build a school to welcome recent escapees who had been kidnapped and turned into child soldiers by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

The LRA hasn’t been active in Uganda for at least two years, maybe longer.

According to Human Rights Watch, the LRA was “pushed out of northern Uganda in 2005 [and] now operates in the remote border area between southern Sudan, Congo, and the Central African Republic.”

So there aren’t any children fleeing an army that no longer exists in a war zone that isn’t.

The Beacon fed into the online version of a major Ft. Collins newspaper, the Coloradoan, where it reappeared.

So, we know the Beacon didn’t fact-check, and we know the Coloradoan didn’t fact-check the Beacon, and we know that Doman-Peoples didn’t take the opportunity to tell me that she didn’t believe what was reported about her.

Now to be sure, the LRA is still a force to be reckoned with, but not in northern Uganda. This weekend the leaders of a number of African nations met in Bangui, Central African Republic (CAR), to plan a strategy to finally wipe them out.

This is because the LRA was defeated in northern Uganda, southern Sudan more than two years ago by a proactive Ugandan military mixed with adroit international diplomacy.

The African leaders met in Bangui to discuss the LRA, because that’s the country in which the LRA is now most active. The renegade leader, Joseph Kony, fled northern Uganda when his dwindling forces were being routed and is probably in a hold-up in Darfur, much closer to the CAR than Uganda.

LRA is now active in a place that’s as far from northern Uganda as Windsor is from Las Vegas or St. Louis. The displaced kids from this new war zone can’t be helped in northern Uganda. And unfortunately, these new war zone areas are far too unstable for schools of any kind at the moment.

My irritation is certainly not with the generous souls of those kids in the high school, or even with the good intentions of someone like Donam-Peoples. There are plenty of children still in northern Uganda who still need assistance from the war which ended two years or more ago. They will likely need assistance the rest of their lives.

But I’m mad as hell that the implication is that the war continues, there! It doesn’t! Or that innocent kids are still being displaced, there. They aren’t!

This is also a story of what happens to NGOs when they become unnecessary. They won’t admit it. According to Mark Jordhal, whose wonderful Ugandan blog first broke this story, Invisible Children doesn’t deny that fund-raisers are still using their materials, particularly the film, which claims that the war in Uganda continues.

Their website, under the page “History of the War”, has recently updated the facts. But their promotional materials remain steeped in the past, and it is that pitch, that kids are being kidnapped and escaping into Invisible Children’s welcoming arms in northern Uganda, which is a serious outright lie.

So if Donam-Peoples checked with Invisible Children, a charity which has accomplished a lot of good work in northern Uganda, she could have been misled from the getgo, because that’s what their site does. And good gracious me, why on earth would we question a good American charity?!

It’s so important to the peoples in northern Uganda/southern Sudan – and particularly their children – that we recognize their victory. Claiming that a war still exists trashes their victory and discounts their noble hopes for the future.

There is no excuse for this.

Even though Invisible Children is still showing their film literally to this day to raise money. A film which claims the war continues.

The film was shown Tuesday on the Main Campus of Temple University. Perhaps at the end of the showing the presenter explained it was no longer happening in Uganda, I don’t know. But this once good charity, having run out of its main justification for income, can’t seem to move on. There’s a lot of good charity work left in northern Uganda. This aspect to this story is a story in itself.

But I can’t get over the fact that children are being misled. You don’t muster the power of kids without knowing the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. It’s called:


Katherine Popowski who wrote for the Beacon didn’t. And then David Persons, the editor of the Beacon didn’t. And by the time that the senior editor of the Coloradoan, Robert Moore, didn’t, it almost seems… true. And Doman-Peoples didn’t let me know if she did or not.

I held the publication of this post for two days to give all the above a chance to comment. I made phone calls to the school, sent emails to the teacher, the newspapers, the on-line reporter. Not one response. Not one email in reply.

They aren’t alone.

This may be the biggest problem in America, today. Not Knowing the Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But The Truth. But more importantly, not caring. Standing by your lie.

Thanks to Mark Jordahl in Kampala for bringing this to my attention. Take a look at his excellent blog, Conserve Uganda.

Best Conservation Charities

Best Conservation Charities

I am constantly asked what good charity to support for wildlife conservation in East Africa. Here’s a start.

I’ve compiled basic information from ten wildlife charities that is described for you, below, which I personally feel are the best of many good ones.

But first I must restate my theoretical opposition to all charities in East Africa, whether they be for wildlife conservation or poverty eradication. I’ve been around long enough to know things aren’t getting better; they’re getting worse.

A half century of charities has not improved the situation in East Africa. It certainly has helped to reduce the decline, but to improve overall situations we need government to government action. Nothing less.

When governments were aggressively assisting East Africa in the 1970s and early 1980s (for strictly strategic reasons: the Cold War), things began to improve. When the Cold War ended, aggressive assistance ended, and things started to get worse.

Not all the charities in the world combined even begin to approach the impact of a single western government aid agency.

So before you choose a charity to support, look carefully at how you can support your various government agencies if you really want to help improve the situations in East Africa.

Charities provide a critical role in lobbying and focusing government action. They’re often the first responders to emergencies that are not catastrophic but still devastating, and probably most of all, they relieve our guilt: A guilt that I fervently believe we should cultivate until we fully grasp its meaning.

The ten charities are all licensed American not-for-profits, because those are the most likely to generate a tax deduction and the ones which you’ll be able to best research. Yet there are a number of non-American, mostly smaller charities, which are very active in East Africa, as well as a number of stellar individuals. You can find references to those at the bottom of this blog.

One of the immediate things I think you’ll notice is that American zoos are quickly becoming the significant force in wildlife conservation in East Africa. Over the last several decades, zoos in general have begun to adopt the international conservation practices that only a few, like the Bronx, did in the past.

Four of my ten recommendations are American zoos. And what this means is that it is quite likely that your own zoo, although not quite in the league of these, undertakes wildlife conservation activities worthy of your support.

How did I pick these ten?

Mostly from experience. And then through some basic analysis discussed below. But I began with my own encounters with these organizations in East Africa, and I like what they’re doing.

What I don’t like about them, almost every one, is the guarded way that they work independent of one another. As charities achieve success they tend to become exclusive. They covet their data as they covet their donors, and what this means is that resources are wasted and studies unnecessarily duplicated.

The zoos, in fact, are the least offenders. They’re more transparent and open with their data, and they’re most willing to engage in cooperative efforts.

My pick of ten (in alphabetical order) are the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), the Chicago Zoological Society (ChiZooSociety), the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International (DianFossey), the Jane Goodall Institute (Jane Goodall)
, the Lincoln Park Zoo (LPZ), the Morris Animal Foundation (Morris), the Safari Club International Foundation (SCI Fnd), the Wildlife Conservation Society of the Bronx Zoo (WCS), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), and the Zoological Society of San Diego (ZooSocSAN).

SCI Fnd is supported by hunters. I am not a hunter and do not understand why anyone hunts, but the work that SCI Fnd does, like Ducks Unlimited at home, is worth considering.

Dian Fossey and Jane Goodall were horrible researchers and very bad people. But their success in sensitizing the American public to primate issues in East Africa is unquestionable, and their foundations are now doing the good work that they didn’t do as individuals.

Three organizations work almost exclusively with primates: Jane Goodall, DianFossey and Morris. But I’ve chosen them not for that reason, but because their work extends significantly into the human/animal conflicts that apply to all areas of wildlife conservation.

And finally, WWF. I have a lot of concerns with WWF, most importantly its exclusiveness and real reticence to share data and projects. But WWF is so big (see below) and so experienced that it is by its very definition the default organization. If nothing else tweaks your interest, if you don’t have the time to do some research, a donation to WWF will be well spent.

To show organizational size. Not all funds, of course, go to East Africa conservation.

SO how to choose among these ten?

You should have some simple set of objectives: such as certain animals, or environmental or climate concerns, to guide your research and speed your analysis. After that here are two general parameters you need to put into your mix, that I have obtained from Charity Navigator where you can obtain a wealth of additional information about all the charities discussed.

The actual amount of your donation which really gets into the field I believe is critical to vetting the charity’s honesty and real intentions. This is a significant factor, and all the charities discussed have very good ratings.

(All figures shown are for the calendar year ending 2008.)

This shows the organization's efficiency in getting resources to the field.

You can look at this another way: how much isn’t spent on administration and fund-raising?

From best to worst, but all are pretty good.

And finally, there is no starker region of the world to demonstrate the injustice of the growing divide between the haves and have-nots as Africa. So I think it fitting to review with a lot of skepticism the compensation that the executive in charge of these organizations receives.

With practically all of them, it’s too much. It’s not sufficient for me to be told that they are simply “responding to the market” to get good people, or that the “private sector gives much more.”

We know the private sector gives much more: it gives way too much more! And I think that organizations founded on altruism, nonprofitism, ought to practice what they preach.

Consider both the raw dollars and the percentage a CEO's salary is of overall expenses.

There are two charities which I really like but are still too young and small to have a track record like those mentioned above. But they might still be worthy of your consideration. Take a look at The International Rhino Foundation, and the Wildlife Conservation Network.

All the above have a worldwide scope; even the primate charities support projects as distant away as Borneo. If you can overlook the tax deduction issues, here are much smaller charities (many in Kenya) with a scope mostly focused on just African wildlife:

Save the Elephants is the foundation set up by the legendary elephant researcher, Ian-Douglas Hamilton, with his wife, Oria. There could hardly be two more selfless individuals in a cause for animal protection.

The Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is another good organization in Kenya dedicated mostly to elephant conservation.

Wildlife Direct is the brain child of Richard Leakey, a young organization that is growing by leaps and bounds and shows incredible promise.

The William Holden Wildlife Foundation is known mostly by its Animal Orphanage at the Mt. Kenya Safari Club, but in fact is much more critical for financing Kenyan school children’s environmental “camps”, which actually gets young Kenyans into game parks.

Cynthia Moss’ Amboseli Trust for Elephants is one of the most proactive forces in East Africa.

The Tusk Trust is currently the darling of Prince William, a British conservation charity with near 95% pass-through of its funds into direct projects in East Africa.

Finally, there are several researchers in East Africa which I think are doing as much if not more important work than entire charities! They are independent and not associated with any single organization.

Anna Estes and Charles Foley working on elephants and human/animal conflicts, and Bruce Patterson working on predators.

I hope this helps. But remember, whatever you give, your donation is essentially limited by the size of all these organizations, whose optimum performance (even in consortium) falls far below the threshold of being able to create real, good change in East Africa.

And we need real, good change in East Africa. For that vote Democratic and support progressive international causes by your government and its agencies!

The Monkey & The Fish

The Monkey & The Fish

I’ve always been skeptical about almost any type of individual charity for Africa, but billionaire do-gooders are an absolute pain in the ass.

A very close friend asked me to comment on the New Yorker’s December article by Philip Gourevitch, “The Monkey and The Fish.” It’s about Prodigy billionaire Greg Carr who according to the article is single-handedly reclaiming Mozambique’s near destroyed Gorongosa wilderness.

He is not the first untrained rich man to come to Africa to save it. Whether it is King Leopold, Sir Richard Burton or more recently, Paul Tudor Jones, I think it usually ends in disaster for Africa. There are much better ways that rich men who truly care about Africa can help it.

Bill Gates is the best example. And sorry to set the bar so high, as I realize Gates’ wealth is much greater than Carr’s. But my point is that Gates does it the right way: through a carefully created foundation that uses science, business management, and works closely with governments and long established NGO’s.

Carr is not doing such. He and renegades like Paul Tudor Jones make a bunch of money then fall passionately in love with Africa and decide they’ll go out and make everything right. Usually, everything goes terribly wrong.

As it should, frankly. What I find particularly upsetting is that the people who know better than me, scientists and managers at places like the World Wildlife Fund and Frankfurt Zoological Society, are all cowered into complacency, because they want these guys’ money. If they didn’t need it, they’d send them packing.

I have a good example of what they should do, even if they aren’t as rich as Gates.

A man as rich in his time as either Paul Tudor Jones or Greg Carr are today was New Yorker Howard Gilman. He was a good man who had to stay under the radar for a number of reasons: he was gay, he ran an international paper company that, of course, cut down trees, and he had a bickering family.

But he supplied more than 1,000 jobs to people in the Carolinas, was a responsible paper company executive, adopted Mikhail Baryshnikov when he defected from the Soviet Union and was a reliable patron of the arts.

And just as much as Jones or Carr, today, he loved Africa and he loved wildlife.

So he carefully and systematically built up a foundation which today has earned an exemplary reputation of helping Africa and wildlife.

He hired John Lukas from the Bronx Zoo years ago. John built up the White Oak Conservation Center with endowments from the Gilman foundations. John has spent more than twenty years carefully and expertly creating an organization that includes a huge conservancy on the border of Georgia and Florida, an outpost and oasis of wildlife prestige in the belabored Congo, and in the course of his career has done more for animals and Africa than Jones or Carr will ever do in a thousand life times.

Untrained, rich men, aren’t good for Africa. Africa needs outside scientists doing careful baseline research, government-to-government alliances and exchanges of aid, and mature interaction between experienced NGOs like the White Oak center.

Howard Gilman might never have felt the rush that Jones or Carr feel when a big magazine displays them as the saviors of Africa. But I can also assure you that if the next generation even finds their names in any African monograph it will be because of something horrible they did.

But the next generation will know of the Gates Foundation and the Gilman Foundation and White Oak Conservation Center, because what they’ve done, and how they’ve done it, and what will be built on top of their accomplishments will have helped Africa. It already has.



This week’s arrival in Kenya of one of the most endangered animals left on earth was not the cute Christmas present the world media reported.

In fact, the relocation of 4 of the remaining 8 northern white rhino in existence, into a country where poaching is becoming epidemic, may be one of the most stupid moves the conservation world has ever engineered.

The four northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) came from a zoo in the Czech Republic. The only other place that this subspecies of rhino survives is in the San Diego Wild Animal Park. There are none in the wild.

Eight life forms is statistically impossible to propagate. What is hoped is that some of the genes of this subspecies will get preserved if the four animals breed with other rhino subspecies. It is known, for example, that this highly endangered animal is immune to tse-tse fly transmitted diseases, whereas its less endangered cousins in Africa are not.

“It makes no sense to move them at this point .. It’s way too little, too late,” said Randy Rieches, curator of mammals for the San Diego Wild Animal Park, which has two northern whites.

Rieches and a host of other scientists have been fighting this move for months. Lately the argument has been a financial one, with proponents claiming that the quarter million dollar cost of the move is insignificant compared to the chance they might breed, and critics claiming the cost of the move is being grossly underestimated and is diverting resources from other much needed conservation efforts.

Funds were raised from just a handful of individuals, including the vice chairman of Goldman Sachs of Australia and Berry White, a controversial animal activist nicknamed the “rhino whisperer.” The effort was coordinated by Rob Brett, the director of Fauna and Flora International.

This is stupid.

There has been some reluctance to embrace Rieches’ many astute and scientific criticisms for fear this is not a scientific but a PR question, and that San Diego lost out to the Czech zoo. This is rhinowash.

The four animals transported to Kenya haven’t bred in 30 years. While they are being transported into a private reserve (Ol Pejeta) which has a good record of captive rhino maintenance, it is still in Kenya, and even better reserves near Ol Pejeta like Solio have had poaching incidents.

As I’ve often written poaching isn’t just a Darth Vader pastime. It increases in times of economic stress, and need we be reminded of the current times?

Rhino are one of the easiest animals on the African veld to poach. And the horn is worth more than its weight in gold.

So I consider the risk ridiculous. And as for preserving the gene pool of this subspecies, there are more conservative ways that are much less expensive, such as DNA deep-freeze. There is little research on cloning rhino, but the chances (the “statistical” chance) of one day cloning a rhino from its preserved DNA is astronomically greater than hoping these four animals will breed into existing populations.

In fact zoos are one of the best places to breed rhinos, not a private tourist game ranch.

And much more DNA research needs to be done on rhinos, to move towards a genome that will specifically show the differences between the 8 world subspecies which are now mostly presumed from taxonomical differences. I fear that money is directing research, here, as individuals who probably spent less time reading the monographs on the controversy wrote checks to get their names emblazoned round the world as animal rescuers.

We just don’t seem to have the attention to read very far down the page. If there is some real value to saving these rhinos’ gene pool, flying them to Kenya is absolutely not the way to do it.

Heifer Charities

Heifer Charities

Heifer may be one of the better charity-direct not-for-profits for Africa, and then again, it might not be.

I am often asked for recommendations of charities serving Africa, and I am often asked specifically about Heifer.  There are actually two “Heifers”, and here are my thoughts and some background.

The Heifer Project International (“Heifer”) was founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1944 by an Arkansan who had just returned from the Spanish Civil War.  Dan West was deeply religious and had been deeply impacted by the terrible and mostly pointless war in Spain.  He grasped upon a Christian biblical maxim that it is better to teach a man to fish, than simply to give him a fish to eat.

Today Heifer is one of the more prominent aid organizations in Africa.  It is on the Forbes Ten Best Charities list and recently received a generous contribution from the Gates Foundation, which is probably the lead NGO in Africa.

For relatively small contributions, the organization buys livestock (sometimes trees and other plants) and gives them to individuals mostly in Africa.  The bulk of the purchases are dairy cows.  The idea is that the individual receiving the gift will learn to tend the animal, harvest its milk, and hopefully breed it.

Because a cow today in Africa averages only $120, the charity has especially appealed to school groups where children are able to actively participate.

The Heifer idea has few direct critics, mostly animal rights groups.  From my point of view, its basic idea is a sound one.

So what’s the problem?  As usual, it’s in the administration of the idea, rather than the idea.

Towards the end of the 1980s Heifer found itself in serious difficulty.  It began requesting upwards of $250 for a cow that then cost about $80.  The problem was with the Arkansas administration and it was remedied, more or less, fairly quickly.

One of the ways the organization remedied the “cost drift” was to start a second organization, the Heifer International Foundation (the “Foundation”).  By separating the actual project funds from the growing needs at administration, Heifer was able to maintain good ratings.

Today, Heifer gets 3 out of 4 stars from the reputable Charity Navigator, similar to the American Red Cross.  More precisely, Navigator rates Heifer at 55.25, the American Red Cross at 54.6.  This is pretty good on the slightly mediocre side.

But the Foundation is another matter.  Navigator rates that as only two stars, a numerical rating of 46.7.  Almost a third of all the funds going into the foundation are used for administrative expenses including salaries.  By then taking on some of the otherwise administrative expenses that would be required to run Heifer, the Foundation takes the hit and lets Heifer get another star.

This is clever, and deceptive.  It should be a warning to those who give that the organization is unable on its own merits to attain what it feels is an acceptable level of accreditation.

Heifer is a very secretive organization, held very tightly.  That’s probably one of the reasons that Forbes and the Gates Foundation like it.

On May 21 of this year, the CEO of Heifer resigned amid a scandal that even until today has not been revealed.  The details are still with a sealed grand jury in Arkansas.  The rumors are that then CEO Janet K. Ginn was forced out of her position by the Heifer board for some sort of plagiarism. That’s all we know as reported in Little Rock newspapers, and it remains an unsubstantiated rumor.  But the Heifer Board has refused to deny it and Ginn’s attorneys are refusing to let her say anything.

It could be something really unrelated to the mission or work of Heifer, but that we won’t know until it goes to trial.  And if Ginn settles, we might never know.

Personally, I come down very hard on attempted charities for Africa.  I have worked and lived there for too long to have come to any conclusion except that things are getting worse in Africa.  So whatever the world has been doing has not been right, or mattered.

What is “right” is a much more complicated issue, but it begins not with a small donation and a checkbook, but with government to government actions.

Governments, ultimately, are accountable.  Heifer seems to be trying to avoid accountability.