How Sweet It Is!

How Sweet It Is!

beekeeperYou might be afraid of the mythical African Killer Bee, but there’s a sweet buzz about them in East Africa!

With American and even Chinese honey production at low levels, the demand for honey worldwide has grown so substantially that honey is increasing in price 6% every year.

The 150 million pounds of honey Americans will produce is just not enough for the demand.

Honey production is down because of a terrible virus that while winding down still effects large swaths of wildflower America. This has a further disincentive for honey production as successful beekeepers shift from producing honey to selling their tools elsewhere.

What? A beekeeper in Harrisburg, PA, will triple his annual income if he packs up his hives and travels with them to southern California to pollinate almonds for three weeks.

East Africans are taking advantage of the demand in the market.

Honey Care is a for-profit East African corporation whose main mission nonetheless is to support distressed communities. (Did you register that BP? : a for-profit company with a mission greater and more noble than making profits.)

The company can’t produce enough honey, either, so it’s now begun actively recruiting new beekeepers.

It does this by offering a startup package for $50 of two hives. And most of the time the newly endowed beekeeper doesn’t have to pay the $50 as Honey Care also comes with a loan from a microlending NGO.

Almost all startups are successful. The $50 investment the first year yields $175 annually by the second year.

The program has been so successful that it’s spawned a secondary industry of “professional hive tenders” who travel from small beekeeper to the next tending the hives, if the farmer herself doesn’t want to.

Honey Care then buys, packages and markets the honey. It’s also among the first companies worldwide to use the Swarm Phone App so that East Africans considering a purchase from a grocery store can scan the barcode to find out what kind of flowers produced that particular bottle’s honey.

Since Honey Care is expanding throughout East Africa, it’s become something of a grocery store game to scan this bottle then that one, discovering the first is from wild ginger and the next from purple clover and so forth.

A couple years ago the honey bee got a very bad rap which was mostly fraudulent first incorrectly reported by poor if racist Texas journalism.

That was followed almost as if predestined by a virus in the western hemisphere which has wiped out so much of the organism that the honey producers are now referring to the “new normal” in production at about half pre-virus levels.

That raised prices, and that gives the small land holder in Africa a truly golden opportunity!

Long Live The Toad!

Long Live The Toad!

longlivethetoadQuick! Hide! The toad’s approaching!

Like kudzu, loose strife, wolves and coyotes, garlic mustard, Asian beatles and now even Asian carp, this week poorly trained biologists are focusing on the newest of the worst “invasive” species, the “Asian Common Toad.”

“Invasive Species” is bad nomenclature. Most of what hyper, reactive biologists refer to as “invasive” is intended to mean “bad.”

In other words, if some form of life begins to dominate an ecosystem, it’s wrong and “invasive” when its doing so perilously threatens other established species in that ecosystem.

And that’s the rub. “Perilously” is subjective and darn it, give me several examples where so-called “invasive species” have radically and lastingly altered an ecosystem.

You’ll have a very hard time. There’s no question that there are “super” specious, like the toad I discuss below that scientists worry is now threatening Madagascar, but rarely have the alerts proved as prescient as they appear when announced.

(The best example of invasive species is native Americans wiped out by the smallpox brought by European colonists, and even historically I haven’t heard much of an argument that we shouldn’t have come.)

Like my strong but nuanced argument that poaching elephants isn’t the main problem, this takes some intellectual juice to understand, and the best example right now is the alarm that conservationists are raising against the Duttaphrynus melanostictus.

That alarm is sounded by none other than National Geographic, Nature, and pointedly, the BBC.

Nature called the event a looming “ecological disaster.”

It isn’t.

The toad is native to much of southeast Asia where it evolved. It’s toxic, so when eaten by other animals (and lots of other animals eat frogs and toads), they get sick and some die.

Discovered recently at a port in Madagascar, conservationists went ape. Madagascar is one of the most precious, unique ecosystems on earth, with up to 90% of the species found there endemic.

There’s no doubt that if left to prosper, Mr. Toad will impact Madagascar’s ecosystem. Just as the Lutherans did on the Iroquois. My point is that these alarms soliciting urgent responses to “control invasive species” are pointless, unnecessary and a scandalous misuse of resources.

“Pointless” because they don’t work. You might have been successful keeping garlic mustard out of your flower garden, but you’ll never get it out of your forest.

“Unnecessary” because mainly it’s pointless. Our failures to control invasive species have consistently and increasingly been spectacular defeats. And even if you believe that this series of defeats is reversible, would it be good for the planet?

Would the world have been better had kudzu really been eradicated? Would teepees be better than arched bell towers?

There are a couple examples in the world, the Galapagos being one, where I concede had the rat not gotten into the shed, or had been exterminated quickly enough, things would be better. But those examples are confined to rare and very small ecosystems of which the world just isn’t mostly composed.

Whereas the alarms of invasive species are overwhelmingly rung in large ecosystems, like North America.

Yet the resources allocated to these efforts, and the machismo with which it infuses the conservationist is not simply unbecoming and unscientific, it’s nonsense.

Take the toad.

The toad “invaded” Australia in the 1930s from climes north.

The fear then, as now in Madagascar, is that birds, snakes and everything precious would eat the toad and die. And many did.

Rachel Clarke and other scientists commissioned by the Australian Government to finally conclude what the toad actually did to Australia in the last century, decided that it had done really very little.

Paraphrasing the scientific report, a frog advocacy group in Australia claimed that Clarke and colleagues basically concluded that it was the “Yuk Factor” rather than any real threat to the ecosystem that drove the initial alarms.

“What’s the evidence for all this talk of ecological catastrophe and biodiversity impacts?” the organization asks then answers, “surprisingly little.”

Yes, many snakes died when eating the toads at first. That resulted in an explosion in the native frog population that was very positive for many other species as for a while there were fewer predators of them. And then, the snakes stopped eating the toads and prospered.

Yes, birds ate the toad and died. And then birds learned to eat only parts of the toad and didn’t die. And some birds, like the sacred ibis, developed an ability to eat the toad and not get sick.

In fact up to 90% of the species of some animals were initially wiped out by the toad in Australia. But then? They came back, learning or evolving how to live with them.

Madagascar is 13 times bigger than the demarcated political land and water area of the Galapagos Islands, but it is no less precious an island ecology. I think it reasonable to try to inhibit the invasion of the toad.

But there are a host of other more serious problems facing Madagascar, both ecologically and socially. If the toad is not stopped, Madagascar will not over time be considerably changed.

And it just isn’t unseemly, it’s unscientific, to scandalize what is actually the virtue of successful natural selection.

Long live the toad!

Sunset over the Serengeti

Sunset over the Serengeti

SErengetiSunsetOld people often bemoan the dwindling frontiers of their youth: barefoot in the unregulated playground, the unhelmeted motorcycle ride, 3/2 beer, the willing mortgage banker, silent partners … and me?

The diminishing wild.

It’s been very difficult the last decade in particular watching the stress on the frontiers of the wild, especially in East Africa. So far they’ve held their own, but the ramparts are trembling.

And you can see what’s coming, what will replace the truly unmanaged wild.

Private reserves. Some of them are quite good.

Most are in South Africa, but East Africa has a very famous one that has been around for nearly 30 years, Lewa Downs.

Private reserves have existed in South Africa for actually more than a century, but you can really argue that Lewa was the dawn of a new era when private reserves were not mostly for hunting, but for protecting game.

Lewa began with 5,000 acres in Kenya’s beautiful northern frontier just north of Mt. Kenya, where the few remaining wild black rhino still roamed. The owners and investors of the ranch rounded up as many rhino as they could, and they’ve protected and farmed them ever since.

Today Lewa is 40,000 acres, mostly a not-for-profit conservation organization and proudly boasts of 62 free-ranging black rhinos. The reserve contains all Kenya’s big wild game, all within a massive, fenced wilderness that in many respects would not differ from the wild outside its borders, except that there is less poaching.

Lewa is adjacent the natural home of the very rare and critically endangered Grevy’s zebra, and so Lewa is now the Grevy’s principal hope for survival.

With several tourist camps built within the reserve, field science facilities and a growing endowment Lewa is now the premiere private reserve in East Africa, and a model for all of Africa.

But … it isn’t the wild I remember.
lionpanoclipped
In South Africa private non-hunting reserves proliferate and are much more commercial and (financially) successful than in East Africa.

I am amazed, for example, with the speed with which the “Garden Route” has turned into a private wilderness.

Well nicknamed, the Garden Route is the coastal stretch between The Cape and Port Elizabeth. In times past it was known for its laid-back resortiness, spectacular coast and world-famous cliff walks (like the Otter Trail). Not unlike the coast from San Francisco to Mendocino.

The area did not have big game wilderness. In fact by the 1930s an official South African game count put the total big game remaining in an area the size of Maryland at 11 elephant. But as with much of undeveloped coastal California, as soon as you leave the coastal strip, there is wild land.

So in 1931 the South African government created a new wilderness out of nothing just off the coast, with the idea of repopulating it with big game. Today Addo Elephant Park has 450 elephant, as many for its size (630 sq. miles) as Kenya’s still totally wild Amboseli National Park.

But it’s not the wild, as not only is the exterior fenced, but there are sections within the fenced park that are fenced again, to protect certain species.

But the park has been so successful that a few years ago some of these internal fences were removed and even more exciting, cats have finally been introduced. Until just a few years ago the park was cat-free, managed to protect endangered species.

The “reintroduction” of predation into this man-made ecosystem will trigger the management of the park to more or less “lay off” the until now strict culling that had been employed. In a sense, the South Africans are trying with some critical success to wild-up a previously unwild area.

And all around Addo have developed many private non-hunting reserves, each usually dedicated to protecting one set of species or another. The Lalibela Game Reserve, for example, is specific to the protect of smaller cats like serval and sand.

I hope Addo’s patient, slow rewilding works. And I commend enormously Lewa and enjoy even the tinier places like Lalibela.

But every time I step onto my secret hills in the Serengeti, looking over miles and miles of undeveloped, roadless wilderness, I bemoan its coming to an end. I’m just an old man nostalgic for the dwindling frontiers of my youth.

Gates Gets Gross

Gates Gets Gross

gatesinafricaBill Gates is a very nice man captured in the last century, and his remarkable generosity grossly misses the mark.

The Melinda & Bill Gates Foundation just released Bill Gates’ “annual letter.” The Foundation continues to seek solutions to two of Africa’s crises, malaria and poverty.

The two, of course, are interconnected. Throughout the world the level of malaria infection is inversely proportional to personal income. I don’t think, though, that this fact drove the Gates Foundation’s mission development.

Gates and most of the world charities tackle problems as crises to the exclusion of remedying the fundamentals.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t as if these generous folks make crises out of situations in order to be good philanthropists. Malaria on an individual level is a distinct crisis. Hunger caused by extreme poverty has an immediate simple remedy when dealt with as a crisis: dinner.

But the problem with Gates and most of the world’s charities is that despite how rich they may be, they aren’t rich enough to tackle the fundamentals, and so they default to actions that deal with incidental crises.

Malaria is the perfect example.

Malaria was eradicated from most of the developing world without drugs or bednets. My own Chicago’s Fullerton marsh was a cesspool of malaria right until the great fire of the 1860s.

After the fire and a growing awareness that government had to step up, malaria was systematically eradicated from Chicago by an exponential increase in public expenditures that started with increased urban hygiene (better sewers and drainage) and radical use of crude oil to suffocate marshes.

Even at that time suffocating marshes was an ecological controversy, but the power of the public domain was much greater then than now. The majority ruled.

By the early 20th century, there was no malaria in Chicago. An early NIH study of the eradication found a number of additional socially progressive policies kept malaria from returning to large urban areas like Chicago, such as banning child labor.

By the 1930s malaria in the U.S. was confined to 13 poor, southeastern states that did not have the tax base to successfully eradicate the disease. So government came to the rescue.

The 1947 National Malaria Eradication campaign moved money from the rich industrialized northeast to eradicate malaria in the south, and was successful in doing so in less than a decade.

I suspect similar stories exist throughout the developed world. And the solutions employed then would work today in Kenya or Indonesia. But destruction of the environment (oiling marshes and later, using DDT) is no longer considered a tit-for-tat that might balance in the long run, and modernizing Nairobi’s sewage system is too expensive for even the Gates Foundation.

That example is a bit oversimplified, since in fact the Gates Foundation probably does have both the capital and wherewithal to modernize (at least once) the Nairobi sewage system. What I really mean, of course, is to effect a modernization and cleanliness that like in late 19th century Chicago was achieved by modernization of a public service.

Today Nairobi is exponentially bigger than Chicago was in 1860, and Nairobi is affected physiologically by what happens in Mombasa, Addis, Kampala and Dar, so fixing Nairobi without simultaneously fixing those other great metropolises would be problematic with regards to eradicating malaria.

BUT (and this is a very big but) so is the world’s wealth exponentially bigger today than in 1860, and that’s the point.

Were the public interest as dominant today as it was in Chicago in 1860, Nairobi, Mombasa, Addis, Kampala and Dar would be free of malaria, because the rich world would have fixed their sewer systems… (and of course, a lot more).

What has changed in the last 150 years is a disproportional amount of wealth has become concentrated among a few afraid it will be taken from them. There are not enough people in that pool of the paranoid very wealthy for any truly democratic or benevolent change to take place.

That isn’t to say that a majority of rich people, among which I’m sure Bill Gates is one, are not generous and intelligent enough to ante up. In this year’s letter, Gates castigates Americans for their paltry $30 annually that the U.S. provides in world aid.

But the power brokers within that pool are not the Gates of the world. They’re the Koch’s of the world. And the Koch’s rule. So long as there are Koch’s there will not be more than $30 annually per American spent on world aid.

So what’s left?

Gates. Deal with a problem as a crisis and not a fundamental, and that’s precisely what’s happened with malaria.

In October the huge multinational pharmaceutical Glaxonsmithkline (GSK) announced it would market the world’s first malaria vaccine.

The vaccine is about 60% efficacious. Not bad but incapable of eradicating malaria. It took about 30 years and billions of dollars to develop this. The beneficiaries are not exclusively people saved from malaria. It will probably in equal measure make the rich, richer.

(Note this cynical observation: If there were a vaccine that could eradicate malaria, that could be a big downer for the investors who paid to develop the vaccine.)

When the world won’t step up, when your own government or township won’t tax enough to fix fundamental problems, we have no choice: Gates and GSK become our only hope and it’s a very momentary, transitory solution that’s provided: a stop-gap.

And the powerful in the pool of the wealthy then distort those efforts to suggest they are successful in terms that claim governments can’t be.

And the cycle of mythology is perpetuated. Gates recognizes this. His annual letter is built on a series of “myths.”

I prefer a Warren Buffet to a Bill Gates. Frankly, I don’t prefer either of them in theory. There should not be super rich.

But Buffet often focuses on the fundamentals. Gates is an engineer. Or as a brilliant Dutch satirist pointed out this week, Gates treats aid like he treats Microsoft: self-perpetuating and growing and never completely tackling the problem holistically.

See Ikenna’s video below:

Power Up Da BodaBoda!

Power Up Da BodaBoda!

BODABODABad BodaBoda. Don’t think the morning commute is necessarily better if cars are replaced by bikes. What you might get is “Mayhem in Arusha.”

The first place my wife and I worked and lived for two years was Paris in the 1970s and the traffic compared to what I’d see later in Bangkok in the 1980s or today in Nairobi and now Arusha couldn’t even compare.

Yet my wife went to work and about town in a “moped” and it scared the living daylights out of me. In those days there were no regulations about helmets or carbon emissions or anything else, and a French moped was hardly more than a small bike with a lousy motor.

My wife and hundreds of others wove in an out of traffic lanes, sneaking between buses, dodging pedestrians as if their greatest challenge wasn’t staying upright but stopping. And it often was. You stopped and it might herald the end of an era. It might never run, again.

More than once I watched from my safe haven in a bus one of these contraptions sail right below me at breakneck speed and continue unabated right through a red light.

They were loud, dirty, dangerous and above all, defiant.

And she always got to work before me.

Fast forward nearly a half century into the little metropolis of Arusha, Tanzania.

“Motorcycles … have been causing lots of inconveniences … due to frequent cases of reckless riding, accidents and unruly behaviour,” claims Arusha’s only newspaper.

Arusha is Tanzania’s main northern city, and mopeds have joined forces with Harleys and Kawasakis to make my 1970s experience in Paris seem like child’s play. The machines are rarely the monster varieties, mind you, and usually hybrids of the most amazing sorts.

In fact a snapshot of the collection of “motorbikes” on the increasingly congested streets of Arusha could easily come out of the imagination of a kindergartener told to draw a motorbike rally.

“BodaBoda” they call them.

Two weeks ago the city councilmen of Arusha in their imminent wisdom banned BodaBoda from the city center “because of their chaotic nature.” The move by Arusha planners followed a successful ban of bodabodas in May by neighboring Rwanda.

Rwanda is a horrific dictatorship. They could ban breathing and the entire city of Kigali would collapse. Let me tell you, in any semi-free place in the world, don’t try to unboda your spouse.

Monday, the “Arusha fathers” rescinded their ban… “For a while.”

In the free (for-all) society of Arusha, traffic management will no longer include laned traffic, speed restrictions, pedestrian right-of-ways, or traffic lights.

When the ban was announced several weeks ago, BodaBoda bikers struck the city hard, blocking traffic with their protest. Worse:

“The riders also threatened to beat up any motorist, pedestrian or any other person who stood in their way…”

And most revealing of all, they said that “police officers have been targeting them with exorbitant fines for …both real and imaginary offenses.”

“They also vowed to beat local leaders of the bodaboda associations who they accused of betraying them,” the newspaper report continued.

The elected “bodaboda union” leaders responded:

“As their leaders, we did not take part in their protests because they threatened to beat us, saying we were siding with the government, though in reality we have been trying to remind them that they were not above the law to an extent of causing anarchy.”

Power to The People!

Power Up Da BodaBoda!

Vultures & Other Vermin

Vultures & Other Vermin

Dead vulturesIt’s been a generation or more since certain animals considered vermin were proudly exterminated in the U.S., and the concept of bounty on nuisance animals is in welcomed, serious decline.

Rather, state governments have undertaken more scientific hunting seasons that try to achieve an ecological balance deemed appropriate. So, for example, this year Iowa added more hunting days for deer because the first “harvest” was considered too low.

I think this is rather presumptuous if not outright arrogant. Call a spade a spade.

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Them! Is Here Already!

Them! Is Here Already!

Them! is here already!What does an African country do when Bill Gates says eat it or starve?

Most Americans think that the growing concern over what foods are safe is something that only their privileged, developed world has to suffer, that it is somewhat esoteric and – provided, of course that you aren’t culinarily involved – restricted to … nuts. (Peanuts, that is.)

Well, it’s not. In fact the debate over GMO is reaching a crescendo in Africa where scientists, multinationals, governments and NGOs like the Gates Foundation are in a diabolical battle over GM corn.

It is, literally, a matter of life and death.

Mom might wipe her brow when planning a contemporary Thanksgiving dinner at home, today. She might have to source out a natural turkey farmer and find a grocery store that sells gluten-free pie crust. This is all a lot more work than Aunt Evelyn did when the centerpiece of our holiday dinner was a jello salad.

But in Africa the sweat is over whether some people will starve or not, and my take is that GM foods are not the answer. Bill Gates disagrees.

You’ll have to be patient if using the links I’ve incorporated, because everyone is being quite deceptive. No one wants you to hear them shouting. But the uproar is rising and it’s focusing on a single of many ongoing battles:

Monsanto is one of a couple multinationals that is profiting from the development and patenting of GM crop seed, particularly corn (“maize” as it’s called elsewhere). That story is in itself distressing, as farmers who use GM seed can no longer use their own crop seed. They must buy it year after year from Monsanto.

There are literally tens of thousands, perhaps now hundreds of thousands of GM plants and organisms, and Monsanto owns a hunk of them.

One version of maize for which Monsanto had its highest hopes, MON810, whose appropriate brand name of “YieldGard” is all but ignored in the current debate, is the center of the controversy.

MON810 yields a corn that is remarkably drought resistant. It’s widely used in the U.S. and understandably was imagined as drought-plagued Africa’s savior seed.

About a third of Europe’s countries ban MON810. The most recent science from Norway declared MON810 harmful to humans, pigs, mice and butterflies.

An important European Commission (EFSA) that approves or disapproves GM products was given the task of deciding for all of Europe if Norway’s science was valid. On what many argue was a technical fault, the commission approved MON810.

The EFSA decision allowed multinational agribusiness to sue countries like Norway, France, Germany and Poland to reverse these bans, and Monsanto is succeeding in doing so… sort of.

Europe’s political interface is not yet complete, and so recently France “rebanned” MON810 after “reallowing” it. Other nations are likely to follow suit.

I can’t possibly pass judgment on the science. I can’t even figure out how to decide which science is worth reading; it’s all over the place.

The main crusader against GM foods is Prof. Gilles-Eric Séralini whose arguments verge on the hysterical. But his science is widely used by opponents of MON810.

There are many very respected groups whose approach is more measured but forceful, like the “Occupy Monsanto” crowd.

The problem – and it becomes critical in Africa – is who to believe: crusading scientists, respectable citizen groups or government commissions. No one questions that MON810 produces a much higher yield. Africa really needs a lot of corn, fast.

But I take my lead from South Africa, the most rational and developed of African countries.

Shortly after MON810 came to market about 15 years ago, the South Africans banned it. But that didn’t last long, and many anti-GMO activists in South Africa claim their government’s reversal was as a result of U.S. trade pressure.

During its use in the last decade, South African farmers recognized a need for increased pesticides and fertilizers to keep the crop going. Yes, it needed less water and from a business standpoint with the yields it was producing, it was still a good business decision.

Activists argued that the reason MON810 requires more pesticide and fertilizer is because it produces super insects and bacteria.

Late this summer, MON810 created corn was withdrawn from the South African market. It was a combination of public outcry and government regulation.

Moreover, pressured by the South African government, Monsanto agreed to compensate farmers for their unusual pesticide and fertilizer costs needed to bring MON810 corn to harvest.

It’s not clear whether this ban will be sustained nor if alternative Monsanto GM seeds will not just be used, instead. But what is clear is that the leading African country has decided MON810 is bad.

So what now?

Immediately the battle shifted north to less developed countries like Tanzania and Kenya where the seed is still allowed. But it was anything but certain Monsanto would prevail there, either.

In steps charitable giving.

Monsanto, in its ever creative marketing plans, decides to give the Bill Gates foundation free use of MON810.

And it’s an NGO coup for a foundation deeply involved in helping Africa. The cost of MON810 could be absorbed by South Africans, not by Kenyans. Now, Kenyans get it for … free.

And true to form, Kenya is now in the midst of another Shakespearean government scandal in which a quasi government agency banned MON810 before the Gates Foundation announcement, then summarily reversed itself after the announcement and, of course … nobody can say why.

Of course Monsanto dare not publicize its generosity too directly, so it’s being done through a partnership program created by an African foundation that gets most of its money from Gates.

That’s sufficient enough distance to keep Gates out of the maelstrom.

At least for now. Until we think we see a Dreamliner above the Mara cornfields, when it’s actually a monster locust coming in for the kill.

Ban East African Hunting

Ban East African Hunting

LionHuntSports hunting has long been characterized as a conservation tool. That is absolutely not the case in East Africa, where all trophy hunting should be outlawed.

Kenya banned all hunting in 1977, then later allowed some bird hunting. But the other nations of East Africa promote sports hunting.

This article shows why sports hunting throughout all of East Africa should be banned. I think it likely with time the ban should extend throughout all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Botswana recently banned hunting, and Zambia recently banned the hunting of cats. I think it inevitable even the big hunter destination of South Africa will finally also ban trophy hunting.

But right now the evidence is so compelling to end hunting in East Africa, that’s where this article focuses.

The power of the sports hunting industry and the gun manufacturing industry cannot be overstated as we approach this debate. Sports hunting, even big game hunting in Africa, is far less contentious than gun control in the United States, for example. But the industries and lobby of wealth organized to promote gun ownership has virtually fused itself with the issue of sports hunting.

Americans constitute the largest single group trophy hunting in Africa. So American institutions, money and lobbying are integral to this African debate. “Americans are by far the most keen to spend around $60,000 on trophy hunts in Africa,” writes Felicity Carus recently in London’s Guardian.

The balance of American money and power supporting hunting is woefully unfair, and it isn’t just the NRA. Sportsmen’s Alliance and the National Shooting Sports Foundation are both funded by multiple large foundations whose donors are kept secret. Journalists shy away from reporting negatively about these monoliths and politicians give them a wide bay.

My intention, here, is not to take on sports hunting per se, nor gun ownership. The issue of big game hunting in Africa specifically has reached a uniquely critical threshold. In Africa – right now – big game hunting is a threat to conservation and rural development.

I fervently believe there are philosophical and ethical arguments against many types of sports hunting. But that is actually secondary to the more compelling reasons today in Africa that big game hunting should be ended.

The main reason big game hunting should be immediately ended throughout almost all of Africa is corruption and bad policy. The same reasons that conservatives use to deplore even humanitarian aid to emerging nations is grossly evident in Africa’s management of sports hunting, today.

We’re reaching a critical point in Africa’s wildness. It’s a tipping point. The growth of African societies is exceptional, and basically good. Bigger human populations are developing at breakneck speed. It’s hard for an American to imagine how fast, for example, Kenya is developing.

Many of my clients are repeat visitors to Africa. It’s amazing to watch their jaws drop when they return after even as few as five years. Highways, factories, residential developments .. it’s an unending serious of hopeful and modern progress.

And at what cost? At the cost of the wild, of course. That’s not a surprise and it’s not new. But it is changing.

Only a decade or two ago, safari tourism was critical to the economic health of Kenya, vying with the production of coffee and tea for the top spot on Kenya’s GDP. Today, tourism overall in Kenya represents only 5.7% of GDP (2011) and arguably half that is non-animal, beach tourism.

And while it’s likely Kenya’s tourism is falling behind other sectors of its economy because of recent terrorist acts, neighboring and quite peaceful Tanzania’s trends are even more exaggerate.

Tourism as a part of the Tanzanian economy is expected to drop to 7.9 per cent by 2020 from 8 per cent recorded in 2010. Like Kenya, by the way, it is likely that the single biggest growth within tourism in Tanzania is the beach, not animals.

This emphatically doesn’t mean that safari tourism isn’t growing. What it means actually is that so many other sectors of the economy, like oil production, are growing much more rapidly.

Oil is more important than lions. It wasn’t in Teddy Roosevelt’s day.

So the threat to the wild is severe in Africa. While the U.S. continues to debate whether the keystone pipeline should be laid over our wild lands, there’s not a moment’s hesitation about a new dam project cutting a chunk out of Africa’s largest wildlife park or slicing away protected marine environments for deep-sea drilling.

It is not surprising, then, that in most of the protected wildlife reserves in Africa, animal populations are falling, often because those reserves are either being reduced in size or because the pressures on their periphery are growing so great.

Sports hunting in Teddy Roosevelt’s day hardly disturbed the ecosystem. The technology of guns was far more limited than today. Animals in rural areas at home and in Africa were truly pests, because there were so many. Most sportsmen (including TR) killed very much for the meat that was essential food for them.

But as societies developed, as Africa is developing today, hunting too quickly began to deplete animal numbers (bison, pigeons, wolves, etc.). Wild environments were protected, and most hunting banned within them. And where it isn’t completed banned, it’s heavily regulated.

The reason is terribly simple: there’s little contest between a hunter and a wild animal, and over time, wild animals lose the number’s game.

Africa has proved itself incapable of banning or regulating. Well managed (regulated) hunting is often considered a buffer against poaching, and so it was in Africa thirty years ago. The outskirts of protected areas were declared hunting preserves, and the symbiotic relationship with the protected area was a healthy one.

Along or within some protected areas in Africa hunting was used as the culling tool, as wildlife managers tried to establish a carrying capacity balance within an areas biodiversity. Hunters paid royally to kill “excess elephants” that lived at least part of their time in Kruger National Park in South Africa, for instance.

All of this worked, once. It doesn’t, now.

“Presently… the conservation role of hunting is limited by a series of problems,” according to two African and one French conservationists writing the definitive scientific paper against hunting published in Elsevier six years ago.

After meticulously detailing all the potential good that sports hunting in Africa could do, the authors take a fraction of the article to document how it sports hunting in Africa fails because of government mismanagement and corruption.

The list of corruptible acts linked to sports hunting in Africa would take a month of blogs to document. Whether it’s Loliondo in Tanzania, where land has been arbitrarily taken from both the Serengeti and Maasai farmers for Arab hunting, or ranches in South Africa recently unmasked as poaching rhinos, the list seems endless.

There are so many pressures on Africa’s wild, today, that it is nonsense to continue to allow a contentious one, sports hunting. The trophy hunting industry is tiny, in monetary terms, compared to overall tourism.

Its effect as explained in the Elsevier article is negative. So why continue it? Just so people can get a rush killing an animal? What other reason remains?

We are fighting the dam in The Selous, uranium and gold mining in the Serengeti, off-shore drilling in Lamu and highways through Nairobi National Park. There is absolutely little reason we shouldn’t also be fighting sports hunting, which provides even less benefit to Africa or its wilderness than mining natural resources or moving morning rush hours.

The time for Africa trophy hunting is over.

(Tomorrow, I discuss a very specific sports hunting issue that is now Africa’s hottest wildlife topic: should hunting lions be ended by listing them as an endangered species.

Stay tuned.)

Beware Mami Wata

Beware Mami Wata

westafricanmanateeSome very deep West African superstitions may be the last great barrier and yet also the last great hope for saving the rare African manatee, a creature on the brink of extinction.

The manatee and elephant share a common ancestor they evolved from about 100 million years ago. Their evolutionary story is pretty well known, but unlike the South American (Trichechus inunguis) and West Indian (T. manatus) cousins, the West African manatee (T. senegalensis) has only recently attracted conservation efforts. In part this is because so little was known about the animal and some scientists had long ago thought it extinct.

The South American manatee lives in fresh water; the other two in salt water, and it’s the West African manatee’s habitat mostly among coastal mangrove swamps and inland marshes that so threatens it.

All three types are slow moving and big, so easily hunted. They feed on certain vegetation also preferred by a number of other marine species that are widely harvested for food, so are usually considered competitors with local fishermen.

For the last seven years saving the West African manatee has been led by a single woman, Lucy Keith Diagne, born, raised and educated in Florida among the State’s prized marine mammal.

It’s been an uphill battle for Lucy, particularly because much of the manatee’s West African range extends into politically troubled areas.

Lucy and others have discovered, though, that the population might be protected at a critical bottom level by local superstitions.

West African spirit beliefs and myths are still very powerful forces in most rural cultures. In ancient times they provided the basic beliefs to all the early societies along the Niger River, which became the basis of Brazilian voodoo, for instance.

So while war is the most formidable obstacle to researching and protecting a wild animal, Lucy discovered that superstition might be, too, but in a surprisingly positive way.

Mami Wata” is a complex female spirit in West Africa that remains powerful throughout much of the manatee’s range, and frankly, the manatee looks a lot like what I would imagine Mami Wata to be!

Mostly positive and protective, Mami Wata can nevertheless be angered and raised into terribly destructive engagements with people, cursing them to death. For this reason she is mostly left alone and intentionally ignored.

In many parts of rural West Africa it’s presumed the only people who dare to engage Mami Wata are fugitives, renegades and show-offs who usually meet a dire fate.

For this reason, few in these rural areas of West Africa will help researchers locate much less study a manatee, but at the same time the attitude affords a natural protection for the animal.

It will be a long time before this barrier to greater understanding might be developed into sustainable conservation the way Florida has. Manatee in Florida are most often associated with Disneyland and other family fun vacations where certain attractions advertise swimming among them.

They are gentle if bumptious creatures, sometimes called underwater Teddy Bears. In the numerous places in Florida and the West Indies where they’ve been habituated to human swimmers, they are curious enough to produce exciting encounters, but too slow moving to be considered anything but gentle despite their size.

Declining populations in Florida and the West Indies were turned around by making the animal a tourist attraction rather than a hunted animal. The State of Florida designated the manatee as its state marine animal in 1975 and since then a number of programs have so well protected them that the population is now stable.

But it will be a long time before traditions change enough in West Africa that an estuary owner will agree to bring tourists into his pond to swim with Mami Wata.

But that may also be the reason Mami Wata still exists.

Best Time To See The Falls

Best Time To See The Falls

colorado riverThe photo above of the Colorado “river” as it meets the ocean is being used by African environmentalists to stop Botswana from its planned new take of Zambezi water for irrigation.

The Zambezi forms on the border between Namibia and Botswana, where a number of other large rivers like the Chobe and Kwando converge. These rivers are formed in the mountains of Angola after seasonal rains at the end of the year.

Geographically odd, the mountains of Angola are the continental divide for this part of Africa, meaning essentially that the western portion of the divide is hardly more than a quarter the width of the eastern portion. Which means that most water and all major rivers flow eastwards across a large section of Africa into the Indian Ocean.devils.vicfalls

Such is the Zambezi River, which after forming and leaving Namibia and Botswana, runs past Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and finally, Mozambique.

And I’m sure you’ve heard of Victoria Falls, which is only 60k east of Botswana on the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia, where the then magnificent Zambezi tumbles over a mile-wide cataract forming one of the wonders of the world.

It’s a rather important tourist attraction.

Now Botswana has announced to the other countries downriver that it plans to extract a sizable amount of the Zambezi mostly for new irrigation projects.

Food, that is.

Which is exactly a part of the explanation for the Colorado running dry.

Now contrary to enthusiastic tourists who believe they can get up and go at any time to see Victoria Falls, that’s not the case. The Zambezi is an incredibly seasonal river. It never stops flowing, but its flow changes radically with the season.

In November, December and January, an extremely popular time for travel, as the waters are only just forming after the Angola rains, the flow is so small that people who view the falls then see mostly rock.

And by March when the flow is in full swing, the falls are so massive you can see hardly anything but mist.

The best time for viewing the falls is February, June, July and depending upon the water, August. That’s when the photographs were taken that first inspired you to view them.

And the eradicate flow of the Zambezi was so destruction to agriculture downriver from the falls, that years ago the massive Kariba Dam was built. Not only does it control about half the Zambezi’s length (from the middle of the continent to Indian Ocean) but it provides enormous electricity for the area.

So Botswana’s move, Botswana says, is not so radical after all.

But the Zimbabwean Minister of Water Resources Development and Management, Samuel Sipepa-Nkomo, is not so sure. He thinks the idea would be a “great threat” to downstream Zambezi communities. (Likely as great a threat as the current Zimbabwe government is to those communities.)

But try as it might have, the Zimbabwe government has been unable to effect the flow of Victoria Falls. This project will.

There would also be a benefit, if this extraction were accompanied by the building of a dam, which is also being suggested. The area is in dire need of more electricity.

It’s important to note this was long in coming. A Dartmouth University study predicted the impending conflict in 1998.

That study recommended that not just in Africa but everywhere that water is precious (like the Colorado) it should be proportionately paid for. In other words, if there are a 1000 cubic meters on average running through a checkpoint, then if projected use would take 10% of that, that government should pay 10% of what the water was valued.

I kind of doubt that will happen. It didn’t happen with the Colorado, where an elaborate inter-government agency lead by the EPA determines appropriate water use for the States.

A united Africa could also create such endeavors. But …

Meanwhile stay tuned for the altered best times to see the falls.

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.

Alaska to Africa: It’s Hot

Alaska to Africa: It’s Hot

    Alaska60NI’m on my way to Africa, to 0 degrees latitude. Right now in Arusha it’s 15C (59F). When Bill Zanetti went swimming yesterday in Prince William Sound, at 60N, the water temperature of the ocean was 68F! (20C)

    I flew over the north pole from Anchorage nonstop to Frankfurt, and fortunately for much of the journey there were no clouds. Only at our topmost point on earth was the ice uniform. Everywhere else it was cracked, with huge rivers and passages, and this is only the beginning of summer.

    We saw yellow-bellied flycatchers in Fairbanks; they belong much further south. We saw more humpback whales than most week cruises in Prince William Sound see in July when it’s more normal for them to congregate here.

    We visited the northern-most oyster hatchery on earth, a single man’s operation in the Sound. Oyster Dave normally gets his oyster “seeds” (young oysters) from places like Vancouver, but he now can see the day when oysters will actually breed this far north. All it takes, he said, was a few weeks of 70F water.

    Alaskan waters hit that high temperature once before, in 2007. Unprepared for such warmth, oyster farms in Alaska were hit by the deadly Vibrio virus. Two years later, a “red tide” also attributed to warming temperatures closed down the Alaskan oyster industry.

    “This was probably the best example to date of how global climate change is changing the importation of infectious diseases,” said Dr. Joe McLaughlin of the Alaska Division of Public Health who published the Vibrio study.

    Our two-week absolutely fabulous journey through Alaska was characterized by so many wonderful high points it’s hard to summarize, and then I realized that all these “high points” were attributed to unusually beautiful (read: warm and dry) weather.

    Alaska at its best is cool and damp; at its normal wet and cold. Of course there are periods of glorious days of warmth and sunshine, but that’s not normal. At least not until now.

    Cold and wet in Africa but warm and dry in Alaska. I can hear Senator Inofe shouting how global warming is a “hoax!” But global warming doesn’t mean that every single unusual event is warmer. It means overall it’s warmer, and for sure if you average out Africa temperatures with Alaska, you’ve got global warming.

    But more importantly global warming, or for that matter global cooling, coming as ridiculously fast as it is will be noticed primarily in its extremes. Extremes in everything, including coldness. In sum we’re getting warmer, but moving there so fast creates rebounds from weather events that are just as dangerous as the long-term trend.

    And hardly a scientific fact, I was really chilled looking at the North Pole. From my admittedly infinitesimal experience over near 90 degrees latitude, there is no big ice cap, anymore.

    It was great for us, day by day. Mt. McKinley was out almost constantly, and our flightseeing around the mountain was unobscured by a single whiff of cloud.

    Hiking in Denali was a cinch. You didn’t even need the rubber boots that every lodge and camp in the area insists you bring, because the tundra while soft wasn’t damp.

    The bouquet of wildflowers on our hikes near the Eaglek Inlet was really profound: Wild rose, skort, wiggelwort, skunk cabbage, sundew, nagoonberry, dwarf fireweed, bog blue, rosemary avens, shooting stars, dozens of mosses, false heleebores, Labrador tea and blooming water lilies.

    This is a collection of fragile, extraordinarily beautiful flowers that appear quickly and over the course of the summer, collecting the fragmentary and unique moments of warmth and wet in this stressed ecosystem necessary for them to propagate.

    But they’re all here at once! What the hell does this mean?

    It’s a stretch on the pun, but it means it’s too warm; at least too warm for the way we used to understand Alaska and Africa.

    Birds and plants and fishes and whales will all adapt. Many will disappear and be replaced by others; Alaskan scientists are worried that dandelions will replace many of the beautiful little flowers named above. That doesn’t worry me; that’s nature, the beauty of natural selection.

    But while birds and animals and fishes and plants exchange components and reorder themselves for a new, warming world, in order to survive … what are we doing to survive?

    It’s only a hoax, says Senator Inofe. There’s no need to do anything.

Nice Nairobi

Nice Nairobi

There is no more simple example of the battle between development and wilderness than a highway. Friday the wilderness won in Nairobi.

Following the successful world-wide opposition to the Serengeti Highway project several years ago, last week’s remarkable effort by local conservationists in Kenya to stop the proposed highway through Nairobi National Park seems particularly exceptional.

This because it was almost entirely local. A combined effort from a number of local wildlife organizations and a few prominent conservation crusaders like Dr. Paula Kahumbu successfully battled several Kenyan agencies that had approved the start of the highway.

Nairobi National Park is an incredibly tiny wilderness that borders one of Africa’s largest and most sprawling cities. The battle to save it over the years has been one of those you think of as lost causes.

Birders never deserted the 40-square miles of grasslands bordered by the Athi River but many big animal enthusiasts did, particularly during droughts.

It just seemed ridiculously pointless to try to preserve a wilderness literally bordering a city that was growing so fast you can hardly move inside it, anymore. A few weeks ago I blogged about the lions that were disrupting traffic!

But I guess that should have been our glimpse into how things were going. Lions? At the edge of a city? Blocking traffic?

Before we get too ecstatic and believe that the natural order of things will always prevail, it’s important to note the judges’ decision to void the Kenyan Highway Authorities plan was also heavily based on the fact it appeared the highway was going to built too close to Nairobi’s second airport, Wilson, violating other agency regulations.

Nevertheless, the wording of the judgment and the invitation by the tribunal that the numerous wildlife authorities bringing the complaint can petition for legal cost reimbursement, suggests it might have been stopped even without this infringement on Wilson airport.

Another remarkable facet to this story is that the judge tribunal was not one in the main judicial arena, but from “NET,” the National Environmental Tribunal. Think of this as Kenya’s EPA, but it has wider judicial powers. While its ruling could be appealed to a higher court, it can’t be sued like the EPA can.

The problem is that Nairobi’s become too big. No one dare suggest a population count, despite a recent census, because the seven slums that surround the city (parts of one which actually abut the national park) make such counts so inaccurate. But many city planners are using something around 5 million.

That makes it seem tiny when compared to Shanghai or Mexico City, but given the fact it has doubled its size in less than a decade gives city planners serious concern.

And no more obvious concern than driving to work. Or for that matter, a tourist driving from the airport. Please note: Do Not Arrive Nairobi on a weekday morning, unless you don’t mind a two-hour commute over about eight miles.

One wonders what type of people can tolerate such nerve-wracking oppression? But that’s been the wonder about Africa for centuries. Once slavery. Now traffic congestion.

But above all this tale should remind us that the most powerful advocates for preserving Africa … are Africans.

Spears & Signatures

Spears & Signatures

A major fight if not an actual civil war is about to erupt in northern Tanzania, as Maasai prepare to battle government authorities in Loliondo, according to a BBC report this morning.

The dispute is over a Tanzania government decision to evict 30,000 Maasai from traditional grazing lands near the Serengeti National Park so that the area can be leased to a Dubai Hunting Company.

The story was first reported globally by the Christian Science Monitor earlier this month and went viral, mobilizing Maasai throughout the area.

The company, the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC), is a gigantic, jet-setter hunting company that has set up a mini city in northern Tanzania each mid-year for the last 20, for high profile hunting clients including Prince Andrew and most of the royal families of the Emirates and Jordan.

When I move near the area while still in the Serengeti National Park, my Tanzania cell phone beeps then displays the message, “Welcome to the Emirates.” They even bring cell towers.

The Arab operators of the area get free, undisputed access into and out of Tanzania. They have built a private airstrip on which modified 747s land direct from Dubai. Private security disallows anyone – including Tanzanian officials – from crossing their perimeter.

Until now, the under-the-table operation which has undoubtedly made many Tanzanian politicians very rich, has been slow to gain public attention. The Maasai have been battling the operation for years, although until now it’s been seen as the classic hunting/non-hunting battle over wilderness lands.

That changed dramatically when the government announced last year that it was adding about 580 sq. miles to an area still not fully surveyed but presumed to be around the same size. The doubling of the area is particularly aggravating to conservationists, because it would be a closed portal between the hunting area directly into the protected Serengeti National Park.

But more importantly to the Maasai, it means up to 30,000 will be evicted. Some claim as many as 48,000. The evictions more than 20 years ago that first set up the hunting block did not provoke a Maasai outcry.

That was probably because the Maasai were not as educated, not linked into social media and were at the time in their own battles with other Maasai just across the border in Kenya in internecine land disputes.

Until this incident, the controversy was confined mostly to photography safari tourists accidentally entering the Arab-held lands. Tourists at the prestigious &Beyond Klein’s Camp, for instance, would occasionally come across shot animals.

Community Based Tourism companies, including Dorobo, Hoopoe and Kibo Safaris that attempted to establish ventures with the Maasai often ran afoul of the Arabs.

But today it’s quite different. “There is no government in the world that can just let an area so important to conservation to be wasted away by overgrazing,” Khamis Kagasheki, the Minister of Tourism told the press last month.

The public nature of the government’s battle with activist Maasai is new. It seems to me they think they’ll win, either in the arena of public opinion, or against the Maasai spears.

The government is still reeling from the defeat to build the Serengeti Highway.

The characterization of the government action as enhancing conservation by protecting land that is currently being misused (over grazed) I see an indication the government feels that hunting is no longer as anathema to the public as it was just a while ago.

The activist NGO, avaaz, is promoting a world-wide petition with 2 million signatures to convince President Kikwete to nullify the decision. But based on public ministerial statements over the last month, the government will not be moved this time.

Maasai evictions from wilderness lands are not new. Likely the reason for the greatest spectacle on earth, the Great Wildebeest Migration, is that nearly 20,000 Maasai were evicted from the Moru Kopjes in 1972 that is now an essential wildebeest corridor within the Serengeti National Park.

I personally had a very educated and articulate Maasai friend killed in a battle with Tanzanian rangers two decades ago. So battle with the Maasai is not new, either.

But there’s something much different this time. Perhaps global awareness, perhaps the power of the social media – I’m not sure. But I am sure that if the government persists…

..the Maasai will fight.

Techtonic in Nature

Techtonic in Nature

Separate but Equal: A chilling phrase used throughout history to justify such barbaric ideas as apartheid and reenforce the power of the status quo has now been applied to African wilderness in an attempt to save lions. It’s more naive than offensive.

Sorry to be such a drag on your week, but when the world’s greatest carnivore scientists conclude that the only way to maintain healthy populations of wild lions is to fence them, somebody’s got to remind them that then they’re no longer wild.

One of the greatest field researchers ever, Dr. Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, led a team of 46 researchers that published this succinct and piercing recommendation earlier this month.

Lion populations have been declining for some time, and the study confirmed many earlier studies and reports that the decline is directly linked to lion/human population conflicts.

(There are, by the way, too many big cats in zoos.)

The March publication in Ecology Letters Online will become the definitive treatise on lion declines. Its cram-packed data is perfectly if masterfully compiled leading to a vastly understated conclusion that is tectonic in nature:

Fences.

The study acknowledges “fencing has so far only been widely employed in a few African countries because of aesthetic objections, financial costs and the impracticality of enclosing large-scale migratory ungulate populations.”

Presuming the local African has serious “aesthetic objections” to fencing strikes me if not racist patently patronizing, so let’s move on:

Packer et al conclude that it would cost $2000 per square km to preserve lion at about half their potential densities in the wild unfenced, as compared to about $500 per square km to sustain populations at 80% of their “wild” potential fenced.

This means it would cost about $30 million to fence Tanzania’s largest reserve, The Selous, and then an additional $22 million annually to manage that fencing.

In a cash strapped and aid-dependent economy, these numbers are mind boggling. I don’t doubt their veracity but when compared with the needs of human villages in the same areas in which lions now thrive, there is no chance this will be embraced locally.

That defaults the solution to foreign donors.

How do lions rank in the following list of priorities?

Water, Food, Electricity, Sanitation, Health, Education not to mention anti-poverty.

Finally, it isn’t just wildebeest or elephant migrations that are essential to the wild as we know it. It’s less dramatic and more subtle elephant and buffalo migrations, which need massive corridors to maintain healthy populations.

You might, indeed, fence lions and wildebeest and zebra. In fact Botswana did so, and it crashed their wilderness in the mid 1980s, leaving today a nice place to visit but hardly the wild that existed back then, with possibly a third of the animal populations deciminated.

But you can’t fence elephants, and buffalo are problematic. So are we talking about a “wild ecosystem” for lions that excludes anything over, say, two tons? Is this not as dramatic an alteration in what the “wild is” as one without lion?

An equally powerful if nuanced conclusion from this study is that social policies by governments like Tanzania and Mozambique which have struggled to allow indigenous populations to coexist with the wild, is a bad idea … (at least for the animals):

“Negative conservation impacts of human land use can often be [read: “should be”] minimized by restricting conflicting activities to separate areas rather than by encouraging their co-existence.”

A third of the Serengeti/Mara/Ngorongoro ecosystem is the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, which allows traditional Maasai to continue living and using the land. Similar policies exist in Mozambique and Uganda on wide tracts of wilderness.

These are not recent policies generated in any way as a response to human/wildlife conflicts. Rather, they were policies forced by the reality that humans with a right to ownership of the “wilderness” have been living there for eons.

Adopting Packer et al’s policy in this regards heralds back to the Trail of Tears, the justification at the time for which was much more noble than protecting a wild beast.

As Packer said with not but a bit of irritation to the New York Times:

“Let’s get real, here.” (Although in quite a different connotation.)

Packer is an outstanding scientist. But he’s a rather poor humanist, and with this study, either nihilistic or simply frustrated. By the way, he’s likely right, too.

What this means simply is that the wild is ending. Zoos are as capable of guarding a species’ survival as the wild can. Biodiversity on typical macro levels is in grave danger, and that may indeed bode ill for the world.

But the wild is ending. And ending the wild cannot be stopped if mankind doesn’t rev up into high gear, first, its own human development.

And that, Johnny, is the real story. There is no separate but equal. There is only togetherness.

The only possible solution to fixing lions’ lives is to fix people’s lives, if not first at least at the same time.