People or Wildlife?

People or Wildlife?

angry villager fight eleIt’s immoral to support saving wildlife at the expense of saving people. It’s that simple and today in Kenya I realized first-hand this travesty.

It begins with climate change. Surely you notice weather is changing where you live, and I’ve often explained that the developed world is more capable of adjusting to this than the developing world.  But when you feel compelled to assist efforts to mitigate climate change in the developing world, shouldn’t you consider the people who live there rather than just the wildlife?

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Year of the Jackal

Year of the Jackal

jackalskilledFile “science as scandal:” For a long time South Africans have culled heavily in their national parks even as many scientists vociferously argued against doing so. Now it seems that in some kind of warped tolerance if not outright trickery South African officials managed a big cull of jackals… to prove that culling jackals doesn’t work!

Why would they cull to prove culling doesn’t work? Well, that we don’t know. What we do know is this:

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Elephant in The Room

Elephant in The Room

elephantintheroomCOP17, the CITES treaty working group, is winding down like a firecracker with the biggest boom possibly yet to come. Southern African countries prevailed in a bitter fight to keep all elephants from being listed as imminently going extinct, and the fight over lions begins today.

CITES was absolutely fundamental in saving elephants from extinction 30 years ago. But times have changed. Has it lost its power to politics?

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CITES Senses

CITES Senses

elephantgraphsMore than two thousand ardent scientists and advocates are in Johannesburg today preparing for next year’s CITES. Historical treaties like the Geneva Convention may actually effect our daily lives more noticeably but only CITES has attracted such global consensus that enforcement is aggressive and routine.

Today horse trading like you’ve never seen is going on, but in the end unlike so much else in today’s troubled world, everybody really will come together.

Sound nice? Yes, it is, but there’s still this one thing….

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Be Careful What You Support

Be Careful What You Support

raisedtobekilledWild animals in Africa are threatened as never before by western hypocrisy.

Thursday two wildlife organizations, Panthera & WildAid, announced a “Cecil Summit” to plan the allocation of $1.25 billion raised annually to save the lion. This campaign is as absurd as it is distasteful, a stunt playing on good people’s feelings and essentially unmasked by its own hypocrisy.

Cecil was a trophy lion killed by a Minnesota dentist last year which brought to public attention the horrors of “canned hunting,” raising and containing captive lions specifically to be shot for sport.

The public reaction to the story of Cecil was extensive: The U.S. slapped new restrictions on lion hunting and United Airlines forbid future transporting of lion trophy parts were just two of many such actions reflecting widespread public outrage.

Donations flooded into wildlife organizations.

All this was well and good. Lions are in trouble. The world’s top lion researchers concluded in October that the population has declined 43% in the last 21 years down to around 20,000 remaining individuals. This excellent study, however, becomes nearly as hypocritical as the “Cecil Summit” when it analyzes the causes.

The study concludes that “indiscriminate killing in defense of human life and livestock, habitat loss, and prey base depletion” are the three principal causes.

Put into simpler terms: human/wildlife conflict and habitat erosion.

That’s fine and they should have ended it there. Instead, in what can be considered nothing short of pandering to African governments and rich westerners at home, the study further claimed that “trophy hunting can … be a tool for conservation but also a threat, depending on how it is regulated and managed.”

Anyone with a tiny bit of experience in Africa knows that in areas outside southern Africa the regulation and management of trophy hunting has been a joke for years. Ping-ponged between authoritarian decisions easily swayed by bribing, to flawed policies imposed by the World Bank, trophy hunting in Tanzania for example has been a corruptible mess for generations.

This duplicitous analysis takes it right from high science into abject hypocrisy.

Imagine you’re an African businessmen or farmer, the family’s breadwinner. Imagine a lion killing two of your cows. Imagine having four children and sixteen grand children with only one child having gainful employment and living next to a wilderness area with lots of bushmeat.

Now imagine that as you try to survive, by getting rid of the lion that’s killing your cows or going out to your backyard and trapping a wildebeest for food, that wildlife officials paid by Panthera or WildAid find you, fine you and imprison you … while a rich Texas businessman is blowing animals – including lions – to smithereens and pasting his trophy pictures all over the internet.

There’s little difference between canned hunting and “wild” hunting, or as it is more egotistically called, “trophy hunting.” You kill an animal. One is a bit tamer than the other, so easier to kill certainly, but the act is exactly, precisely the same.

Canned hunting is simply a more honest version of wild hunting. Each time a lion is shot there is one less lion, and that is not conservation.

Why can a rich Texan break the law? How do you explain this to the businessman or farmer trying to survive?

You can’t. And when you try to, your whole mission is impugned in hypocrisy.

No Longer a Trophy

No Longer a Trophy

pheasanthuntSports hunting impedes conservation and may contribute to species extinction.

The Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee says so in a press release issued a few days ago about their 25-page report, “Missing the Mark.”

The report infers that the killing of Cecil, the lion, was an inflexion point in U.S. legislators’ positions on sports hunting and concludes that “trophy hunting” as currently regulated threatens big game and derails conservation.

Lawmakers won’t dare say this yet about wolves or bobcats, and they can’t say it about deer or wild turkeys, and of course it wouldn’t apply to “canned hunts” of so-called wild pheasant or cats on private reserves. But the reasoning is sound, and the reasoning is easily applied to the hunting of all living animals.

It’s reasoning that I came to slowly over a number of years of working in Africa. I believed for most of my life that big-game hunting contributed to African conservation.

Completely protected areas (like national parks) were surrounded by hunting reserves which seemed to create a “buffer” against poaching in the completely protected area. Revenue from hunting was significant and notably greater than those assessed tourists.

Both those dynamics changed in the last 15 years. Big-game countries like Tanzania began hither-and-yon designations of where hunting could occur and made it even more complex by giving some authority over hunting to several different local authorities which often competed with federal laws for the same turf.

The anti-poaching buffer no longer exists.

Although the costs of big game hunting declined with the massive increase in demand – especially from America and Russia – government revenues from it were eclipsed by new taxes on tourism. Sports hunting is no longer considered a significant contributor to the government treasury while non-hunting tourism is.

There are many excellent scientific studies to this effect, some of which are quite old, but not until now are they getting the look they deserve.

I have to admit somewhat sheepishly that it was these two phenomena – the collapse of anti-poaching zone buffers and the diminution in government revenues from trophy fees – that led me away from my benign support of big-game hunting for so many years. Once released, though, I honestly recognized that I’d been pushing the moral argument into the deep background.

Isn’t that often the case? The questionable morality of something becomes revealed over time, when enough experience proves it true?

Last December the Obama administration listed lions on America’s Endangered Species Act and this has began a worldwide movement to do so on CITES’ list as well. Since December, any American who goes to Africa to hunt a lion could be in violation of federal law, and even those careful hunters who follow now difficult regulations paint themselves as anti-conservationists.

Frankly, I now embrace the notion that hunting almost anything can’t contribute to conservation and in our current fragile world is actually contributing to wide-scale species decline. Let me explain.

Hunting wolves and bobcats is lunacy, a political allowance that should be immediately stopped. There’s too much science to prove this.

Hunting deer (and waterfowl) now carries the stigma of immorality, but may be unstoppable. Deer populations have been managed for sports hunting for so many years in the United States that hunting may now be, unfortunately, linked to the animals lifestyle and likely, survival.

Canned hunts of lion in private reserves here and in Africa, or such canned hunting as for pheasants, has always struck me as immoral and pointless.

We have a lot of problems on planet earth and many wonderful organizations working to remedy or mitigate them. It’s time that more people like me come out of the closet and admit that sports hunting does not contribute to conservation and that it actually hastens that species decline.

It’s no great leap from that to conceding that sports hunting is immoral.

Wildly Good News

Wildly Good News

goodnewsdogWild dogs are on the rise throughout sub-Saharan Africa and there is probably no better marker species for the overall health of the wilderness. Hey. This is a very good news story!

Together with a number of wildlife organizations reporting significant decreases in poaching, I think it’s fair to say the African wilderness has taken a great turn for the better.

Wildlife organizations began acknowledging the comeback of the dogs since the beginning of 2015, but many of us guides noticed it several years earlier.

Check out my “OnSafari” blogs for the last 4-5 years and you’ll see an amazing account of wild dog sightings. Dogs are “definitely back” and maybe even better than they historically were.

Wow! So what does that mean. Well if it’s true, it could be that dogs are filling in the gaps being left by the definite and serious decline in lions. Filling such an important gap at the top of the food chain would be a critical need of the overall wilderness.

The story of the dogs’ comeback also gives us a good indication of what methods for conserving the wilderness work best.

Last week a sixth pack of wild dogs was released in the northwest Serengeti to great fanfare. This is in such marked contrast to only a decade ago when wildlife organizations had to keep secret their work in saving the dogs, because local farmers and businessmen so hated them.

So that’s the first big change: people in the area no longer express such animus to dogs as they showed only a short time ago. That doesn’t mean that ranchers don’t get awfully mad when a dog kills domestic stock. With government and wildlife organization funds to fairly compensate ranchers that have lost stock to dogs, though, many fewer ranchers are retaliating.

To mitigate the problem of more well educated Africans and not enough jobs, a number of “wildlife” organizations have dedicated serious resources to the social plight of Africans. Wildlife Works created 85 jobs in an area with a fragile peace between people and game.

“The key to preserving wildlife here is human relationships,” explains Wildlife Works’ Amy Lee in an op-ed published in the New York Times last week. Her organization is now the third largest employer in Kenya’s wild Rukinga district, and Amy credits this fact with saving the wilderness and wild dog in particular.

But there is also a real sense that the dogs are taking less domestic stock. The dog take less domestic stock because there’s more wild stock for them. Again this could be a reflection of the serious decline in lion, dog’s most aggressive competitor. But there is also a healthy increase in hyaena, and the total increase in dog and hyaena seems greater than just filling a gap left by lion.

That means the entire ecosystem must be improving. The persistence of organizations like the Frankfurt Zoological Society to continue reintroducing dogs over the last 30 years has finally paid off.

Finally a number of subtle social/wildlife collaborations all around the Serengeti have proved enormously beneficial.

A group of American zoos led by Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo continues an aggressive campaign to freely inoculate Maasai pet dogs against common diseases that surround the Serengeti. I’ve written before about this highly successful program.

Wild dogs, being more inbred than pet dogs, easily succumb to common dog diseases. This program has the added benefit of pleasing the people who surround the wilderness.

It’s always hard to tell a conservation success story: We worry that it will lower our vigilance. We know how fleeting it can be and with climate change how unpredictable now the tools that we’ve developed for monitoring and improving are becoming.

But at least for the moment, give yourself a pat on the back!

Broken Tool

Broken Tool

donthuntwolvesLegal hunting increases poaching and damages conservation.

Specifically, culling wolves in Wisconsin increases the illegal hunting of wolves, according to a breakthrough study published Wednesday.

Sports hunting enthusiasts from Africa to North America are wrong: regulated hunting is not a good tool for managing wildlife populations. If it once was, it’s now broken.

I once believed that big game hunting in Africa helped conservation. I listened first-hand to wannabe poachers who refused to enter the Maswa game reserve where big game hunting was sanctioned for fear of capture.

That was thirty years ago and has radically changed. Big game hunting in Tanzania became so commercial – so competitive – that it turned political and then corrupt. Good policies that regulated big game hunting thirty years ago are no longer applied. Bush meat poaching in Maswa is now widespread.

Understandably, African government attitudes towards hunting and conservation are often linked to foreign aid and tourism. Over the last thirty years world opinion on spots hunting has moved distinctly in opposition even while the number of sports hunters increased.

So African governments are beginning to ban all sports hunting. Botswana made the decision two years ago. Kenya banned hunting in 1986.

Zambia banned hunting, then unbanned it, now is considering rebanning it, together with Namibia.

It’s not a great leap to go from the specific Wisconsin study of wolves to the broader generalization that sports hunting everywhere is hurting conservation.

The study was jointly conducted by two professors from areas with controversial wolf predation: Wisconsin and Sweden. They carefully analyzed a lot of public data collected in Wisconsin over a period that included both complete wolf protection (no hunting at all allowed), to sanctioned government culling, to proposed regulated sports hunting.

At the very least, “We’ve undermined several pillars of the argument that hunting helps conservation,” the New York Times concluded from an interview with one of the scientists.

According to the study synopsis: “We show that allowing wolf … culling was substantially more likely to increase poaching than reduce it.”

The study has already raised a lot of ire and less than a week after its publication public institutions like the University of Utah are threatening to conduct studies to counter the conclusions.

Sports hunting has become so emotional exactly because public policy became so political. It’s plausible that Bernie Sanders won’t make the finish line because of his position on sports hunting and gun ownership.

So I find it difficult to present the topic within the confines of conservation, because reactions and positions become so emotive. I find myself sucked into the political arena even though I know the overwhelming motivation should be conservation.

On the other hand if my firm belief like this study is correct, that sports hunting in a modern world hurts conservation, is the politicization simply a successful ploy to delay urgent action?

Leave the whirlpool of politics then take a careful look at this study (and others). Climate change is happening so fast, wildlife management policies are so political, that never the twain shall meet … in time.

Wolves is a perfect example. Overall public policy in the U.S. in the last conservative era has seriously jeopardized the wildlife management plans that brought wolves in North America back from the brink. Now with populations regaining some health, hunters are regaining control, just as Climate Change is gaining control.

Today, in our marred and fractured world, hunting hurts conservation.

Facebook Reject

Facebook Reject

mohawkWhen a wild animal kills a person, should it be killed?

Kenyan park rangers killed the lion Mohawk last week after he killed a man. But zoo authorities in Palm Beach didn’t dispatch the tiger that killed its keeper.

The protocol especially since the days of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo has been to kill any wild animal that kills a man. Presumption: it likes the taste.

The 35 or so lions that live in Nairobi National Park are very unusual. Their territory is strictly defined — something truly wild lion would never accept — and many, many photos exist of these lions testing this limit otherwise known as Ngong Road.

Rarely yet nevertheless captured on at least 200 cell phones at the same time, the lion stroll out of the forest onto the street during rush hour! Cars stop – which they do routinely in Nairobi’s rush hour anyway – and the lions pad their way down the highway for a while before returning to the forest.

Last week one of these celebrity lions attacked a man in a market and was then shot by a ranger.

Mohawk it was, indisputably. His name comes from his unusual hairdo (naturally, by the way, not as sculpted by Nairobi mall professionals). He had wandered ten miles out of the park, the opposite direction of Ngong Road.

Mohawk traveled out of the park onto a prairie which more or less begins a massive wilderness that stretches into the great Tanzanian parks of Ngorongoro and Serengeti. But then, he made a sudden left turn and strutted into a very distant suburban/rural town called Isinya. Truly wild lion would never strut into a town but Mohawk’s a celebrity. He needs people!

The rural people of Isinya aren’t like the Benz-driving, hipster Galaxy Tablet crowd commuting on Ngong Road who need increasingly imaginative excuses for being late too work. Maybe the farmers of Isinya weren’t quite as “enthralled” as the young execs in Nairobi? Nobody took his picture? So …Mohawk killed a man!

And rangers then killed him.

Half way round the world at about the same time a much larger cat bit the neck of its young woman keeper.

Authorities didn’t kill the tiger but tranquilized it, and so it took up to five minutes before medics could untangle the cat from its prey.

The multiple investigations now going are specifically targeted to the question whether the keeper died while waiting for the tranquilizer to take effect.

African lions will soon be listed as endangered, because their population has decreased from 30,000 to 9,000 in the last two decades. There are fewer than 400 Malaysian tigers, already listed as endangered.

In my opinion both cases are the result of humanizing wildlife, which we snobs prefer to call “anthropomorphizing.”

Mohawk directed traffic. He posed at last count for more than 100,000 photographs. His death is now a Twitter hashtag, #JusticeForMohawk, there was a Memorial Service for him, and today’s opinion page in Nairobi’s major newspaper vilified the public for not giving wildlife enough space.

Less aplomb among the Palm Beach Zoo authorities who are in a terrible balancing act between conservation and common practice. Few wildlife authorities will dispute that the Palm Beach Zoo tiger is now more dangerous, but with so few left…

And … was trying to save an endangered species justification for delaying saving a human?

These should not be the enigmas they seem. If we didn’t think then treat wild life with human considerations and affection, if we accept the common sense that because wildlife cannot save us but we can save wildlife that we are more important, then we might move out of this fairy tale universe of pirouetting hippopotamus and friendships between warthogs and hyaena into the reality of ecological wonderment.

By believing we “love” the lion, we never really learn what a lion is. We bury its awesome behaviors and biological complexities under notions of humanness.

Humanizing wildlife invites them onto highways and disarms their keepers. Flash: Don’t try, Mohawk didn’t have a Facebook account.

Let the Animals Live

Let the Animals Live

girlionFor sure a melancholic tale: Lions survive by growing tame enough to live side-by-side with people.

Last night’s PBS premiere of ‘Wandering Lions’ is one of the best nature documentaries I’ve seen recently. It tells a hopeful story of India’s critically endangered lions.

The lion population in India for my entire life time has been contained to a small 100 sq. mile sanctuary in southern Gujarat state called Gir. Also over my life time a huge periphery, another 400 sq. miles, was created where people and wildlife coexist. So today you’ll read of the 500 sq. mile park, somewhat misleading.

But it worked is the point. In 1968 the number of remaining lions in India was 168. Gir lions today number around 540, a remarkable success story that seems on track to continue.

Gir lion have been snatched from the brink of extinction into a genetically diverse enough population to be self-sustaining.

The Nature film documents a few days in the life of these lions, which also documents the life of Indian farmers who coexist with them.

I’m a bit skeptical about the partnership between man and beast that the film tries to convey: that Indian farmers have come to rely on the beasts to kill the antelope that would otherwise maul their cows or eat their grain crops.

It’s not possible for even the most demanding lion to harvest enough of Gir’s wildlife to make any kind of significant dent in the boar’s or antelopes’ effects on farming. I think that the real story is that the farmers won’t kill animals, whether antelope or lion.

A more important scene in the film documents a night of three Indian farmers who walk into their fields with sticks ostensibly to chase the antelope away. Instead they watch lion do it.

I don’t think that establishes the relationship the film suggests.

What is more telling is another part of the film that describes a lioness who killed a person, was captured but then released and not herself killed as would be the case almost anywhere else in the world.

The reason given was that the investigation determined that she was not, in fact, a “man-eater” but simply a mother protecting cubs.

I suspect that was determined during the deposition part of the investigation?

Regardless the outcome is absolutely positive for lion. And apparently over my life time nowhere near the animosity towards lion developed in Gujarat as in sub-Saharan Africa.

Why? Not because of tourism. As the film points out there’s no tourism in Gir: no lodges, no tour companies, no vehicles, and the difficulty in getting to the area is manifest.

That isn’t to say the people living there wouldn’t love to have tourism. It’s just that the place is too remote and the animals … well, in a sense, too tame. The film has numerous scenes of cars, motorbikes and even villagers on foot right next to lions.

Prior to 1968 there may have been animosity towards lions, because the numbers of lion were tanking then. Shortly thereafter the Indian government began partnering with a number of wildlife organizations to save the wildlife. The numbers attest to this success.

But let’s go further, be clear: Government programs in India are notoriously unsuccessful. What’s different about this one?

The film and virtually all the materials that promote Gir National Park always reference the fact that Gujaratis are vegetarians. It’s actually a bit more serious than that: they’re vegetarians because their culture forbids killing life even for food.

That’s the key to this successful interdependence: a culture that has existed forever, a first principal of Gujarat peoples: let the animals live.

* * *
When I first started in this business the Gir lion was presumed a separate sub-species.

But “Asiatic lions” don’t actually exist, according to the world’s authority on taxonomy, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

DNA research proves they are not a sub-species. There is a yet to be confirmed suggestion in that research that the Gir lions when viewed with the handful of northern African lions that still exist might then constitute a subspecies, but that remains unsettled.

Fanciful photos of thirty years ago tried to portray Gir lions as physically different, with strange manes that didn’t begin until their neck, but those photos have now been debunked as anomalies. Genetically for the time being all lions on earth are close enough to be lumped into the same species.

Click or Bang

Click or Bang

NorthLuangwaThe tug between conservation and hunting has reached a crescendo in Zambia where 30 years of effort by the Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) is in jeopardy.

The vast wilderness of eastern Zambia is divided into two great reserves, North & South Luangwa. Like the Serengeti some of the land at the periphery of the these national parks is used for sports hunting.

But unlike the Serengeti Luangwa can well nigh afford hunting. While it contains the richest biomass in Zambia, it’s scant compared to the Serengeti. So as tourism demand increased over the last thirty years Zambian officials correctly reduced leases for hunting.

But in the last 4-5 years tourism has declined continent-wide while there has been a marked increase in demand for sports hunting. So Zambian officials are reversing themselves and allowing more and more hunting.

The most dramatic reversal came in August, 2014.

There was an outcry from the public. This remark taken off the Zambia National Park’s Facebook page is representative:

“Trophy hunting for rich foreigners will not bring tourists to Zambia, it will deter them from coming… I can assure you, I will not visit any country which squanders its wildlife for the pleasure of a few disturbed individuals.”

Immediately the parks authority reversed the reversal, but immediately after that the umbrella state agency above tourism reversed back to the original reversal. The state of confusion has never been resolved.

I see two obvious forces at work here: The first is that sports hunting is on the increase, particularly from Russia and the United States, with very strong increases from a number of South American countries like Argentina. The revenue lost from tourism hurts. From a business point of view, it makes sense to increase capacity in response to increased demand.

But second is probably more significant: the rank confusion reigning between Zambia’s various authorities suggests corruption is rampant. Hunters tend to be quite rich and professional hunting guides are the government pay masters.

Three weeks ago the German embassy hosted a party in Lusaka to celebrate three decades of partnership between FZS and the Zambian government conserving North Luangwa.

A recent elephant survey showed that North Luangwa has the densest elephant population in the country and the most promising black rhino programs.

“I think it is fair to say that 20 years ago no one would have anticipated this development,” the project leader, Ed Sayer, told the guests.

In fairness one of the reasons North Luangwa’s elephant population is the most dense is because there has been so much poaching in the country’s other reserves.

According to Katarzyna Nowak, a South African elephant researcher, Zambia’s Kafue reserve lost almost half its elephant population to poaching since 2004.

North Luangwa is the most remote of Zambia’s reserves. That applies equally to tourists, hunters and poachers. Kafue is much more accessible.

Moreover, hunters themselves are disparaging of Zambia’s reduced game:

“…the quality [of lion and leopard hunting in Zambia] is on the decline due to hunting pressure and one needs a good deal of time to be sure of a good trophy,” writes safariBwana.com which labels itself “The African Hunting Authority.”

Last year neighboring Botswana banned all hunting, and until then it had been a significant hunting destination.

Scraping the old barrel to get the last bit of honey out of it might just crack the barrel.