Last Wednesday the Great Elephant Census was released, documenting a major decline in elephant populations in the study area over the last decade.
The study is a good one, although flawed in an important respect.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The day before we visited the Giraffe Centre and I’d roughly estimate that 50% of the visitors there were non-white.
I presume that most of the non-white were Kenyans or Africans. It demonstrates in clear contrast how the local population views elephant conservation versus some other animal conservation, and the reason is the escalating conflict between elephants and people in developing Africa.
The Sheldrick orphanage and the Giraffe Centre are both top Nairobi attractions. It was Sunday, the only day of the week that there is fast-moving traffic on the city’s many highways and thoroughfares, and it was beautiful dry weather.
Tourists came in droves. Kenyans didn’t come.
I believe that under this quiet de facto protest is a growing and serious animus Kenyans feel against conservation driven by outsiders. Kenyans probably are more conservation oriented than many would presume. Several local organizations have saved Nairobi’s forests and its national park. The legendary Wangari Maathai is among the few conservationists to receive a Nobel Prize.
So the animus towards elephant conservation does not imply a general anti-conservation attitude by any means. But elephants have drawn by far and away the most international attention, and it has been exclusively concern expressed for the elephants … rather than for the “ecosystem” or the “national parks” or anything that might include the people, too.
It’s a terrible failing of western animal conservation organizations to have directed their appeals so exclusively outside the areas for which the appeals have been made. True, the possibility of getting donations from mostly emerging and poor countries is very limited, but it would have conveyed a sense of inclusion. Instead, policies have contributed to exclusion for years.
The most common presumption about the value of big game here in Kenya is that it is a commodity that attracts rich foreigners. Particularly as now when the European and Asian economies are declining, and therefore the bulk of tourists decline, there are fewer positive returns from the endeavor.
What is always behind the scenes moves onto center stage: elephants are big, destructive and enormously expensive to conserve. Only the decadent wealthy foreigner insensitive to the desperate need for all sorts of human conservation has a desire to protect them.
The more fulsome arguments regarding ecosystems and biodiversity have no chance, because no serious groundwork has been laid for these more complicated justifications.
So many of Africa’s problems can be laid squarely on the failure of the developed world to treat Africa as an equal part of the human community, and the current acceleration of elephant poaching is no different.
Until western conservationists recognize the sovereignty of Africa in all things African, including its elephants, there will be no change.
Ewaso Lions is a stellar NGO working in the Laikipia/Samburu region of northern Kenya, a beautiful semi-arid terrain just north of Mt. Kenya. The small under 25-person group is run by a 4th generation Kenyan Asian, Shivani Bhalla, whose list of prizes from conservation organizations takes up a dozen lines of her resume.
More than half the staff is composed of local mostly Samburu. Jeneria Lekilelei, the Field Operations and Community Manager, won last year’s Conservation and Field Hero Award from the Walt Disney Foundation.
Jeneria’s field report explains that lion/human conflict in his region increases with the onset of the rains. During the dry season lions have a relatively easy time picking off wild game that must necessarily congregate at certain water sources.
With the rains wild game disperses. So does domestic stock: out of their bins where they’re fed hay during the dry season, they seek the same natural pastures that the wild game seeks.
Jeneria recounts one morning when “the lions killed camels in 5 locations so I was getting calls from all over. I raced to one area where Lengwe and his pride killed a camel and its baby…
“Three warriors from the village came and they all had guns. I was sure Lengwe was going to be killed by these warriors, so I sat with them under a bush all day” and talked them out of the killing.
There are several critical back stories to this positive tale.
The first is pretty evident: “I was getting calls from all over.” These weren’t warrior’s whoops, they were cell phone calls. Even the most remote wildernesses on earth are peppered with cell towers and there are generally more mobile phones per person in the developing world than in America.
Cell phones represent increasing connections of everything, including government and people. Killing a lion in Kenya is a crime.
The second back story is of Lengwe the lion. Lengwe would be a goner in the truly wild world of times past. Jeneria first encountered Lengwe when he was nearly dead, incapacitated by a broken femur. Ewaso Lions mobilized a remarkable rescue operation that included not only rounding up vets and federal wildlife rangers to immobilize Lengwe, but even of transporting an X-ray machine into the area for a correct diagnosis.
Lengwe was not exactly nursed back to health, but he was certainly monitored carefully and eventually he became a pride leader. Losing Lengwe to three young warriors would have been a rather sorry end to an otherwise heroic tale.
Finally the third back story was the rationale that Jeneria used to dissuade the warriors from their revenge killing: Where were the kids?
Stock – whether camels or cows or goats – is traditionally the responsibility of young boy herders. As Jeneria recounts asking the warriors, “Have you ever heard of a camel being killed when herded by a proper person?”
The question shamed the warriors. The implied answer is also quite illustrative: lions won’t go anywhere near Samburu or Maasai herding stock and this particular stock was being neglected. Not tending stock doesn’t just remove protection, it essentially cedes ownership.
Because of the good work of Ewaso Lions, the great Northern Frontier’s predator is faring better than it would otherwise. Because of cell phones, Maasai boys herding stock are going to become increasingly delinquent so that they can pass their CPAs.
This wonderful story with wonderful, positive characters ended beautifully, but its lesson is proof things will not go well as currently arranged. Climate change and human progress might be at odds in some places, but in this case they are working hand-in-hand to wreck havoc on this traditional tapestry of life.
I don’t know yet how I’ll answer, but I want to clearly lay out the questions for all of us.
Fact 1: For the first several years running in my entire 40-year career, wildlife numbers are declining slightly.
Droughts and wars have taken serious tolls on East Africa’s wildlife in decades past, but animal populations always rebounded quickly. Unfortunately, good data compilations are still not available since competing NGOs remain provincial and selfish with their data, but my personal sense of what is in the public domain, combined with lots of anecdotal evidence convinces me of this slight decline.
There are two main reasons for this: rapid climate change and increasingly rapid economic development.
“Wildlife in Kenya is in serious trouble with numbers declining at around 3.2% per year while agriculture [is]… increasing at 8% per year at the cost of herbaceous wild habitat,” writes Calvin Cottar of the iconic Cottar tourism family in Kenya.
In South Africa, a large consulting firm called the tourism decline “unprecedented” while big game hunting has increased and claimed the tourist industry there was losing 1600 people, 4 jumbo jets, daily compared to only a few years ago.
South Africa is stable and beautiful, and what’s more, has a Rand value against the Euro and dollar that has made vacations there more affordable than ever. So the decline is absolutely not linked to African politics, stability or terrorism, despite those scandalous claims often heard.
Rather, the decline is linked to the global economy, particularly the very poor economy in Europe and the crashing economies of Asia. But even America, with a relatively robust economy and overseas tourism that is soaring more than 5%, showed a whopping 13% decline to Africa in 2014.
America’s case may be slightly anomalous to the rest of the world. We are in an election cycle with heightened concerns about security that are reaching hysterical levels. I’m absolutely convinced that the world as a whole is not deterred traveling to Africa because of “terrorism,” but Americans may be.
Yet given South Africa’s predicament – located far from any terrorism – the conclusion that African politics, stability and “terrorism” is not a significant contributor to the current decline remains reasonable.
Calvin Cottar’s resume claims that his family has been operating safaris for 90 years in Kenya. In his piece in Nairobi Destination Magazine last month, he argues that conservationists have to give strongly in two areas:
First, they’ve got to get financially involved in ways they aren’t. By the way, he’s not only arguing for us foreigners to do this, but Kenyans and African governments as well:
“Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) – the leasing of land for conservation… involves philanthropic or other entities paying local people for the use of their land … to maintain wildlife.”
Cottar implies a situation which I believe goes too far: a sort of wholesale privatization of wilderness, although he concedes that isn’t politically realistic at the moment. Moreover, he cites numbers which are staggering: “Kenya requires $700 million per year … to secure just our existing wildlife populations and habitats – or 150,000 sq kms of land.”
Yet he insists it will work, because “Our experience in land leasing for PES in the Mara is that it is 100% corruption free.”
Major red flag. Nothing in the world is 100% and when people try to support their positions with such purity, I for one am turned off. Nevertheless, Cottar’s point with regards to PES is taken.
Second, we’ve got to allow hunting, which currently Kenya does not. This is a second article in the digital magazine which follows Cottar’s, and it is attributed to him, so I’m not sure if he simply wanted to duck the radar or if it is from someone else.
Regardless, it is certainly one of the most controversial strategies that exists.
Whether it is Cottar writing the article or someone else, it is a well compiled if somewhat disorganized discussion of the morality and practicality of promoting big game hunting, in the main as a hedge against poaching while generating the funds needed to local conservation:
“And as we grope our way toward wildlife preservation and sustainability, [big game sports hunting] appears to be more of an ally than a foe.”
It’s hard to see a good outcome, here. If overall wildlife statistics are hard to obtain, statistics about hunting are even less clear and generally wildly exaggerated by both sides. But the possibility of rounding up three-quarters of a billion dollars annually to preserve what is still a small part of the current East Africa wilderness seems completely unlikely.
What do you think?
Two recent elephant reports shed new light on the public’s growing awareness that the plight of elephants is serious but not catastrophic.
Scientists in Africa are criticizing scientists in the U.S. for taking Swaziland elephants out of the country and putting them in U.S. zoos.
And in just the last few days, field scientists in the South Sudan have discovered new elephant families, and the rarer kind to boot!
For the last number of decades it’s unusual that U.S. zoos populate any of their larger stock from wild, foreign lands. Three elephants were imported from a circus-like “elephant ride” operations in Botswana to the Pittsburgh zoo, but the brilliance of the world zoos’ “SSP” (Species Survival Program) powered by an increasing sophistication of DNA technology has allowed world zoos to create healthy and sustainable animal populations simply by exchanging them between one another.
In fact, it’s ironic that as lion populations decline by some studies as quickly as elephants, some zoos around the world are laboring with the notion of euthanizing lion, because there are so many in the captive population.
Captive elephants, though, are quite a different story from lions. Breeding takes longer and is nowhere near as successful in captive populations as with the promiscuous cat. The last several decades has seen a decline in captive elephant population as many zoos retool to become more humane and eFriendly to a public increasingly sensitive to animal rights.
It takes a much larger space, many more staff and much more exceptional husbandry to display elephants than lions.
So as the plight of elephants in the public media grows, the zoo world understandably becomes involved.
More than a year ago the Kingdom of Swaziland – not exactly your model for animal conservation – announced that it was going to cull 18 of its remaining three dozen elephants because, well, they were getting in the way.
Although the Kingdom’s official explanation through a family-run parastatal that’s in charge of its wildlife was more serious, claiming that the elephants were encroaching on habitat that would be better served protecting wild rhino, few believe them.
Nonetheless, the threat to cull is real. So three American zoos stepped in and offered to bring those elephant into the captive American population. Whether a marriage made in heaven or constructed behind-the-scenes, refreshing the captive elephant gene pool with the Swazi individuals would certainly make it healthier and longer lasting.
Problem is that virtually every field scientist in Africa I’ve surveyed is against the importation by the Dallas, Wichita and Omaha zoos.
Within weeks of the announced deal the person often cited as the world’s most experienced elephant field researcher, Cynthia Moss, gathered 80 other very respected field scientists working in Africa to agree on a “Statement of Swaziland” that bitingly disapproves of the transfer.
To get two scientists to agree on anything in Africa is a phenomenal feat. The statement is an extremely powerful indictment of the American zoo proposal.
“Certainly, this proposal will not provide any conservation benefit in the U.S. or Swaziland,” the statement concludes.
It’s now been about a year since the deal was announced. An expected hurdle that advocates of the deal had been working on, the restrictions of the CITES treaty, now grows increasingly problematic as public outcry grows.
My good friend and Cleveland Zoo Director Emeritus, Steve Taylor, says he remains firmly behind the deal, because it has a good chance of giving the current captive elephant population “100 years of sustainability.”
If you believe the wild elephant population will not be sustained for a hundred years, then this makes sense. If you believe the wild elephant population is in imminent peril (which I don’t) it also makes sense.
But I think what is happening is that the hyperbole and rhetoric of the last few years of the demise of the elephant is producing an unfortunate counter reaction.
As often happens to exaggerated claims as evidence mounts against them, the public often goes rocketing off too far in the opposite direction.
Moss collection of field scientists “statement” did not address the very important genetic question of the captive population except with a convoluted reference to a position paper by the IUCN SSC Specialist Group for Africa which argued that importation of wild elephants into the captive population won’t help their sustainability.
But that 2003 statement came from an organization with exclusive interest in wild populations and habitats, before enhanced DNA technology, and well before the current brouhaha about elephant extinction.
While the IUCN may be the gold standard in determining species taxonomy and demographics, it is rarely involved in actual promotion of conservation policies.
Meanwhile back on the ranch, positive news about elephants has just been reported in the South Sudan where the much rarer subspecies of forest elephant has just been discovered by scientists from Bucknell University.
The discovery occurred in a part of Africa that New York Times veteran African war correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman called Africa’s perpetual war zone.
So despite poaching and wars and scientist fights, some good news.
Unfortunately, elephants have been removed from the inspection of science and thrust into the circus of the media. Hardly a year ago they were going out like a flickering candle. Today, the rarest of them pops up in a war zone.
Until the western public’s calibration of the dangers faced by African wildlife finds some measure of truth, we’ll never know who to trust: American zoos, Swazi authorities or African field scientists?
“The subspecies has been decimated by poachers… The horns are in high demand in parts of Asia where some people claim they have medicinal properties for treating everything from hangovers to cancer,” Fox reported.
Like much news telling only some of the story leads to massively misunderstanding it. This is a Fox News forte.
First, vigorous debate continues in the scientific community as to whether this rhino and its three remaining cousins still alive in a reserve in Kenya are, in fact, subspecies of the 20,000 white rhino that survive in South Africa.
The Northern White Rhino (NWR), of which Nola claims descent, has been considered a pretty distinct animal from its much more successful southern cousins (SWR) throughout my lifetime. I remember in the early days seeing them frequently in Meru National Park in Kenya.
More to the point, a heavily read science blogger in 2010 explained, “The danger in [suggesting a separate sub-species exists] could eventually backfire: it would not look good if zoologists were thought to be tweaking their conclusions in order to suit their favoured conservation projects.”
Many animal species — indeed including ourselves — develop slight genetic differences and even greater taxonomic differences simply by long periods of geographic separation. The scientists who believe the NWR is a separate sub-species believe that divergence was a million years ago.
Fox also simplified to the point of near falsehood regarding the reasons rhino are poached:
Rhino poachers are motivated far more by a Mideast market than an Asian one, albeit both markets exist. But a poacher’s pay is considerably higher from a buyer in Yemen or Djibouti than Hong Kong.
In the Mideast a rhino horn is polished up to become a dagger handle presented to rich young men by even richer fathers at their rite de passage. The Asian market is a close second, but what is noteworthy is that today’s conflicts in the Mideast have actually enhanced this market, as anything anti-western (like conservation) grows in popularity.
Fox also messed up seriously the suggestions that the subspecies might be saved by in vitro fertilization. I wrote extensively about this in 2009.
Reuters as usual got the Nola death more correctly.
What concerns me is the range of unhelpful conclusions that people of widely different predispositions will have with the notion that an animal has “gone extinct.”
African rhino as a whole are in need of our serious attention, and in fact a lot of good is being done. I think many will agree with me, today, that the white rhino will be saved when only 15 or 20 years ago we doubted this would be possible.
Perhaps it’s the desire for scandal, but the notion that the death of the San Diego rhino presages the death of all rhino is right up the ally of Fox News, or more to the point, its readers.
And once again, they’re wrong.
A prestigious group including Africa’s leading lion researcher, Craig Packer, claimed today in a report published with the National Academy of Sciences that lion populations will decline 50% in the next two decades.
I have already seen the decline in East Africa, most notably in Ngorongoro Crater. The report, by the way, claims that the adjacent Serengeti lion population remains healthy and is less likely to decline.
According to a summary by CBS News of the lengthy report, lions “are threatened by widespread habitat loss, depletions in available prey, preemptive killing to protect humans and their livestock along with poaching and poorly regulated sport hunting.”
The most serious decline will be in west and northern Africa, although as much as a third of the sub-Saharan lion population will decline. Sub-Saharan populations are healthier, according to the report, because of adequate protection in Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
The very interesting detail in the report as to what exactly explains southern African countries’ better protections has much to do with fenced-in private reserves, a situation which today is about all that is left for Asian tigers.
Although most of these fenced-in, private reserves are not zoos as such since they are large enough with enough variety of prey game that the lions do not need to be fed, disease and/or injuries are often treated.
The lions in virtually all these cases become very habituated to people. Unwittingly, similar situations can occur in completely unfenced and unmanaged reserves like Nairobi National Park when visitor populations grow unusually large.
Fenced-in reserves and too many visitors change the cats’ behaviors. They begin to tolerate one another more than natural, adapting to a confined if imposed territory. Fewer larger prides, of the sort we see today in Ngorongoro Crater, replace more smaller prides with a net overall decline in numbers.
This usually makes them more dangerous, at least in the initial phases of this recalibration of behavior.
I’ve often written of a similar situation occurring in East Africa with elephants.
It was hardly a decade ago that I would tell clients traveling in the dry season that on a typical ten-day safari they could expect to see more than 125 lion. (A wet season prediction was around 80.)
In my most recent safaris those numbers declined by a third.
In addition to the crater I’ve noticed obvious declines throughout central Tanzania, southern Kenya and the Mara.
It’s likely that part of the “health” of the Serengeti is due to Mara lions moving out of the congested Mara. The Mara and its border of private reserves is also then itself bordered by intense agricultural lands and growing numbers of small towns.
Seeing a tiger in a reserve today in Asia, or a lion in a private, fenced-in reserve in South Africa is in my opinion massively different from those observed in truly wild situations.
The fenced-in lion is usually healthier but not as strong, fatter and not as lean, seemingly more disinterested in everything and more likely to allow approach, or even to approach the observer.
“Saving lions” will not be difficult. There are already too many lions in zoos and euthanization is now regularly used for older and infirmed animals when in years past these animals would have been nursed to health or kept alive for their genes and research potential.
And as with captive lions in zoos, fenced-in lions do extremely well, positively responding to a reduction in their territory when offered an adequate food supply.
So lions will be around for a very long time.
But not necessarily as I would like to remember them.
Despite whatever pretenses we might employ for our own happiness, animals don’t share our consciousness. That doesn’t mean they might not have “animal emotions,” but since we aren’t elephants, whales or dogs, we’ll never fully understand what “animal emotions” are.
We’re limited to explaining things with our own language, with our own consciousness. A great hazard develops when we attempt to portray animal behavior in human terms. Anthropomorphizing results in more destruction to the planet and its biodiversity than any other human enterprise.
Katy Payne is one of the most creative and perceptive animal researchers of my life time, and her principal studies have been with elephants and whales.
She discovered that the low rumblings of elephant that we can all hear represent only 10%, in fact, of the vocalizations that are occurring, and that 90% of the vocalization is below our decibel level of hearing.
This, in turn, led to remarkable discoveries about elephant communication.
But in an interview aired on public radio this weekend, Payne’s science was eclipsed by her religious or spiritual beliefs and that, in kind, diminished her science by a huge helping of anthropomorphization.
“Whales, like people, are composers,” Ms. Payne told Krista Tippet on the Sunday NPR show OnBeing.
Fifteen years ago, in a passionate oped in the Washington Post in which Ms. Payne argued for increased protection of elephants, she wrote:
“Elephants’ experiences are, in short, collective, and the collectiveness of their experience colors their responses to everything. The collectiveness escalates and multiplies the trauma associated with losses, and in long-lived animals with long memories, such losses are not soon overcome. Elephants that survive poaching and culling may never fully recover from the repeated loss of what they once identified with and held dear.”
Whales are not human composers. Elephants do not experience human trauma.
I found the Sunday interview extremely enlightening, because it confirmed a long held belief that anthropomorphizing is a very religious or spiritual phenomenon, and that when science is mixed with religion or spiritual contemplation, things get messy.
That messiness is one of our highest challenges. Science is critical to our survival, but so is a spiritual orientation to our existence. Science can go just so far, at least so far. So for the time being anyway a spiritual foundation is critical in bridging the gap between science and what we don’t [yet?] know.
Ms. Payne deals with that challenge in one fell swoop by considering elephants as people. That shortcut is dangerous.
It’s particularly dangerous for elephants, because in the diminishing resources of our planet we have begun the painful exercise of deciding who gets what. If elephants are people, I can assure you that the honorable citizens of Texas, the aggrieved displaced persons of Kenya, and the young geniuses of the Mumbai slums will outrank the pachyderms exponentially.
But it’s also dangerous for people.
If our emotions are in some way limited – if only to the length of our waking lives – and if those emotions are consumed with empathizing with elephants rather than babies with malaria, more human babies will die.
This is no zero sum game. Our universe has categories of value, and they range from sea stones to lonely hearts. In my view they are all inextricably linked, but are not of equal value.
Understanding the linkage provides us with the necessary orientation for best conducting our survival. That begins with the understanding that our consciousness is primary. Humans are tops. Nothing in existence exceeds our human consciousness, including elephants, whales and your dog.
Yet our premiership may indeed be dependent upon sea stones, elephants, whales and the fantasies we have about Rover because, at least for now, we’re still molecular. I believe so.
Everything that exists is sacred. But not everything is human. Only we are human.
I appreciate all the work Ms. Payne has done to increase our understanding of elephants, but I worry that her conclusions which render the animal in human terms undermines her important work and endangers elephant survival.