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 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.

OnSafari: Elephant Endangerment

OnSafari: Elephant Endangerment

sheldrick.blogWe were among about 400 people at the Sheldrick elephant orphanage yesterday, and I carefully scanned the group noting only five non-white visitors.

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.

Steve Farrand and Caroline & Brian Barrett at Kazuri Beads.
Steve Farrand and Caroline & Brian Barrett at Kazuri Beads.

Lion Futures

Lion Futures

EwasoLionsTeam2015A ranger’s report filed yesterday from northern Kenya explains so perfectly why lions in the wild may quickly becoming a thing of the past.

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.

Time for Odd Bedfellows?

Time for Odd Bedfellows?

oddbedfellowsHey, conservationists! How about big game trophy hunting to protect national wilderness areas? And will you put your money where mouth is?

Africa’s asking.

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.

Fact 2: Also for the last several years, photography tourism – the main support of African wildlife reserves – has declined while big game hunting has increased.

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?

Not Seeing Eye to Eye

Not Seeing Eye to Eye

Elephant eye by Bill Banzhaf.
Elephant eye by Bill Banzhaf.
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.

NatGeo, Born Free, the Conservation Action Trust, and numerous other nonzoo affiliated conservation organizations are either mildly or solidly against the deal.

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?

Rhino Requiem? Not yet

Rhino Requiem? Not yet

rhinossurviveScience is not a Fox News forte, and they shouldn’t have tried to report this weekend’s death of Nola, the rhino in San Diego.

“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.

Their difference is slightly taxonomic, but in 2010 several scientists delved into the DNA and concluded NWR was a sub-species. But many scientists then and now vigorously disagree.

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.

Lesser Lions

Lesser Lions

lion under sign NNPLike tigers, truly wild lions in Africa may becoming a thing of the past.

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.

Rihandling Elephants

Rihandling Elephants

rihanaelephantHere’s a flash: elephants aren’t capable of human emotions. Neither are whales. Or your dog.

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.

The Man is Back

The Man is Back

richardleakeybackRichard Leakey is back. Not as the paleontologist. Not as the politician. As head of Kenya’s Wildlife Service. Window dressing at its finest!

Leakey is a very enigmatic character. I immediately disliked him during our first meeting in the late 80s when he was flying high as the architect and czar of the movement that was successfully stopping elephant poaching.

His accomplishments were many and a few years later he would demonstrate some exceptional personal courage when he was nearly assassinated while trying to develop a progressive political party in a country that at the time was being run by an iron-fisted dictator.

But he has had a lot of missteps in a variegated career that spanned science, wildlife administration and raw politics.

That’s his critical flaw: doing too many things, so doing nothing exceptionally.

Last month Kenya’s president, Uhuru Kenyatta, appointed Leakey “Chairman” of the service that he founded almost 30 years ago, the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The position is similar to the chairman of the board of a corporation, so technically Leakey is not supposed to be involved in the actual running of the now massive organization. Local observers, however, think he might have more proactive inclinations.

Nearly fifteen years ago London’s Guardian newspaper asked if “there is any more fight” left in Richard Leakey? Leakey was certainly in the nadir of his many careers then. He was never charismatic like his father, but his public persona had just taken a whipping when he mysteriously resigned from the head of a “dream team” America helped create in Kenya to battle corruption.

His health is reported even worse than when I last met him at the Field Museum in Chicago on the anniversary of his father’s 100th birthday in 2003. Then, he seemed hardly able to talk.

I think Kenyatta appointed Leakey, so soon after a stream of American celebs including Kerry and Clinton visited Kenya, to reconnect with America and the west. Leakey, and his father Louis, are adored in western circles where they had extraordinary success fund raising.

Kenya is in a bit of a slump right now. The vicissitudes of Americans not understanding the ebola situation, the recession in Europe from which the bulk of Kenyan tourists have always come, and the lingering worries about terrorism following the country’s invasion of Somali four years ago have all combined to really challenge an otherwise dynamic economy.

Kenya Airways, which I think is one of the finest if not the finest airline in Africa, came under government scrutiny today for losing more than $100 million dollars last year at a time when most global airlines were making tons of cash.

Relying more and more on outside foreign aid, particularly because of the Somali invasion, Kenya’s internal engines are sputtering and Kenyatta recognizes that only foreign investment will reverse this.

IBM, for example, has yet to fully fund a major Kenyan investment that it announced in 2012.

In my opinion none of this heralds any real crisis but simply demonstrates how susceptible a young emerging nation is to western fears.

“Poaching” is a topic that still commands American attentions. Africans understand much better than westerners that there really isn’t an elephant poaching crisis right now. But westerner’s insatiable need for crisis has narrated a different story, and Leakey is still known as the pivotal character that stopped the real elephant poaching of the 1980s.

Savvy President Kenyatta understands he has to now stroke American psyches. Appointing Leakey is part of this strategy.

Endangered But Thriving

Endangered But Thriving

animalsVSdevelopAlthough the numbers of wild animals seen by a typical tourist on safari has grown substantially during my career, the fact is that wild animals in Africa are in a serious decline.

Lion, black rhino, giraffe and elephant are far more numerous in wild reserves than when I began guiding in the 1970s. I believe, for instance, there are too many elephant. Dramatic encounters with all these animals all are more frequent, today, making a safari that much more exciting.

But overall black rhino is near extinction, lion and giraffe have declined by as much as a third, and there is great controversy over whether elephant are threatened.

This may seem like a contradiction, but it isn’t at all.

Parks and reserves in Africa have received more and more efficient protection, especially in the last three to four decades, precisely because tourism brought in large amounts of foreign currency. As tourism grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s, tourist services provided more and more jobs and many tertiary economic benefits to the local communities.

This added protection allowed animals to prosper in ways they couldn’t previously.

Efforts mostly in southern but also in eastern Africa stemmed wild animal disease (bovine sleeping sickness, hoof-and-mouth disease, mange, etc.) often by removing infected wild animals from the population or [in the case of mange] actually treating wild animals.

Intervention in the wild, of the sort which was used to eliminate mange from cheetahs in the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem, is very rare, but significant. A similar effort is ongoing to protect mountain gorillas from measles.

The great veterinary fence constructed in Botswana in the 1980s essentially to reduce hoof-and-mouth disease in the domestic beef industry had obvious effects with the wild animals as well.

While wild animal intervention has been rare, intervention in restoration of threatened habitats has been aggressive. This has included simple routines of burning tall grass to construction of bore holes (wells) to provide constant water.

In populations tending to be inbred, expensive operations to relocate wild animals increased the genetic biodiversity and thus the health of wild animals.

All of the above has led to much healthier and more robust protected areas with strong wild animal populations.

But the story is much different outside these protected areas.

Africa has grown substantially in the last half century, and agricultural needs in particular get the very highest priority. In the past edges of protected wild areas were fluid and poorly determined. Often hunting reserves rounded the perimeter of a national park and the perimeter of the hunting reserve was often unpopulated bush.

That’s no longer the case. As Africa’s populations and industries increase there is a clearer and more exact delineation between the protected parks and reserves and developed areas.

The borders of Arusha National Park are literally farms for maize and beef. There is nothing but a hedge which separates portions of them.

Watermelon and maize farms are cultivated to the very edges of the very wild Tarangire National Park.

Exploding gated housing developments now border important sections of the Mt. Kenya National Park, which is still home to a variety of wild animals.

In the non-reserve and non-park areas wild animals are considered vermin, especially by farmers. So not only is the habitat tensely contained, but leaving the habitat is near certain death.

The overall average of the relatively small amount of protected reserves and parks (under 8%) and the larger wilderness slowly being developed results in the overall decline in wild animal populations.

So yes, “the wild” is contracting considerably even as we successfully make richer and more fulsome the biosphere within that which remains.

OnSafari: Elephant Hysteria

OnSafari: Elephant Hysteria

woolycircusElephant hysteria has reached a new high, and I left Botswana amazed at how dangerously unorganized elephant protection is.

The almighty and by this writer much revered CITES seems wobbling. African research organizations nip at each rather than cooperate to gather much needed facts. Positive moves in China get ignored so the country can be bashed still again. Meaningless grandstanding gets the headlines.

And so, we clone a wooly mammoth?

I’m not kidding. Within four years we’re going to have a live wooly mammoth, with DNA from a permafrosted 3300 year-old baby slipped into the DNA of a healthy modern elephant by Harvard researchers.

Zimbabwe is among the best places to traffic ivory, and now even live elephants. In blatant disregard of CITES, Zimbabwe is sending 34 baby elephants to Asia and Arabia.

The outcry was formidable, but not a single country in CITES asked that the treaty enforcement provisions be applied to Zimbabwe.

It’s a circus, folks. At least for three more years. That’s when Ringling Brothers has announced they will discontinue using elephants. Jump to hashtag #3YrsTooLong.

What you have is a mess. Nobody really knows how much poaching is going on. The reported figures are so disparate as to be laughable.

The once respectable Save The Elephant Fund issued a critical news release claiming that 50,000 elephant were poached annually, while the also once respectable National Geographic said 25,000.

Think one of them’s wrong? Or both?

We have no idea how many elephant are being poached, for the same reason that we have no idea how many elephant there are. African government wildlife agencies don’t undertake counts or can’t be trusted, and not-for-profit wildlife NGOs refuse to cooperate because it might jeopardize their fund raising.

One of the most respected government wildlife agencies, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, sacked five top officials last year for involvement in the ivory trade. Hardly a day after one of Kenya’s most notorious wildlife traffickers was arrested on an Interpol warrant, the man jumped bail.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Government – probably among the top conduits for illegal ivory – won headlines worldwide for burning ivory and proclaiming a “Zero Tolerance” for wildlife poaching. But no journalist noticed that the entire top of the pyre was actual carved ivory sculptures and trinkets. Ivory isn’t carved until it gets to Asia. Where did that come from?

You confused? Join the pack.

His Excellency the honorable Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, told a conference in Botswana last week that any elephant problem that exists doesn’t come from Botswana elephants, but “ensues from elephants that migrate from neighboring countries,” which – he then deduced for us – means that those countries have serious problems.

We just finished a successful safari in Botswana, and we didn’t see all that many elephants, but I’m told more elephants exist in Botswana than anywhere else on earth.

Do I believe that?

Jim filed this from Arusha, Tanzania.

Bad Bloomberg Bit

Bad Bloomberg Bit

rhinoFive years ago I suggested the only way to save the northern white rhino was “DNA deep-freeze.” This week scientists agreed and Bloomberg confused the world.

The media was abuzz this week with reports that the remaining five “northern white rhino” in existence might now be saved by invitro fertilization, a report widely circulated by Bloomberg News.

If only the world had disseminated Nairobi’s Daily Nation report

“Past attempts at artificial insemination of northern white rhinos… have failed… Stores of frozen sperm and eggs could be used to revive the animal [in the future] artificially, but ….the northern white rhino will likely disappear, at least for a while.”

Let’s try to parse the facts. Stick with me.

The first is that many of the repeats of the Bloomberg Bit were so short and so incomplete that people started to think the news was about all rhino:

We aren’t discussing all the critically endangered rhino in general, which definitely includes at least five gene-separated anatomical cousins:

There are about 5000 black rhino (Diceros bicornis) left in the world. Very few are actually wild. Numbers are hard to come by, but probably less than 500. The others are mostly in private protected sanctuaries and reserves in sub-Saharan Africa and in zoos.

There are over 20,000 white rhino (Ceratotherium simum) mostly in heavily protected wilderness in southern Africa like the completely fenced-in Umfolozi-Hluhluwe national parks in South Africa, or in private reserves and sanctuaries and zoos. Like the black rhino very few actually live in the wild or unfenced national parks.

More critically endangered are the remaining three species, all of which live in near fortress protected sanctuaries: 44 Javan Rhino (Rhinoceros sondaicus) found only in Indonesia’s Ujung Kulon National Park; less than 100 Sumatran Rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in disconnected wildernesses in Indonesia; and the 3300 Greater One-horned Rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) found in eastern India and Nepal.

My first trek with this week’s media blitz was that many publications didn’t make the differentiation above and the suggestion hung out there that only a half dozen rhinos were left in the world.

This story is not about all rhino but about a possible subspecies of one of the five species of rhino: the “northern” white rhino (ceratotherium simum cottoni).

By the way some scientists do want to call this animal a separate sixth species, rather than a subspecies, for the astoundingly absurd reason that this animal might soon go extinct.

So whether this animal is actually the 6th species of what we commonly refer to as “rhino” or whether it is a subspecies (ceratotherium simum cottoni) of the white rhino (Ceratotherium simum), it is anatomically different enough that its loss would be another extinction catastrophe.

In 2009 four of the remaining 8 still alive in the world were shipped to Kenya from a Czech zoo, and I was critical of that. At the time, two remained in that Czech zoo and two in San Diego’s Wild Animal Park. One animal has died since in both those places, leaving the four sent to Kenya, one in the Czech Republic and one in California.

I was critical at the time because I felt there was so much poaching in Kenya that it was a death sentence. Wildlife managers obviated that by cutting off their horns, a very controversial strategy that had not been announced prior to the relocation.

I understand why dehorning wasn’t announced at the time, since it’s extremely controversial. Particularly in Zimbabwe dehorned rhinos contracted massive infections that often killed them, and when they survived, the horn often grew back. There hasn’t really been sufficient time in the last five years for a large enough horn to grow back on the ones dehorned in Kenya.

So for the moment we can recognize the strategy as being successful.

The reason for the risky move to Kenya was the hope the rhinos would breed once they were in a more natural habitat. Many of us knew they wouldn’t. Rhinos held in captivity for long periods of time don’t breed no matter where they’re moved. (Wild rhinos relocated into large wild reserves like Lewa Downs in Kenya are another matter, and often then breed well at least at first.)

These relocated rhino had been in a less than stellar zoo for decades.

They haven’t bred in Kenya.

In vitro fertilization was tried and hasn’t worked, either. Bloomberg News got it wrong:
“A Kenyan wildlife conservancy said it’s considering using in-vitro fertilization to try and save the northern white rhino from extinction, after an attempt to get them to breed naturally failed.”

BBC – as usual – got it right:
“The eggs will be stored with a view to being used for IVF in the future.”

Bloomberg and thousands of outlets re-reporting them suggested a simple dairy cow procedure. It’s been tried and it’s failed. So the only hope now, as I suggested 5 years ago, is the “DNA-deep freeze” where eggs, sperm, and embryos from combined eggs and sperm, are all frozen until scientists can figure out how to take these to the next level, a fetus.

In vitro fertilization doesn’t work with these animals possibly because there’s a physiology that’s reflected in their lack of interest to mate, a chemical if you will prevention not of fertilization but of subsequent pregnancy.

The bad Bloomberg bit disseminated round the world generates very long and often boring explanations like this. Does that move learning forward? Which really helps the rhino? Which helps Bloomberg?