#9 – People Come First

#9 – People Come First

Top photo by Stephen Farrand.
Top photo by Stephen Farrand.
There’s a lot similar between poaching in Africa and robbing 7-11’s in Baltimore.

Poaching and other animal/human conflicts is my #9 most important story in Africa for 2015, because that’s exactly how I’ve always viewed poaching: a human/animal conflict.

Fanatics who give elephants souls and would save a meerkat before a Maasai are finally falling out of favor: Their hyperbolic, inflammatory arguments are fortunately being replaced by science.

But first the news.

Overall, 2015 was not good for African big game, although the Paul Allen elephant census injected some sanity into the elephant hysteria and showed us it isn’t as bad for elephants as many suggested.

For other headliners like rhino and lion, the numbers were grim. Even for the great herds and other ungulates several years of serious climate change seems to be taking its toll.

Until now I’ve taken great pleasure in telling a prospective client that despite all the news about Africa’s declining wilderness and game, that there are three times as many wild animals in Africa compared to when I started in the 1970s.

With such a span of time that may still be true, but telescoping down to just a few year increments, 2015 was definitely worse than 2014 which barely held onto 2013. In fact until around 2010, animal populations (with the exception of elephant and lion) were increasing. Now, it seems the increases have stopped or started to reverse.

What’s happening?

Charlatans would have you believe it’s poaching, and that poaching is evil incarnate.

Much of it is due to poaching. But as I’ve often written, the only evil incarnate may be with the end consumer. If you had any sympathy with Senn Penn’s interview with El Chapo, or understand the social progressive notion that crime is survival, it’s the facilitator – the user, the end consumer – who should be held culpable.

This is especially true at the periphery of wilderness in Africa. These are usually the most rural areas of the continent, yet still heavily populated with people who need food and water and other basic tools for survival.

When development slows or stops, when unexpected and radical climate change repeatedly devastates a rural area, peasants devolve into what those more fortunate than them call criminal behavior.

It’s only criminal if you can survive without doing it.

Lions are being hit very, very hard, because like all carnivores on the periphery of wilderness in developing areas, they eat meat. No bylaws govern their consumption. A cow doesn’t run as fast as a wildebeest.

Lion also suffer from increasing eminent domain. The wilderness is shrinking because Africa is developing. The first animals to suffer from shrinking territory are those that are territorial like lion.

Rhino poaching has morphed from individual kills by desperate folk to organized farms. But while there are a couple areas [only] where rhino are holding their own in the wild, on the whole they’ve been absent from the real wilderness for several decades. (They are doing well in fenced and other protected areas.)

Elephant have been decimated in central Tanzania … by poaching. (Elsewhere, they’re doing OK, thank you.) There’s probably no better example on the whole continent of human/animal conflict, because where the poaching is now (The Selous) is only 50-80 miles from a city of ten million people (Dar-es-Salaam).

Farmers in the west want to shoot wolves because they eat sheep. I wouldn’t dare suggest that a rancher in Morogoro lives a life similar to an American farmer’s, but a comparison still holds true in a relative way: both farmers argue the animal threatens their livelihood, or at least their way of life.

We are much less arrogant refuting the U.S. ranchers’ claim than the Tanzanian’s: it’s unlikely the U.S. rancher and his children will die if they are prevented from shooting wolves. It’s much less certain that the rancher in Morogoro and his family won’t die if he can’t raise his sheep. His next step is poaching.

People and animals, the whole environment are intricately connected. Ignorance may be an excuse but those of us who are not ignorant must be stewards of the less fortunate folks.

But … people come first.

(For my summary of all the top 10 stories in Africa in 2015, click here.)