Wild Intervention

Wild Intervention

The Cleveland Zoo supports an important elephant researcher in Tarangire, Charles Foley, and we visited him in his camp in Tarangire.

Foley is an independent researcher who has worked in Tarangire for 16 years. He is among a handful of north-of-southern-Africa researchers with an impressive knowledge of how elephants effect and interact with their ecosystem.

In southern Africa there are more, and more organized and interacting, animal researchers, but in our dear East Africa it’s still pretty much a free-for-all. There are a number of often competing big name research organizations like AWF and WWF that vie for funding. The advantage of more cooperation would probably result in a better efficiency of research funding.

But at the same time this independent spirit has – I believe – contributed to the noninterventionist philosophy that I personally embrace. There is a more homogenous attitude towards the wild in the south, and it often revolves around “carrying capacity” notions of managing the wild.

But here in the east, there is strong support for noninterventionism.

During our visit Foley once again expressed his own view of not intervening in the wild. He spoke about the current drought and past droughts as cycles that will ultimately correct themselves without any interference.

Much of this comes from his Ph.D research that identified elephant populations that were old enough to transmit how to survive in a drought to their offspring. And those that survived, of course, would prosper in the subsequent populations and be better able to survive the next drought as well.

While Foley and I seem to embrace the same general hands-off attitude to the wild, there is a contradiction that appears when he discusses one of his current projects.

Foley is working hard to organize the communities just east of Tarangire to allow for animal migrations to and fro from the park. He has determined that the grasslands east of the park are actually more nutritious for most animal populations, but that the reason they must gravitate to the park especially in the dry season is because of the Tarangire sand river and important minerals that aren’t found to the east.

His projects pay the Maasai communities for not developing the land east of the park, and for allowing the animals to seasonally roam on them (as they have done naturally for generations). As with many Community Based Tourism (CBT) projects throughout East Africa, he is arguing that the community’s wild land can be as profitable by not developing agriculture as by doing so. Instead of getting money for your potatoes at the market, you get money from the tourists who want to photograph wild animals.

Well and good. I have often written about CBT projects, and everything we can do to support this I believe is the right thing to do.

But it abuts the noninterventionist philosophy.

Take the current situation in Amboseli, for example, where a savage drought has seen as much as 90% of the resident elephant population leave. (This according to researchers in the Cynthia Moss camp, there, speaking to participants on my July safari. Click here for Moss’ own account. )

Moss is appealing for funds to set up more research camps and assist further with anti-poaching activities. Some would argue this is interventionism.

But there can be no question that what Kenya’s Wildlife Service is now doing is interventionism: KWS feels it must counter the effect of the drought. Click here for current details.

Without reaction of the sort KWS is now employing to a crisis situation, a drought could decimate animal populations, and possibly for a long time. Ergo, no tourists or tourist revenue for anything, much less a project to increase dispersal areas.

The cycle underpinning Foley’s CBT project in eastern Tarangire is that hoteliers in the park will pay Maasai outside the park to support the animal population in the park that draws tourists. But the absence of a dispersal area is no greater a threat to healthy animal populations than a drought.

One circumstance is wholly natural, the other less so. But making this distinction as to when interventionism is justified is a daunting task, and possible only if you believe that the weather is more capricious than development schemes for the Maasai.