Friday, September 24, 2010

Elephants

I read this interesting article the other day on the danger to lion populations in Tanzania that conservationists say come from the character of the existing hunting regime allowed in the country. It really captures, both in what it says and in the argument it leaves out, the dilemmas that people working in and thinking about conservation have to deal with. Demographics, ethology and policy all combine, although the level-headed argument alludes to none of the emotions that often run high when it comes to the killing of charismatic megafauna.

The elephant debate, now and historically, is much more emotionally charged. South African culls always spark moral outrage around the world, and much soul searching, particularly given the nature of many studies on elephants. Even the title of Gay Bradshaw's paper, 'Elephant Breakdown', suggests something more than merely animal. And indeed, the question is no longer simply one of people hunting elephants, but of human-elephant conflict. The anthropomorphisation of elephants, like the debates themselves, is nothing new. Scores of pre-colonial and colonial-era hunters described elephants in very human terms, fearing and admiring their cleverness in equal measure; crediting them with an all-too-human malice and tenderness. And indeed, I think that having observed elephants interacting with each other and people, it would be quite a challenge to regard them as 'simply' animals. Whatever that might mean.

At the level of policy, elephants have long bedevilled conservationists and governments in eastern Africa. Their ivory fuelled an historic trade between the coast (from Mozambique to Somalia) and the interior, a trade which took on global proportions once the tusks were exported to the Middle East, Asia and Europe. The colonial era heightened demand, introduced weapons capable of killing far more elephants in a shorter period of time, as well as a host of legislation that attempted to regulate the sale of ivory. Anyone who remembers Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness will recall the role of 'white gold' in fuelling European imperial ambitions. And yet the elephant quickly became more than a commodity, with the nascent preservation movement leading the charge against 'indiscriminate' hunting.

But there was a further angle. At the same time that the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire was lobbying the British Colonial Office, dispatching its members to investigate the illegal trade on the Kenya-Somaliland border, and convening conferences on the African Elephant, an Ugandan Game Warden, Charles Pitman, was creating Uganda's Elephant Control Department, which did more or less what the name suggests. Pitman, as a bridging figure who combined the man in the field with mud on his boots and the colonial bureaucrat working in an age of colonial development, was trying to work out how to kill the largest number of elephants possible (earning himself the sobriquet of 'The Elephant's Enemy' in the British press). Why? Expanding populations (human and elephant) brought the earth's largest terrestrial mammal into conflict with farmers (black and white) who were supposed to be the backbone of the colonial economy. And if you've seen the damage that elephants can do to whole forests, you won't wonder why people were a little jumpy about living next-door to animals that were liable to wipe out a season's crops in one night, and which occasionally flattened dwellings on the way to and from supper.

And it was this administrative imperative that helped to push along the idea of national parks in Africa, and which has historically vested them with such power. Unlike in the Americas, where landscapes have become the primary defining feature of national parks, African parks are and always have been most defined by their faunal inhabitants. Parks were a place where people and animals could ideally be kept far apart from each other (problematic when the areas selected for parks status were already inhabited by people). Thus, the emerging sensibilities that demanded the preservation of animals (which became transformed from 'game' into 'wildlife' could be accommodated alongside the anxieties of farmers who disparagingly referred to large, dangerous mammals as ng'ombe wa serikali (government cattle).

I don't know much about the scientific side of this work, but the 2007 'Assessment of South African Elephant Management' paper seems a very promising attempt at gaining a more rounded perspective on historical and moral questions inherent in conservation policy. Contributors to the assessment included UCT-historian Jane Carruthers (who writes about the foundation of the Kruger National Park), Oxford-based historian William Beinart (who has written widely about South African environments), and ESPM Berkeley professor Wayne Getz. The work of people like Getz and Justin Brashares at ESPM, to quote Brashares' webpage, 'extends beyond traditional ecology and conservation to consider the economic, political and cultural factors that drive, and in turn, are driven by, changes in wildlife abundance and diversity'.

It will be interesting to see whether policymakers and thinkers can manage to get on the same page, and to think, at the same time, about the moral, emotional arguments, and the technical as well as scientific ones.

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