Monday, January 30, 2012

Agonising over Ivory

When I was at my parents’ house in northern California over Christmastime, I was up early enough one morning to see a good-sized coyote trot by the window, just ten yards from the house.  After checking to see that our elderly, deaf, and more-than-a-little shaky dog was snoozing inside, we watched its progress through the trees in silence until something caught its attention and it bounded away into the dark of the wood. 

As my mother and I marvelled at our good fortune, we both voiced the thought that our first instinct had been to wonder whether the animal—larger than any coyote I’d seen in years—could be the wolf that was widely-reported to have struck out from Idaho and made its way into northern California.  The animal in question is a lone male, and given its trajectory when I last saw mention of its incursion, appeared to be heading back to Idaho.  But the possibility of the return of the wolf to California sparked instant and emotional debate, with conservationists and the San Francisco Chronicle enthusiastically endorsing the return of a top predator while ranchers and anti-big government Tea Partiers (yeah, I don’t see the connection there either...) declared that they would shoot any wolf they could find. 

The momentary celebrity of the unwitting canine, probably in search of a mate, took me back to an article in the August edition of Vanity Fair.  It had all the makings of a Hollywood Blockbuster.  ‘Traditional’ people, who “revere” their wildlife and “regarded them as almost human”; ethnic violence, drought, Chinese traders (bad guys); American and European conservationists (good guys); evocative scenery...   

Alex Shoumatoff’s “Agony and Ivory”, will undoubtedly further raise the profile of the plight of Africa’s elephants (already higher than that of the over ten million people facing starvation in north-eastern Africa).  Accompanied by two beautiful slideshows (here and here), the story, in its own words, involves elephants: “highly emotional and completely guileless, [they] mourn their dead—and across Africa, they are grieving daily as demand from China’s ‘suddenly wealthy’ has driven the price of ivory to $700 a pound or more.  With tens of thousands of elephants being slaughtered each year for their tusks, raising the spectre of an ‘extinction vortex’, Alex Shoumatoff travels from Kenya to Seattle to Guangzhou, China, to expose those who are guilty in the massacre—and recognize those who are determined to stop it”. 

And with all that gallivanting about, it’s no wonder that Shoumatoff didn’t have time to learn much about the local histories of hunting, poaching and preservation in East Africa’s national parks and reserves.  These histories are always the first to be sacrificed when telling one of these globally-interconnected stories of intrigue, in which authors identify such clear-cut moral lines. 

I really don’t mean to be flippant.  Because in spite of the unsentimental approach that I try to take to researching the politics behind wildlife policy in East Africa, when looking at the politics behind National Parks, energy use, open space and public lands in the United States, I’m probably a preservationist by sentiment myself.  Yes, the idea of nature is a cultural construct.  But it’s a construct that I like and value.  But liking nature or enjoying wildlife doesn’t oblige us to suspend the use of our critical faculties.   

Whenever I’ve seen elephants moving about in their habitats, interacting with one another and the people around them, I cannot fail to be moved.  More easily than with most animals, it is possible to read into their behaviour emotions, sentiments, actions and thoughts which we tend to think of being the sole preserve of humans.  Even during the nineteenth century, in the years before animal welfarism became common, European hunters remarked on the animals’ intelligence and dignity, frequently remarking on how much it pained them to fire the fatal bullet (never, it seemed, enough to prevent them), and as early as the 1920s, Elephant Control Officers in Uganda recognised the need to identify the habits of individual herds and to study the characteristics of ‘problem animals’ so as to be able to induce them to correct their aberrant behaviour (usually raiding crops or harassing villages). 

But because, as Shoumatoff goes to such pains to point out, elephants are such complicated, dynamic and sentient-seeming creatures, there are histories written into their behaviours.  So when elephants in Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania appear skittish and aggressive (and let me tell you, a skittish and aggressive elephant is a scary, scary thing), it’s because most of the adult elephants carry memories of a time when the park was heavily poached.  Some zoologists began arguing in the 1960s and ‘70s that elephant behaviour switched on and off in response to poaching threats relatively quickly (in the space of just a few years, perhaps, see F V Osborn, unpublished dissertation 1998, 114), but others argue that the affects are much more long-term.  In addition to the widely cited article by Bradshaw, et al, Eve Lawino Abe argued in the early ‘90s that in Uganda, poaching “adversely affect[ed] the age at first reproduction, intercalving periods and calf survival” (Abe, unpublished dissertation, 9). 

And this shift in the scientific view of how we need to understand elephants has strong cultural overtones.  The men (yes, they were all men) who staffed the early Elephant Control, Game and National Parks Departments in East Africa did not approach the Elephant dilemma through the emotional, moral framework that characterises our own engagement (one of my favourite National Geographic articles).  I’ve been told that when South Africa decided to re-open the culling of its elephants (an illustration of the problem of global regulation when conditions vary so greatly with geography), the U.S. Embassy in that country dedicated one staff-member solely to answering switchboards and responding to the letters and e-mails that flocked in from an outraged American public (one which was clearly unaware of Elk culling in the Rocky Mountain National Park, or of the fact that Yellowstone was only saved from ecological annihilation by the mass culling of Elk). 

In the 1920s and ‘30s, through the 1950s and ‘60s, the individuals who were charged with managing and studying East Africa’s elephants did so dispassionately, often ordering the destruction of thousands of animals to restore ecological ‘equilibrium’, for study purposes, and to protect croplands. 

Shoumatoff gives us the oft-repeated but never (to my knowledge)-substantiated line about corruption in wildlife services departments through MIKE (Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants) and “rangers and top officials”.  I would be fully prepared to credit official involvement in the trade, but neither Shoumatoff nor anyone else who makes the claim backs it up, and so the accusation that isn’t quite an accusation has just become another tool in the preservationists’ box. 

“Obviously, no ivory should be sold, legally or illegally.  It has to be taken off the table completely.  You can’t keep feeding the demand and providing incentives to poor Africans to continue killing their elephants.  That—and educating the Chinese—is the only hope for the remaining ones in the wild.  All of Africa needs to follow the lead of Kenya, which burned its ivory stock in 1989”.  This blanket prescription ignores the complications that a global regime of commodity regulations raises.  Southern African countries, faced with what they define as an ecological-surfeit of elephants, have repeatedly pushed in the past few decades, for the legalisation of some trade on the grounds that they are forced to waste a potentially-valuable source of revenue when they periodically cull elephants.  East African countries, whose elephant populations are widely assumed to be more fragile, are horrified at the thought. 

The arrogance inherent in the orders which flow southwards between hemispheres is breathtaking, as is the assumption that this is a one-way conversation.  There is a heartbreaking scene in the excellent film Milking the Rhino (about conservationist dilemmas in Kenya and Namibia) in which a local, elderly woman on the Marienfluss Conservancy in Namibia is informed that her task is to sit in the dust all day making trinkets for tourists who pick at her and take her picture as though she were in a zoo. 

And amidst all of the killing, there are warnings of compression—which is what occurs when, because of external pressure (poaching, boundary fences) elephants or other animals are forced into an increasingly small space—which could lead elephants to exceed local carrying capacity.  In the 1960s and early ‘70s, Kenyan parks culled elephants.  It’s not pretty, and descriptions of the culls are truly horrifying, but the mass starvation of elephants and the wholesale destruction of their habitat wouldn’t be particularly nice to see either. 

What I really don’t want to end with is that phrase often considered to be the historian’s cop-out: “It’s complicated”.  But it is, and while that shouldn’t be the end of the debate, perhaps that complicatedness should serve as a warning to people who like morally simplistic narratives. 

We should be wary of pigeonholing the interactions of people (in this case the Maasai) with their wildlife based on easy, sweeping generalisations.  The attitude of Maasai towards wildlife, within the past 120 years at least, has been largely contingent on other factors: how much and what kind of wildlife do they share space with, what kind of access do they have to wildlife resources, what are their own economic options, and what are their relationships with different levels of government.  Maasai (at the risk of condensing quite a diverse group of people), in other words, are a people with history, not a ‘traditional society’ floating in some bubble only recently punctured by the advent of ‘modern life’.  If we don’t understand this, we will not be able to understand people’s actions and have an honest conversation about different points of view. 

We should think critically before endorsing solutions like a CITES ban which operate at a global level.  The discontent such a ban can foster might arguably offset the short-term benefits.  We should also try to understand conservation debates within the larger social, political, economic and historical frameworks of nations and regions.  I daresay a lot of the northwestern public could tell you something about their take on conservation matters in Africa.  Not many of them could describe the politics of a recent election in any country, tell you anything about the history of wildlife preservation, or describe the post-independence social and economic trajectories of African nations. 

This is oft-said, but when debates about conservation provoke raw emotion in our own countries (think wolves in Idaho and Montana—and maybe soon in California, bears in regions of the northern U.S. and Canada), we should be more understanding when people in others might not share supposedly-universal values about the intrinsic worth of nature and animals.

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