Thursday, June 20, 2013

Something New Under the African Sun?: On the Continent's Poaching Crisis

The large-scale killing of Africa’s charismatic megafauna has been back in the news of late.  Whether it’s Jeffrey Gettleman’s reporting in the New York Times, articles in Vanity Fair, National Geographic specials, or two recent articles in the Guardian, conservationists are issuing a cry of frustration, and spinning a doomsday story about the fate of African wildlife.

Elephants are the most charismatic mammals in many African parks
Laurence Caramel wrote on 18 June in the Guardian that “the massacre of elephants has gone beyond being a problem for animal rights activists.  It now concerns international institutions and governments at the highest level because it is perceived as a threat to political and economic stability in central Africa”.  This article follows on the heels of another which focussed on the plight of beleaguered wildlife officers in Zambia, who David Smith described as “underpaid, ill-equipped and outnumbered” in their “one-sided war against vicious gangs of poachers.  Hundreds”, he goes on, “have been murdered in the defence of endangered wildlife, and their deaths leave their own families in jeopardy”. 

The so-called “thin green line”—referring to those who wage Africa’s “wildlife wars” on behalf of governments and NGOs—is nothing if not fragile, and wildlife officers find themselves in the position of troops sent off to wage war without having been equipped for battle.  But it remains unclear whether that line stands between poachers and the wholesale annihilation of a continent’s wildlife, or between fractured communities and more balanced access to what many people on the continent see as a natural—and national, rather than international—resource. 

They are thought to number 120,000 in Botswana's Chobe National Park
When wolves came back to the western United States, ranchers, conservationists, politicians, and grassroots environmentalists engaged in an intense debate about how these animals would fit into the political economy of a region which prides itself on caring for wilderness, but also on maintaining a libertarian, contrarian political streak, and on profitable ranching.  Similar debates break out with some regularity in western European countries about the place of wolves and bears in democratic countries wherein urban environmentalists and rural landowners possess markedly different sensibilities about “nature” and “wildlife”.  The character of reporting on the wildlife debates in Africa tends to leave little space for such complication, demonstrating the extent to which the continent’s fauna has been internationalised by global conservationists and abstracted from African regions’ and nations’ political economies. 

It was thus interesting to read Caramel’s Guardian article which alludes to the current centrality of the wildlife problem to the continent’s political economy without acknowledging either the intricacy of the picture or its historical antecedents.  Conservationists have a tradition of predicting the apocalyptic destruction of wildlife in Africa.  Sometimes their call to arms has averted real damage being done to wildlife populations, but in other cases it remained unclear how real the threat was, whether the array of bloody statistics hurled at a global audience was accurate, and what kind of biological, ecological, or cultural sensibilities were underpinning the claims.

Heavy browsers, elephants like these in the Serengeti can do great damage to woodland
The foremost claim made around each of the poaching crises is that the killing of animals—very often elephants—is being done on an unprecedented scale, that we are, in other words, dealing with something new under the sun.  But the very fact that this claim has been made over and over again—in the hallowed halls of the British Foreign Office in the final days of the nineteenth century; in Kenya in the 1950s; across East Africa in the 1970s; during Kenya’s ivory wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s; and again now, for the entire continent—suggests that ivory and wildlife have always been central to regional political economies.

Caramel cites the African Development Bank’s claim that wildlife trafficking “fuels organised crime and corruption, and compromises regional security”.  This was the case for decades during the first half of the twentieth century in Kenya’s northern frontier province, as the colonial government saw its authority frustrated by the durability of old trading networks with Somalia and Yemen.

Caramel reports that the UN secretary general cited “links between poaching and the ‘criminal or even terrorist networks threatening the stability of central Africa’”.  The capacity of the ivory trade to play this role would certainly not surprise anyone in southern Africa, where during the 1970s and ‘80s the apartheid government of South Africa funded its open wars and terroristic attacks on its neighbours at least in part through plundering those countries’ ivory resources. 

The Zulu Empire’s early nineteenth century expansion was driven in part by a desire to tap the ivory trade centred at Delagoa Bay.  Readers of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost will recollect how Europe’s violent nineteenth century plundering of Africa was linked to the export of ivory from the Congo Basin via system of forced labour of such brutality that its exposure shocked—only temporarily, of course—the conscience of many Europeans.

In Chobe, much of the terrain looks like this thanks to high elephant numbers
Missionaries in nineteenth century Africa theorised on the place of ivory in the moral economy that they envisioned for the continent they helped to colonise, and concluded that the presence of wildlife exerted a deleterious influence on the “primitive” peoples they hoped to uplift, leading them to sympathise with those who were hunting elephants en masse. 

Official involvement in the ivory trade is nothing new either.  The Kenyatta family stands accused of having profited from poaching networks in the 1970s, Idi Amin and his generals enriched themselves by emptying Uganda’s national parks of wildlife, and some colonial officials themselves suborned the laws they were charged with upholding for personal profit.

Nor has wildlife been separated from the neoliberal world economy.  Beginning in the 1960s, the World Bank took a keen interest in developing a tourism sector which depended on protecting access to natural resources from some people whilst allowing others to exploit the same. 

The violence of poachers is real, but the escalation noted by Caramel and documented by Smith is at least in part a product of decisions by global conservation organisations and client governments to wage “war” on poachers, using methods of questionable morality, legality, and efficiency.  The policing of game reserves and parks was always a violent and coercive activity, but it became more scientifically so in Tsavo in the 1950s and ‘60s, the anti-poaching field force there armed and funded by wildlife preservation organisations and neoliberal economic bodies, and staffed by men who helped to wage Britain’s savage war against anti-colonial resistance.

Today, I perused a file which documented the role that illicit hunting played in the provision of food for Zambia’s copperbelt during the 1950s.  The colonial government which governed the territory as Northern Rhodesia until 1964 depended on a massive force of workers to labour on the mines, and yet simultaneously sought to suppress the traffic in meat which made the provisioning of that labour possible. 

And the history of Africa’s national parks illustrates how apocalypse has given way to Malthusian crises with predictable regularity.  Poaching crises and the militant responses they elicited were generally followed by catastrophic ecological damage to parks’ ecosystems, meaning that in some of Africa’s most famous parks—Murchison Falls and Queen Elizabeth in Uganda, Tsavo in Kenya, South Luangwa in Zambia, and Kruger in South Africa—the very people who passed one decade gunning for poachers spent the next culling elephants in startlingly large numbers.

Today, the Chobe National Park in Botswana offers a snapshot as to why the picture is considerably more complicated than some commentators would have us believe.  Populations of elephants across Africa stand threatened by poachers—although more level-headed conservationists have suggested that in the long-term it is not poachers but rather land use which threatens African wildlife most—but in places like Chobe, tens of thousands of elephants are in the process of sowing their own destruction.  As in Tsavo, Murchison, and South Luangwa before them, dense elephant populations browse too heavily, destroying forests, creating bush, changing the carrying capacity of the land in a way which threatens other animal populations, and strain at parks’ seams, thereby often provoking conflict with hitherto unconcerned human settlements at the parks’ peripheries.

In other places (Queen Elizabeth National Park) elephants and humans live in close proximity, meaning that there is potential for conflict
Chobe is undergoing a massive environmental transformation, and although the elephants are the agents, they are acting at the direction of a man-made management philosophy which works on a crisis-to-crisis basis and is driven more by emotional outbursts than by any philosophical pondering of the dilemmas posed by poaching and culling, or by an ecological evaluation of the causes and consequences of management regimes.

People on the ground—wildlife officers, scientists, conservationists, farmers, hunters, poachers, and citizens of the countries in which these parks exist—generally understand the consequences of different policy choices, and have to live with them.  Global preservationist organisations, and the press and public on whose emotions they prey, have been less good at appreciating the environmental, ethical, economic, social, and cultural complexity inherent in all conservation problems, and tend to act with little consideration and less forethought as to how their hysteria will play out down the road.  Crying “Wolf!”—or in this case “Elephant!”—might ultimately do more to harm the animals that preservationists would like to save, and the communities that experience the rough side of the “ivory wars”.

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