Elephants in the Backyard- What We Miss About Saving Elephants
“What would you know about it? You don’t have an elephant in your backyard!”
Comments like the one above rang out fast and furious this week as news that the newly elected government in Botswana was going to reopen the country to trophy hunting, fell like a bomb around the world.
Horrified conservationists and elephant lovers across the globe chimed in as #boycottbotswana trended on social media.
It doesn’t take an expert to recognize that a chasm as wide as the continent of Africa herself splits this issue into two wildly different camps.
On the one hand you have conservationists, biologists, animal/elephant lovers, eco tourists and academics who are, by and large, horrified at the prospect that the last safe haven for elephants on the face of the earth could be decimated by sport hunters.
On the other hand you have the farmers, villagers and ordinary people, who live their day to day lives with elephants and are citizens of a country that feels as though the world cares far more about elephants than about them.
It strikes me that we are basically dealing with two totally different elephants.
I am not talking about African Elephants vs. Asian Elephants or anything like that. I am talking about the way elephants are viewed in the west versus the way they are viewed in Africa (or Asia).
“Gentle Giants” seem to be the way most people I meet describe elephants.
To us, they are huge, friendly, empathetic, kindly, benign, sweet, a little bit like large, adorable pets. Such a view is reinforced by things like, attention starved celebrity Kim Kardashian, half naked and straddling a subdued elephant, or horrendously ignorant tourists, “romping’ with wooly headed, infant Asian elephants at tourist traps.
Elephants are cute! They are so very “Disney”.
Actually living next door to elephants, and you’d likely walk away with a very different view. To villagers, from Thailand to Botswana, elephants are pests, huge, hard to control pests at that. Elephants raid crops, go rogue, male elephants go on rampages, they use up resources, space and can wreck havoc, elephants kill.
As repugnant as this fear/irritation/negativity towards elephants may seem to us on the conservation side, it is a voice that absolutely must be listened to.
The idea of an elephant destroying your land doesn’t pack the same emotional punch to a person who dashes to the grocery store if they need something to eat as it does for someone that just lost their entire food source after slaving over it for the past 6 months.
We are so very disconnected.
But what about tourism?
Tourism I fear, is another area where the gulf between realities stretches miles.
Have we as tourists, done a good enough job of ensuring the revenue going to a country to support tourism is actually GETTING to the villagers who share their day-to-day existence with elephants?
While I have no doubt that wildlife tourism is a huge source of revenue to government officials, is it really going to help the widow whose entire year of food was wiped out in one evening by a hungry elephant? Corruption, graft, rising human populations, shrinking resources all play a part. Does tourism even factor at all, when the “money men” of government reap all of the profits?
I have to stop right here and stay unequivocally that I don’t have all of the answers in fact I may not have any. But one thing I am sure of is that ANY sustainable conservation effort we undertake for any species, in any country must, first and foremost be beneficial to all of the stakeholders and communities in that region. From the top levels of government to the poorest of the poor, anything less will doom even the most well funded project.
Another thing I am absolutely certain of is that lashing out at the people of Botswana or any country, minimizing the truth of their situation or wishing it to go away is absolutely NOT the way to save our amazing species. It’s essential that we look for ways to bridge the gap between what we, as elephant lovers see and experience, and what people who live in the shadow of elephants’ experience.
Communication, understanding and above all, reality and mutual respect is the very first step we must all take.
If we are unwilling to do this simple thing, then we have most certainly failed these marvelous creatures we claim to care so very much about.
Thyra Rutter is Artist & Founder of Arte for Elephants. Creating hope for elephants since 2015. Find out more at www.arteforelephants.net