Botswana: Elephant Slaughter, Money and Why We're thinking about it all wrong.
If you love elephants and you are on social media, you’d have to be living under a rock not to notice the truly alarming news out of Botswana. Daily breaking stories (often accompanied by sickening images) outlining the new President’s opinions and ideas for handling their stunning array of wildlife.
Everything has been proposed, from allowing trophy hunting and culling, to harvesting elephants for use in pet food.
Wildlife lovers and conservationists the world over are freaked out (understandably so), particularly as Botswana, for decades, has been considered a bastion of conservation success and one of the last true havens for elephants in all of Africa.
Every day I read dozens of vitriolic posts blasting the new government, the President, the people of Botswana and calling for boycotts.
Now, I can’t pretend to be an expert on Botswana, but I’ve seen a lot of various conservation projects around the world, and if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that conserving elephants, or any animal for that matter, is a whole lot more complicated than anyone wants it to be.
One of the complaints often leveled at conservationists, is that we care more about animals than people, and while no one wants to really admit to it, there is a bit of truth to that. Every weekend, I am meeting people who are genuinely perplexed as to why they can’t just shoot poachers on sight and fix the entire situation.
If only it were that easy.
The first issue you run up against in just shooting poachers outright (besides the obvious human rights aspect to the whole thing) is the fact that people that do the actual poaching are really the lowest members of a vast, sophisticated, international crime syndicate that ties into global terrorism, international billionaires, arms dealers, you name it. The lowly African out risking his life for a couple hundred bucks doesn’t mean jack doodles to some rich Western or Asian businessman, nor to corrupt local or government authorities. If you shoot one poacher, there are a dozen more where they came from.
But WHY, we ask, would a local person risk their life for a few hundred bucks and WHY would they even want to kill these amazing creatures that exist in their own back yards?
I’ll let you in on a little secret, the first time I went to Africa (decades ago) we spent weeks traveling around to all of the amazing national parks. We must have seen and met hundreds of other safari goers- not one of which was an actual African (not counting the guides, the wait staff, the maids, the drivers). There were no Kenyan families driving around Amboseli or the Masai Mara- no stressed Nairobi businessmen taking their kids to see the animals on their two week vacation, not one.
Do you see a problem here?
For the vast majority of African locals, the National Parks with their breathtaking wildlife is as much an unknown land as it is to your average family in Idaho or Glasgow; mysterious, far away and too expensive to get to.
The exception to this, of course, are the local villagers who live in or near the national parks, and who are, by and large, subsistence level farmers, living off of small hold farmsteads. Oh, they see animals all right; lions that come out of the park to eat their family goat, or elephants that rampage through and destroy what it took 4 months to plant and grow.
It doesn’t take a whole heck of a lot to convince someone whose family is starving to get paid for taking out something that is, essentially a nuisance.
Added to all of this that old devil, corruption, which sees the influx of rich tourism revenue stuffing the pockets global investors, government or petty officials, everyone it seems, but the people who really need it.
So where does that leave us? What can we, as ethical, conservation- minded global citizens do?
The first thing we need to do, is to not throw the proverbial “baby out with the bathwater” and start leveling insults to any particular African nation or their people. We need to start looking at all the spokes in this very complex wheel of wildlife management and see where it’s failed and see how we can support African governments to change the way the do business and be aware of who is making what off of our tourism money.
There are actually some wild success stories in Africa. I was happy to see, during my last trip to Kenya, many Kenyan families enjoying the national parks and scores of school children visiting places like the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust elephant orphanage in Nairobi.
Innovative programs in places like Rwanda have effectively made local people shareholders in conservation. Ex Gorilla poachers, now earn a percentage of the revenue generated by tourists who pay hefty fees to go gorilla trekking. In short, the gorillas are now worth more alive than dead and as a consequence, gorilla populations, at least in that national park, are increasing.
My final thoughts are this, we need to start seeing wildlife conservation as the systemic, local and global challenge it is, rather than the easy answer we want it to be. We must start viewing issues like corruption, wealth inequality, racism, climate change and wildlife conservation as one, big connected ball, rather than independent slices of pie.
If humans or elephants in Botswana or anyplace else are to survive, we need to drop the name-calling and get serious about working together to implement tough solutions that work for everyone.
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