Conservation through commercialization

CHRIS ROBERTS

December 05, 1991|By Chris Roberts

LAST MONTH I returned to my Baltimore home after a four-month stint as a wildlife researcher in the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, formerly called Rhodesia. Shortly before my return I visited a national park in the Binga district, a frontier region where people and wildlife compete for the same land.

My party pitched camp in a small clearing that was bordered by dense shrubs and scraggly trees. The first evening at dusk three lions took positions in the hills above us. They began what would be several hours of calling and roaring to one another. We humans stoked our smoldering fire, happily spellbound by the night's wild noises.

After an hour or two of these primal symphonics, there was a sudden crash in the dark forest to our right. We turned our flashlight beams into the trees and crept slowly toward the source of the sound. A few moments later we noticed an enormous wall of gray slowly swaying maybe 30 feet in front of us. An elephant! With reverence and glee we watched him snack on the trees. He satisfied himself in a few minutes and sauntered into the night.

For us this evening could not have been better. That night we met unadulterated nature, and in my National Geographic-inspired childhood dreams I could not have imagined greater glory.

However, for most people in the Binga district an encounter with wildlife is not a dream come true but rather a threat to crops and livelihood. These people are subsistence farmers. Elephants can raid a peasant family's fields and in a single evening destroy the crops intended to feed the family for a year. Elephants and other wild animals can also attack the farmers who try to guard their fields at night. In the first nine months of 1991, elephants killed 18 Binga residents.

As long as human populations continue their exponential growth in Africa, competition for land between wildlife and people will only grow fiercer. Conservation plans compete for public attention with a host of other problems, including an out-of-control AIDS epidemic and famine. In this atmosphere, only the most economically lucrative and socially useful conservation can be expected to succeed.

Appeals to aesthetic value and natural wonder are not enough in Zimbabwe and most other African countries. Simply put, if Africa's people are to continue sharing their land with wildlife, if // environmentalists want to preserve wildlife habitat, then wildlife must offer African people concrete economic benefits.

One of the most profitable elephant management strategies is a controlled sale of a sustainable number of elephants to safari hunters. International hunters pay as much as $20,000 directly to Zimbabwean local governments for a license to shoot an elephant. That money goes a long way toward building the schools and clinics that Zimbabwe's rural people desperately need. The meat can be left behind for local consumption as well.

Over the last few years Zimbabwe's peasants have realized that their elephants can earn their communities a lot of money. After decades of hostility toward the animals, people actually welcome the growth of elephant populations in some districts. Elephant poaching is scarcely a problem in Zimbabwe, since communities that stand to profit from the legal use of their herds have renewed incentive to cooperate with law enforcement authorities.

Zimbabwe's conservation through commercialization approach has been more effective than any other approach to elephant conservation, but environmentalists and governments in the West have been slow to realize it. Honorable people have condemned Zimbabwe because they are hooked on the idea that elephant hunting and ivory trading mean slaughter and extinction. It is time to give up this mistaken impression.

Indeed, poachers have nearly annihilated the once magnificent national herds of Kenya, Tanzania and a host of other eastern and northern African countries. Ivory ban believers are quick to point out these endangered herds, but those elephants are only part of the story. Over the last three decades in Zimbabwe, elephant populations have actually doubled. Today over 60,000 elephants live in Zimbabwe. Kenya has received much international attention -- owing to the country's well-developed tourism and the international status of Nairobi as a development and media center for all Africa -- and become an unfortunately deceptive rallying point.

Governments and conservation organizations all over the world are preparing for the next Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, to be held in Kyoto, Japan, next March. At this conference most Western governments and lobbyists are expected to push for a continued ivory ban. Yet to insist on a comprehensive ban on the ivory trade is to be blind to the situation of the people who must live with the elephants. If these Africans do not support elephant conservation, well-intentioned ivory ban advocates have undermined their own goals.

Government and environmental organizations should lobby for only a partial ban. Within a responsible regulatory framework, countries that can follow the Zimbabwean model and successfully manage their elephants should be allowed to export their ivory.

Chris Roberts graduated from Friends School in 1987 and Yale 1991. He has an internship with a public television production company in New York.

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