Africa’s wildlife is being loved to death. Kenya’s much-praised ban on hunting, in fact, has had an impact opposite to its intent: wild animals are disappearing at an accelerating rate. “Charismatic megafauna” — elephants, lions, rhinos, the larger antelopes — are in a true death spiral.
When Kenya’s hunting ban was passed in 1977 in response to the “Ivory Wars” that were ravaging the nation’s elephants, it was hailed as a new and progressive paradigm for wildlife management. With the hunting pressure off, animal lovers opined, the game would bounce back. And it’s true that elephants did recover modestly over the ensuring two decades.
But now the slaughter has begun anew, driven by an unrelenting demand from a prosperous Asia for ivory objets d’art. Meanwhile, everything else is going down the tubes, including carnivores and antelopes. By best estimates, Kenya’s wildlife has declined by more than 70 percent over the past 20 years.
What happened? While the ban played well in the developed world, it was catastrophic for the people who lived in the rural hinterlands of Kenya — the places where wildlife actually exists. Basically, folks out in the bush had the responsibility for maintaining wildlife on their lands, but they were deprived of any benefit from the animals. Such a situation is intolerable for subsistence pastoralists and farmers.
Subsequent to the ban, they could not respond — legally — when an elephant raided their maize and stomped their goats, or when a lion killed a cow. But laws made in Nairobi are seldom if ever applied with rigor in the Kenyan bush. Even as animal rights groups lionized Kenya’s no-kill policy and urged its adoption across Africa, the killing has continued unabated. Carnivores are poisoned, antelope snared, elephants speared and shot: Crops can thus be raised and the livestock grazed in peace.
Michael Norton-Griffiths, who has served as the senior ecologist for Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park and the manager of the Eastern Sahel Program for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, likened the situation to owning a goat.
Assume, says Norton-Griffiths, that you’re a poor pastoralist in rural Kenya, and your assets consist of a goat. You can eat this goat, or milk it. You can sell it, gaining hard currency that you can use to buy necessities. Or you can breed it, increasing your asset base in the form of another goat.
But now imagine that a law is passed that forbids you to eat, sell, or breed that goat. In fact, the only thing you can do with it is allow tourists to take pictures of it. Even then, you obtain no benefit; the money derived from the tourists photographing the goat goes to the owner of the “eco-lodge” they are patronizing.
By substituting wildlife for the goat, says Norton-Griffiths, you have the situation that exists in Kenya today.
If African wildlife is to survive — let alone thrive — local people must value it. In other words, they must be allowed to gain both income and meat from it in a sustainable fashion. And repugnant as it may seem to most urbanized westerners, lion, buffalo and elephant hunting can be sustainable enterprises — like most large African mammals, these species are fecund. Wealthy hunters will pay between $50,000 to $100,000 to take a trophy male lion or elephant bull, and up to $20,000 for a buffalo with big horns. If that money is returned to local communities — along with the meat — then tolerance for wildlife reflexively improves.
Similarly, the commercial cropping of certain species of plains game for hides and meat (Burchell’s zebra most specifically) can build support for conservation among Africa’s pastoral and agricultural communities.
This isn’t to say hunting is a panacea for Africa’s wildlife crisis. Kenya’s wildlife stocks currently are too depleted to allow any kind of “consumptive” game policy. Tanzania has larger populations of wildlife than Kenya, and both trophy and subsistence hunting are allowed — but the game is dwindling. Over-hunting due to poor enforcement of the quotas and general government corruption is widely acknowledged as a contributing factor.
But a template for a rational wildlife policy exists: in Namibia. By the late 1980s, wildlife was almost wholly extirpated from this vast southwestern African territory following decades of conflict between South Africa and the Southwest Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). Following Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990, the leaders of the new nation established wildlife policies that invested tribal communities with control over the game, while simultaneously establishing firm quotas for individual species. Income from both hunting and cropping is rigorously tracked, and diligently returned to the communities.
Namibian wildlife, in short, was changed from a liability to an asset. Today, Namibia is burgeoning with wildlife, game and non-game species alike. The country has the world’s largest population of cheetahs. Elephants are abundant — in some places too abundant — and lions are returning. Rare antelopes such as kudu and sable are anything but rare in Namibia; their meat, the yield of certified cropping programs, is easily found in supermarkets.
Obviously, this would not be possible without relatively good governance. In the 2011 corruption index for 182 countries released by Transparency International, Namibia ranked 57th and Kenya was close to the bottom at 154. If Kenya is to duplicate Namibia’s success, it must address its rampant corruption as well as revamp its game laws.
Still, Namibia points to a better way than the blanket no-hunt policy that has become holy writ among some animal rights groups. And it’s better because it’s pragmatic: It addresses the needs of people as well as the rights of animals. Unlike Kenya’s current wildlife policy, it actually works.