Elephant in the Okavango.  Botswana has one of the few remaining healthy elephant populations—healthy to the point of threatening their own well-being through habitat destruction.  Proper elephant management is difficult because of international opinion, made all the worse in the age of the Internet.

By Terry Wieland



The fading symbol of Africa


To the wide world, the elephant is the symbol of Africa.  Hunters might hold out for the lion, and the greater kudu has it advocates, but ask the average person what animal he thinks of when you mention Africa and the answer will almost always be “the elephant.”


This fact is important when you consider the coverage given to game conservation generally by the mainstream media.  The mountain nyala may be seriously endangered, or the eastern bongo, or giant sable, but mention those to the average journalist—or, more to the point, the average editor—and you will likely get nothing more than a strange look.


Every couple of years, The Economist, London’s highly respected international news magazine, remembers the elephant and sends someone to take a look at its status.  One expects high quality journalism from The Economist, and usually gets it.  Its most recent articles on elephant are broadly excellent, but with one curious blind spot:  Nowhere that I can find do they mention legal trophy hunting, either as a means of raising revenue or controlling elephant numbers.  And nowhere do they credit hunting organizations such as Safari Club International for their efforts to save wildlife in general, and the elephant in particular.


The Economist’s writers, who are anonymous, seem to operate under the same biases that afflict journalists everywhere.  Certain subjects are taboo.  Saying anything good about big-game hunting is one such.  The corruption and venality of African politicians is another, especially if that politician was somehow connected with “freedom fighting.”


For example, in the 1970s, Jomo Kenyatta’s wife (one of them, at least) was acknowledged to be one of the biggest traffickers in illegal ivory in East Africa.  Was this ever mentioned in The Times when it wrote about the massive elephant slaughter that occurred back then?  Never, that I know of.  Kenyatta, one of the least admirable of all the immediate post-independence leaders, was given almost saintly status, and this particular wife enjoyed the same untouchable reputation.  I knew foreign correspondents in Nairobi back then who were well aware of the situation and filed stories about it, but these were invariably spiked or all references to Frau Kenyatta removed.


Twenty years ago, Gray’s Sporting Journal dispatched me to Africa with instructions to come back with an in-depth story on the status of the African elephant, which was widely believed to be seriously endangered.  Of course, it was not endangered in the least.  At the time, the numbers were estimated at about 750,000 remaining—a far cry from 2.5 million, or even the 1.5 million estimated in the 1970s, but still a long way from endangered.


Certainly, in some areas, notably Kenya, numbers were down drastically due to poaching, but in other areas, like Kwando in Botswana, elephant numbers were burgeoning to the point of serious habitat destruction.


I spent time with various elephant biologists, and all told the same story:  The major obstacle to any positive action on behalf of elephants was public misconceptions about the actual situation.  No question, the situation was dire, and probably terminal in some areas.  But in others, circumstances were totally different, and totally different actions were required—actions that were blocked by supposedly well-meaning people who thought they knew best.


The essential problem, I was told, lay in one fact.  In the mid-1800s, when Europeans began arriving in central Africa, they found islands of people in a sea of elephants.  Today, there are islands of elephants in a sea of people.  That’s fact number one.  Fact number two is that, historically, these vast numbers of elephants moved in continuous migrations, covering thousands of miles.


Fact number three is that elephants, all their admirable qualities aside, are intensely destructive animals.  They kill and uproot trees, devour vegetation, and generally devastate their environment.  As long as they were migrating, this was not a problem; quite the opposite, it was an essential part of regeneration, just like periodic veld fires.  Once they could no longer migrate, however, once they were confined to a particular area, the devastation became intense, not only to their detriment but to all the other animals, birds, and reptiles that called it home.


This is really an insuperable problem, since the expanding human settlements and infrastructure of Africa block migration routes, and this is almost certainly going to get worse.


Some do-gooder conservation groups look at this situation and suggest that the answer is to take elephants from where there are too many and relocate them to areas where there are too few.  This is an attractive proposition, especially when it conjures images presented in movies of a baby elephant in a sling beneath a helicopter, squealing with glee as it is transported to its new home.


First of all, where do you put them?  When elephants have been eradicated from an area, it is usually for a reason.  Either they threatened the human population or they were easily vulnerable to poaching.  Will those people want elephants returned?  Unlikely.  Would they be safe from poachers?  Unlikelier still.


As for relocating them in the first place, it’s a massive, expensive undertaking fraught with difficulties.  They need to be relocated in family groups.  They need to be transported in a sedated condition, in heavy vehicles, for long distances, over bad roads, with veterinarians in constant attendance, and even then they can only be sedated for short periods.  Intelligent elephants may be, but they don’t seem to accept the explanation that all of this is for their own good.


Ask the average person about legal hunting, or even culls, to reduce numbers, versus relocating surplus animals, and everyone will say they should be relocated.  When was the last time you saw an article in The Economist, The Times, or anywhere else, about the realities of relocation?


In its most recent article about African elephants, The Economist concluded that the causes of elephant poaching were poverty and bad governance and law enforcement.  No kidding.  Really?


In another Economist article several years ago, looking at the plight of elephants and rhinos in the Northern Frontier District of Kenya (the NFD, as it was known years ago), the writers concluded that the animals needed somehow to be given economic value in order to encourage the local tribes, like the Turkana, to protect rather than poach.


Nowhere in the article did they even mention legal sport hunting as a possible means of helping to do so.


Legal hunting has been a thing of the past in Kenya since 1977.  That is not going to change, and the idea that rich eco-tourists will want to visit the hostile environment of the NFD, and pay enough money to make it worthwhile, is a pipe dream.  Other Economist articles have stressed how dangerous it is to even approach the NFD, and it’s been closed to outsiders because of that, off and on, for years.


The advantages of having a legal hunting infrastructure are well known:  You have camps with armed men in them, you have regular patrols as hunting vehicles crisscross the territory, you provide permanent employment and a source of hard currency for the locals, and you give the game department more revenue with which to hire and pay game scouts.


The abolition of legal hunting in 1977, with the resulting elimination of all of these benefits in and around protected areas, was a major factor in the explosion of uninhibited poaching of elephants and rhinos in Kenya in the late ‘70s and ‘80s.  There was little to stop them.  Yet the hunting ban was widely applauded as a positive move toward game conservation when, in fact, it was the polar opposite.


The other advantage of having such a hunting community is that it gives it hunting a constituency, and a constituency has a voice in government.  No voice in government?  Then no one cares.


Would a big-game hunter pay big bucks to hunt elephants in the NFD?  Probably he would, but once you start looking at all the different aspects and difficulties of such an idea, the possibility is extremely remote.


In an area where tribes depend on cattle, where grass is scarce and water scarcer, trying to convince herdsmen to value elephants and rhinos over cattle and goats is a waste of time.  To my mind, probably the best use of the mountains of “save the elephant” donations held by the big wildlife funds would be straightforward bribes to the tribesmen, along with giving modern weapons and substantial salaries to the guards, and instituting a shoot-on-sight anti-poaching policy.


The alternative is having game scouts and guards who are outgunned by the poachers, who have no qualms about shooting anyone in uniform—or anyone else for that matter.


In today’s environment, the surest way to raise an outcry is to have some predominantly white organization try to tell a black government what it should do.  In between the black and the white lies the grey of the elephant, at the mercy of politics, political correctness, and irrevocable change.