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Saving Africa's Elephants: No Easy Answers

  • Thursday, May 1, 1997

Elephants. Nature's great gift. Charismatic, mysterious, captivating. It's hard to imagine a world without them.

That distant admirers stand in unbridled awe of elephants is understandable. But those who share living space with these 6-ton animals that can flatten fences, destroy harvests and imperil children might be less enthusiastic. They might indeed wish the elephant lived somewhere else.

Such are the conflicting passions that complicate the long-running debate over the destiny of the African elephant, a controversy stoked by economics, politics, civil wars, scientific research and human foibles. Clear away the smoke, and the question still remains: How can elephants be conserved while assuring that poor rural people reap benefits, not hardship, from the elephants in their midst?

Such are the conflicting passions that complicate the long-running debate over the destiny of the African elephant, a controversy stoked by economics, politics, civil wars, scientific research and human foibles. Clear away the smoke, and the question still remains: How can elephants be conserved while assuring that poor rural people reap benefits, not hardship, from the elephants in their midst?

Ambivalence fills the debate. Elephants destroy property and if confined, strip protected areas of trees and other vegetation. But they are crucial to the survival of fragile ecosystems and the hundreds of plant and animal species that live in them. They take up space people desire for livestock and farms. On the other hand, they are a prime attraction, bringing in desperately needed tourist dollars and jobs to villages. Some countries say they have too many elephants, others say too few.

Revisiting the ban on trade

There's some truth in all these assertions, making it difficult to reach a consensus on how to manage Africa's elephants. In fact, because the situation varies markedly from country to country, says Mark Stanley Price, director of AWF's operations in Africa, a one-size-fits-all solution is hardly possible.

But African elephant range states will again have a chance to air their concerns in June, when more than 130 member countries of CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meet in Harare, Zimbabwe. It was this group, that at a meeting in 1989, voted to ban world trade in elephant ivory, "white gold" coveted since ancient times for jewelry, decorative art and religious objects. The goal was to stop runaway poaching that had slashed Africa's elephant population in half in less than a decade.

With the ban, the price of ivory collapsed, and poaching came to a halt as wildlife authorities beefed up protection and law enforcement. Elephant populations began to stabilize and even grow.

In parts of southern Africa, where protection had always been good and the poaching of the 1980s had not reduced numbers, elephants have flourished, prompting Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe to submit proposals for the June meeting requesting that their herds be "downlisted." They say their populations are not endangered and want a limited trade in ivory to provide funds for conservation and rural communities.

Opponents of downlisting contend that even restricted trade. Namibia, for example, wants one sale a year to Japan for two years, primarily from stockpiles, could boost ivory prices and jumpstart poaching in other parts of Africa. They question whether purchasing countries can prevent ivory from other sources from being mixed in with ivory from approved sales. Many are also concerned that the status of the African elephant is still too fragile to risk lifting the ban.

More elephant killings

Although illegal killing has remained well below the pre-ban level, in some areas poaching has increased in recent years. At least 10 elephants in the Kenya-Tanzania border area have been killed in the last 15 months alone. In 1996 over 5 tons of ivory were discovered in Tanzania, possibly taken from as many as 1,000 elephants, conservation experts say. And authorities in the Congo found the remains of 200 elephants near a watering hole last summer, thought to be the most extensive slaughter in the country's history. Illegal hunting has been reported in Zimbabwe and Cameroon as well, according to the African Elephant Specialist Group (AESG).

The AESG's chairperson Holly Dublin has attributed these incidents to several factors - new or expanded markets for ivory (particularly in the newly wealthy countries of Asia); a decline in antipoaching budgets of several countries; civil conflicts; and the shooting of elephants through "control" programs when they have harmed life and property.

Poaching and ivory trade are not the only factors affecting elephant conservation. Some other issues:

Not enough space."The greatest threat to Africa's elephants," says Cynthia Moss, director of AWF's 25-year-old Amboseli Elephant Research Project, "is loss of range brought about by human population growth and expansion onto elephant range."

The generous areas allotted by many African countries for parks and reserves are still not sufficient to protect elephants and countless other species. Increasingly wildlife is being squeezed into fragmented, shrinking habitats as more land around parks is given over to human settlement and agriculture. No longer able to roam freely, the confined elephants deplete their habitat, sometimes converting a woodland to open grassland, as they did in Kenya's Tsavo National Park during the 1970s. The loss of other species - both animal and plant - often accompanies profoundly damaged habitats.

(On the other hand, elephants are essential to maintaining Africa's ecosystems. "They are Africa's surgeons," says Stanley Price, "opening up dense forests, creating grasslands for grazing animals and digging water holes.")

To combat the twin problems of too many elephants and too little space, some countries have periodically culled their herds, a controversial practice. Some countries create buffer zones and migratory corridors outside of parks to prevent undue stress on one habitat by opening up access to other ones. But that's not always popular or possible in areas with good farm land.

Ideally, says Kadzo Kangwana, coordinator of AWF's Species and Ecosystems Program who has studied elephants extensively, large protected areas are the best hope for elephant conservation, but planners need to be realistic about the number of elephants their land can sustain. "There is little hope of maintaining elephants," she says, "in heavily populated areas with land that can be used for farming."

People vs. wildlife. The competition for land has, in some places, inevitably pitted humans against elephants (and several other species, Moss points out).

"There's no doubt that human-elephant conflicts have increased throughout most of Africa," says Kangwana. "Much of the problem," Moss adds, "is poor or no land-use planning."

Some countries in eastern and southern Africa have eased tensions by involving rural people in the management of wildlife. Benefits, such as grazing rights for cattle and revenues from elephant tourism, related enterprises and even sport hunting, motivate some communities to tolerate the animals on their land.

Other countries are fencing wildlife into parks (and out of farm lands), but enclosure cuts elephants off from migratory routes. And it can hurt livestock owners and land outside the park may turn into dense bush unsuitable for cattle grazing without migrating elephants to thin the vegetation.

Placing a value on elephants. A man with hungry children may see the elephant as food. A hunter sees a trophy. A local village sees tourist dollars. A scientist sees a life force for Africa's ecosystems. A visitor sees nature at its most inspiring.

The varying perceptions of the elephant's purpose or value are formed by many factors, the size and density of human and elephant populations, how elephants and protected areas are managed, economic need, national attitudes, tradition.

"What the different values imply," Stanley Price comments, "is that conservation requires different approaches."

The question for conservation, he says, is whether there's the will to recognize these diverse views and to try new strategies. The fate of elephants, as usual, lies in the hands of humans.

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