By LOUISA LOMBARD
Published: September 20, 2012
The latest casualty figures in the ancient war of man versus beast in Africa are in, and they look bad for both sides.
At least 25,000 elephants may have been slaughtered in Africa in 2011 — more than in any year since reporting began in 2002 — according to Kenneth Burnham, the statistician for Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants, an intergovernmental research agency.
Hundreds of humans have also died as a result of the elephant slaughter — not just from scattered maulings or tramplings, but from bullets fired by other humans fighting on the animals’ behalf.
Since the 1980s, under the mantle of conservation efforts and with funding from the European Union, governments, NGOs and private associations, African park guards have fought a rarely discussed low-level war against poachers. The conflict is becoming increasingly militarized, with both poachers and anti-poachers each justifying their belligerence as a response to the other’s.
In the Central African Republic, where I am conducting research on governance in a conflict zone, the anti-poaching war has been especially brutal. In remote parklands, far from public scrutiny, park rangers and militias led by foreign mercenaries, safari guides and French soldiers on a cooperation mission for the government have been fighting a dirty war on behalf of the elephants.
It is difficult to know exactly how many people have died. Groups that support anti-poaching efforts might count the number of guards who fall in the line of duty, but not the poachers dispatched to hidden bush graves. The reports I’ve seen for the E.U.-funded anti-poaching project in the Central African Republic, when they refer to the bloody effects of their work at all, give conflicting figures and make only passing reference to the number of people “neutralized” — or place the category “men” in the column labeled “animals killed.”
Some anti-poaching guards claim to have killed hundreds of poachers. In a particularly macabre case from 2007 in a remote northeastern part of the Central African Republic, a dozen anti-poachers mutilated the bodies of the handful of poachers they killed under the watch of a heavy-handed mercenary who led the bush war in Central Africa in 2005-2007. Witnesses told me they saw human limbs hanging from tree branches.
Meanwhile, the slaughter of elephants continues. In and around the Zakouma National Park in southeastern Chad, the E.U. has funded park guards to battle hunters and nomadic herders in their violent anti-poaching efforts. Unable to effectively control the 3,000-square-kilometer area, they focused on specific elephant refuge zones. It didn’t work. In 2006, 3,000 elephants were believed to live in the area; two years later, according to the Wildlife Conservation Society, only 1,000 were left. A colleague of mine who did research there last year found fewer than 500.
Anti-poachers further demonize poachers by describing them as rapacious foreigners. Yet locals are often complicit. In Central Africa, familiar fiends like the Lord’s Resistance Army or the Janjaweed militias are cited as the primary killers of elephants, and the ivory is said to be exported through Sudan to China. But less-obvious conduits are important as well. Much of Zakouma’s ivory, for instance, appears to be harvested by Chadians and Cameroonians and carried not east to Sudan but west through Chad and into Cameroon and Nigeria. And though anti-poaching guards are rarely accused of participating in the ivory trade, they are frequently caught trading in bushmeat for local markets.
What can be done? Participatory approaches to conservation have had some success, at least in zones that aren’t militarized. Beginning with Zimbabwe’s Campfire (Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources) in the 1980s, revenues generated through wildlife management and conservation, such as tourist and sport-hunting taxes, were handed to the communities bordering the protected zones.
The idea was that if people had a financial stake in preserving animal populations, they would take the initiative to stop hunters. These efforts resulted in fewer deaths. According to Campfire, both elephant and human populations in these areas doubled between 1990 and 2003. (Independent analyses have noted, however, that the program was more coercive and less profitable for communities than its backers acknowledged.)
In areas with endemic violence and ineffective governments, like Central Africa, repressive strategies are more common. The only wildlife conservation that has succeeded has been by accident.
Conservationists had feared that Sudan’s protracted civil war would decimate wildlife in the South’s verdant savannahs, swamps and forests. But a survey by the Wildlife Conservation Society after the 2005 peace agreement revealed that in inaccessible enclaves, some animal populations, especially gazelles and antelopes but also elephants, had in fact flourished.
Unfortunately, the geographic and circumstantial factors that allowed this are impossible to replicate. The animals of South Sudan found a natural refuge in the swamps of Sudd to the east of the Nile which are impassible by humans.
The prospects for ending poaching in war zones through human management are slim. The only way to reduce both the slaughter of elephants and related human killings is to reduce demand for ivory. And that’s a very tall order.
A P.R. campaign displaying gruesome photos of elephant carcasses would likely have limited effect in China, Thailand and the Philippines — the countries that drive the demand for ivory. Demand there is driven by religious beliefs, including, among many Catholics and Buddhists, the notion that ivory honors God.
Strengthening the international legal architecture would also be difficult, given the major profits that the Chinese government, among others, draws from the trade. Only sales of ivory harvested after 1989 are banned — a criterion that is easy to fake.
But curbing the demand for ivory is, in the end, the only way to curb both elephant and human deaths.