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In 2016, the Oxford dictionary declared “post-truth” as the Word of the Year. Accordingly, the dictionary defines it as “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

Meanwhile, writing in the Daily Maverick, Richard Poplak declared the “Troll” as 2016’s Person of the Year. Trolls are people who intentionally sow discord and anger in online spaces. Post-truths and trolls are co-dependent, dysfunctional friends.  They love to come out and play when there is social media chatter about nature, conservation and the management of Africa’s endangered animals. They are most active when something violates our romanticised connection with nature and wildlife.

A good example was a recent online discussion about elephant hunting in South Africa. The conversation fumed on Facebook and Twitter, sparked by a local journalist’s critique of a private nature reserve’s application to hunt a trophy elephant. In the online hullabaloo, villains were vilified and heroes ordained. Blame was assigned and shame bequeathed. There was righteous indignation and collegial backslapping amongst those who took it upon themselves to “speak out” on behalf of Africa’s animals, landscapes and people. The vast majority – over 90% – of “spokespeople” were from North America and the UK and projected a great deal of scientific authority and moral certainty.

I tend to be weary of “objective facts” and people that are obstinate (some might say fundamentalist) about their version of the truth. Fundamentalism gets nasty. Just recently a crocodile killed a hunting outfitter in Zimbabwe and online commentators rejoiced at the hunter’s death, a father of two small children. One called it “poetic justice” and another expressed regret that the crocodile didn’t post a picture of itself “next to his broken, lifeless remains.” Wow. Talk about being radicalised. Could it be that personal beliefs and emotions are running away with us here? How informed are our opinions, other than by our own emotions and the dispositions of our like-minded Facebook friends?

How did we get here? Social media makes it possible for millions of people to “connect” to Africa’s landscapes and animals. With just one click you can go on a virtual safari or check out some waterhole sighting in Kruger National Park. If you are reading this article you are likely a sophisticated urbanite and chances are that your interaction with nature is through a screen, or through the window of an air-conditioned vehicle as you enjoy a game drive. But we are more than just spectators. Social media platforms make it possible for us to join conversations – and to influence decision-making – about events located in distant countries and faraway ecosystems. Our ideas and ideals, which make sense in our own life-worlds, travel across time and space at the click of a mouse, to another place where they make no sense at all.

©Karen Blackwood elephant in nature
©Karen Blackwood

Nature idealised? Romanticised? Isn’t nature natural?

Observe the grey, large-tusked Loxodonta Africana grazing in the savannah as the sun lingers behind Mopani trees and enormous Leadwoods. Maybe you also see some zebra and wildebeest off in the distance, or a huge baobab tree. Picture this scene in your mind. Add the cry of a fish eagle for dramatic effect. Take a few seconds and linger here. What do you see? What do you feel? Reverence, awe, delight, longing? You are connecting this image to other portrayals of elephants you have seen, with stories and myths you have heard throughout your lifetime. If you are an urbanite, it is likely that these were of the digital variety.

These are the scenes of Edenic Africa where “tuskers” roam free, surrounded by endless vistas of untamed savannah. It is almost certain that none of these images reflect the presence of humans, or an actual real-life African (apart from perhaps the khaki-clad waiter who pours someone a second gin-and-tonic as the sun sets). Locals are romanticised Out of Africa. The idea of our continent being only an Edenic Wilderness was invented in the 1800s and persists. It’s a place where local people don’t need protein and live compliantly in the shadows so that they don’t spoil your photographic safari. Our own desires mix effortlessly with tenacious colonial discourses and the creative “world-making” projects of modern tourism.

We have been taught that elephants are majestic and emphatic creatures, not unlike human beings. That they are intelligent and mourn their dead. That they are gentle giants living peacefully in herds. That they are special creatures, proud members of the “Big Five.” Even natural scientists call them “charismatic.” In some of the nature reserves you visit, the elephants have names. Maybe you’ve even befriended one on Facebook. Myth, story, image and artefact combine to create and satisfy our fantasies, our idealised landscapes, our dreamed-up herd of elephants.

Let’s take a closer look. Even something as immovable as a 6-tonne elephant bull is prone to nuance and fluidity. Many Africans, especially those who live near nature reserves, see elephants as pests. Apart from being a “flagship species” to some, elephants are also crop raiders and destroyers of grain stores, scarce water supplies and infrastructure. They injure and kill people. People who don’t get to have gin-and-tonics inside luxurious game reserve. So there are many alternative stories that are told about elephants. Stories of how trophy hunting of elephants has benefitted communities and conservation in Southern Africa. Stories of how neighbourly relations between state-run nature reserves and communities were strengthened through sharing the tonnes of meat that comes off an elephant carcass (whether hunted or culled). This makes you cringe, I know.

©Karen Blackwood elephant in nature
©Karen Blackwood

Every story we tell about nature has another side, packed with nuance and complexity. But we want simple certainties that resonate emotionally and affirm what we already believe. We hang on to them for dear life as if they were indeed “objective facts,” untainted by our values and personal beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not asking you to abandon your principles or to stop revering elephants or other animals. I’m asking you to consider that your story, your conceptualisation of Africa and its wildlife, is but one among many others.

Perhaps the first thing we should stop looking for in a post-truth world is The Truth. Our devotion to singular, one-dimensional rationalisations and approaches has not exactly yielded stellar results for wildlife. While we claw each other’s virtual eyes out about how to treat Africa’s animals, another poacher drives to Johannesburg with four rhino horns in a car. Instead of meeting with field rangers to discuss anti-poaching tactics, or erosion control, or the management of alien vegetation, a reserve manager sits in his office responding to countless threatening emails because his establishment supports hunting. He has to deal with trolls on his Facebook and Twitter account, spewing unhelpful resentment and threatening boycotts. And another black rhino falls, another pangolin is churned into powder, another lappet-faced vulture bites the dust.

Now more than ever, we need to come up with more adaptable, imaginative and home-grown conceptualisation(s) of nature. Perhaps we can start by shaking off the aesthetic illusions of a colonial past and by getting over our reactionary obsession with hairy mammals. There is a bigger picture out there that we are yet to fully invent. One where Africans manage, protect, interact with, trade, use and benefit from wildlife. You can still have your gin-and-tonic, and drink it too. There’s enough room for everyone. And if you don’t like what I’m saying, just send in the trolls.

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Lindie Botha

Lindie Botha is a researcher and PHD student at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. Her work focuses on how organisations interpret and make sense of complex environmental problems, such as the illegal trade in wildlife. Lindie is interested in how our experiences in and of nature are influenced by conservation organisations, the tourism industry and social media platforms. Follow Lindie on Twitter @LindieBotha101.