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Opinion: The voice missing from the elephant trophy debate? Africans

Elephant eye
Opinion post: The voice missing from the elephant trophy debate? Africans, written by Rosie Cooney –  chair of the IUCN’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group – original story: Washington Post: Opinions

The answers for conserving the earth’s wild creatures seem easy from the office chairs of the affluent west. Ban trophy hunting! Hunt down the poachers! More tourism!

But the social media campaigns and President Trump’s flip-flopping on Twitter over the past few days on U.S. elephant trophy imports from Zimbabwe and Zambia highlight the deficiencies of this model of decision-making. We need a lot less shouting and lot more listening – and to different voices.

How can we help secure a future for wildlife? We know what the animal lovers and celebrities will say. We know what the hunting organisations will say. We’ve heard these voices before, loud and clear, with the same simple answers. But what might the people and government of Zimbabwe say (if they could look away from their political crisis)? What might we hear from the bushveld, the mopane scrub or the acacia thickets – from the people who live, raise their children, and make a living alongside elephants and lions?

People are likely to live with wildlife only when they have some realistic incentives to bear the costs of doing so. If wildlife doesn’t in one way or another form part of the livelihoods of people, it will inevitably make way for activities that do. For elephants, these incentives mean tourism and, yes, even trophy hunting.

Zimbabwe has the second largest population of elephants in Africa at around 83,000 – more than three times as many as Kenya. Many live in formal protected areas, but many live on communal or privately owned lands. These animals are awe-inspiring, socially complex and likely emotionally profound, but for humans up close, they are also huge and dangerous with massive food and water needs.

Human-wildlife conflict is rife, with elephants destroying crops, houses and even killing people. This is set only to worsen as the needs of people intensify – Zimbabwe’s population growth rate of 2.3 percent is among the highest in the world. Almost two-thirds live below the poverty line, with more than 4 million people facing food shortages this year.

While the benefits of hunting for rural communities and as conservation incentives are often airily dismissed as insignificant or uncertain, they can be significant for livelihoods and catalytic for conservation. Between 2005 and 2010, hunting trophy fees generated approximately $11 million for communities in Zimbabwe, and of this, about $7.5 million came from elephants. A little more than half came from Americans. The total of all other benefits, including tourism, was $4 million.

Tourism can be a powerful driver of conservation in the right place, but it is a pipe dream in many of the dusty corners of the communal lands – unless tourists want to spend days travelling over bumpy roads with intermittent electricity and sharing their wildlife views with cattle and goats.

Some of the money – both from hunting and tourism – will never make it to the right people, and instead will go to elites. It’s far from perfect, but at least this business – at least some of the time – keeps these animals in their habitats.

In fact, Zimbabwe has witnessed the power of incentives, with a remarkable and large-scale shift of land use from livestock and crops back to wildlife in the late 20th century, thanks to policy reforms that made it possible for private sector and community landholders to benefit from conservation. The CAMPFIRE program, which relies heavily on revenue from hunting, enabled communities on communal lands to see wildlife conservation as a viable land use and not just a dangerous problem. Despite the government’s chaotic land distribution reforms over the past few decades, some large areas remain managed for wildlife under this program.

But now the tide of public opinion is turning sharply against trophy hunting, as it has done against the ivory trade, once a source of revenue for these same communities. This revenue might dry up forever, along with the conservation incentives they create to coexist with wildlife.

So what do we do? How do we create a future where giants have space to roam? The first step is to recognise that outrage from afar never solved a local problem. We need to hear the voices of local people. Well-meaning people in the West need to stop shouting and start listening.

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  • Deputydog

    Well, where to start?
    1. Interesting too see “Rosie” speaking for Africans – is there any irony here?
    2. CAMPFIRE. I was quoting this a model for the future some 20 years ago. However, I still struggle to see some real quantitative assessment of the scale of benefit. It has hardly transformed the rural economy, but I would be interested to know the scale of change it has brought about in all that time.
    3. There is a dilema about the extent to which those who live in closest proximity to wildlife will safeguard it. Farmers across the world would have elimated all the natural predators by now (wildcats from N America to Europe and beyond, cheetah and leopard shot and poisoned as we speak); fishermen would have plundered the seas ( COD off Newfoundland, North Sea, Tuna etc etc.); turtle eggs etc etc. So whilst there are many potential local guardians (including some farmers and fisherman with foresight) the population pressures are immense. Without some overarching policy (however that can reasonably be achieved – (e.g. Innuit ‘cultural’ take/harvesting) to limit local indiscretion, or international pillaging – then prospects are bleak.
    4. But yes, all stakeholders should have a voice – with ethics and morality part of the incentive too.

    • Brian

      She isn’t speaking for Africans or as one. She’s lobbying on their behalf that they be given a greater voice. Big difference.

      • Deputydog

        Yes, I completely get that, but ‘irony’ ….?

  • Alison Heyns

    “We need to hear the voices of local people.” AG where are these voices with regard to the industrial scale poaching of Africa’s iconic wildlife species like rhino, elephant, etc.? Sadly they are part of the problem. However, I do recognise that local communities need to directly benefit from tourism dollars, otherwise there won’t be any incentive for them to protect and conserve wildlife, or wildlife habitats.

  • Colleen Begg

    I think we need to be careful about simplifying this to “communities need incentives with wildlife” . What do these incentives look like? Are we talking about incentives linked to conservation responsibilities or just incentives linked to nothing other than living where wildlife is. I agree we need to listen more. We also need to stop assuming that building a school, digging a well or handing out of meat is actually an incentive to conserve especially if we never asked the community in the first place what they wanted or needed from conservation. When we listen we might hear that what is wanted is jobs, food security, alternative livelihoods and at a scale that cannot be provided by a hunting camp or tourism camp. Finally sporthunting and ecotourism are not the only ways to generate incentives for communities and probably not even the best ways. Philanthropic funds can be used to generate ongoing performance payment systems for example. And before everyone yells that this is not sustainable, I would say it is. There is no timelimit on caring. If we want wildlife to persist we do need for it…we the global community and we cannot continue to expect governments, sport hunters or ecotourism to do it. There are many ways to do this…the arguments are too simplified. SImply providing handouts to communities living with wildlife without actually allowing them to engage in management and have benefits linked to responsibilities is not productive and unlikely to be any incentive conserve.

    • daktari40

      Dr. Colleen is pleased to share your post. The opinion of such a qualified person is of enormous value. Very successful in the Niassa Carnivore Project. It is a gigantic conservation area, with many problems, still with immense natural resources, of high value for Mozambique and still for a humanity. It would be a dream to connect it with Selous, we would have in the XXI century a contiguous area of 10 million hectares for a conservation.

      Best Regards,


  • Marcus

    When I saw the title, I thought finally.. someone recognizes that there is a missing voice: what do the ELEPHANTS have to say?
    We keep encroaching on their habitat, take take take all that nature can give and leave trash behind.
    What a manipulative article!

  • daktari40

    It is a legitimate concern of Mrs. Rosie Cooney, very current. All the numbers that justify an Opinion need to be well-founded, and this paragraph may make some difference in its explanatory context: “While the benefits of hunting for rural
    communities and the conservation incentives are often airily dismissed as insignificant or uncertain, they can be significant for livelihoods and catalytic for conservation.About 2005 and 2010, hunting trophy fees generated approximately $ 11 million for communities in Zimbabwe, and of this, about $ 7.5 million came from elephants. , including tourism, was $ 4 million ” Are numbers very low and how to get to these numbers? How to measure all other benefits at $ 4 million ?. Zimbabwe has a thriving tourist industry, whether photographic or trophy hunting, is one of the five most visited countries. Well, maybe the important thing is not it! The Trophy hunting promotes the conservation of numerous areas in Africa, a conservation, and not par excellence, due to the absence of a conservation project that best connects: wildlife – community – economic sustainability. Community participation through jobs is far less than any photographic tourist enterprise, the bushmeat received serves as a “food alms,” and trophy hunting enterprises that provide regular subsidies for the creation or maintenance of health posts and schools are very rare. that have a simple community economic project. Historically, African communities have become accustomed to being objects and not subjects with decision-making powers over their lives and even more about their communities / society.

    The message about the decision on what Africans want is very important. Indeed, conservation policies on emblematic species such as elephants, rhinos and lions should be primarily determined by the countries that own them. The IUCN decides the questions on protection models without giving due weight to these countries. The countries that most influence such decisions are, for the most part, lousy examples of conservation. Africa continues to reap which was planted by Europeans in the nineteenth century. Zimbabwe has a rate of almost 90% of its unemployed population. Within a framework with this panorama, can it be possible to connect wildlife conservation with the socioeconomic well-being of its population?

    “Countries where institutions are weak and volatile, where there are hunting habitats long established, insufficiente democracy, with low levels of economic and social development where their society shows little or no cohesion capacity, and
    questionable public moral standards finaly, do not have political will instruments for achieving great environmental and cultural changes”.

    • gomogranny

      I am born in Zimbabwe and live here. I was raised in the National Parks in the 60’s as they were being set up. Safe areas for animals was then seen as a great idea. The came the now defunct idea of culling and later – 50 years later, we realize we “boxed them in”. We can continue to endlessly discuss Trophy Hunting, CAMPFIRE, Wild Captures, Translocation, Tourism, Wild life/People Conflict mitigation – but could we accept a radical long term solution might just be to identify potential corridors for wild life into and out of these core areas. Yes the idea is already being tried but it will not realize the great potential unless we start to actively manipulate the ecology of those corridors. And invest massively in the communities there. Within those corridors (Which could indeed be sustained by philanthrophy – funds referred to by Colleen Begg) lie the potential not only for sustainable job creation for local people but the growth of a whole new “Industry” around co-habitation with wild creatures. Knowledge about food sources and timing of fruiting trees could be used in order to plant those trees in “designed corridors” to draw elephants and other browsers when and where you need them to be away from crops which are being harvested at a particular time…..this is one small example. Monitoring of plants, insects and other living creatures in these corridors is a full time job for thousands…or it SHOULD be. In the West you can afford Citizen scientists…. not here in Africa….here people could make a good living in this great experiment, whilst retaining important cultural practices and traditional ways of living. We use knowledge of animal behavior and feeding patterns to manipulate movements….we do this all the time with other animals. It is possible. We need local solutions from local people oh yes, but Philantrophy is greatly needed so that “boots on the ground are viable”

  • Stephanie Fuchs

    I believe it is very important to listen to the voices of those who live on the interface with wildlife, i.e. the local people. Without listening to their needs and understanding their cultural backgrounds, any conservation initiative is doomed to fail.

  • Jhm0699

    All the listening to the African people will do no good if they can’t clean up the corruption in their governments. Too many government officials in many if not most of these countries are complicit with the poachers and take dollars from the conservation projects to line their own pockets. How many of the $50,000 or $100,000 from hunting an elephant actually goes to the local communities as opposed to the individual government officials?

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