Africa's Commercial Poaching Pandemic

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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Africa's Commercial Poaching Pandemic

In 1960 Africa’s black rhinos numbered 100 000 animals. By the end of the century they were down to 2 500. Between 1979 and 1989 Africa’s elephants were said to have been reduced from 1,3 million to 600 000. The blame was laid at the feet of the black market and commercial poaching, and the extinction of both species was predicted.

In an effort to save them the nations of the world, through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora (CITES), declared both species to be “endangered” and banned international trade in rhino horn (1975) and elephant ivory (1989). Neither action stopped the killing but it slowed the poaching juggernaut.

The actions of Kenya and Zimbabwe in adopting a policy to shoot poachers on sight, however, probably did as much – or more - to curb the poaching pandemic in those countries as did the international trade bans. Whatever the reality, the poaching of rhinos and elephants had been significantly reduced by the start of the 1990s.

Wildlife management economist have calculated that to properly protect Africa’s elephants in their current sanctuaries - from commercial poachers - would cost US $ 200 per square kilometre per annum; and black rhinos, US $ 1 200 per square kilometre per annum. This is clearly beyond the capacity of ANY African government in the present day and age.

It is not surprising, therefore, that many people have come to believe that Africa’s elephants and black rhinos are ultimately doomed to extinction.

This need not happen – BUT the extinction of Africa’s elephants and rhinos will DEFINITELY occur if mankind does not accept THE FACTS surrounding the commercial poaching pandemic; and IF we do not change our attitude towards wildlife management in Africa - in accordance with these facts - in the very near future.

The accredited animal rights NGOs at CITES caused the trade bans to be put in place. The facts surrounding Africa’s commercial poaching pandemic, however, are very different from the animal rights propaganda that was presented.

It has been the animal rightists’ purpose to stop trade in ALL wildlife and wildlife products since CITES came into being (1975) so, with respect to their desire to have an ivory trade ban imposed, they disseminated ONLY information – much of which was untrue - that suited their purpose. They propagated the idea, for example, that the black market in ivory and rhino horn was the sole reason for the commercial poaching pandemic – when, in fact, the black market was only the ‘ultimate’ cause. They totally ignored all the ‘proximate’ causes - which are infinitely more important.

Most people understand the HIV/AIDS syndrome. They know there is no such disease as ‘AIDS’, per se, and that people who die of AIDS actually die of some common disease like tuberculosis or pneumonia; and that these are the ‘ultimate’ reasons for their deaths.

They also know that had AIDS victims not been first infected with HIV they could have been fairly easily cured of the common disease that eventually killed them. In this case, the HIV infection represents the ‘proximate’ cause of the patients’ deaths. Their HIV infection, therefore, is the real and underlying reason why these people die.

Treating AIDS patients for the ultimate diseases that are killing them is only palliative. Such treatment does not and cannot stop them from dying. The ONLY way to save an AIDS patient from death is to eliminate his HIV infection FIRST. This underscores the greater importance of the ‘proximate’ cause over the ‘ultimate’ causes of the syndrome.

Exactly the same syndrome applies to Africa’s commercial poaching pandemic. And the same futility accompanies the act of trying to stop commercial poaching by eliminating ONLY its ultimate cause. To cure Africa’s poaching ‘disease’ we HAVE to remove its proximate causes.

If we were to eliminate JUST the black market for ivory and rhino horn, therefore, some other ‘ultimate’ cause – other than the black market – will cause poaching to continue.

This happens in the HIV/AIDS syndrome, too. If an HIV-infected patient does not die of TB he will die of pneumonia or malaria – or something else.

In Africa - since the black market for ivory and rhino horn has been suppressed - killing wild animals for their meat has become the new ultimate cause of a new wave of commercial poaching. And this is infinitely more difficult to control. It is also more insidiously devastating because it is applied to ALL species.

This demonstrates the fact that we must identify ALL the proximate causes that make Africa’s rural people WANT to illegally hunt wild animals – and then to set about finding ways and means of eliminating each one of them. Only THEN will poaching cease. ALL black markets will then wither away. And there will be no reason for the maintenance of international trade bans in ivory and rhino horn.

Identifying the proximate causes of the poaching is not difficult. Eliminating them, however, will present society with a gigantic challenge because it will require a paradigm shift of immense proportions.

The most important factor contributing to the poaching pandemic of the 1970s and 1980s was poverty – which is linked to both decolonisation and Africa’s human population explosion. And poverty will be the driving force behind ever more intensified poaching that will take place as the new millennium advances.

The winds-of-change began blowing over Africa in the mid-1950s – when human population pressure on the land was just starting to become manifest. If, in 1955, when all of Africa’s ‘vacant’ land was occupied, for example, there was just one family living on one plot of land, by the year 2000 there were five families striving to make a living off that same piece of land. This happened because Africa’s human population is doubling in number every 20 years – and by the year 2020 there will be 10 times as many people living off those same plots of land as there were in the 1950s. This problem, therefore, is getting worse not better.

By the end of the 1960s most of Africa had been decolonised and its colonial masters had been removed. This left a huge experience gap in government administrations and, thereafter, the newly independent countries of Africa struggled to establish democracies and to install stable economies. Inevitably corruption became as major bureaucratic force. And the black market financed the corruption that fueled the ivory and rhino horn poaching.

During the immediate post-colonial era inept government in Africa contributed to a decline in overall economic productivity. Previously progressive colonial development projects stagnated and work became difficult to find – especially in remote rural areas. And this was all exacerbated by the reluctance of the developed world to invest in Africa.

This reality, coupled with Africa’s population explosion, created a spiral of decline that brought more and more poverty to the continent – especially to remote rural communities. This continues into the present time with few expectations that it can ever be arrested.

An escalating poverty condition in remote rural communities, therefore, was a major proximate cause of the commercial poaching pandemic.

Another major issue was the fact that, during the colonial era, many communities were removed from their traditional lands to make way for the creation of Africa’s huge national parks. The people, therefore, covet the sanctuary land and they genuinely believe that it rightly belongs to them. Their dream is that one day they will get ‘their’ land back. This is already being demanded is some countries. And it is a demand that will become ever more intense in the years ahead as human populations increase in size.

Another factor is that the people living on the boundaries of Africa’s national parks hate the big game animals that venture out of the sanctuaries and raid their crops. One small herd of bull elephants, for example, can wipe out a family’s annual maize crop in just one night. And a single lion can kill many corralled cattle in a matter of minutes. All in all, therefore, the affected people would like to see ALL wild animals dead because they interfere with their life-support-systems.

They also object to international tourists using the national parks as ‘playgrounds’ when the people could use the land for their own survival. And they accrue no – or few - benefits from tourism.

Most rural communities living on the boundaries of national parks live in what amounts to a state of war with the national park authorities. When someone poaches an animal in the park – for ivory or because his family is hungry - he is hunted down by game rangers and sent to gaol for a long prison term. There is normally, therefore, no love lost between the national park administration and the people who live on the national park boundaries, and there is no cooperation.

All these factors represent the several proximate causes of Africa’s poaching pandemic. It took very little persuasion, therefore, to get these people to shoot elephants and rhinos for the black marketeers. And these are the factors that cause the people to now poach for meat because, as their numbers and their poverty increases, they – more and more - have everything to gain and nothing to lose by supplementing their dire living conditions with the proceeds – ANY kind of proceeds - of their poaching activities.

Remote rural families in Africa – each comprising an average of 8 people – live on incomes that vary between US $ 8 per annum and US $ 50 per annum. Put yourself in these people’s situations! Who of you reading this article, if you were forced to live under such conditions, would turn down the opportunity of getting US $ 40 simply by selling a pair of elephant tusks? Who of you would not poach for meat when your families are starving?

The poachers need our sympathy not our condemnation. And we need to understand where they are coming from if we want to find ways and means that will stop them poaching. We need to understand that coercive prohibitions – such as the ivory trade ban - or sending poachers to gaol - will NOT help our purpose. We need to understand that, if the present status quo is allowed to continue, the poaching will increase in intensity as the people grow in number, and as their ever-greater poverty drives them to more and more desperate measures to survive.

The prognosis for the survival of wildlife in Africa, therefore, is dismal. I predict that, IF NO MANAGEMENT CHANGE-OF-DIRECTION TAKES PLACE, the broad-based African wildlife heritage that we enjoy today will disappear during the next fifty years.

But this need not happen. Africa’s wildlife can survive. But it will only do so if society can be persuaded to make some radical changes to its current way of thinking about wildlife and its management.

One of mankind’s stated reasons for maintaining species diversity is that the more extinctions that occur the harder will it be for our own species to survive in the years ahead. “Nobody knows,” the litany laments, “what potential benefits man loses when a species passes into oblivion. ALL species, therefore, should be protected because we never know when man will have to use them for his own survival.” Most people holding these views, however, are not prepared to accept that the time is NOW right for Africa’s people to start ‘using’ wild animals for their own survival.

The next fifty years will show human populations in Africa reaching numerical levels that were never dreamed of in colonial times. Very soon there will be wide-spread and general states of absolute poverty and starvation that, until now, have only been occasionally manifest in isolated pockets of the continent. We have little time left, therefore, to establish truly symbiotic relationships between national park administrations and their immediate human neighbours.

The time has come for Africa to start using its wildlife as a-wild-product-of-the-land in the interests of its people – and thus to ensure that both rural human communities AND wildlife survive. This, per force, means the sustainable consumptive-use of wildlife in our national parks – with a large proportion of the revenue derived therefrom going to the national parks’ immediate neighbour communities.

Note: Those who are opposed to man’s consumptive use of wild animals, especially in national parks, state that proceeds from tourism can provide a national park’s neighbour-communities with enough financial benefits to stop them poaching. This is not true. Financial returns from tourism cannot compete with what the rural people can get from selling ivory or rhino horn on the black market – but monies generated from the sustainable consumptive-use of wild animals can TOTALLY out-compete the black market. For example, a few years ago the sale of just nine SURPLUS white rhino bulls in hunting packages, in South Africa’s Pilanesberg National Park, brought in more revenue than was earned from 57 000 ordinary game-viewing tourists that same year.

Many national parks in Africa can sustainably carry several thousand elephants; and most elephant herds need be culled at a rate of ‘about’ 7 percent per annum - or 70 animals per thousand. Of these 15 will be adult bulls which have traditionally be culled by national park game rangers. Instead of just culling them these bulls could be taken off by high-fee-paying-hunters under the supervision of the rangers. Each elephant could command a trophy fee of at least US $ 5000. In addition a US $ 1 000 per day fee could be charged for a minimum twenty-one-day safari.

It is my contention that the “trophy fee” should be renamed a “community levy” -which monies should be promised to the local community IF its members stopped poaching. Furthermore, they should be promised the community levies on ALL of the elephant bulls on each year’s annual culling quota. In game reserves like South Africa’s Kruger, Zimbabwe’s Hwange, and in Botswana’s north-western areas, the sustainable elephant population is something like 5000 in each case. That means, in each case, the community levies from 75 elephant bulls could be offered to the neighbouring communities every year. It also means that US $ 375 000 would be earned by each of these communities - every year - IF they stopped poaching.

US $ 5 000 is 125 times the value that the poachers used to get (US $ 40,00) for one average-sized pair of elephant tusks from the black market. When they have access to this kind of legal money for protecting elephants, it would NOT then be in the local people’s interest to continue poaching, or to hide poachers from the authorities. This anti-poaching cost would be infinitely cheaper than paying the US $ 200 per square kilometre that it has been estimated is necessary to protect elephants from poachers within their sanctuaries. Furthermore, the elephants would be paying for their own salvation. And the elimination of commercial poaching by this means will cost Africa’s governments nothing!

There must be a carrot-and-stick incentive in the formula, however, to make it properly effective. The people must be able to benefit – and to benefit substantially - IF they cooperate, and they must be penalised – and penalised significantly - if they fail to do so.

Each chieftainship should be told, up-front, what their elephant allocation is each year and what financial return they can expect therefrom at the end of the year, IF THEY STOP POACHING. They should also be told that IF they don’t – if mavericks amongst their number continue to poach – then TWO elephants will be removed from their annual quota for every ONE poached elephant that is found in the nearby national park. The cost of harbouring poachers within their midst, therefore, will cost the community as whole, 250 times what the individual poacher can get from selling his one pair of poached tusks to the black market. Even the poachers, therefore, would see the stupidity and the futility of continuing their poaching activities.

Note: It is important to understand that this dispensation will work if it is applied ONLY to those integrated communities that live on a national park’s immediate boundaries. These are the communities from which the poachers come, or who help those poachers who come from further afield. THEY know EVERYTHING that is going on in their zones-of-influence. Only THEY, therefore, have the power to stop the poaching. If more distant communities are brought into the equation the more will the potential benefits to the national park be watered down, and the less effective will be the general benefit to Africa’s wildlife as a whole.

There are many concomitant implications in getting such an anti-commercial-poaching programme off the ground, but they cannot be covered in one short article. Suffice it to say that the same kind of arrangement can be applied to all other hunt-able animals in Africa’s wildlife sanctuaries, including black and white rhinos, buffaloes, lions, leopards and all the many other hunt-able trophy species. This would effectively eliminate commercial poaching in Africa’s national parks forever – even during those periods in the years ahead when massive human populations on the park boundaries reach their ultimate densities. Certainly this ideal has infinitely more prospects for success than do the coercive and illogical natural-resource-use prohibitions that are currently being imposed on Africa’s people in this their time of need.

Note: This article has been extracted from one chapter of Ron Thomson’s forth-coming new book, A GAME WARDEN’S REPORT, which is due to be published later this year. The book is a status report on the condition of wildlife affairs in Africa at the start of the new millennium.

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