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Shooting elephants, saving communities, and badly defined ideas

On June 6, Dr Terry Anderson (John and Jean De Nault Senior Fellow and Co-Chair, Property Rights, Freedom, and Prosperity Task Force) associated with the Hoover Institution (a think tank on the campus of Stanford University in California) published an article provocatively called “Shoot an Elephant, Save a Community” .Terry is described as “an avid outdoorsman who enjoys fishing, hiking, skiing, horseback riding, and archery hunting, especially in Africa”, and is probably a thoughtful person, having received many awards and written several books. The article comes under the designation of “Defining Ideas” in the Hoover Institution Journal.

The post by Terry makes some good points, but is not well researched, and is clearly a personal opinion piece rather than a defining idea.

Terry begins with the premise that “by assigning economic value to animals, hunting preserves more wildlife than it kills”. He then ends with the statement that “hunting organizations such as Safari Club International … get a real bang for their buck”. One wonders what he means by that last statement – a buck is a male deer and a male rabbit, a colloquialism for money, and a transitive verb meaning to oppose directly and stubbornly. Or perhaps does he mean that SCI achieves great conservation results? Maybe he would be so good as to explain that further.

Terry is clearly on a mission against People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, an organization he describes as gassed up on rhetoric but running on empty in terms of demonstrably achieving more elephants in Africa. Terry’s ire was stoked when PETA “plastered” a video of GoDaddy (a web company) CEO Bob Parsons shooting an elephant on the web. Terry supports GoDaddy Bob because the elephant he shot was raiding crops and causing mayhem in a village, and thereby Bob was doing good for communities and thereby for elephants (?). PETA, on the other hand, was ignoring the “complexity of human wildlife conflicts in Africa and the role of property rights and local management in resource conservation”. In other words, PETA was doing their usual stuff by opposing everything rather than helping anything while Bob was in tune with complexities, property rights, and resource conservation. Well done Bob.

Terry is on solid ground when he says that devolving wildlife management to the local level and giving communities stewardship of wildlife resources could indeed make a considerable difference in wildlife conservation. But then Terry makes the same mistake as many before him – he quotes the gassed up rhetoric of the hunters. For someone who complains about PETA’s rhetoric, this is a bit fatal to his believability.

As usual, Terry begins with Kenya. The usual litany – large wild animals declined by 60 to 70% since trophy hunting stopped in 1977 (attributed by him to anti-hunting campaigners rather than a government decision to end over-exploitation of a resource for little return), elephant populations declined greatly to just 16,000 in 1989 (they have doubled since then), and Kenya relying only on its protected areas to conserve wildlife populations. He then digs his grave deeper – the hunting ban “gives wildlife little or no economic value, causing rural Africans to view wildlife as a liability to be avoided rather than an asset to be protected”. Meanwhile Kenya has earned very significantly more from photographic tourism than it ever could from hunting, and the decline of wildlife in Kenya is a much more complex issue than the mere cessation of trophy hunting. 

And then he compounds the errors of his gravedigging by mentioning the wonderful world of CAMPFIRE. Having done a bit of research on the CAMPFIRE program in Zimbabwe, I cannot help but shake my head. Far from “devolving the rights to benefit from, dispose of, and manage natural resources to the local level, including the right to allow safari hunting”, CAMPFIRE was a complete flop for communities while greatly benefiting government officials (who held on to all rights to wildlife resources and milked foreign donors) and the hunting companies (who made off with great profits). Surely Terry could have done a bit of homework on this issue before feasting on his rhetoric sandwiches?

Not to be dissuaded, Terry bravely ploughs on – “CAMPFIRE has quietly produced results with strikingly little activist rhetoric ... the program benefitted an estimated 90,000 households and had a total economic impact of $100 million”. Actually, between 1989 and 2001 (the period for which the most comprehensive records are available), 18 Rural District Councils earned a total of $20.3 million.  Of this amount, the RDCs retained $6.3 million (31% - the communities never saw any of this) and $9.9 million was disbursed to the various wards (a ward is a sub-district administrative unit containing an average of six villages; in the main CAMPFIRE districts there were an average of 991 households per ward and an average of 5.4 people per household). In few cases was the money distributed to individual households, and as more districts joined CAMPFIRE, such individual benefits have declined. In 1989, where such payments were made, each household received $20, but this declined to $2 in 1998 because more districts had by then joined. In addition, such payments were intermittent. So where does Terry’s figure of $100 million benefiting all those households come from? It takes a brave man to keep shooting himself in the foot, but he does it again when he goes on to equate wildlife ranching in South Africa with wildlife conservation!

For someone who complains about rhetoric, Terry thus dishes it out with a big spoon. Where Terry does make a bit of sense is that anti-hunting organizations should be more factual. The information is out there, just takes a little bit of effort to unearth it, and a willingness to read reports not in English. Terry is also right when he says that “if environmental organizations want to produce more results, they need to put aside their obsession with issues such as hunting and advocate on behalf of property rights and community resource management. This allows the decisions over wildlife and other natural resources to be made by the people who bear its costs”. Sadly, it is precisely the hunting companies that currently obstruct such devolution of rights as they feel more comfortable in dealing with “good friends” in government than the communities they have failed. Best if Terry works on ways to define his ideas for a resolution of this dilemma?

Environmental organizations have not done as well as they could or should, and I’m not saying that the blame for failure of directly involving communities rests entirely with the hunting sector. But to hold the hunters up as paragons of African conservation is tricky with all the contrary scientific information available. I believe that what we need is a clear way through to inform future conservation priorities, and these will not be based on rhetoric from both sides but careful and disinterested evaluation.

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 13:01

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