Blazing guns and huts as Zimbabwe ignores Kenyan lesson

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2000:

VOI, Kenya ––The six-hour drive from Nairobi to Tsavo East National Park would be worth the bumps for Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species delegates, for the challenge the Tsavo vista pre- sents to conventional beliefs about elephants and ecology.

Hundreds of delegates and observers will soon arrive in Nairobi for workshops leading up to the April 2000 CITES triennial meeting. Whether to permit more auctions of culled elephant ivory and rhino horn will–– again––be the most contentious agenda item.

In 1997 CITES allowed Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe to auction elephant ivory and hides, and to sell live elephants. These were the first cracks in the trade bans imposed by CITES in 1989 to protect elephants and rhinos from slaughter to extinction.

Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe now want to sell more elephants and elephant parts. South Africa announced on December 9 that it wants to join the market, having 30 tons of ivory stockpiled at Kruger National Park alone. South Africa will also try again to resume selling rhino horn. Previous South African efforts to sell rhino horn were narrowly defeated in 1994 and 1997.

Other nations with wild elephants and rhinos, led by Kenya, hope to close the opening to legal trade, which––as they had predicted––has become an invitation to esca- lated poaching. Poaching at even a fraction of the pre-1989 levels could swiftly eradicate ele- phants and rhinos from most of their still dwin- dling wild range.

The U.S. list of CITES goals, released on November 18, omitted mention of either elephants or rhinos. This is understood internationally as a tacit endorsement of the Botswanian, Namibian, Zimbabwean, and South African position.

The Bill Clinton/Albert Gore White House remains committed to “sustainable consumptive use,” the concept of making wild species pay for their own conservation. This echoes the positions of the World Wildlife Fund, Elephant and Rhino Fund, and Safari Club International. Elephants and rhinos would in effect be farmed.

Village burned

Centerpiece of the Clinton/Gore policy is the Zimbabwean Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, CAMPFIRE for short. Purporting to encourage villagers to protect wildlife by enabling them to share in the profits from trophy hunting, CAMPFIRE generates $2.5 million a year in program revenue. It received subsidies of $20.5 million during fiscal years 1997-2000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, after receiving $8 million from USAid 1989-1996.

CAMPFIRE gets good references from the hunter/conservationist establishment for allegedly enlisting village support. But on December 12, 1999 the Zimbabwe Standard published allegations that on November 17 the Gokwe North rural district council cleared “a buffer zone for safari activities” under the auspices of CAMPFIRE by torching the homes of 114 villagers, along with all their possessions.

“Mafera Chitoto, who vocally opposed the project, had his entire homestead razed to the ground, including his granary,” the Standard reported. “His 24 bags of corn were taken away by the council, and out of 26 cattle in his kraal, only one remained. Worse still, four of Chitoto’s children, aged between four and 13, were inexplicably taken away by the raiding party, without their parents, and dumped at an abandoned mine site.” Three weeks later, said Munyaradzi Bidi, executive director of ZimRights, the children were “still stranded at the mine, with- out food and having to fend for themselves.” Bidi said his organization would send a car to rescue them, and was meanwhile providing tents and food to the displaced people.

According to the Standard , “a top government official” said the incident occurred because “Rural councils were desperate to get some of the non-governmental funding that was available. To qualify for the funds, the councils were required to have feasible and identified sets of programs, and as a result the councils were rushing to start projects so as to get the donor money before it ran out.”

Poaching explodes

World Wildlife Fund Southern African regional office chief David Cumming, a retired director of the Zimbabwean national parks, expressed concern meanwhile that poaching in Zimbabwe is again out of control.

Annual airborne WWF counts of ele- phants in the Zambezi Valley found that, “The percentage of carcasses to live elephants was 5% last year, but 10% this year,” Cumming told Neely Tucker of the San Jose Mercury News Africa bureau.

Officially, poachers had killed 88 elephants in Zimbabwe during 1999, up to December 1. But a “senior National Parks officer, speaking on condition of anonymity,” told Neely that “The real number of dead elephants is at least 350, maybe 400 or more. The department is under-reporting case numbers,” the source said, “because they fear the publicity will affect the ivory trade.”

At least 31 Zimbabwean elephants were poached for their tusks in November alone, wrote David Blair of the London Daily Telegraph. “Poachers are becoming skilled at evading patrols and seem to have detailed information about their movements,” Blair explained. “They have been seen with radios identical to those used by the scouts, allowing them to intercept conversations between patrols. A member of an anti-poaching unit said, ‘That radio could only have been obtained from someone in the National Parks Department. They must be getting help from someone corrupt high up.’ These suspicions arose when a poacher was captured after being wounded in a gunfight. The anti-poaching officer said, ‘When we interrogated him, he said that he knew his bosses were being helped by senior figures in Harare.’”

Said the Harare Herald, “Authoritative sources in Parks attribute the upsurge in poaching to the failure by the department’s head office to fully equip its staff. The department is reportedly bedeviled by declining morale, corruption, and external influence.”

Parks director Willas Makombe, resisting calls for his resignation, made no comment. Also silent was wildlife law enforcement chief Austin Ndhlovu.

Makombe was warned in November by CITES deputy secretary-general J.A. Armstrong that Zimbabwe had not filed mandatory reports on its elephant population since 1994.

“You should consider that the absence of these reports will be held against any proposal made by Zimbabwe, and will undermine your credibility,” Armstrong said. “It is of great concern to us that Zimbabwe has not participated as required in all monitoring mechanisms established by CITES,” Armstrong added.

Plot alleged

Responded Zimbabwean deputy environment minister Edward ChindoriChininga, in a statement broadcast by the government-run Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation: “It is strongly believed that some so-called animal lovers are paying poaching gangs millions of dollars to kill elephants and take pictures to discredit Africa.”

The Harare Herald confirmed that the Zimbabwean government was investigating a claim by captured alleged poachers that “a number of poachers in the Zambezi Valley are being sponsored by some non-governmental organisations and countries that want to discredit Zimbabwe before CITES.”

Added Rangarirai Shoko of the PanAfrican News Agency, “Zimbabwean officials said captured poachers indicated they were members of an international syndicate, and had been paid large sums to illegally hunt elephants in Zimbabwe. The poachers reportedly infiltrate Zimbabwe from neighboring Zambia, where officials suspect the leaders of the elephant poaching syndicate are based.”

Four suspected Zambian poachers were killed in firefights with Zimbabwean wardens during the next two weeks, but there were no further revelations about purported international plots.

Covert actions

Nonetheless, there might have been more than innuendo behind the Zimbabwean claims, if only because some individuals have covertly worked both sides of the ivory wars.

As a 1995 South African judicial inquiry established, the former apartheid government funded covert military operations from 1977 into the 1980s via elephant poaching in Angola and possibly Zaire and Burundi.

Personnel believed to have been from the same South African units were hired in 1987 by Operation Lock, a paramilitary anti-poaching force funded by former World Wildlife Fund international president Prince Bernhard of The Netherlands.

Before disbanding in 1989, Operation Lock sent a helicopter to a purported anti-poaching project in the Zambezi Valley, according to a 1991 expose by Stephen Ellis of the London I n d e p e n d e n t, and used at least £75,000 of Bernhard’s £500,000 investment to buy rhino horn––which then disappeared.

The next big anti-poaching effort in the area was directed by Mark and Delia Owens of the Owens Foundation, whose approach centered on economic development but branched into paramilitary work. Mark and Delia Owens left Zambia in 1996 amid allegations of involvement in the murder of a suspected poacher, whose shooting was shown during a March 1996 ABC News Turning Point broadcast. Mark and Delia Owens denied ever using lethal force.

ANIMAL PEOPLE suggested in an April 1999 cover feature that Mark and Delia Owens might have been framed by some of the covert operators to get them out of the way.

Their North Luanga Conservation Project was taken over by the Frankfurt Zoo. Since 1996 the zoo has reportedly sponsored a training camp for Malawian game scouts, directed by Mike Labuschagne, a veteran of combat in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Angola. He later did security work for South African game farmers.

Zambian wildlife authorities have meanwhile stepped up their own anti-poaching work during the past three years, arresting 3,033 suspects and confiscating 3,140 guns, including military weapons.

Back at Tsavo

Kenya too is still fighting a long, bloody war against heavily armed poachers. Tsavo is among the major battlefields. But the most important front, as perceived in Kenya, is around the CITES conference table.

If CITES again cuts off legal traffic in elephant and rhino parts, Kenyan conservation experts anticipate, poachers will lose their cover for exports and sales. The market will again decline, and with it will decline the incentive to poach.

Conversely, if CITES approves further ivory, hide, and horn sales, the market will expand––and so will the opportunity for poachers to make a killing.

CITES is supposed to base decisions on science, independent of economic and political pressure. In truth, economic and political pressure are omnipresent at CITES triennials and preliminary conferences. Science tends to matter much less than public perception of the scientific issues. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and the Clinton/Gore White House have learned to play to popular concepts of ecology by claiming to have “elephant overpopulation,” purportedly jeopardizing endanged plants and birds. “Maintaining biodiversity” is among the major current pretexts for culling elephants.

And this is why CITES delegates should find a visit to Aruba village in Tsavo East National Park especially instructive. The expensive but now useless Aruba dam, silted in and broken, testifies to the difficulty of “managing” nature effectively over more than just a few years.

A nearby pump-fed waterhole, funded by the British-based organization Care For The Wild, keeps Aruba an oasis attractive to all the Tsavo wildlife––and to busloads of wildlife watchers. The Tsavo desert was incorporated into a national park in 1949 because it could not be made economically productive as anything else: it would not grow crops, nor maintain grazing cattle, and there was nothing to log or mine. Yet wildlife viewing opportunities have made Aruba and other visitor accommodations in Tsavo among the most economically productive parts of Kenya.

The waterhole pumps are driven by wind. The water, from a shallow aquifer, is routinely replenished: though arid most of the time, the Aruba basin drains hundreds of square miles whenever rain comes. What does not evaporate or run off into a tributary of the Galana river sinks through the sandy soil.

The dam failed because it worked against the natural cycle of Tsavo. The waterhole will need maintenance, but can even be replaced at relatively low cost, if necessary. Like other Care For The Wild waterholes in Tsavo East, it works with the natural cycle.

Daphne Sheldrick, reading the Tsavo cycle for all 50 years the park has existed, is quick to explain what this all has to do with elephants and CITES action on the ivory trade––besides that the waterhole gives the Tsavo elephants a favorite place to bathe.

The open landscape shows the influence of alternating patterns of vegetation, Sheldrick begins. Her late husband David Sheldrick, the first Tsavo East warden, traced the cycles back by comparing the observations of the first European visitors with detailed analysis of buried root structures.

During the tree phase, deep-rooting vegetation draws water from the ground and stores it in trunks and root mass, until the springs sink and go dry.

Elephants, who prosper as browsers during the tree phase while grazing species diminish, destroy the trees during the drought phase that comes after the springs sink. This returns the tree nutrients to the soil and releases the water held in the roots. An elephant dieoff may occur, as in 1970, if the drought is prolonged. More often, reproduction merely slows.

Next comes a cycle of grass growth, benefiting grazing species and their predators.

Fire can prolong the grass phase for decades, as it recently did, by delaying tree growth. If there are no fires for several decades, however, the trees can become dense enough to shade out the grass––as was the case in 1949. Then only elephants can restore the grazing habitat.

“There is no such thing as a steadystate ecology in Tsavo, never was, and never can be,” Sheldrick emphasizes. “What we call the ‘balance of nature’ is a climatic see-saw. One cannot ‘manage’ Tsavo therefore, nor can one ‘manage’ the similar habitats occupied by elephants across Africa, except by preventing poaching, maintaining fences and waterholes to keep the animals within the territory humans let them occupy, and then allowing the natural cycles to happen.”

This means, Sheldrick concludes, that there is no valid reason to cull or relocate elephants in any large park, regardless of the potential profits to be made from selling ivory.

Her advice directly opposes the South African position that culling is urgently necessary at Kruger National Park, where elephants have not been killed since 1994.

The South African National Parks Board, owner of the Kruger ivory stockpile, in early November claimed that the estimated 9,152 elephants within Kruger are more than 2,000 too many. The Parks Board position was reinforced by conservation biologists Rudi van Aarde and Ian Whyte of the University of Pretoria, and Stuart Pimm of the University of Tennessee, who charged that elephant damage to trees might jeopardize the survival of endangered birds.

Welfare isn’t on agenda

An Oxford-trained ornithologist, Pimm is well-positioned to influence world scientific opinion. He holds seats on the editorial boards of four major peer-reviewed journals––and the University of Tennessee post puts him among Albert Gore’s top environmental advisors.

Sheldrick is comparatively poorly connected, having ignored academic politics throughout her half century of hands-on work for animals and habitat.

She gained an ally in amplifying her politically unpopular message in 1987, however, when Care For The Wild founder William Jordan visited the elephant orphanage she runs at Nairobi National Park.

Jordan often speaks of “The ‘con’ in conservation,” by which he means the fallacy of trying to manage wildlife habitat as if it were a farm––the approach favored by conservation biologists, who quantify success in terms of production units, making scant allowance for ecological ebb and flow.

A longtime working veterinarian, Jordan produced numerous successful books on the side, including the 1982 wildlife rehabilitation manual Care Of The Wild, which more-or-less inspired the name of his organization, and Divorce Among the Gulls (1991), in which he called attention to the animal traits manifested throughout human behavior. “

Jordan was a founding member and secretary of the British Veterinary Zoological Society,” the organization’s official history states, who “established the Wildlife Department of the Royal SPCA and was responsible for overseeing the welfare of over one million creatures per year who passed through the RSPCA hostel at Heathrow Airport. Appalled by the high mortality and terrible conditions endured by these animals,” Jordan became involved with CITES by drafting international guidelines for wildlife transport. “Undertaking numerous wildlife investigations around the world,” the history continues, ranging from the ice off Atlantic Canada during the 1978 harp seal hunt to the high mountains of Peru, trying to help wild vicunas, Jordan did what he could under various organizations’ auspices for the wildlife of every continent.

Jordan finally began Care For The Wild in 1984, the history states, when he “realized that although many organizations were working for the conservation of wild animals, none were working for their welfare.”

Often described as a real-life Dr. Doolittle, Bill Jordan had stumbled upon one corner of a truth long ignored by the wildlife protection establishment: Scarcely any nation is successfully conserving endangered species which did not first develop an influential humane movement––sometimes after conservation efforts were started but failed to catch on.

Lecture as conservation biologists might about the overriding importance of saving species and habitat, most people spend money and make personal sacrifices to save animals only if they care about them, not just about abstract concepts.

That makes animal welfare the very basis of successful conservation. Walt Disney knew that when he attacked hunting and abuse of captive wildlife in Bambi (1940) and Dumbo (1941). The authors of fundraising appeals focused on cute and cuddly icon species know it, too. Yet animal welfare, per se, is not even a concern recognized by CITES.

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