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Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife

"I villagers living around a park make money from wildlife... the park becomes the villagers' bank and the wild animals in the park their assets... people are not likely to rob their own bank, and will report those who do."

The plight of Africa's wildlife seldom makes the headlines in the west.  When it does, it's rarely for a good reason.  Most recently, the attention of the world was called to Zimbabwe following the killing of the famous lion known as "Cecil."  There was a lot of noise, a lot of passion, and a lot of heat generated by the killing all of which was, predictably, forgotten as the next scandal du jour came along (and I don't even remember what that was, probably something to do with Donald Trump...)

Everyone had an opinion about Cecil's killing.  Not many people (on either side of the debate) had one that was based in fact or experience.  And very few of the opinions offered on the subject took into account one of the most important factors - the people of Africa.

As it happens, most discussions about African wildlife omit African people entirely.  That is an issue that journalist Raymond Bonner addresses in At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife, his analysis of decades-worth of wildlife conservation efforts across South and East Africa.  Using the international ban on elephant ivory as his major case study, Bonner explores the interplay between Africa's wildlife, her people, their governments, and the western NGOs that often dictate conservation policy to them.

The main conclusion that Bonner comes to is that, if Africans are expected to conserve their wildlife, it has to be made worth their while.  The decision of best to do that, he feels, should be left to them.  In America and Europe, we often assume that the answer is easy - tourism.  Americans and Europeans will come to Africa to see and admire wildlife, Africans will prosper, and the wildlife will be saved.

Not so fast, Bonner says.  Firstly, he argues that tourism alone won't solve Africa's financial woes - other sources of income are needed as well... ivory, for instance (many African nations used proceeds of ivory sales to fund their conservation programs.  When ivory sales were banned, they lost that income).  Similarly, surprisingly little tourist money finds its way into the pockets of the local people who are actually living alongside the animals, including child-snatching leopards and crop-raiding elephants.  Secondly, what right do we (the west) have to tell African nations how to manage their resources?  There are plenty of endangered species in the United States - do Kenyans dictate how to manage (or fail to manage) red wolves?

It's easy to read Bonner's book of failed policies and rampant poaching and feel gloomy about the future of the continent's wildlife.  It's also easy, if you are so inclined, to take exception with his focus on conservation of wildlife for Africa's peoples and feel that he doesn't care too much about wildlife.  You would be wrong on both counts.  Bonner's fixation on finding profitable solutions to managing Africa's wildlife is because he sees it as the only viable, sustainable way to safeguard elephants and rhinos for the future.  He also is able to point out several examples of local people taking ownership of their wildlife and finding ways to profit from their local wildlife, protecting it from poachers and learning to happily live alongside it.

In the end, we cannot fence or guard our way into a future for wildlife.  Wild animals, whether in the western United States or eastern Africa, will survive only as long as there is the will (or at least the passive acceptance) of the people to allow them to.  Africa holds, in trust for the rest of the world, some of the most spectacular animals on the face of the planet.  If we expect them to do for us, it is only fare that we help them shoulder that load.  Sometimes, that means sustainable utilization (euphemism for hunting) to cover costs and manage populations.

An elephant deprived of its ivory isn't a pretty sight.  An Africa deprived of its elephants, however, would look even worse.

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