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Egos And Elephants


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Biodiversity Threat:
Conservationists disagree whether local communities
are the best eco-gardians of the habitats on which
they depend for food, fuel and livelihoods.

Egos and elephants
Stephanie Boyd takes the measure of the World Conservation Congress
and finds it long on dispute and short on grassroots participation.

Renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle pauses from her speech on ‘The Future of Nature in the twenty-first Century’ to tell delegates at the World Conservation Congress a personal story.

Shortly after the Gulf War she accompanied prominent American business and congresspeople on a diplomatic visit to Kuwait. ‘The air, the land, the sea had been devastated,’ Earle recalls emotionally. ‘Something like a hundred million barrels of oil spread on the desert.’ Listening to her usually ‘hard-headed’ companions make statements such as ‘first of all you’ve got to have air to breathe’ was like a ‘wake up call’ to Earle. ‘It was as if Saddam Hussein himself had taken a two-by-four and struck me between the ears,’ says Earle with rising intensity. ‘Wake-up! Individuals can and do make a difference.’

Earle’s tale was meant to inspire delegates attending the Geneva-based International Union Conservation of Nature’s mega-conference held last October in Montreal. The IUCN is committed to preserving endangered species and their habitats. But despite Earle’s passion, wake-up calls for urgent action were in short supply. Participants failed to find a unified voice on even the most basic conservation issues.

Although the IUCN describes itself as ‘a force for unity in the conservation community, across governments and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)’, its vast membership web makes UN bureaucracy seem comparatively simple. It weaves together over 700 NGOs, 5,000 top scientists, 73 of the world’s governments and has members spread across 133 countries. Conference dynamics resembled an episode from Richard Leakey’s book The Sixth Extinction – Leakey claims elephant conservationists wasted over 15 years debating his proposed international ivory ban before it was agreed in 1989. He accuses them of ‘fiddling while Rome burns’.

But are events like the IUCN Congress another exercise in ‘fiddling’ while species continue to disappear? Squabbles over terms such as ‘sustainable use’ and ‘invasive species’ found the world’s conservationists disagreeing even on basic definitions. At times this meeting of over 2,500 conservation professionals seemed more like a television mini-drama about the egos, rumours and manoeuvrings of conservation politics.

People unfamiliar with the IUCN might picture the conference as a gathering of neo-hippies chanting slogans like ‘Save the Seals!’. But government suits outweighed the jeans, and ‘official delegates’ from North and South held centre-stage. To be fair, most of the ‘official delegates’ were world-renowned scientists. But whenever delegates are chosen by governments one should ask: whose interests are being represented, and whose are getting left back home?

In an effort to build a more united movement, the IUCN invited all shades of conservationist opinion. The result was like a zoo-keeper’s nightmare: someone got confused and caged a hungry lion with a goat from the petting zoo, a dozen obnoxious parrots and a rattlesnake.

Blaze of defiance: Kenya burns elephant tusks seized from poachers. But some African states believe the ivory trade can underwrite conservation.

Although there wasn’t much consensus-building, the World Conservation Congress proved a useful tool in measuring the fault-lines dividing those dedicated to saving endangered species. One of the most hotly debated issues was over the sustainable use of renewable resources. The logic behind sustainable-use initiatives is simple: to gain the support of local peoples, conservation projects must provide direct benefits to local communities. It’s something like the hippo’s symbiotic relationship with the bird that eats pesky flies off its back.

According to the IUCN, ‘sustainable use’ means using renewable natural resources ‘in such a way that does not threaten a species by over-use, yet will optimize benefits to both the environment and human needs’. Although the phrase looks authoritative and sounds polished, in practice it’s ambiguous and immeasurable.

The conference’s ‘elephant battles’ illustrate how unclear definitions like ‘sustainable use’ can paralyze conservation initiatives. When a US member of Safari Club International, a company running hunting expeditions in Southern Africa, set up a booth, animal-rights activists were not amused. But the battles were complicated by an even greater array of combatants. A professor from Zimbabwe advocated culling his country’s more plentiful elephant population to generate income for local peoples. In contrast, Kenyan delegates supported the international ivory ban which has saved their country’s herds – and fostered a multi-million-dollar tourist industry. Other governments were eager to profit from a renewed ivory trade. It would be pretty tough to have a clear-headed debate about the sustainable use of elephants. Epithets flew back and forth and spilled over into hallways and workshops. Discussions often degenerated into name-calling and back-stabbing with accusations of hidden interests and ‘careerist’ motives.

If you ever want to ignite an animal-rights activist’s fury, whisper the word ‘CAMPFIRE’ in her or his ear. It may sound like a Girl Guide jamboree, but CAMPFIRE is really a safari hunting project run jointly by the Government of Zimbabwe and local district councils. The IUCN conference endorsed CAMPFIRE as a positive ‘sustainable-use’ project, claiming it provides economic benefits to local communities and decreases poaching through income generated from safari hunting.

Conserving animals by hunting them? Sounds paradoxical, but the theory follows the hippo and bird analogy of sustainable use. Local communities who profit from controlled culling will have a vested interest in conserving elephants. But does this simple theory work in practice? Although the conference included various pro- and anti-culling experts, local people were not there to tell their story themselves. Instead, experts at the conference spoke on their behalf. Local people just don’t have the funds to ‘conference hop’.

Conservationists tend to misrepresent or ignore the link between local peoples and endangered species. Is an impoverished farmer who clears a hectare of forest to plant crops and feed his family to blame for habitat destruction? Or do we need to look closer at the roots of poverty to find a culprit closer to home?

To most Westerners, a visit to the Maasai Mara in Kenya is a breathtaking experience. Year after year tourists gaze out of their dusty Land Rovers and Safari mini-vans across the Mara’s vast open plains. The abundance of wildlife astounds people whose ancestors exterminated much of their own wildlife long ago. And no visit is complete until one has seen an African elephant. It is the largest living terrestrial land animal, and has awed and inspired people around the globe. The West’s love affair with the elephant from afar fuels the animal-rights argument. By simply distributing pictures of an elephant killed by poachers, activists win converts to their campaign. Anyone who has seen such a photo can attest to the emotions it generates. The elephant’s carcass is bloated, skin parched from the sun and tusks ripped off by chainsaws leaving a bloody jagged surface where a magnificent trunk once breathed. Why would anyone want to shoot an elephant?

But there is another side to the elephant debate. Do tourists visiting one of Kenya’s exclusive Mara resorts – ‘a luxury tented camp’ – relaxing in a hot bath at the end of a ‘tough day’, think about the people who once depended on the Mara for sustenance? As they drip across the hardwood floors from their full-length porcelain bath to sip a complimentary pre-dinner cocktail, do they recall Nairobi’s sprawling urban slums?

Perhaps they delude themselves into thinking their eco-tourist dollars are improving the standard of living for average Kenyans. Eco-tourist dollars may have saved Kenya’s elephant population but they haven’t helped those who once depended on National Park land for their livelihood. Uncontrolled migration from the countryside to urban centres has resulted in over-crowded squatter settlements, like Nairobi’s Mathare Valley. Tourist dollars have not ‘trickled down’ to those who live without basic amenities like clean running water and primary medicine. Even the middle class struggles to pay high taxes, school fees and medical bills. To most Kenyans their ‘national treasure’ is as real to them as a safari company’s brochure.

The Congress did provide an international forum for renowned conservationists to share information. But the IUCN’s recent preoccupation with courting various governments, entrepreneurs, NGOs and academics has remade it into the ‘nouveau scientific royalty’ of the environmental movement. Somewhere in the crowded conference halls and VIP lounges the spirit of conservation has been lost.

Perhaps Sylvia Earle should have pulled out her proverbial two-by-four (the same one that knocked her to her senses in Kuwait) and brought it down on some of the heads gathered at the World Conservation Congress. ‘Wake up!’ she could have said as heads crunched. ‘Wake up! Or conservationists may join the Mexican Thick-Billed Parrot and the California Bay Pea Crab on the IUCN’s 5,000-strong Red List of endangered animals.

Stephanie Boyd is a journalist who has worked in Kenya and specializes in being nosy.

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New Internationalist issue 288 magazine cover This article is from the March 1997 issue of New Internationalist.
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