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The Fight Over the Destiny of Southern Africa’s Wildlife

Bull Elephant with ears flared facing camera with ominous sky behind him

It’s a fight that pits people against animals, African nations against western conservationists, leading some to ask ‘do black lives matter less than wildlife in Southern Africa?’

At 44, Fanuel Baloyi – just like other villagers from Chikombedzi area in south-eastern Zimbabwe – has survived countless life-threatening encounters with elephants, hippopotamuses, buffaloes, lions and crocodiles amongst other dangerous wild animals. So far, he has been lucky. But many others have not been so lucky as they have been killed or maimed by these beasts. 

In fact, Baloyi knows many people who have been killed or badly injured by wild animals but doesn’t know anyone who has been killed by the Coronavirus in his community. He considers wild animals to be a more serious threat to life than a pandemic that will be remembered for bringing the world to a standstill. 

More than 60 people have been killed and hundreds of others injured in thousands of cases of human-wildlife conflict in Zimbabwe in 2020 alone, while thousands of livestock and valuable crops were lost to marauding animals.

The dejected villager is bitterly aware that the country’s laws do not provide for any compensation to victims of human-wildlife conflict. “There is nothing that we can do… every day we get cases of people and livestock having been attacked by wild animals,”

Climate Change Amid Booming Wildlife Populations 

With these attacks increasing in frequency as the southern African region suffers from the effects of climate change and population growth, over 50 percent of the fatalities and the bulk of the damage to crops and homesteads are caused by elephants whose numbers have increased exponentially in the region over the past few decades.

Baloyi lives in an area close to Gonarezhou National Park. The park is part of the regional Great Limpopo Trans-Frontier Park that amalgamates Limpopo National Park of Mozambique, Gonarezhou National Park of Zimbabwe and the Kruger National Park of South Africa. 

Sketch map of Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park. Source Wikipedia

On the western side of Zimbabwe is the much bigger Hwange National Park, which is part of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), a regional wildlife sanctuary made up of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and Angola. 

Concerted conservation efforts have seen wildlife numbers booming in these African countries. Also growing, alongside the wildlife numbers, are the human populations, resulting in increasing cases of human-wildlife conflicts like those described above. 

The number of people living in Africa has doubled since 1982 and is expected to double again before 2050. As the human population expands, more land is being converted to agriculture, mining and other uses that benefit people. So wildlife habitat is shrinking and becoming more fragmented, and people and wildlife are increasingly coming into contact – and conflict – with each other.

Part of the aftermath of a predator attack on a livestock enclosure (boma) in the Maasai Mara, Kenya where more than 200 sheep and goats were killed. Photo credit: Dominic Sakat

Climate change has seen the region suffer frequent and prolonged droughts that have left the growing animal populations without pastures and water, driving them into deadly encounters with equally embattled villagers in communities abutting the wildlife sanctuaries.  

Punished For The Success of Conservation Efforts?

To sustain their conservation efforts, southern African countries have relied on a number of revenue streams, among them the harvest of the wildlife resources through trophy hunting and the trade in wildlife products. However, over the years, they have not been able to get much revenue from the growing wildlife populations owing to a blanket ban imposed by the 183-nation Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) on trade in elephant and other wildlife products. 

These African countries – which are home to some of the largest herds of elephants and other wild animals in the world – say being denied the right to trade in the products of some of their animals is tantamount to being punished for the success of their conservation efforts. The countries, which are in favour of regulated ivory exports, argue that CITES’ one-size-fits-all approach to the matter, which led to the universal ban, does not take into account individual states’ peculiarities. 

Southern African countries have consistently argued that global animal rights groups are exercising authority without responsibility and are being simplistic in insisting on a blanket ban on international ivory trade as a solution to elephant poaching, without basing the decision on scientific and other fact-based considerations. 

The debate on this growing crisis is very polarised. On one side are countries like Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Zambia – also known as the elephant range states – supported by pro-use non-governmental organisations. These NGOs argue that hundreds of thousands of elephants have been lost to poaching since the ban was imposed in 1989.

They say the ban has actually served as an incentive to poachers by reducing supply thereby boosting the prices. These countries want a highly regulated legal trade in ivory with proceeds from this trade going towards funding conservation efforts and incentives to rural communities to conserve wildlife and their habitat. They say that prohibition has no regard for the welfare and experiences of those who lead precarious lives of competing for space and resources with dangerous wild animals,

The prohibition countries strongly oppose this view and argue that any legal trade facilitates laundering of illegally poached ivory and stimulates further demand, therefore increasing poaching. This argument has persisted despite growing evidence that poaching did not just continue but actually increased, in the three decades that the CITES ban has been in place.

Frustration and Anger Rising

So far, all efforts to lobby for the lifting of this ban have yielded no results, leaving some of the African leaders frustrated and even angry.

“It startles and bamboozles me when people sit in the comfort of where they come from and lecture us about the management of the species they don’t have,” fumed Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, whose semi-desert country has over 130,000 elephants, the largest herd in the world. 

Elephants and livestock compete at a well in Namibia. Source Government of Namibia

“They want to admire from a distance and in the admiration of those species, they forget that we too are species. They talk as if we are the trees and grass that the elephants feed on.”

Shortly after the leaders of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia met in Botswana for the Kasane Elephant Summit where they discussed their countries’ common problem of the worsening burden of elephant overpopulation, Botswana announced that it was lifting a ban on trophy hunting.

Read More: Botswana: Govt Issues Elephant Hunting Licenses, First Since 2014

Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa – whose country has the world’s second-largest elephant herd of nearly 90,000 against the national carrying capacity of just 35,000 – is also unhappy with the decision by the Geneva-based CITES forum to refuse African countries permission to monetise their wildlife resources.

An adult elephant can knock down thousands of trees in a year and a huge concentration of these giants has led to habitat degradation and serious alteration of flora structure and composition and the distribution of fauna.

“Europeans have consumed all their animals, but they want to set rules for us who have managed to conserve ours!” the Zimbabwean leader fumed. “Our wild animals are being discussed in Geneva, an irrelevant place to the animals… they bar us from killing our animals for selling ivory, but they want us to protect them from being poached. We are sitting on ivory stockpiles worth $600 million. It’s a lot of money we can use for big (wildlife conservation) projects,” Mnangagwa said, going further to indicate that Zimbabwe could pull out of CITES altogether over this issue. He added that the other option open to Zimbabwe – which is already controversially exporting live elephants – would be to unilaterally sell its ivory and rhino horn stockpiles to China and Japan.

For its part, Namibia – which has an elephant population of about 24,000 – announced in Dec this year that it will be selling some of its elephants to anyone, both local and foreign, with the capacity to take good care of them. The Namibian authorities insist the move is not only necessary to save the jumbos and other wildlife from starvation, but also to reduce growing incidents of human-wildlife conflict in this drought-stricken and semi-desert country. 

Zambia’s Tourism minister Ronald Chitotela in November said his country had started lobbying CITES and other stakeholders for limited permission to sell its 52 tonnes of ivory (worth US$100 million) in order to raise funds needed for conservation efforts. Chitotela who is also the chairperson of the Commission for Africa (CAF), an agency that implements the United Nations World Tourism Organisation’s general programme of work on the continent, said with economies reeling from a tourism slump caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, African countries should be allowed to legitimately trade their ivory.

“I have raised this matter at high-level meetings, I have seen the Secretary-General of UNWTO, various ambassadors from Britain and the US, among others and I have put my case forward and with help from members of the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Area), we are pushing the matter.” 

Ban Has Not Stopped Poaching

Previously Botswana supported the ban on ivory trade, but the reality on the ground has since forced it to change its stance.

Earlier in the year when Botswana appeared to be slow in investigating the death of close to 400 elephants, Botswana’s wildlife coordinator, Dimakatso Ntshebe, pointed out that the country was facing a serious shortage of resources, adding that international animals rights groups should not just criticize, but also offer help.

An elephant knocks over a car in Hwange National Park

Research done by a University of Botswana academic, Professor Joseph Mbaiwa, on the effects of a ban on trophy hunting concluded that it was not informed by any scientific evidence.

“After the hunting ban, communities were forced to shift from hunting to photographic tourism. Reduced tourism benefits have led to the development of negative attitudes by rural residents towards wildlife conservation and the increase in incidences of poaching in Northern Botswana,” Mbaiwa said in the report.

“The implications of the hunting ban suggest that policy shifts that affect wildlife conservation and rural livelihoods need to be informed by socio-economic and ecological research. This participatory and scientific approach to decision-making has the potential to contribute to the sustainability of livelihoods and wildlife conservation in Botswana,” he added. 

Paul Stephens, who is opposed to the ban, says it has not helped in reducing poaching in any way. If anything, the ban had caused a spike in demand for ivory. He said this was supported by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) African Elephant Specialist Group, which in 2016, reported that the total African elephant population had dropped by approximately 111,000 to 415,000 in ten years. 

“This is happening while the international ban on ivory trade has been in force, meaning that it is failing to stop elephant poaching,” Stephens said.

“We live in a weird world that lacks both conservation and economic logic… Any economist knows that a ban on any commodity increases its demand and price. This is happening in Botswana dramatically right now. It has been happening throughout Africa as long as the ban in international trade in ivory has been in force.” 

Featured Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay

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