Tuesday, November 25, 2008
The Elephant Conversation
It comes up, again and again. At least in my circles, it does. And Val's post is right on the money. I especially like it because it draws no conclusions, offers no answers but gives you a glimpse into both sides of the story. Please read it if you're going to read this. It's what prompted me to sketch out these oft-thought thoughts for you.
The Biographical Stuff:
My grandfather killed elephants for a living, once.
Then he devoted a lot of energy to keeping them alive.
He wrote about them. He lived side by side with them.
He gave foreign visitors the extraordinary experience of walking in the bush and feeling the joy-rising fright of encountering one of these large beasts on their own terms.
He taught his grandchildren about them.
I grew up alongside elephants. I respect, fear, love and dream about them.
I have written plays and stories featuring elephants but have never come close to capturing what I want to say about them.
I dream about them.
I worry about them, for them.
I worry about the people I love who live near them.
Did I say I dream about them?
I think I was one, recently.
Aside from humans, elephants are the most destructive creatures in terms of the effect they have on their immediate environment. Overpopulation of elephants in protected areas is an issue for biodiversity as much as it is a direct human threat. Anyone who argues that elephants shouldn't be culled needs to also look at the massive destruction they can wreak in a mopane forest, reducing a landscape to flat grey desolation and flattening much needed trees.
But this destructive tendency is also beneficial to ecosystems - they create access for other animals through impenetrable bush. Seeds that pass through their industrial sized digestive systems are germinated.
Obviously, the issue is a question of space. People who live in or near protected areas know this best. Imagine your only source of food for the year is your carefuly nurtured maize crop. The whole family has participated in tilling the soil, planting, chasing away birds, carrying water by bucket from the nearest river to water the struggling plants. One night an elephant family passes through and in the morning it is flattened - gone. Or worse, a child in the village was trampled to death. It happens.
Before humans and wildlife competed so much for space, the elephants would not have such a heavy impact on one area, because obviously they would migrate when food got low in one area. The population would regulate itself. This would happen in southern Africa's favourite reserves if the hands-off approach were followed. They would die of starvation. But it wouldn't be pretty and there would be a lot of casualties, including human casualties and other wildlife.
So - space vs numbers.
Population control method 1: Culling. Yes its terrible, and people who manage wildlife don't love doing it. There are various schools of thought the most commonly held right now is that it is better to take out a whole family unit and leave no orphans (elephants have very close family bonds) rather than just the breeding females.
Population control method 2: Birth control. Expensive, untested, problematic, but an option.
Population control method 3: Hands-off. Let the population control itself. Not really an option in our boundary controlled parks in southern Africa.
The More Space solution: Increase the size of protected areas? Create migration corridors so that they can move over wider areas?
Its hard to argue for that, when people have no land, or their ancestors were moved from tribal land to make way for animals which they are no longer allowed to hunt although their traditional food sources would have come from hunting. But the Peace Parks idea does, if I'm not mistaken, lay the foundations for more of a migration approach.
The solutions, generally speaking, are thrashed out by very dedicated people who love wildlife and are not, in spite of what animal rights activists would say, the enemy. They are scientists, who have to use hard data and take in a hell of a lot of competing factors. Like - the fact that the tourist industry relies on having parks that are well managed, well stocked, which means full of live animals and yet still with beautiful big intact trees and grasslands. Like - the fact that local people wage life and death battles with these creatures on a daily basis and would prefer it if their children and livelihoods weren't so threatened. Like - international opinion and treaties that need to be respected, CITES, etc. Elephant experts weigh all these factors up. They know what they're talking about. They can't afford to be sentimental.
And yet, and yet.
The point is, elephants are very like us. They attach, play, mourn the loss of loved ones, have clan gatherings to celebrate seasonal events, and become delinquent if they don't receive proper counsel as teenagers. They get lonely. They get maaad.
The point is, we're scared of them, and rightly so. We have to contain them, manage them. We can't invite them into our cities. Can we?
At the World Parks Congress in Durban in 2003, they had a team of economists who just crunched numbers for that whole week. The costs of maintaining protected areas, the costs of research, the costs of policing anti-poaching, etc etc. They spun numbers and compared them to other costs - development, education, millennium development goals, etc. A random figure stuck in my mind. The amount of money needed to maintain protected areas the world over, and to create a few more, was exactly equal to the amount of money that Americans spend on ice cream every year.
I wish we could have a great big elephant think-tank to revise the issues and turn them on their heads. It would involve scientists, writers, poets, artists, traditional leaders and chiefs and policy makers and animal rights errorists, conservationists, economists and number crunchers and medicine men and women, and of course, psychics and dreamers.
And to pay for it - why the ice cream manufacturers of course. Anyone got an uncle in the ice cream business? I have a proposal for them.