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.

The Issues
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.

The solutions:
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?

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.


Angela said...

Come on, Tammy, raise this party! If not you, who else?!!! What has all your education in the bush been about if not this issue? Just listen to yourself - you are the one! Phone everybody, tell them to read your blog (and Val`s) and get them started!!

Anil P said...

Give them space. Get people out. Create more space.

In India we come face to face with elephants a lot, mostly during festivals. They're tamed, used as they were in logging and other construction activities.

I come across them in crowded spaces, and they behave like they're one of the people milling around.

I've written couple of posts with pictures of these very sights.

Val said...

Well done Tam. You did it!
its no small subject. We were looking at a small stream running over a sand river bed once. An elephant had walked through at one stage leaving big round indents in the sand. Fish were using these as nesting sites! elephants have such a positive effect on the environment in so many ways too when they push down trees- preventing soil erosion, creating habitats for grounds birds and small predators etc etc I think we still dont know all the ways.
oh and people used to migrate too way back when, so ground had a time to rest. There has to be a way.. all about effective/efficient land use?

Janelle said...

can't make people love 'em or be interested in them... in general the world is too dislocated from an environment which harbours elephants, i'm afraid. people are too dislocated from natural environments full stop. people have forgotten how to squat and walk barefoot for godsake, so how are you going to make them care about an elephantine fate? we don't even care about our own species, so how can we about another? look at what happened to Baby P. hideous.

(being devil's advocate you understand..)

the people who do live in an environment where elephants roam, hate them. because they're too poor and too many to live mutually and lovingly together. and anil, no-one is ever going to get people out...we think we are way too significant for that. the fact remains, we are as insignificant as ants, as are the elephant...

it's tiresome. the whole last minute panick and rah rah about what to do....all the frilly ghastly emotion about it all..lets get doctors and medecines to the congo first, maybe? lets get all refugees back into safe homes with food in their bellies and access to clean running water and lets disarm all rebel groups on the entire continent...first. shall we?

i am not sure what step is next....i think its beyond our control. but of course, we are allowed a point of view...
as for me, personally, i LOVE elephant but they scare the shit outta me....! been too close too many times...my respect for these old leviathans is infinite....the day there are none left will be the day when africa no longer has a soul xx

tam said...

Angela, I guess I'm the only one crazy enough, huh?
Anil, thanks for cruising by, I had a look at your pics - gorgeous. I will return to read. Truly though, I think what's thorny about the 'elephant problem' is that its different in southern Africa, different in East AFrica, different in Asia. I don't think African elephants have urbanisation in their culture. They can be tamed, but that's not really the issue.

Janelle. Thanks mate, encouraging. Very cheerful. Pffff.

I quote Rob Berold's poem, the return - one of my favourites.

"the wind asks
who will care for the people
when our economies have turned into casinos
when our ecologies have turned into zoos?
I asked the iqgira from Cala
who goes down to the sea each year
to renew his strength from the ocean snake
-the iqgira asked the powerful dead
the powerful dead answered him:
language will be born again from silence
the ceremonies of time will be restored

plants and animals will decide
which human voices speak for them

the ones who will care are here already."

family affairs said...

I LOVE elephants - that is the most amazing photograph - who took it? xxx

ps don't suppose you know of a good charity in SA that is to do with schools/education/children? I am trying to raise money for a charity for when my son comes to SA next summer and at the moment we are looking at options - we need to get a group of teenage boys to spend a day at a school, working, helping to build something or maybe sports related ...any ideas? You could email me on lulucampbell11@gmail.co.uk if you do. Thx Lx

Janelle said...

ooooergh. sorry! did say i was being devils advocate...blah. xxx

tam said...

The pic is one of Freya's gems. She has kindly said I may post them here, but at some point I will have to give her royalties or something.
Janelle, you know I'm mos joking wif you ey? This is one of those prop up the bar conversations, but I couldn't resist, after Val's post.
kisses, all of you.

Ernest de Cugnac said...

tasm, left a comment, it has evaporated. Never mind, just wanted to thank you for an interesting and important post.

tam said...

Thanks very much Ernest, I'm glad there are people out there who think its important.
Don't you hate it when blogger swallows comments? I do. It usually happens when I've just put the fullstop on an empassioned rant. Ah well.

karen said...

Hi - i'm a bit late here, just found this wonderful post.... living here next to the Chobe National Park, with its huge protected elephant area, as well as the villages on the fringes, I'm so aware of BOTH sides of this eternal story. Like i told Val on her post about Billy's Story, i'm afraid I tend to just do the ostrich thing when it all gets too overwhelming...