A crisis of too many, not too few (Part 1)

The overpopulation is weighing on the Chobe area's biodiversity PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
The overpopulation is weighing on the Chobe area's biodiversity PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

These notes provide information and my own personal opinions about the wildlife sector in Botswana. This is based on my father’s deep experience in the wildlife sector in Botswana starting in the 1960s, and my own observations working with students and communities between 2006 and 2013.

During the latter period I specifically chose to work in Botswana because I was excited by the quality of the young professionals in government and academia.

There was also enthusiastic support for improving Community Based Natural Resource Management (CBNRM), including addressing serious problems of governance within communities.

This tended to be blamed on communities but was diagnosed, more correctly, as a consequence of governance issues being largely ignored in the design and management of CBNRM at the beginning. However, by 2013, it was clear that this positive situation had completely changed. The re-exertion of externally-driven, top-down, non-use philosophies was causing despair and even destitution in communities, and frustration in the young professionals supporting them.

The reversal of the considerable progress that Botswana was beginning to make, and the move away from pragmatic conservation based on fact and analysis towards a largely ideological and fictitious approach, reflects the impact of unaccountable Western conservation dogma.

So forgive me a brief rant before I get on with an overview of elephant conservation and management in the context of Botswana and its wildlife potential.


The poison of special interest

Over the past few decades, Western special interest groups have captured the conservation narrative. Pragmatic, local conservation decision-making is increasingly overwhelmed by simplistic arguments full of factual and intellectual error and spin. I do not think I am exaggerating if I suggest that these external agendas are a greater threat to wildlife than the illegal wildlife trade. Good intentions (if we give the majority the benefit of the doubt) are no excuse for ignoring reality and complexity.   They are certainly no excuse for undermining the long-term progress that conservation approaches designed in Africa, by Africans, are delivering.

These successful local approaches are being deliberately undermined from afar without understanding them, in the name of externally-imposed ideology not conservation results. Shockingly too, conservation special interests are running roughshod over the principles of democracy so soon after the shackles of colonialism were thrown off.

Under the surface, anger and resentment have been stewing as costly, non-workable ideas have been imposed upon Africans by people who are neither properly informed nor accountable in any way for the costs that their actions impose.

With my blood boiling in frustration, I have personally observed more than one international meetings about African elephants with no Africans in the room. Most Africans cannot afford to travel to the many fancy international conferences whose empty proclamations have become a proxy for real action. The pity is that some of those who can travel are influenced to act against the interest of their own people by means fair and foul.  Under the mature leadership of President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the dam of pent up frustration about this stupidity and unfairness seems about to burst, and not just in Botswana because many people in southern Africa are similarly miffed. For the first time on social media we are witnessing a serious local pushback over externally-imposed elephant management policies in Botswana and elsewhere.

This is spreading to wildlife more generally. Only yesterday, again for the first time, I heard a sound case for the trade of rhinos on the liberal CapeTalk radio station, with the host defending the speaker’s common sense of this position.

This is a substantial shift from the sycophantic interview of the Kenyan, Paula Kahumbu, I heard on the same station last year, without any questioning of why a country that had expanded its wildlife population many fold was listening uncritically to policy prescriptions that had done the exact opposite in Kenya.

It is probably not a coincidence that WWF now finds itself in hot water over funding potentially extra-legal anti-poaching measures, and a focus on global benefits rather than local consequences.

It is fascinating that the mature approach taken by President Masisi regarding democratic process and an over-abundant species has suddenly unleashed so much social media and local journalistic activity.

Until now, the media, with some refreshing exceptions, has largely ignored southern Africa’s pragmatic policies based on sustainable use and local democracy, including a 70-year track record of actually working. There is a substantial disconnect between the massive recovery of wildlife through sustainable use policies, and the media’s portrayal of this.

In rejecting the notion that the elephants and lions that live in our back yards are ours to decide upon, and not a global asset over which we Africans are too unimportant or ignorant to have a say, we have threatened the global conservation hegemony. We have, by means fair and foul, been pushed to the fringe of the debate about solutions in forums like CITES.

Despite having brought rhinos back from the brink of extinction, from less than 100 animals to over 20,000 now, we were dealt the ignominy of being completely unheard in the recent CITES meeting in South Africa, which chose instead to continue along the path of proven failure.

In my own reading, Africans are fed up with being disrespected and sidelined in favour of unworkable, condescending, external ideologies, and now want to control their own policies. They are sick of the ineffective self-serving debate.

They are sick of scarce conservation dollars being captured by ineffective middlemen and fake solutions – like demand reduction. They are sick of the hypocrisy of these middlemen, who say one thing when they work in Africa, but preach a weak and false conservation ideology to raise money at home.

In prioritising money rather than conservation or, indeed, the truth, they sail very close to the line of fraudulent conservation – fraudulent in that conservation agencies raise money on the back of concepts that are clearly unworkable and even deceitful. They are also sick of being perceived as corrupt, when they see ‘democratic’ decision processes in forums like CITES being manipulated by holier-than-though special interests who see their own ends as more important than the means, including corrupt actions.

For too long, conservation ‘policy’ has been shaped by the narrow interests of special interest and the blunt instrument of external financing, magnified by statements of far distant celebrities. The facts – ecological, economic, and distributional – their consequences, and the opportunities they provide, have been pushed into the margins of these debates, like floor sweepings in the corner of a room.

In these brief notes, I would like to bring to the table facts and personal opinions about the relationship between the management of elephants and wildlife in Botswana, and the people who live with them. I am sure that many of these ideas are familiar to Africans, because I have learned from African conservationists, communities, farmers, hunters, and tour operators over many years.

*Dr Brian Child is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida where he focuses on wildlife economy and governance, and higher education in African leadership development. With a D.Phil from Oxford about the economics of wildlife and livestock, he grew up in Botswana, served private landholders and the CAMPFIRE programme for Zimbabwe Parks for 12 years, and established CBNRM and park management systems in Zambia for 10 years. His current interest is building a $ 30 billion wildlife economy in southern Africa by 2020.

This is the first part of a serialised article made available exclusively to Mmegi.

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