Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Rant about Wolves, Elephants and Other Forms of Stupidity

Reading this short report on the BBC environment site about the accelerating decline of world wildlife population brought back some thoughts I had when admiring the stunning flora and fauna (especially fauna) in Etosha national park in North Namibia.
There are very few who would not be awed by African wildlife.  You don’t need to visit the many parks and reserves in Africa to see and be impressed – if you haven’t seen the BBC Africa series from 2013, I’d recommend you watch it.  Immediately.  Several times.*
African wildlife is not only impressive in its own right, but even more so when compared to our own.  Part of it is of course because of exoticism, something we see every day by necessity ceases to amaze us and becomes boring.  I’m always reminded of this when I talk to people who enthuse about having been to Finland for the first time.  Apparently Finnish landscape is pretty exotic to many people.
But another reason why African wildlife appears more impressive is because it IS more impressive.  This is partly because of geography, meteorology and natural history, but to a large part because we fucked it up.  We slashed and burnt our forests, polluted our rivers and killed off everything bigger than a rabbit.  This all happened at least decades, if not centuries ago.
So it riles me when we Europeans now turn around and try to teach Africans how to take care of their wildlife.  It’s almost comic, we really are the last people they should be taking advice from on these issues, unless it is of the “look how stupid we were, don’t copy us!” –kind, which it inevitably is not.  Instead we present ourselves as experts and concerned citizens of the world. 
In reality, if we were living in Africa, and had to deal on a daily basis with the magnificent African wildlife, we would destroy it within a few decades.  Because Europeans can’t live in or with nature, we have to kill it.** 
A case on point: A few wolves have managed to survive the rampage against nature within the borders of Finland, but they are at risk all the time, and being poached illegally probably at worse rates than rhinos in Namibia.  Not because they are valuable,*** but because they are thought to be dangerous.  We don’t want them near us, we can’t share our surroundings with them.  Yet it is over 120 years since the last time a wolf killed a human in Finland.
By contrast crocodiles, lions and leopards, but also hippos and elephants, kill people in Africa all the time.****  In addition they kill livestock, a serious problem in a country like Namibia where farming is mostly of the subsistence kind.  Yet we have no problem chastising the terrible, savage Africans that shoot these beautiful, majestic creatures.
I am not saying that lions, cheetahs or elephants should be killed.  I am saying that it is not for us Europeans to decide whether they are killed or not.  It is for the Namibians and their neighbours that come face to face with them.  If we want to protect wild animals, we should focus on making them profitable for the local people that are currently suffering from their attacks.  We can do this by handing over cash (e.g. by visiting parks and reserves) or by making innovative suggestions, to the extent we have any.  But the suggestions cannot start from the premise of telling Namibians what they should do and in particular what they should not do (i.e. kill wildlife).  Given our history, we have no leg to stand on in criticising them for anything when it comes to the treatment of the human-wildlife conflict.  Until we have cleaned up our own backyard, which is a sad, concrete-covered place in which nothing grows or lives, we cannot start telling others how to handle theirs.  We can only humbly request permission to go and play there from time to time.
(This was more preachy than my usual style.  But it doesn’t mean I don’t want people to comment and disagree!)
*Here is a link to a site that seems to stream the full series.  I haven’t tested the streams and I don’t know if it is legal, so take no responsibility.  Here is a link to the BBC presentation site for the series, which is definitely legal.
**Here is a link to a story of Bruno the bear that made the mistake of crossing into German territory in 2006, if you need evidence.
***Rhino horns are insanely valuable, which is why I have some sympathy with the (often poor) locals in Namibia who help the poachers.  If you want to address the problem of rhino poaching, focus on the demand, not the supply.  Same with drugs.  Free advice here to any concerned governments, NGOs etc.  You’re welcome.
****Numbers are hard to come by, but here are some from the FAO.


  1. While you are right in pointing out that European wildlife is all but gone while African wildlife is still kinda intact, we should recognize that not all Europeans are monsters on a wildlife-killing spree. Some of the most admirable wildlife conservationists are Europeans and their Europeanness just happens to be incidental. And not all Africans or Asians are interested in conserving their wildlife. Asia and Africa house some the largest populations in the world that use traditional biomass for cooking and heating, most of which is sourced from forests, causing deforestation which in turn causes human-wildlife conflicts. While the Western, liberal, 'Avatar'-esque notion of Africans living in perfect harmony with nature makes for gripping (and money-spinning) cinema, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. I think we should start seeing wildlife conservationists and wildlife destroyers as just people, and not as Europeans or Africans or Asians!

  2. You are right. People are individuals. I actually think that many Europeans are not monsters on a killing spree, but passionate conservationists. A journalist acquaintance said cynically after covering a demonstration for saving the rhinos in Windhoek that he has never seen so many white people in one gathering in Namibia ...

    I know that it is the same with locals in Africa and elsewhere. People have different experiences, views and outlooks.

    The point I was trying to make, and which got lost in the generalisations, is that it is for the people in Africa, in the affected communities, to decide. If they want conservation, that is what they will do. If they want to kill all the elephants, well then, it is not for people coming from the outside to hop off the plane and prohibit that.

    What is happening with the tiger populations in India? Are people wanting to protect them or kill them or a bit of both? What do you think would be good arguments to make people agree more with the conservationist view?