Thursday, April 8, 2010

Who wants to save the elephants?

The other night I plowed through Jeffrey Goldberg's recent New Yorker article, "The Hunted: Did American Conservationists in Africa Go Too Far?" (full text blissfully available online). Goldberg reports the story of Mark and Delia Owens, animal researchers turned conservationists in southern Africa. They wrote several books about their life in Botswana and Zambia, and American TV producers filmed a documentary about them in the mid-90s. The film crew captured the shooting death of a "trespasser" (or poacher?) by someone off-camera, believed to be Mark's adult son Christopher. The Owens left Zambia shortly thereafter and, in the aftermath of the controversy, have been advised not to return.

As I read, I kept waiting for the climax. OK, I thought, so the Owenses were perhaps involved in the murder of one person. What else? This thought was immediately followed by another: has my time in Central Africa made me so cynical that I no longer react with outrage to the killing of an unarmed "trespasser"? Perhaps.

But I think my reaction stemmed less from cynicism than from Goldberg's relentless focus on this one charismatic American couple at the expense of placing them within a larger perspective -- a larger perspective that would in fact have been more chilling. For many people are killed every year in the name of combating poaching across the continent.

In CAR, militarized anti-poaching is done by a parastatal "project" funded by the European Union. (The project will end in July, at which point it will be replaced; its successor aims to critically examine the management of space in CAR, which hopefully will diminish the death toll of poachers, anti-poaching guards, cattle, elephants, and other animals.) In the past twenty years, this work has been done by French soldiers ("securing the borders"); an American conservationist (his efforts never really got off the ground, though, because the South African mercenary in his employ got into diamonds and attempted murder and other scandals); Russian former French Foreign Legionnaires funded by safari hunters...I could continue.

The well-armed poachers come in increasingly large groups (up to one hundred strong, with camels and donkeys), and, according to the anti-poaching guards, they shoot first. These are not people you can ask nicely to please not kill the elephants and go home. The poachers, who generally come from Sudan, used to target CAR's north and east, closer to home. But they've killed all the elephants there, and the poachers have now penetrated as far as the southwest, and even Cameroon. Because of this dire situation, appearance alone suffice as justification for the guards to kill an interloper. It is war between the anti-poaching guards and the poachers and cattleherders who seek to profit from CAR's vast, sparsely-populated terrain. Only it's a war that is largely hidden from the outside world.

(I once spoke with a man who does militarized anti-poaching work about the fall from grace of one of his predecessors. The predecessor had apparently mutilated, or allowed his men to mutilate, the corpses of poachers they killed. I suggested that this was why he had been kicked out. My interlocutor, though, disagreed. The problem was not that he mutilated bodies. The problem was that he took photos, and, when he had a falling out with a few people, those photos made their way into the European press.)

There is a case to be made for militarized anti-poaching work. Richard Leakey makes it eloquently in Wildlife Wars, his book about his tenure as head of the Kenya Wildlife Services. It is a difficult issue that demands a sustained examination. But focusing on Owenses, and the fall-out from one particular incident, risks masking that what they appear to have done/abetted slots uncomfortably into a widespread division of labor in the conservation world. I once spoke with a director at a reputable international conservation organization, who explained his personal opinion: militarized anti-poaching work is necessary, and our programs would be useless without it, but we can't do it, or say we support it, because of the outcry. Donors wooed with fundraising entreaties full of photos of furry friends would be scandalized. Again, the message is that it's OK as long as it is hidden.

By focusing on the Owenses' misguided efforts (yes, criminal would probably be a better descriptor, but there is a lot of technically criminal activity that goes unpunished in Central Africa) the article makes them into scapegoats rather than implicating the rest of us who see saving the elephants as an imperative. Goldberg unintentionally obscures the thorny challenges of human/livestock/wildlife coexistance that the world (the ivory market is not in Africa, it should be noted) currently struggles with. (Based on the article, it seems like poaching in southern Africa is somewhat under control; in Central Africa it is anything but.)

It is important not to oversell the successes of militarized anti-poaching. National Geographic published a graphic photo-studded story three years ago about Zakouma National Park in Chad (just across the border from CAR), which has been hard-hit by poachers. The author, Mike Fay, struck a cautiously congratulatory tone in his description of the anti-poaching guards' (also EU-funded) work. Nevertheless, in the past four years Zakouma's elephant population has dwindled from 4,000 to 400. Unless something is done about demand, no conservation efforts will succeed.

The article's best line by far came from an Idahoan reacting negatively to the Owenses' attempts to impose their will on their Idaho neighbors: "We're not Africans." The comment carried a clear meaning: you can't just push us around the way you can those peasants. The comment is such a sad commentary on the state of Western ways of operating -- whether motivated by good intentions or not -- in the continent's "hidden" spaces.