Sunday, June 29, 2014

War and safari hunting

I have an op-ed in the New York Times today (30 June) arguing against shaming people involved in safari hunting in CAR.

Those who know me are likely surprised that I'd take this position. Over the past year I've been reading memoirs by safari hunters in CAR, and they are as full of sexism and paternalism (when not more overt racism) as one might fear. In addition, over the past thirty years safari hunting has been propped up by armed conservation initiatives carried out by a variety of actors, and the attempt at rigid policing of what had previously been more negotiable boundaries (e.g., between protected park and grazing areas) heightened tensions and in some cases contributed to armed conflict. As I pointed out in a recent post over at African Arguments, the current military head of Seleka, Joseph Zindeko, got some of his military training while working as an anti-poaching guard.

But the safari hunting industry has changed over the past five years or so. As conflicts in the country have intensified, most of the safari hunting operators have moved on to easier places to work. Only a couple remain, and their success owes in part to their explicit avoidance of conflict. To take the example of CAWA, they chose a site not home to many elephants so that they wouldn't have to deal with the heavily-armed poachers who come for ivory. That meant they did not need to do the armed patrols that safari guides elsewhere had to organize. CAWA took pride in employing hundreds of people and funding social services.

One of the founders of CAWA, together with the pilot working for him, uncovered a massacre site near their concession in early 2012. The killings followed the pattern of a classic LRA attack. But when the safari guides alerted the authorities to the tragedy, they were thrown in prison under suspicion of murder. The two were eventually freed in August of that year, but only because there was a riot at the central prison in Bangui, where they were being held, and the guards told them to leave since there was no way to keep them safe.

And yet they came back and re-started their safari enterprise. There's something a bit crazy about that. Most people (myself included, most likely) would have cut their losses and departed without looking back. But these guys seem to have taken it as a sign that they should deepen their commitment, and, after picking up the pieces after their house in Bangui was ransacked, that is what they proceeded to do.

So for all the problems related to safari hunting in CAR, it nevertheless seems to me like people so intent on building some kind of productive enterprise in the country that will employ hundreds of people should be supported. I remember talking to an expert in the management of safari hunting areas in Africa who said that it was, on one level, crazy to dedicate the whole eastern part of the CAR to safari hunting for a few wealthy tourists. If there were any alternative -- if the Chinese came in and opened a plantation or two, for instance -- safari hunting would no longer make any sense, given the distribution of resources it entails. But that's the thing: there are currently no alternatives. There is some diamond mining, it's true, but there are no other opportunities for salaried work, which is what people long for. For better or worse, it's all we've currently got.

I find myself turning, as I so often do, to Ed van der Elsken. After his trip to Oubangui-Chari -- his first sojourn in Africa -- in the mid-1950s, which included a stay among safari hunters that was at once exhilarating and nauseating, he reflected that upon return to Europe,
I find, I have been indulging in a great deal of moralising. I remember now that when I was in Africa, filled with the emotions of hunting, I knew nothing of all the noble sentiments and intentions expressed in my text. I often hunted enthusiastically and by no means always sportingly. Primitive instincts and passions arose in me, inciting me to capture, conquer and kill. I, too, was guilty of many dirty and cowardly tricks. I must admit this because it would be unfair if I were to stand too much aloof from my comrades, who often stood by me in critical moments (24).

The op-ed is my attempt to walk a path skirting both aloofness and excessive moralizing.

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