By Ed Stoddard
For many outsiders, Africa’s big animals are among the natural wonders of the world and a major tourist draw.
For many Africans, elephants, rhinos and lions — or at least the bloody trade in their body parts, and the proximity of big, dangerous wildlife to their crops, cattle and kin — are part of a wider "resource curse" that has long afflicted the continent.
Commodities such as oil and minerals — or elephant ivory — have historically been extracted in Africa in ways that have enriched a few but failed to spread the prosperity. At its worst, the curse has fuelled colonialism, apartheid and conflict.
Framing wildlife issues in this context may help policy makers find solutions to a poaching crisis that has seen rhinos and elephants slaughtered at a record rate.
Legalising trade in their horns and tusk could provide revenue for housing and other social needs among communities living near wildlife. Similar initiatives in sectors like platinum have been undertaken by black-owned companies such as Royal Bafokeng Platinum.
But trade in African ivory, for example, has long benefited the traders, who exploited or terrorised local communities.
European and American demand for ivory for billiard balls, piano keys and other household items reached industrial scale in the 19th century, helping to fuel the great power scramble into Africa. Men such as Tippu Tip, a Zanzibari trader, made a fortune out of the trade, using slave labour to ferry his "blood ivory".
Until the early part of the 20th century King Leopold of Belgium treated the Congo like a personal fiefdom. His officials killed elephants with abandon and confiscated tusks from villagers — part of a genocidal campaign to plunder natural resources that killed millions of people.
Today, ivory from elephant tusks and horn from rhino still benefit a limited number, including global criminal syndicates, a point underscored by the arrest this month of 16 people in the Czech Republic for horn smuggling.
The United Nations has also linked the ivory trade to terrorist groups such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in Central Africa, while a report by conservationists last year found a strong link between poverty, infant mortality and elephant poaching.
After the trade in ivory was banned at the end of the 1980s, poaching declined sharply. It has since been escalating dramatically, driven by consumer demand in China, where ivory is coveted for decorative items and jewellery.
Last year was the third consecutive year in which at least 20,000 elephants were poached in Africa, according to the UN-linked Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
Poaching of rhinos for their horns, used in traditional medicine in Vietnam and China, has also soared, with South Africa at the epicentre.
According to government data, South Africa had lost 1,020 rhinos by the middle of November, compared with 1,004 for all of 2013 and over triple the 333 poached in 2010.
Based on the average weight of rhino horns, that could represent 4,000kg to 5,000kg of the commodity, which conservationists say is fetching $65,000/kg on the black market — making it more valuable than gold or platinum.
That works out to a total ranging from $260m to $325m — money that could be used for development in poor communities such as rural villages in Mozambique, where many of the poachers killing South Africa’s rhinos hail from.
Rhino horn can be harvested, because it grows back. South Africa is considering a proposal to CITES to lift the trade ban on the commodity, though Environment Minister Edna Molewa stressed in November that no final decision has been reached yet.
Elsewhere, the wholesale slaying of elephants in regions such as Central Africa is depriving the rural poor of a potential source of future income in the form of ecotourism.
Finding ways to generate cash from big animals also has wider conservation and social imperatives. Poor villagers have to contend with elephants raiding their crops and lions preying on their livestock or worse.
This is another part of the curse that has contributed to African poverty, according to academics such as Jared Diamond, Professor of Geography at the University of California. African animals are especially wild: the Asian buffalo has been harnessed to the plough, while Africa’s version is untamable, putting the region at an historical disadvantage.
The task facing policy makers and conservationists is to lift the curse by making big animals an economic boon instead of burden to Africa’s rural poor.