By Phyllis Lee, Keith Lindsay, Katarzyna Nowak
The Elephant and the Pauper: The Ivory Debacle is a recently released 50-minute video by the Hunter Proud Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable public foundation and lobbying organization based in Houston, Texas.
The video was circulated in the first half of January 2015 to members of the IUCN Specialist Groups and to CITES membership, with the specific aim of lobbying for hunting and consumptive use of African wildlife.
The film—whose proposals for gaining revenue from ivory and sport hunting come at a time of unprecedented poaching and killing of elephants across their range, including in Zimbabwe—is risky to the point of irresponsibility.
The Hunter Proud Foundation has turned the clock back on decades of progress in conservation and wildlife management. With opinions unsupported by evidence, the “documentary” misrepresents the science of elephant population dynamics and their ecological roles—science that is indispensable to informing conservation and management approaches.
The outdated ideas about elephant ecology, along with the blinkered call for a return to agriculture-style intensive management and population control, are conflated with the legitimate, but entirely separate, aims of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM). Intervention in the form of elephant culling is said (incorrectly) to be dependent on the sale of elephant ivory, which is then mixed in with trophy hunting and (incorrectly) presented as a necessity for the financing of CBNRM and social development.
The biggest threat the video poses for public disinformation is in advancing the ivory trade Decision-Making Mechanism. This conceptually risky instrument, which would encourage increased sales of ivory and trigger even greater levels of illegal trade, is due to be discussed at the next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17), in September 2016.
The video’s major—and unacceptable—flaws follow:
Outdated Ideas of Elephant “Overpopulation Problems” and “Carrying Capacities”
The film rests on long dismissed ideas of elephant “carrying capacities” and “overpopulation,” which we’re surprised are being expressed and circulated to a 21st-century conservation audience.
Ecological researchers and, increasingly, wildlife managers have recognized that ecosystems are shaped by self-regulating processes, and that diversity across landscapes and change through time are essential features of natural landscapes, rather than “disruptions” to be beaten back. The continual processes of change—not rigid structural stability—taking place in these systems should be the primary focus of conservation action.
Much of the research community, and many managers, accept that ecosystem structure and function are not about elephant numbers but instead about elephant distribution across a landscape and in relation to plant communities. Elephants are architects of plant diversity rather than simply “management problems.”
Managers in sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Tanzania and in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, have taken this approach on board with their elephant management, replacing culling with water-point management, and fencing with promotion of animal dispersal, through corridors and protection of meta-populations.
To illustrate its contention that parks need intensive intervention, the film makes unsubstantiated and disparaging claims about supposed mismanagement of elephants in the key populations of Tsavo National Park, in Kenya, and Chobe National Park, in Botswana, which it contrasts with the enlightened management of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.
During the 1960s to 1970s, Tsavo East National Park experienced a prolonged increase in elephant numbers through reproduction and concentration to avoid hunting and incompatible land use in the surrounding region. The park warden at the time decided against interference, and elephant foraging during this period led to a change in the dominant vegetation cover from dense bushland to open bushed grassland. In the decades after a severe drought and die-off of elephants in the early 1970s, followed by intense poaching in the 1980s, Tsavo changed from grassland back to bushland.
These changes, attributed to variation in both elephant density and fire regime, were scientifically documented by Leuthold and illustrated by the filmmaker Simon Trevor in the 1995 documentary “Keepers of the Kingdom.” Trevor argued—with visual evidence—that culling is far less effective in sustaining natural long-term habitat dynamics than are elephants’ natural die-offs.
Studies of pollen cores in Tsavo from the past 1,400 years show that continual change has been the rule at local and landscape levels, with several shifts between high and low tree cover over periods of 250 to 500 years.
In Chobe, similar changes in tree cover under elephant browsing have been documented, with the observation that animal and plant communities are now returning to the state that existed before the extirpation of elephants during the intensive ivory trade in the 19th to early 20th century. The conclusion reached was that there were no ecological grounds for elephant reduction, although local reduction or redistribution was advocated to resolve land use clashes with farmers now occupying former areas of the natural ecosystem.
In Zimbabwe’s Hwange—offered in the film as a more enlightened alternative—the apparent ecological “problems” of elephant-induced habitat change were in fact caused by the early park managers, who created an extensive network of pumped water sources throughout the park. Meanwhile, boundary fences kept wildlife away from access to the few natural watercourses. Over time, densities of elephants and other herbivores became artificially high, leading to widespread vegetation change and an atmosphere of apparent crisis.
The Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management (DNPWLM) took the decision to reduce elephant densities by killing large numbers, but they could have achieved a more satisfactory solution by strategic closing of water points to create areas of high and low herbivore density, allowing natural mortality to bring populations in line with food supplies.
The argument advanced in the film is that it is more humane to cull elephants than to allow them to die from lack of food. This disingenuous concern for welfare is ironic in light of the DNPWLM’s current actions in forcibly removing scores of juvenile elephants from their families for export to a life of suffering in foreign zoos. More....