Elephant culling and hunting is a throwback to defending slavery

Jun 20, 2019 | Commentary

By Ross Harvey – Independent Economist; PhD Candidate, University of Cape Town – Conservation Action Trust

We have to pursue co-existence and shared benefits rather than a crude utilitarianism that wilfully endorses cruelty. 

When I read Ron Thomson’s response to my article questioning the wisdom of reintroducing elephant trophy hunting to Botswana after a five-year moratorium, I was reminded of British abolotionist William Wilberforce’s opponents who defended the Atlantic slave trade on the grounds that it was a “necessary evil”. 

John Pollock, who penned the epic Wilberforce biography, wrote:

“A Grosvenor uncle of Wilberforce’s young friend Lord Belgrave spoke third, arguing that the Trade was nasty but necessary; in Dolben’s summary: ‘…The wisest thing we can do is to shut our eyes, stop our ears and run away from the horrid sounds without enquiring about it, or words to this effect’.”

I invite Thomson to read the biography, as he might find echoes of this defence of slavery in the logic he applies to the ecological management of elephants. Defenders of slavery argued that its abolition would lead to an immediate loss of the British colonies. The colonial attitude, of course, remains pervasive among those who defend the trophy hunting of elephants. It is fascinating that those who defend hunting tend to argue that “the West”must stop lecturing Africans about how to manage their elephants. But it was Western hunters who shot elephants out to the point where Africans had to establish reserves, dispossessing and crowding out local communities in the process. 

Fortress conservation and green militarisation are direct functions of past colonial activities. And a major part of the reason that local communities are so upset at being excluded from national parks has much to do with how they were established in the first place. Public relations efforts to paint trophy hunters as the imperial saviours of poor African communities are laughable. 

As with colonialism and slavery, sport hunting of elephants will eventually be abolished. The history lesson is that Wilberforce won out, with the brutal slavery trade abolished 20 years after his battle had begun. 

The hunting of elephants for sport is a similarly barbaric activity, with its proponents arguing that hunters kill the animals they love for the sake of conservation. This is a morally untenable position. Beyond that, the conservation value of hunting is being questioned, and its ostensible indirect benefit through monetary and bushmeat contributions to “communities” is rapidly declining

Botswana reintroduced hunting on the premise that an exploding elephant population had exceeded its carrying capacity. But Thomson, having defended hunting his entire career, agrees that hunting is not a population-control method and “will have no ecological impact whatsoever on the elephant over-population problem that certainly exists”.

He argues that elephant management in Botswana has nothing to do with hunting or politics but everything to do with establishing a “management solution to a population of elephants that is very obviously grossly in excess of its habitat’s sustainable carrying capacity”. But he himself notes that hunting will not solve this purported problem, so it remains unclear as to what it has to do with establishing “best practice” for elephant management. Thomson appears to want to return to the grand old days of culling. 

He cites no science in support of his view that carrying capacity has been exceeded. The anecdotal reference to his own experience and to the late Dr Graham Child’s notes are touching but do not make the “habitat destruction” argument self-evidently true. The “Child Observations”, as Thomson calls them, are factual, but seem to ignore the ecosystem engineering role that elephants play. Thomson cherry-picks these types of observations to defend the view that elephants are mere marauding habitat destroyers.

Thomson asked for the science – perhaps the hyperlinks in my article were not working – that “did not see any ecological reason to artificially change the number of elephants in Chobe National Park”; here it is: No fewer than 24 authors contributed to “The Return of the Giants: Ecological Effects of an Increasing Elephant Population” published in Ambio, a scientific journal, in 2004. The following quote may suffice:

“Much of the Chobe elephant problem has concerned the role of elephants in the disappearance of the riverine Acacia woodlands on the elevated alluvial plains along the Chobe River. As we have shown, these woodlands were probably a transient artefact, caused by artificially low densities of large herbivores following rinderpest and excessive hunting of elephants about 100 years ago, creating a window of opportunity for seedling establishment. Now that these woodlands have all but disappeared, their re-establishment would require drastic reductions in herbivore populations, including not only elephants, but also smaller browsers like impala.

“Our studies have confirmed that the ecosystem along the Chobe riverfront has changed profoundly since the 1960s, probably reverting towards a situation somewhat similar to the one before the excessive hunting of elephants and the rinderpest panzootic. There is, however, little evidence of a reduction in the carrying capacity for other large herbivores, in fact the dominating species of browsers, grazers and mixed feeders have increased in numbers concurrently with the elephants. We do not, however, see any ecological reason to artificially change the number of elephants in Chobe National Park, either through culling or opening new dry season ranges by providing extra water from boreholes.”

Further to this, 16 scientists co-authored a piece in Science Advances in 2015 that shows us that what Thomson refers to as “destruction” is more appropriately understood as conversion:

“African elephants convert woodland to shrubland, which indirectly improves the browse availability for impala and black rhinoceros. By damaging trees, African elephants facilitate increased structural habitat complexity benefiting lizard communities. Predation by large predators (for example, lions) on small ungulates is facilitated when African elephants open impenetrable thickets. African elephants are also great dispersers of seeds over long distances.”

Thomson asks where do “these seeds come from when the trees that once produced them have all been destroyed by too many elephants?” But this ignores seasonal variation. Elephants migrate and the trees (generally) recover. 

Insisting on “carrying capacity” as the primary factor to determine elephant population size betrays Thomson’s worldview that “there is nothing ‘natural’ about wildlife management”. His view is that the natural order is there mainly to serve man. Eden would be a garden composed of Thomson’s calculations of what would best do this. That attitude subverts the call to steward responsibly to one of mere domination. Thomson laments that “today, all over southern Africa, our national parks are being managed as ‘elephant sanctuaries’ – at great cost to biological diversity” and that we should all be ashamed of ourselves for having allowed this.

As one might expect, Thomson can barely hide his love for culling, which he views as the only serious “management solution”. He is furious that “governments will not cull even the most excessive of elephant populations” and blames biological diversity destruction on this decision alone. Against all science, and reverting to the view that wildlife management is akin to managing an agricultural establishment, Thomson says the optimal carrying capacity in southern Africa is “in the vicinity of one elephant per 5km2”. Therefore, Botswana on its own may be able to sustainably carry “infinitely less than 50,000” – though he admits he doesn’t know. And, of course, we shouldn’t fear because elephants in rejuvenating habitats will double their population every 10 years and have to be culled again. His lust for culling on the altar of some utopian notion of species diversity protection is telling. 

Thomson endorses hunting because “it will provide many benefits to the local rural folk”. But he really believes in mass culling as the only sustainable solution. It’s worth pointing out that culling is insane. Elephant populations in Africa are declining at the hands of poachers. Hunting will only amplify the negative effect of poaching, which also targets large tuskers. The removal of prime males from elephant families causes utter havoc and gene depletion, and culling makes everything worse, as I will show. 

Culling actually creates a population problem rather than solving it. In the 20 years after the Kruger Park culling of 1994, the elephant population increased non-linearly from about 8,000 to 15,000 individuals and has continued to grow exponentially.

Perhaps it is most important for Thomson to understand that the culling of the past, much of it overseen by him, has caused irreparable damage to elephants and other species. It has been found that abilities to process information on social identity and age-related dominance are severely compromised among African elephants that experienced separation from family members and translocation decades previously. 

Professor Don Ross writes:

“For a number of years, southern African wildlife managers culled [elephant]herds to prevent over-population from threatening habitat sustainability. Typically, culls would focus deliberately, though not exclusively, on older bulls who had already made substantial genetic contributions. In consequence, in two South African reserves in the 1990s young bulls were relocated to constitute new bachelor herds, without any older bulls to provide leadership. This had dramatic unexpected consequences. The young bulls displayed recurrent, atypical, lethal violence against rhinoceroses, and were occasionally observed forcing copulations with them.” 

Thomson must surely be aware of these studies that provide detail of the negative effects of culling and the loss of older bull males for elephant herd sociology. In the context of a poaching epidemic, it does not make sense to allow the trophy hunting of older bulls, let alone to cull. Older bulls’ tusks grow exponentially larger towards the end of their lives and their musth cycles suppress the musth cycles of younger bulls and therefore prevent premature breeding and violent behaviour. Large tuskers are in severe decline, and must be heavily protected from trophy hunting and poaching, as Dr Michelle Henley has noted

Furthermore, trophy hunting of elephants, never mind culling, raises serious moral questions. Thomson’s language is crudely utilitarian – elephant hunting and culling are seen as a means to an end, that end being a utopian bushveld garden free from vegetation transformation or “too many elephants”. The means are justified and rationalised on those grounds, typically with an appeal to “stick to the facts” or to “keep emotion out of the equation”. 

Arguments that communities have called for hunting to return are not to be ignored. But to unthinkingly claim that only Western armchair critics are opposed to the practice is to ignore the fact that the whole trophy hunting endeavour (of elephants especially) is imperialistic and universally morally questionable. Aside from the moral questions and the conservation consequences of culling and hunting, it’s not clear that governance challenges associated with managing hunting have been solved. Will local “communities” get a fair share of hunting revenue (which is globally declining)? How will that money be distributed in a way that genuinely serves community members and incentivises them to drive conservation-driven development? If bushmeat is what communities are asking for, are there not feasible alternatives to trophy hunting? 

I’m highly sympathetic to the voice of communities, and have written extensively on the topic but I am not sympathetic to elephant hunting as a solution unless the governance challenges are properly addressed and the science that shows how the extermination of 400 older males a year – in the midst of a poaching crisis – can be “sustainable” when the number of large tuskers is dwindling. The entire population is also in decline. Elephant-themed revenue creation projects, being pioneered on the ground by excellent outfits such as Eco-Exist, which aim to drive down human and elephant conflict, are surely the way forward. 

It will probably be of no surprise to readers that Wilberforce was not only committed to ending the slave trade, but also campaigned tirelessly for education for the poor, parliamentary reform, compulsory inoculation against smallpox, and – with Thomas Erskine – the prevention of cruelty to animals. 

Wilberforce argued coherently, from an objective worldview, that all forms of cruelty were intolerable. Thomson could learn much from this. It is not “scientific” or “objective” to divorce the material psychological consequences of culling and hunting elephants from “necessary ecological management”. The science shows us that disrupting elephant sociology is inextricably linked to negative conservation consequences. Increased aggression among elephants due to culling, hunting and poaching will only increase human and elephant conflict. We have to pursue co-existence and shared benefits rather than a crude utilitarianism that wilfully endorses cruelty.

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