By John Ray – ITV News
Things are so bad in Zimbabwe right now that they can’t pay their electricity bill from neighbouring South Africa.
That means much of the country is without power for most of the day. Add to that soaring inflation and mass unemployment and you complete a picture of misery.
Still, the government threw a lavish reception at an international wildlife conference in a plush Victoria Falls hotel last week.
It was a charm offensive led by the president himself; Emmerson Mnangagwa, who gave two days of his time to try to persuade delegates to rip up 30 years of conservation consensus.
He wants to trade ivory – and there’s big money to be made.
“If you combine ivory and rhino horn, the value is $600 million,” the president told me.
Of course, Zimbabwe has a well-earned reputation for governmental corruption and incompetence.
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So I asked whether he would guarantee the money raise would really go back into conservation and to the country’s poorest communities, who live cheek by jowl with elephants, while seeing little benefit themselves.
“Be assured,” he replied. “If we dispose of this trade we can deal with all these issues.”
Whether Zimbabwe would keep that promise isn’t clear – but it is by no means along in making the same case.
Botswana and Namibia are part of joint endeavour. Other Africans nations tacitly support them.
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And they have a point. In these states, home to more than 60 per cent of Africa’s elephants, numbers are increasing, while the land over which they range is diminishing – thanks to the growth in human population.
We go to a village deep in elephant country and get a tour of the fields regularly trampled by hungry elephants.
“The elephant is not my friend,” the chief tell me.
“He takes our crops and leaves us hungry.”
Botswana has just re-introduced hunting, in a controversial move it too says will help limit human-elephant conflict by creating buffer zones. It’s a claim critics call risible.
But Kitso Mokaila, Botswana’s environment Minister insists outsiders, particularly in the rich developed west, don’t get it.
“I understand where they come from when they don’t live with the problem. They only see a nice cuddly animal.
“But I’ve had personal experience where I’ve lost family, I lost friends, and I’ve lost citizens, to elephants.”
Whether or not ivory sales resume will be decided at the next gathering, scheduled for August, of CITES, the international body that governs the trade in wildlife products.
Pat Awori, of the Pan-African Wildlife Network, speaks for most conservationists.
“The consequence of selling ivory is to trigger the mass killing of elephants. The appetite that can be created for ivory is insatiable.”
But most who advocate bloodless solutions to animal management know more needs to be done to show their worth to the people show share land with limited space with them.
“We strongly believe that the right type of nature-based tourism done in the right areas in a sustainable fashion is a powerful conservation tool,” said Oliver Poole, Executive Director of Space for Giants.
“That’s because it creates jobs for the local community, and it brings visitors to the national parks, creating money for wildlife services, that often have limited budgets.”
But tourist buck hasn’t yet done the trick.
The elephant needs us to come up with new and better ideas to ensure its survival.