Open letter to Jean-Claude Juncker: Allow Africans to protect elephants the African way

Jul 29, 2019 | Commentary


H.E Dr A A Moody Awori EGH OBS, former Vice President, Kenya

Hon. Azizou El Hadj Issa, former Minister of Agriculture, Benin

Nomusa Dube, Founder of the Zimbabwe Elephant Foundation, Zimbabwe

Adam Cruise, Editor of the African Elephant Journal, South Africa

Dear President Juncker,

In almost all of Africa’s traditional cultures, elephants are viewed as an inherent part of the African landscape. We have evolved together on this continent. We have lived side-by-side for millennia. Elephants are integral to our belief systems. They are our proud African heritage.

In your State of the Union speech to the European Parliament in 2018, you spoke of Europe’s twin continent, Africa, as the future. In outlining the changing relationship between the two continents, moving towards a relationship of equals, you said ‘Africa does not need charity, it needs true and fair partnerships. And Europe needs this partnership just as much’.  We could not agree more. We would therefore call on the EU to listen to Africans on the issue of conservation and particularly on the conservation of elephants. 

In most of Africa, elephants have never been treated as commodities for commercial gain.

This is an imported Western concept based on anthropocentric values. Since this continent was first colonised, elephants have been reduced from being valued intrinsically to being instrumentally valued as mere commodities to be traded and killed for human gratification. In colonial days, the desire for ivory nearly wiped them out.

This is a construct that still weighs heavily on Africa today even though Africa is no longer physically shackled by colonialism. There are still colonial ideological remnants when elephants are still regarded from an instrumental or market-valued perspective. They continue to be hunted or slaughtered or their babies snatched from their mothers for the purpose of export as trophies, ivory ornaments or live specimens.

The claim today to justify elephants as commercial commodities is that the money generated by these exports helps alleviate poverty in Africa. In reality, impoverished communities hardly see a cent of the proceeds, our communities remain poor, with the added injustice of continually losing their elephants.

A small minority of African nations still subscribe to the views of those who have no elephants. These nations are pushing to open an international trade in ivory by selling off their huge ivory stockpiles – an action that has twice been allowed thanks to European support. Some of these nations also capture wild elephants to sell to zoos in China, Europe and the United States and it is not their people who benefit from the proceeds.

Africa, as diverse and vibrant as it is, is entitled to divergent opinions but ultimately what is emerging is that the majority of the African nations want to chart a new course that does not see elephants as a commercial commodity and strive for co-existence with elephants.

Before colonisation, elephants and other wildlife were deeply interconnected with our cultures and beliefs. We saw them as extensions of ourselves, and most of us still do to this day. In Zimbabwe, for example, we have a concept we call ukama. It is a Shona word that means the ‘interdependence of all that exists.’ Ukama is concerned about our environment and the African relationship with our environment. The concept affirms human relatedness with the earth and all its life.

Contrary to the prevailing Western views of wildlife management that elephants are destroying natural habitats, we Africans instead view their role as the great gardeners and architects of our natural environment. It is an environment we all rely on for our own health and well-being.

Elephants break branches off trees, sometimes the entire tree itself, that then creates microhabitats for seedlings and small vertebrates. Elephant dung is a food source for dung beetles and a variety of birds, which in turn provide a seed dispersal mechanism for many tree species. They maintain structure in savannahs by reducing the tree to grass ratio and create nutrient rich microclimates underneath dead trees. Overall their effect is to increase biodiversity, from mites to mammals. With the increase of biodiversity comes cleaner air, clearer water, richer soil and healthy people.

The impact of elephants is evident in the protected areas where the savannas and forests in which they roam remain pristine and healthy. Contrast this to the areas where elephants have been removed or killed. Desertification of our continent is occurring at alarming rates because the habitat of elephants is being destroyed either by human or crop and livestock encroachment.

Africans call on the EU to end the trade in elephants

With this in mind and with African traditional worldviews such as ukama, thirty-two African nations have issued a suite of proposals at the next CITES Conference of the Parties in Geneva, Switzerland. They are calling for an end to the trade in elephants and their body parts. They are hopeful of keeping alive their great heritage. But they require the support of the European Union to do so. In the past this has not been the case. Europe, with its great influence on the global stage, has continued to back the trade in elephants at CITES and each time they do, our elephant populations decline a little further.

This letter therefore serves to respectfully ask that the European Union support these proposals and recognise that in Africa an African approach in elephant conservation and protection is what is needed. It is time to allow an African voice to account for her elephants.

July 25th, 2019


H.E Dr A A Moody Awori EGH OBS, former Vice President, Kenya

Hon. Azizou El Hadj Issa, former Minister of Agriculture, Benin

Nomusa Dube, Founder of the Zimbabwe Elephant Foundation, Zimbabwe

Adam Cruise, Editor of the African Elephant Journal, South Africa

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