Whose elephants are they, anyway? Lessons from an Angolan manatee hunter

Mar 15, 2022 | Commentary

By Tamar Ron – Daily Maverick

The Covid-19 crisis has taught us that not opting for wildlife conservation at local level can have a huge global cost. If indeed the pandemic all started from one local wet market, it is clear nothing in this world is happening far away. We are all shareholders and responsible for conservation, everywhere.

My previous article in Daily Maverick advocated the need for a global joint responsibility fund for wildlife and communities, to locally back and enable global hunting trophy bans, such as the UK’s proposed legislation.

In response to this article, Leslé Jansen and Gail Thomson raised important questions about the concept suggested. This follow-up article aims to better clarify the proposed funding concept, which is not based on aid or donations, but rather on global responsibility and joint effort and collaboration across the globe in sharing the burden of conservation costs for securing ours and our planet’s future, considering the great and imminent environmental threats that we are all facing.

Costs and benefits of conservation — the burden gap

The rationale for the proposed global responsibility fund is based on the understanding of the gap between conservation costs and benefits and their bearers.

Conservation costs are mostly local and national in their nature. They can be grouped into three main categories — the costs of opting for conservation over and above other land and resource-use options in selected areas; the costs of performing conservation, protection and enforcement activities, with all that this effort entails; and the costs of human-wildlife-conflicts, which may be devastating to local rural communities that cohabit with specific wildlife species.

Global sharing of local and national conservation costs is currently very limited and mainly voluntary and depends on foreign aid.

Conservation benefits, however, are wider and extend locally, nationally, and mostly globally. These benefits can be grouped into two main categories — direct revenues and wider benefits.

Direct conservation revenues are based mainly on tourism, and in several countries include trophy hunting. They are often unequally distributed, with the private sector gaining the lion’s share and governments benefiting mainly from licensing and concessions.

Local community members may, to some extent, be among the beneficiaries, mainly in several countries where conservancy systems or community-based natural resources management programmes are well institutionalised. Local communities’ benefits from trophy hunting are advocated as a main justification for legal hunting and trade, but local communities’ access to these revenues is quite limited, and in many cases also tends to be status and gender-biased within communities.

As detailed in my previous article, legal trophy hunting and trade is not and cannot be a significant remedy for poverty and unemployment in most rural communities that cohabit with wildlife in Africa, and that suffer the costs of conservation and the burden of human-wildlife conflict. Moreover, legal trophy hunting and trade increases illegal hunting and trade in wildlife species and their parts, and thereby increases the conservation costs in all range states of these species, at both national and local levels.

The wider spectrum of local, national and global conservation benefits include multiple critical factors, such as: reducing biodiversity loss; reducing land, water and habitat degradation; building global ecosystems’ integrity and resilience; enabling improved access to ecosystems’ services; mitigating climate change and establishing adaptation opportunities; improving food security and sustainable economic opportunities; and, protecting cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual values.

The Covid-19 crisis has also taught us that not opting for wildlife conservation at local level can have a huge global cost. If indeed the pandemic all started from one local wet market, it is overwhelming to witness the macro-critical global impact with devastating costs to world economies that are still accumulating, and beyond so many human lives lost. Nothing in this world is happening far away; it is all right here, wherever “here” is. We must realise that we are all shareholders and responsible for conservation, everywhere.

The concept of a joint global responsibility fund is not about donations, compassion contributions, compensation, existing foreign aid mechanisms, or meagre conservation budgets. It is about rewriting together our joint future, by sharing the burden of conservation, and fairly paying the custodians of wildlife and ecosystems for their great service to the world.

A new funding model would have to be developed. It may be based to some extent on adapting existing funding mechanisms such as tax-based or penalty-based mechanisms, carbon markets, or debt-to-nature swaps. Experience and lessons learned from carbon markets, foreign aid systems, and other existing funding mechanisms would have to be integrated into developing a new innovative alternative that is better designed to overcome the identified challenges. It would also have to provide a much higher funding scale.

Leslé Jansen and Gail Thomson and their interviewees provide, in their article, some important insights on lessons learned which must be taken into consideration.

How much does an elephant cost?

An International Monetary Fund (IMF) team, led by Ralph Chami has estimated the carbon capture value alone of one African forest elephant, including body biomass, “forest gardening services” and fertilisation at $1.75-million. This assessment does not include monetary valuation of all the other benefits that the elephant provides, as detailed above. These are benefits for the whole world.

The financial value of this same elephant, if killed, legally or illegally, may range around $10,000 — $50,000, whether in the form of legal trophy and hunting licences or illegally traded ivory. It is a completely different scale.

If we find a way for “the world” to globally pay even part of the value of live wildlife to the local wildlife custodians, it would be a much better wildlife economy opportunity for them, by far, than their limited share of the revenues of trophy hunting.

So, whose elephants are they?

If we could pose this question to an elephant matriarch, she would probably say that her entire family is under her own responsibility, shared with some family members, and please keep your trunks or hands, and certainly your guns, off them.

In our human world, wildlife is generally considered as owned by countries, with their management regulated by governments. There is no rural community, not even in the few countries where a conservancy system is well-institutionalised, that is really considered the sole owner of the wildlife with which they cohabit in the eyes of the law of their country.

At best, they are permitted to be among the beneficiaries of wildlife economies, including hunting revenues, in accordance with strict rules and management and financial decisions of their government. Even if all members of a community do not want any elephants around them, there is no country where this is their decision to take. If community members decide to kill wildlife without legal permission, they are considered criminals and may be prosecuted, if not worse.

International agreements refer to wildlife as belonging to countries, while their legal international trade is subject to multilaterally agreed rules. There is an underlying global understanding that is manifested through multilateral agreements and conventions that biodiversity assets belong to “the world”. And yet, the world expects impoverished rural communities to bear alone the conservation burden of “everybody’s elephants”.

Elephants (and similar species) have not been part of the natural fauna of Europe and North America for at least some thousands of years. Nevertheless, they are embedded in the upbringing of almost every child in these countries. They are present in our children’s books, movies and toys. They are part of our shared human heritage. They are part of who we are.

People who live very far from elephant range states feel that they are “shareholders” in securing their conservation and welfare. This feeling may be translated into signing petitions, contributing to a favourite NGO, or even working for one.

My argument is that if people living far from elephant range states want to have a say in their conservation, management, and welfare, if people understand the importance of wildlife in other parts of the world to their own life, this understanding can be channelled to a financial commitment to share the burden of conservation costs with local communities that cohabit with these species, to fairly pay for their service of acting as the custodians of wildlife and ecosystems for the whole world. 

Who represents the wildlife custodians?

A key challenge to establishing the proposed payment mechanism would be not only how to raise a substantive funding base that is way beyond and on a different scale than any existing aid system, but also how to use it, to fairly pay local custodians of wildlife and natural ecosystems for their conservation services.

It is essential that the fund would enhance sustainability rather than dependency. Therefore, there must be a focus on sustainability-generating investments, such as improved access to basic services and in particular to education at all levels; improved capacity to engage in sustainable livelihoods, and to mitigate human-wildlife-conflict; improved access to diversified employment opportunities at all levels, including conservation-related careers; and improved programme and fund management capacity of community associations and organisations.

Specific investments would have to be decided by the local communities that cohabit with wildlife, on a case-by-case basis in accordance with their needs and priorities. Representation structures of the wildlife custodians at local, national and regional levels would have to be agreed upon and developed through an inclusive process.

Leslé Jansen and Gail Thomson, in their article, engaged in a productive dialogue with some community representatives from several southern African countries about the proposed concept. Their interviewees have raised very valid points. All of the quoted interviewees were members of the Community Leaders Network of Southern Africa, “an association of community representatives from Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe”.

The article does not, however, clarify if and what makes the member communities of this association the representatives of all local communities in their countries. For example, are all local communities throughout Angola even aware of this association, let alone have any say in electing who represents them there or in their decisions and statements?

Moreover, while communities in several countries in southern Africa where a conservancy or similar system is well-established are well organised at community and even at country level, it would be patronising for their voice to be heard above that of local communities that cohabit with wildlife in countries where such systems do not exist. The voice of communities in all range states of these species must be equally heard.

Eventually, considering that the proposed fund represents payment to wildlife custodians for their service, it would have to be fully owned by local communities and fairly distributed among them according to a set of criteria and rules that would have to be developed in an agreement between the paying countries and entities and the payees through extensive and inclusive consultations at both national and local levels in setting these rules.

A lesson from one school child and his father

When I started working in Angola in the late 1990s, my first task was to develop a project proposal for the study and conservation of manatees. In this context, I was introduced to a small community of war refugees, or rather, internally displaced people, living near a lake in the Bengo River basin.

One of the community members was a specialised local manatee hunter, who provided valuable information and accompanied us on boat trips in the lake. He told us then that he was the only manatee hunter in this lake and that he alone was responsible for the killing of more than half of the manatee population of the lake in the course of several years.

He said that he did not like this way of life, or killing the manatees, but this is what he knew how to do, and he had to make a living. He was living in a corrugated iron-roofed small wooden shack, that was no different from those of his neighbours.

One day he asked us to take his son with us to Luanda where he was going to school. The boy washed in the lake, went into the shack and came out all dressed up in a neat uniform with a packed school bag. The father looked at him proudly. “You see”, he said, “selling the manatees that I hunted enable me to send my children to school, so that they will have a better life than mine.”

I firmly believe that it is in the interest of each and every citizen of this world that each and every child of these rural communities will have the best access to education to open up equal opportunities for their future by their parents being paid for their services of acting as the wildlife custodians, rather than being motivated to engage in wildlife hunting. It costs us all much more, otherwise.

Putting it simply, this is what the proposed joint global responsibility fund for wildlife and communities is all about. 

Dr Tamar Ron is an independent international biodiversity conservation and community engagement consultant. For the past 20 years she has been a biodiversity consultant to the Angolan government. She developed the concept and acted as principal consultant for the establishment of the Mayombe Transfrontier Initiative between Angola, the Republic of Congo, DRC and Gabon. She is co-author, with Tamar Golan, of the book Angolan Rendezvous: Man and Nature in the Shadow of War (2010, 30 Degrees South).

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