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Poaching and the Problem with Conservation in Africa – A Rebuttal

On March 3rd, 2020, as I was trolling through the twitter news feed for conservation stories I came across “Poaching and the problem with conservation in Africa (commentary) published by Mongabay.  The title was definitely a draw and Mongabay does some pretty good stuff so I started my scan. A few key points were italicized just below the headline.

My attention was grabbed immediately with “Poaching is a complex topic that cannot be solved by myopic, top-down enforcement approaches.” I continued reading. “Across Africa, state-led anti-poaching forces, no matter how well funded and equipped, have been unable to curtail the high levels of poaching currently observed.”  

This is a pretty sweeping and general statement to make for an entire continent and essentially not correct on more than one level.

A couple of paragraphs further: “there is a need to understand the underlying causes of the poaching problem if it is to be solved’
My read continued on a veritable roller coaster of thoughts; this is wrong, that is a stretch, everybody knows that, what really is the point of this report and finally, on the mention of “trophy hunting”, who are these authors?
These days “trophy hunting” has almost become an acronym for “sustainable utilization”, the principle argument put forth by Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe for wishing to have sanctioned authority from CITES to sell their ivory stockpiles. It is their attempt to use their interpretation of science to masquerade the greed behind he desire for access to their ivory stockpiles.
That being the case, there is a need to put this report by Associate Professor Richard Fynn (Rangeland Ecology) and Professor Oluwatoyin Kolawole (Rural Development) under the microscope.
Both professors are from the University of Botswana, which for those of you like myself who are opposed to trophy hunting, should raise red flags immediately. Richard Flynn also co-authored a June 2019 article “Why Allowing Trophy Hunting is good for conservation” with Olekae Thakadu and Joseph Mbaiwa, also professors at the University of Botswana.
Joseph Mbaiwa’s report “Effects of the Safari Hunting Tourism Ban on Rural Livelihoods and Wildlife Conservation in Northern Botswana” is attributed by many as one of the principle studies used by the Botswana government in their recent overturning of the hunting ban.
According to the Wild Things Initiative, Professor Joseph Mbaiwa is also a business partner with Jeff Rann of 777 Ranch and Rann Safaris and recently applied for a $400,000 research grant from Safari Club International.  Perhaps we have some conflict of interest issues here if the report has any substance.

“In spite of all efforts of national defence forces and wildlife departments, elephant numbers are in a catastrophic decline.”

Our professors state that the use of militarized anti-poaching forces does not stop poaching and uses the rhino poaching statistics from Kruger National Park in 2017, 2018 and 2019 as an example.  Their article also states that elephant numbers are in “catastrophic decline”. The “catastrophic decline” is based on the 2016 Great Elephant Census (GEC).
For those involved in anti-poaching initiatives, it is common knowledge that any reduction in same involves initiatives on numerous fronts; the community level, criminal justice, the transport and financial sector and the end market consumer.  Militarized anti-poaching forces are an integral part of that entire equation.  To use the rhino poaching numbers from one park in South Africa (with a backdrop of swirling rhino horn domestic trade issues and declaring 33 species of wildlife as farm animals) as an example of cross continent failure seems questionable.
Their report is not wrong in describing the catastrophic decline in elephant numbers as per the GEC.  But that was in the years between the second “one off” ivory sale by CITES in 2008 and 2015.  It is widely accepted in the conservation field that presently the poaching numbers in most elephant range states are down considerably, except (ironically?) perhaps Botswana.  

To clarify, overall the elephant poaching numbers are not in a good place, but much better than five years ago. 

The improvement is based on a number of factors, including better trained and equipped anti-poaching forces (not necessarily state-led), criminal justice systems that give increased attention to wildlife crime and the closing down of markets in China.

Poaching (as a form of resistance) metamorphoses into a form of class conflict”

The reasons for poaching as postulated by the article are based on a theory of Yale University professor and political scientist, James Scott, who believes that poaching (as well as “such acts as foot-dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, feigned ignorance, desertion, pilfering, smuggling, poaching, arson, slander, sabotage, surreptitious assault and murder, anonymous threats”) are forms of resistance that over time became a form of class conflict.  The basis of this theory came from observations made while Dr. Scott spent 2 years living within a Malay agricultural community in the 1960’s.   As part of that theory, poaching is defined as “that activity that was part of the traditional subsistence routine of the rural population, an activity embedded in customary rights.”

An example provided is that of rural England (in Robin Hood times) when peasantry were subsistence hunting on lands that were later claimed by government/feudal lords who then outlawed said hunting.  But is this applicable to the Great Rift Valley or forests of Gabon. Have local African communities historically ever sold ivory or rhino horn as part of their traditional subsistence routine?  And I do not see transnational organized crime on James Scott’s list of other forms of resistance. 

“Herein lies the answer to the poaching problem; local communities”
The pillar of Professor Fynn and Kolawole’s article relates to local community (LC) within Africa and advocates that where  the LC has a vested interest in a national park/reserve, conservancy, or protected area (PA), poaching will substantially decrease.  This is not a new concept.  The Lewa Conservancy in Kenya has been existence since 1995.  In 2016, the IUCN produced a report; “Local Communities: First Line of Defence against International Wildlife Trade”  which espoused much of what was stated in this article.  In 2019, the African Wildlife foundation (AWF) said much the same thing in “Wildlife conservancies are reducing inequalities in Africa” .  Indeed, Kenya presently has 160 conservancies and the numbers belies its success. So why are the authors presenting this idea as though it is something completely novel?    Perhaps it is their inclusion that LC’s should have the autonomy to decide if they can permit trophy hunting?

To recap, as I see it, this is what this commentary is about: 

1. Two academics writing an opinion piece on subject matter that is not normally within their field of expertise.

2. Based on statistics from one park in South Africa relating to one species over a three year period, anti-poaching forces across the African continent have failed.

3. Based on research from rural Malaysia and Sherwood Forest (feudal England), the underlying cause of ivory and rhino horn poaching is not greed or Chinese demand but due to class struggle and resultant resistance.

4. The solution to poaching in Africa is through the use of local communities who should also have the autonomy to decide if they will allow trophy hunters to kill the biggest and strongest of species,  “planned in a manner that facilitates co-existence with wildlife” and in total disregard to their global population numbers or global regulators.

Of course, my recap is an over simplification, slanted, generalized and mixes truths with untruths. But then, what is our professor’s article?


2016 Headline in The Guardian



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