African Wildlife: Who cares about elephants?

– Originally published at ThisIsAfrica.me written by Tom Odhiambo –

The African media is saturated with stories of ‘save our wildlife’. Save your ‘Jumbos’. Don’t kill our Big Five! Save your future! I hardly have a share in the Kenyan wildlife. Wildlife isn’t my future. And the media is only telling half the story.

To keep the ivory from the black market, a plainclothes ranger hacks the tusks off a bull elephant killed illegally in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park. In the first half of 2012 six park rangers died protecting Kenya’s elephants. Photo: Brent Stirton, Getty Images/National Geographic

Who really cares about the African elephant? Or you could say the same about any other wild animal in Africa. Who cares? I am not being cynical here. I am just trying to say that many ordinary Africans couldn’t care less if there were no wild animals in their countries. For millions of Africans today have never seen a live wild animal. I mean this seriously. Where in the world have those teeming masses in the slums of African cities ever seen a leopard, an elephant or a crocodile? I’m sure my mother who is over 60 years old has never seen an elephant, that epitome of African wildlife.

But why do I care to tell you all this? Because the African media is saturated with stories of ‘save our wildlife’. Save your ‘Jumbos’. Don’t kill our Big Five! Save your future! I hardly have a share in the Kenyan wildlife. Wildlife isn’t my future. What big five – unemployment, poverty, hunger, illness and death? That isn’t me speaking. It was one of my students. In a class of 40, not one of them had even seen a living cheetah. Nearly all of them had seen a cheetah in the newspapers or on TV or on billboards. They’d met an elephant. But only on a Kenyan 1000-shilling note. Many wouldn’t know the difference between a dikdik and an impala or tell a crocodile from a monitor lizard! So, why bother about saving elephants? Well, the media and a few Kenyans who ‘care’ about elephants and other ‘endangered’ wild animals are only telling half the story about the wanton killing of wild animals in Kenya and other African countries.

The first lie is that these animals are the collective heritage of all Kenyans/Africans

No. African wildlife is a preserve of the African elite, game reserves owners and tourists. It costs on average the weekly wages of a causal worker in Nairobi to enter the Nairobi national park. Many ordinary Kenyans can’t afford a trip to the famed Maasai Mara game park. There are more Americans who know about the types and habits of the animals in Maasai Mara than there are Maasais, who live in the same ecosystem with the animals.

The second lie is about who is killing the animals.

The oldest problems between wild animals and human beings are poaching and encroachment by either on the other’s territory. Wild animals will eventually figure out where human beings live or use and avoid them. Likewise, human beings will fence off their spaces or stay away from the animals’ haunts. Poaching happens because people need the game meat or animal trophy. In some places poaching was simply a means of controlling animal population. Then poaching mutated into a complex economy that supports special interests in game meat, hides and other trophies. Today, elephant and rhino populations are being decimated for their tusks. But who can dare game rangers with sophisticated weaponry and tracking systems and methods? Who has the guts to risk death just to kill one elephant?

A worker in China’s largest ivory-carving factory finishes a piece symbolizing prosperity. Photo: Brent Stirton, Getty Images/National Geographic

The Kenyan and Tanzanian media accuse the Chinese of trafficking in elephant tusks and rhino horns. China legally bought 73 tons of ivory from Africa in 2008; since then, poaching and smuggling have both soared. Well, who do these alleged Chinese traffickers buy the trophies from, where, when, how, and so on? Of course the Chinese deny; but the Africans continue to allege crime on the part of our friends from the East. What the media doesn’t say is that history will tell you that hunting elephants for tusks is a very intricate (global) enterprise. Orders are placed somewhere – say in the East. Sophisticated guns are bought somewhere – say the West. Killers are identified somewhere – say in Nairobi. Gatherers and transporters do the rest. But remember that nearly all game parks in East Africa are heavily guarded and, in some cases, under high-tech surveillance. No small man in Nairobi or Kilimanjaro can track down an elephant, kill it, hack off the tusks and transport them to the market today. They will be risking death from a game park ranger’s gun or the mafia that controls the trade in the trophies.

The whispers in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam – history records this from the 1960s – is that people who know important people are the dealers in this art of killing. That is why game rangers look the other way as ‘important’ people visit game parks and leave with animal trophies. This is why the customs inspection of animal products exports is a sham that allows thousands of kilos of tusks to leave the borders of East African countries and rob future generations of Africans their heritage. This is why not one significant person has been prosecuted in the whole of East Africa despite a scary rise in the number of rhinos and elephants killed. This is why no ordinary Kenyan or Tanzanian or Uganda would care whether the elephants and rhinos are killed or not.

And by the way, we could be talking about disappearing elephants and rhinos when cheetahs, leopards, lions, crocodiles etc are being killed ‘silently.’ But I care about elephants because this deliberate elimination of such a visible animal could be a sign of the future; a future in which anything that the market wants can be procured, including my body. So, if you can speak about the elephant in the room – the evil silence which allows those with the means to kill wildlife wantonly – then speak about it.


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