African Elephant Conservation discussed

African Elephant Conservation discussed

November 18, 2017

This week we saw the Trump administration rule that Americans could hunt elephants for their tusks in Zimbabwe and Zambia and ship the trophies home. Happily, a few days later, the President postponed that rule for further “study.”

I wrote the book War Elephants about fifteen years ago, and have read practically every book ever written in English on elephants. I am an expert on the history of elephants more than the biology of elephants. I am also a Christian and have ethical ideas from the Bible. Here I will try to explain some of the debate regarding African elephant conservation.


The ivory hunting bonanza of the 19th century cut African elephant populations down to about five million animals. After a lull, poaching is back, and by 2017 an estimated 400,000 wild African elephants remain. The current rate of killing is 30,000 elephants per year (nearly a hundred per day). At this rate, elephants might be extinct in the wild by 2030.

Poachers and trophy hunters generally kill only tusked elephants. Unfortunately, both the males and females (bulls and cows) in Africa have tusks. Asian elephants have more tuskless animals, and this is one reason that poaching in Asia is less of a threat. Recent reports of poaching in Asia for elephant skin (for “traditional medicine” in China) might end that reprieve.

An estimated seventy percent of ivory is sold to China. Recent promises by the Chinese government to reduce ivory consumption are helpful, but have not lessened poaching thus far.

The African elephant is a highly intelligent animal. Herds are led by a “matriarch” with long memory of the locations of good feeding grounds and water sources. Females lead all herds, with males being kicked out of the groups in their teen years. Males form loosely affiliated groups for protection and competition, but do not “herd.” Because males tend to grow larger and have longer tusks, the bulls took the brunt of early hunting and poaching deaths. Now very few “big tuskers” remain.

Conservation attempts

African elephants now live mainly along the eastern edge of the African continent. They have completely vanished from many countries. Nations with weak infrastructure were unable to control poaching (or colonial hunting) and now have very little wildlife of any kind. Countries in civil war often exterminate their elephant herds to sell the ivory for weapons.

Countries with stable governments have made serious efforts to preserve elephants and other wildlife. Conservation efforts are underway, but have met with mixed results, at best.

There are basic, fundamental problems in protecting elephants.

First, elephants are instinctively migratory creatures. For thousands of years they have moved hundreds of miles to find better grasses and water sources remembered by their matriarchs. Elephants did not recognize human borders. Obviously, it is impossible to protect animals once they leave your national borders. In recent years it is not just national borders, but park borders. If your country has only enough rangers to patrol the park, then the elephants are in danger of poaching as soon as they leave the park. Also, since the human population growth in African countries is booming, people are building homes and farms all around the parks. These people do not like it when elephants raid their crops for food. Thus, many elephants die by traps or poisons laid to protect human farms.

Second, elephants are intelligent and somewhat docile creatures, seeking to avoid violence. When poachers kill members of a herd, or even lonely bulls, the herds flee to safety. These days, only the parks are safe. That means that frightened herds will stay in the park. When migratory herds suddenly stay in one location, the food rapidly dwindles. Thus, the parks are quickly denuded of grasses, shrubs, and even trees. Parks may indeed become wastelands if there are too many elephants in them. Thus, the parks call out that the elephant population is too high (“overpopulation”) and need to “cull” the herds (kill enough elephants to stabilize the food in the park).

Third, elephants are not an easy population to control or transport. We would love to “spread” the population by transporting the elephants from an overpopulated park to a country where they are rare. But moving a single elephant of three or four tons is difficult, let alone a whole herd.

Fourth, elephants are social herd animals. While you might transport a single bull to an area, you cannot take a few elephants from a herd and expect them to survive. They follow a leader and have a hierarchy and rely upon each other. A few elephants cannot protect each other nor form a true herd.

This is what we know now.

A few decades ago, South Africa suffered a major media blackeye for their attempts at elephant overpopulation reduction. The leaders apparently knew that killing half of a herd would be cruel, since the rest would be leaderless and traumatized. They decided to kill whole herds, except for the babies, which could be sold to zoos.

Helicopters came in and tranquilizer-darted all the adults in a herd. Hunters or rangers shot the animals in the head to kill them. The weaned calves (no longer needing mother’s milk) were captured and trucked away for sale. The calves still needing milk were shot. Then butchers came in to chop up the elephants for meat. The films of these annual bloodbaths set public opinion against “culling” for decades.

It is easy to criticize South Africa in hindsight. But I ask you, what are the alternatives?

If elephants are going to starve in the national park, what can we do?

Importing food is expensive and makes the animals reliant on human handouts. That makes parks into giant zoos.

If we run the overpopulated elephants out of the park, poachers kill them.

We could try making the parks much larger. Who will pay for it? Who will kick out the humans living on those lands now?

The United States and other “western nations” are rich compared to African countries. We have money to pay for parks and the protection of wildlife. Telling poor countries to spend their money on wildlife sounds like “western imperialism” to many. But even throwing money at those countries won’t help, since corruption may siphon it all away to private greedy pockets.

There is no easy answer to African elephant conservation. African countries are usually too poor, too corrupt, too involved in civil wars, or too inefficient to adequately protect rare wildlife. And the very nature of elephants works against them. If they migrate they cannot be protected. If fear causes them to hide in the parks, they starve when the food runs out.

The Trophy Hunting Model

Hunters and capitalists proposed that the free-market might save elephants. The theory sounds great, because it makes sense. The problem is that capitalism and trophy hunting have been practiced mainly in wealthy nations, and the foundational elements that make capitalism possible are not present in Africa. Neo-conservatives in the Bush administrations had high-hopes that we could spread USA capitalism all over the world if only we could overthrow the dictators and countries could hold free elections. That did not work out in Africa. Overthrowing dictators did not change the foundational problems to bring flourishing capitalism. Similarly, just because something works in the United States does not mean it will work in Zimbabwe.

What I am calling the trophy hunting model is simply the idea that if we allow living creatures to be assigned a high monetary value, people will be motivated to protect them, to make money off of them. In other words, we make elephants into a kind of domestic animal. At a pet store, an African Grey parrot may sell for a thousand dollars. Thus, people are motivated to breed and raise and sell African Grey parrots, to make money. Thus, they have a value.

Theoretically, then, if a Safari Club hunter wants to tick the elephant off his big-game checklist, and is willing to pay $10,000 to shoot one… the African people will protect the elephant herds to get this money from the hunter.

That is the model that the Trump administration was promoting by briefly lifting the ban on elephant trophy hunting for Zambia and Zimbabwe. Both of those African nations promised to use this model and funnel their hunting income toward elephant conservation (hiring rangers, etc).

That is the model that hunters and capitalists were promoting in a 2007 National Geographic article, as the last, best hope to save the African elephants. You will see this article often quoted by the “right” to support lifting the ivory ban, at least in those countries. Interestingly, they are not citing the 2015 National Geographic article where they revisited the results of those trophy hunting models. Basically they show that Zimbabwe and other countries trying this out, failed. The money went to corrupt politicians and never helped the elephants.

Our country has a long history of Christian principles of justice and responsibility. Obviously the United States has often failed to be just and responsible. But our system of government includes “checks and balances” so that justice and responsibility are desirable and promoted. What works in the USA will not automatically work in nations without similar standards of justice and responsibility.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that I am being wrongly discriminatory toward the African nations, and that they have solidly good intentions, and intend to do justly and responsibly toward the elephants. Zimbabwe and Zambia are thus, for the sake of argument, wonderful places for humans and animals. Even if this were true, the nature of elephants would ruin the Trophy Model of Elephant Conservation.

Hunters want the tusked elephants. Thus, they will only pay to shoot the oldest adults with the longest tusks. The largest bulls have already been poached, so the hunters will have to get the matriarchs or older females in a herd. The herds are pretty much all hiding in the national parks. So the hunting must occur in the park.

If the parks lose their safe place status, the herds will flee the parks, and get killed by the poachers outside.

Even if the herds stay in the park, while hunters are killing their female leaders, the stress will stop their breeding. Some species of animals, such as the Whitetailed Deer, breed more abundantly during times of stress. More hunting actually leads to more baby deer, in that species. But in elephants, when times are stressful, the females are less prone to breed and more prone to stillbirths and miscarriages. Thus, hunting in the parks will lead to dead tuskers and fewer babies.

Hunters often claim to be the best conservationists. That is true of many. I am not an animal rightist and I do not oppose all hunting. In fact, if killing a few elephants would promise the survival of the species, I would promote it wholeheartedly.

Some animal rightists say they would rather see the African elephant go extinct than to see them in zoos. Those folks are clinging too stubbornly to their hatred of humans, as if zoo elephants are horrible mutants because they are not running free.

When will these people wake up to the truth that elephants may be unable to live in the wild in just a couple decades? The Asian elephant is nearing extinction also, not from poaching, but from lack of habitat. The human population in Asia has left the elephants little jungle to live in.

What will work?

The wildlife conservationists of the world are anxiously awaiting a new plan to save wild elephants, in Africa and Asia. No viable plan has been found yet.

The animal rightists will settle for nothing but the ideal: turn Africa into a giant park and let all the animals roam freely without human interference. No captivity, no management. They have no answer as to what to do with all the people now living there.

The hunters want their trophies and hope to convince the Trump administration to lift the ivory ban and let the tusks adorn their walls. Robert Mugabe and other African rulers would love to sell those permits to line their own bank accounts.

Ecotourism is the only model with any potential, that I can see. That is already working, to some degree, in countries like Kenya and Tanzania. It falters when the money does not reach the local communities, and when protection falters and poachers raid the parks.

Christian Ethics

Thus far I have focused entirely on the practical, economic, social, and historical background of African elephant conservation. There is a religious angle as well.

I believe that all of the Earth, and its creatures, belong to God. Elephants included.

I believe that “dominion” is not human domination of the world, but should be human stewardship of the world and its animals under God’s authority and rules.

The Bible gives us principles to use in deciding how properly to use and protect animals.

Some animals were given to us for use as workers, and some are allowed as food, with provisions for their well-being, including rest, food, water, and protection from harms. The modern factory farming model is an abomination to God, ignoring all stewardly responsibilities.

Elephants are not food animals. Practically no one likes to eat them. The only righteous reason I can see to kill elephants would be for their own good (serious overpopulation) or for self protection, when an elephant attacks you.

The hunting of elephants therefore has no justification. When hunters seek a Whitetailed Deer for its antler rack, they may be simultaneously reducing the overpopulated species, and providing meat, thereby justifying their hunt. Trophy hunting is more difficult to justify than subsistence hunting. And trophy hunting cannot even be contemplated with rare and endangered creatures.

Any benefits of elephant hunting are outweighed by the tragic consequences. It is not stewardship to drive a species closer to extinction.

When Noah’s Ark landed, after the great flood, here is what God said to the humans.

Genesis 8:17 (NIV), “Bring out every kind of living creature that is with you – the birds, the animals, and all the creatures that move along the ground – so they can multiply on the earth and be fruitful and increase in number on it.”

Be fruitful and multiply was God’s intention for animals as well as humans.

The fact that humanity is multiplying, and animal life is diminishing, indicates that we are not running the world the way God intended. How to fix that problem is the major question for Christians and dominion for the foreseeable future.

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