Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Contemporary Conservationist's Conundrum

"In 1973 Kenya had an estimated elephant population of 167,000. But by the late 1980s gangs of ivory hunters armed with automatic rifles had reduced the herds to about 16,000. The numbers have since recovered to around 32,000 after a crackdown on poaching, accompanied by a worldwide moratorium on the ivory trade. But the growth in the elephant population has brought the animals into conflict with a growing human population that still depends chiefly on subsistence farming for survival."

-Jeevan Vasagar, "Kenya elephants in jumbo-size move" (Guardian Weekly, Sept. 2-8, 2005)
If, in 1973, 167,000 African elephants (Loxodonta africana) lived in Kenya without upsetting the human population, how is it that a mere 32,000 are so vilified today? During the last decade, as elephant numbers have rebounded, cries of "Foul" have increased. As Vasagar points out in his article, a burgeoning human population (and the associated expansion of settlement) are principally to blame.

Sadly, similar conflicts are brewing all over the globe. In Colorado, we scream about the marauding mountain lion (Puma concolor). In Connecticut, we protest white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in our vegetable gardens.

But the problem is a little different in Africa. Despite the growing human population, there are over 130,000 less elephants in Kenya today than there were a quarter century ago. So why, then, is the opposition to elephants so vocal? The answer has to do with economics and expectations.

The subsistence farmers of Kenya, circa 1973, expected to lead simple, day-to-day lives, unburdened by surplus and without material wealth. Today, however, the rural Kenyan standards of living, though well below those held dear by residents of the industrialized world, are always on the rise. In cases where the individual's lot has not yet improved, the expectations certainly have.

We're faced with what I think of as the Contemporary Conservationist's Conundrum. Is it fair for industrialized westerners to preach against industrialization and commercialization? Is it fair for us to encourage "sustainable" or "slow" development in countries looking westward, at our own exuberance, for inspiration and point of reference?

From the vantage point of a young Kenyan, legislation protecting the African elephant population only delays the arrival of a more monied, comfortable future. Hard-working and poor, Kenyan farmers place their interests high above those of an elephant, whereas western conservationists, accustomed to relative luxury, typically reverse this priorities. In order to be constructive and ethical, conservationists must marry their interest in preserving biodiversity with a sincere concern for human rights. Only then will conservationists cease alienating so much of the world's population.


Michael said...

Yes, that is a big part of the conundrum. I have a hard time not getting rather fatalistic about it all. While I support efforts to make positive change, I wrestle with a deep dread that the only real change will be cataclysmic.

deborah said...

India is having similar elephant problems. Just north of Lucknow several elephants were killed by villagers recently. For several years these elephants had been trampling their crops and the villagers had gone through proper government channels to complain, but after three years of no government response, they took matters into their own hands. There have also been sporadic problems with elephants getting drunk on village moonshine and destroying huts and crops. (These elephants, by the way, tend to be young males, so that seems to be a problem that crosses the species barrier).

The issue of human needs vs. conservation comes up here quite a bit. Ullas Karnath who's involved with both WCS and Project Tiger has a fairly glum view of things. Interviewed about India's dwindling tiger population he said he saw no way that humans and tigers could coexist in a sustainable way. Both were competing for the same resources - forest land and the prey within it. He saw no way that it could be shared without one speicies losing out. The same can be said for elephants.

As sad as the prospect is, I tend to share his view and see little hope here for sustainable development unless major societal changes are inacted. Even then there are probably already too many people and too much habitat loss.

Hungry Hyaena said...

Too many people, too much habitat loss. It's a familiar refrain and the scars are that much more deep each year.