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Selling the African Elephant

There has been, in recent times, and put politely, some disquiet expressed by leaders of some African countries over criticism of their policy of selling elephants by those countries to whoever wishes to buy them.

The main thrust of the argument has been over the destruction wrought by elephants on locally based farms, crops and agricultural installations like irrigation systems. Also high on the list is that a number of people have been at best injured, at worst, killed by marauding elephants. It is a justifiable concern.

Next week (August 2019) the sale of wild elephants, and the even more controversial trade in their tusks, is high on the agenda in Switzerland at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). This is the organisation that sets the rules worldwide on the sale of wild animals and their products, including the Ivory tusks of Elephants. One country most anxious to hear the results of CITES’ deliberations is Zimbabwe, described recently by UN officials as ‘marching towards starvation’.

Zimbabwe has, in recent times, made some £2.2 million from the sale of ninety-seven elephants to zoos, parks and other tourist attractions in China and Dubai. More deals are said to be underway as Zimbabwe has said that it will sell elephants ‘to anyone’. With a price of around £34,000 per elephant, the trade has provided some income to a country where a third of the population survive on food aid, drought has hit hard and inflation is the second highest globally (after Venezuela) .

The director of Zimbabwe’s Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, Fulton Mangwanya, has been quoted as saying: ‘We are fighting tooth and nail so that we are allowed to trade in our wildlife. The main contentious issue is the elephants, which we feel we are not allowed to fully benefit from.’

Let’s stop there for a moment. There are two aspects to the situation in Zimbabwe. The first is that the country was once known as ‘The Breadbasket of Africa’ due to its ability to produce food. Zimbabwe has the natural resources to not only feed itself, but the rest of the continent as well. From being a breadbasket, the country is now simply a basket case. This is not due to elephants but to decades of economic and social mismanagement by a corrupt government. Like most African countries, Zimbabwe is rich in natural resources but the woeful performance of its leaders has brought it to its knees.

The second aspect is the attitude towards wildlife. There are huge numbers of Africans dedicated to their countries and the preservation of both wildlife and other resources but for every one there are countless others who take a different view. More years ago than I care to think about, I read a book - it may have been one by conservationist Gerald Durrell but I confess I don’t really remember which book – in which a conversation was held with somebody who was not a supporter of the animal world. This somebody, when confronted with the value of wildlife, expressed a view of mystification and said, of wild life, ‘Yes but what are they for?’

His point was that animals exist for use of humanity; animals do not exist as species in their own right. They are there merely for man to do with as he pleases. Again I stress that I can’t recall which book this was, or its author – but I remember this phrase rather vividly. I was of course, quite young at the time and my interest in conservation was beginning to grow. That is why I remember the words so clearly; the arrogance of this man. This lofty view that man is superior, that anything else was subservient. It thus has no value. Other than mankind, nothing else has any worth and if there is no obvious purpose then it shouldn’t exist (I use the term man and mankind deliberately as it was, then, a man-dominated world. Thankfully we have moved on. At least little, from such a narrow view).