Theresa May and African Wildlife Policy – Philosophical Bedfellows? By David Cook.

What does British Prime Minister Theresa May’s politics have in common with African wildlife conservation, in particular rhino and elephant conservation?

Such being the polar distance between the two topics no one, barring someone with a bizarre stretch of the imagination, could possibly conjure up a connection, political or otherwise. After all what on Gods earth has the destiny of British politics currently in turmoil got to do with saving a priceless natural heritage on a dusty, far off continent?

Wait for a cartoonesque light bulb to flash!

Theresa May may well have been discussing the future of her country and its political programme but a statement ( probably culled from the works of famous English philosopher Edmund Burke ) she made during her recent election campaign does indeed have great relevance for the future of African wildlife, how we are managing it and how we go about securing its future: here is the quote .

….if you value something, if you want to preserve it, there will be times when you have to
be prepared to reform it and to change.

The author of the article in which this appeared, James Forsyth, went on to complete the quote with a sentence “ This is the paradox of conservatism: you preserve through change, and sometimes radical change”.

In the context of African wildlife policy steeped in outdated ,iron- clad orthodox preservation dating back to the colonial era, re-enforced by CITES bans and peddled by an army of international NGO’s pouring money into a smorgasbord of hopeless projects none of which have yielded any tangible results, Theresa May’s maxim becomes very, very relevant. It should cause us to reflect on the cost of a 40 year old tyranny under CITES and its cohort of protectionist NGO’s – hundreds of them -actively persuading gullible governments to burn off stockpiles of ivory and rhino horn worth billions of dollars in exchange ( the quid pro quo naturally) for generous donations and strict adherence to non- consumptive use dogma? It has become a billion-dollar industry with thousands of careers at stake and goodness knows how many all-knowing , moralising celebrities created in the process ; let the crisis continue rather than change to a more rational approach capable of achieving what everyone seeks – a wildlife philosophy which actually succeeds in reversing the current disastrous trend.

All attempts to alter the course of tragic events taking place in Africa and to confront the realities of an African wildlife resource in crisis are fiercely resisted . Evidence conjured up of wildlife becoming “commodified” at the hands of commercial interests; people who have never so much as having been on the outer fringes of practical management of a multi species natural system suddenly become “experts” boasting years and years of experience and wisdom on how natural systems work .

Ideally, the launch sites for such propaganda is the deck of a high-end lodge overlooking a waterhole groaning with wildlife activity. Picture the enrapt audience of wealthy guests – chilled wine in hand – waiting to be entertained with earnest convictions on why wildlife should be placed on a pedestal equal to man, and to fulminate on learning that a sector of the conservation community could actually stoop so low as to resort to campaigning for a legal trade in rhino horn – or elephant ivory.

Moreover, what heresy to have the temerity to suggest that using wild animals for commercial purposes could change the bleak future which lies ahead, for the better. One can just imagine the howls of self righteous indignation and horror. Next stop – attendance at one of those wildlife conferences (suitably attired in slightly crumpled bush jacket of course), where celebrities and even royalty share platforms denouncing any form of consumptive utilisation not matter how rational or scientifically valid this might be.

Cracks in the wall are nonetheless appearing in this otherwise antiquated fortress of protectionism. A recent piece by Tony Carnie published in the Daily Maverick seeking clarification on the fundamental purpose of National Parks, hints at a certain atmosphere of growing exasperation as politicians, formal conservation agencies and mainstream NGO’s grapple with the realities of a poaching pandemic, budget shortfalls, failures of one anti-poaching solution after another and a hint of confusion over the limits of rational human intervention in protected area management practices.

His reference to Belinda Scott’s (MEC responsible for KZN’s Tourism and the Environment portfolio) recent bemoaning the existence of “too many greenies and too few economists” in the wildlife arena – in reference to Ezemvelo’s financial future – is pertinent even if it was aimed solely at increasing tourism development (a disastrous approach). The extent of official frustration is also revealed by David Mabunda’s (Acting CEO of Ezemvelo) allusion to outdated “old-guard” protectionism and the need for change.

Both are right in one sense but completely wrong if the remedial action they imply is necessary is confined to passive utilisation like tourism. Would that these two heavyweights have pointed instead to the untapped resources awaiting rational exploitation; for example , the sale of valuable billion dollar assets like rhino horn and ivory through a regulated legal market, culling for protein production of non- translocatable surplus stock of species like buffalo – even elephant – for which species few, if any, live markets exist.

Is this not more preferable than to allow a ten-year-old poaching epidemic (in which over 6 000 rhino worth more than 15 billion Rands have been slaughtered) to continue, than having protected areas filled with hotels and fast food outlets, and on the biological front, having species overfill their ecological niche, destroying biodiversity in the process and starving to death in a ghastly form of natural depopulation.

To answer Tony Carnie’s enquiry: is not the new imperative that lies begging in this challenging era the re-introduction of adaptive management interventions designed to a) preserve biodiversity b) supply life-supporting relationships with adjacent human communities and, most importantly, c) generate the much-needed finances required to relieve the state of the onerous burden of financing protected areas?

These are the options Tony Carnie did not mention when he tilted at proverbial windmills by posing some mildly controversial – but very pertinent – questions around the very relevance of the mandate enshrined, in one form or another, of every protected area statute i.e. to preserve as an immutable responsibility – for all time – the representative biodiversity and its associated ecological processes of the area set aside. For the sake of future generations let us not forget that solemn responsibility.

If ever there was a time to take stock it is now. Theresa May’s thoughts are not so disparate as we might have thought.