Whose Elephants Are They? Strengthening Community-Based Conservation And Communities’ Ownership Rights For Elephants In Africa
October 2014, Volume 12-5-I

At CITES CoP16 (2013), debates concerning the African Elephant focused only on two issues: a) demand reduction for ivory in consumer States, and b) law enforcement. The trend continued at the IUCN Elephant Summit 2013 and at the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade 2014, where detailed actions were agreed on law enforcement and demand reduction for wildlife products, but only vague and general statements were made on local communities’ involvement. Further initiatives like President Obama’s Executive Order – Combating Wildlife Trafficking and the related Federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Trafficking, The European Union approach to combat wildlife trafficking, the International Consortium on Combating Wildlife Crime, and the new UN Office on Drug and Crime anti–wildlife trafficking program, emphasize enforcement of anti-poaching and anti-trafficking laws.

These are important initiatives, but their reach is somehow limited because they target effects rather than causes that create illegal use of wildlife. Combating illegal wildlife trade should only be considered as a component of integrated programs that consider the social, economic, ecological and institutional contexts in which unsustainable use of wildlife occurs. The Guardian reported from the London Conference “…It is hard to think of a more desperate failure of world government.. The survival of wild animals depends entirely on those among whom they live… Unless local people want to save them, they will be poached to the point where just a few remain in fortified reserves.”

The current debate on the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn has obscured the real threat to wildlife that is, the loss of natural habitat and wildlife through conversion of habitat to farming and livestock. This has implications for far more species than just elephant and rhino. If the natural habitat is lost and more land is converted entirely to farming then we will lose a large number of species in communal lands.

A recent briefing paper of the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), remarks that the current emphasis on law enforcement and demand reduction neglects the role of effective incentives in achieving sustainable use for conservation and local development.

Poverty remains the first and foremost important cause of poaching in sub-Saharan Africa, where according to the World Bank an average of nearly 50% of the population live on slightly more than one dollar a day. In a case–study of poaching in the Serengeti, Tanzania, poverty and an income shortfall were the most mentioned factors that led an individual to poach (Knapp, E. J. 2012).

Furthermore, although pursuing and even killing poachers may seem useful; this brings the loss of human lives to a secondary stage in respect to wildlife. We must not forget that most of the time, and especially in Africa, these people (the poachers) are human beings trying to obtain income for their families. If you, I, or anyone reading this paper were in the poachers’ places – likely living on one US dollar a day and having to feed a family – I am sure that we would be willing to take the same risks! I am not condoning poaching, but understanding the real causes is of paramount importance.

Although paragraph 17 of the document ‘Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants’ (CoP16 Doc. 53.1) states: “Human infant mortality in and around MIKE sites, which is used as a proxy for poverty at the site level, is the single strongest site-level correlate of PIKE (Proportion of Illegally Killed Elephants), with sites suffering from higher levels of poverty experiencing higher levels of elephant poaching”, no debate took place at CITES CoP16 on such a significant cause of poaching. Even the MIKE program, which, since 2001 has cost more than 20 million US dollars, has not provided, according to some experts, the expected results in assisting the countries to fight poaching. It can be argued, therefore, that the poaching increase of the last few years is more supply-driven than it is demand-driven, or that supply-driven factors are more important to tackle than demand-driven ones.

Challender and McMillan  wrote:“ The decision to reduce the complex social, cultural, and economic nature of wildlife trade into a simple law enforcement problem fails to address the underlying drivers of poaching and trade. It also lacks legitimacy in source countries where it typically translates into disincentives for rural people to conserve wildlife and conflicts with local livelihood strategies, traditional practices, and cultural norms.”

In order to rectify this situation, it is crucial to bring the issue of benefits accruing to local communities through legal use of wildlife  back to the forefront of the international agenda and to start immediate work at national levels. There is a vast recent literature on Community-based Conservation in Africa (see for example Roe D., Nelson, F., Sandbrook, C. 2009, Child, B. 2003, Nelson, F. and Agrawal, A. 2008, Taylor, R., 2001,Torquebiau E. & Taylor R.D. 2009) and a Resolution adopted at the IUCN World Conservation Congress of 2012 may provide guidance.

For example, the so called “CITES success” for vicuña in South America in reality has been a success generated through a combination of the recognition of communities’ ownership rights and industry participation. Many people do not know that the key game changer in vicuña conservation in Peru, that holds the great majority of the species across its whole range, was a Legislative Decree of 1993, the year before CITES CoP9, that gave the custody and rights of exploitation of all of the vicuna populations located on their lands to rural communities in the Peruvian Andes (thanks to the above, the vicuna population in Peru has increased from 20,000 vicunas of 1991, to more than 200,000 today).

This move, suggested by a handful of conservationists, including Obdulio Menghi (at that time Scientific Coordinator of the CITES Secretariat), a lawyer representing the Peruvian communities and myself, coupled with the investments made by the textile industry, generated the conservation success. Without the granting of a sort of “ownership” right to the rural Andean communities, poaching would have prevailed and the vicuñas would have been on the brink of extinction. I remember quite well (I was a member of the delegation of Italy at CITES CoP9) the strong opposition of animal welfare groups for this move. They were advocating only stronger law enforcement as a solution, and claiming that legal trade in wool would decimate the vicuña! Can the vicuña case be a lesson for the African Elephant or rhinos, especially in southern and parts of East Africa? The answer is yes – provided that governments implement or devise policies enabling, inter alia, the granting of ownership rights to local communities through for example specific contractual measures or other sorts of custodianship.

The devolution of ownership of wildlife to communities to allow direct receipt of benefits from consumptive and non-consumptive use (note that communities appear to have few direct benefits from the multi-million dollar tourism industry) can provide crucial incentives for sustainable wildlife management. The fact that many countries have not fully devolved authority or ownership rights to communities but have maintained State ownership over wildlife is a major obstacle to achieve effective wildlife conservation over huge wild areas. The present situation, where only demand reduction and law enforcement are debated as a solution to poaching, is a continuation of the failure vis-à-vis Elephant conservation that has led to an increase in poaching, due mainly to the fact that communities are removed from the resources and also that they cannot benefit from them as a result of CITES rulings. In addition, their voice is unheard at CITES meetings.

The decision made at the 14th Conference of the Parties to CITES (CoP14) in 2007 where, in exchange for withdrawing opposition to authorization for four southern African countries to sell raw ivory to Japan and China in 2008, trade opponents obtained an agreement that no future sales could be made by those countries before 2017, has been voiced as one of the main causes of the current poaching escalation in Africa. It is even clear from MIKE and ETIS figures that after CoP14 the rate of poaching began to increase. As Stiles (2012) suggested, “The inconvenient truth is that the CITES ivory trade ban and the 2007 and 2010 CITES CoP votes to cut off legal raw ivory supplies are the real causes of the recent elephant holocaust, not the red herring 1999 and 2008 ivory sales authorized by CITES.”

The biggest political weapon in the hands of African countries, if they hope to have a chance in the fight against poaching, is to ensure not only that the local communities receive benefits from any legal sustainable use of elephants, but to also empower them to make this happen. Poverty reduction through legal sustainable wildlife utilization should become a top priority objective of many countries – and this should be strongly advocated in CITES debates. The sustainable use of elephants and the benefits that return to local communities go beyond a trade (or no trade) agreement such as CITES; sustainable use is mainly a development issue where conservation is a complement to development, and UN agencies, such as FAO and UNDP, should increase their efforts towards an integrated approach to improve community livelihoods through sustainable wildlife utilization.

The issues of benefit sharing and governance by local communities emerged at the Tanzanian Wildlife Conference to Stop Wildlife Crime and Advance Wildlife Conservation: A Call to Action.  This Conference, organized by the Tanzanian Government with UNDP and the US-based ICCF Foundation, was held in Dar es Salaam on 9 and 10 May 2014, bringing together key stakeholders to suggest appropriate actions and sustainable funding mechanisms to curb the poaching of elephants and the illegal ivory trade. Having attended this well organized and pragmatic Conference, I would like to stress the importance of the fight against poverty and the improvement of governance as the two main areas that need to be tackled in order to combat poaching.

As Rowan Martin (1997 –p.79) suggested, the greatest threat to conservation of biological diversity in many countries comes from competing forms of land use, which in many cases lead to overexploitation of wild resources. Ownership and rights of access to resources, legislation and economic incentives should be complementary in creating a climate which is favorable for sustaining wild animals and their habitats. The foundation of sustainable use of wildlife is this: users are more likely to conserve resources when it is in their interest to do so.

In a very recent and interesting article in Science Magazine (Wildlife decline and social conflict), the authors, recognizing wildlife decline “as a source of social conflict rather than a symptom”, wrote: “Reducing or preventing wildlife conflict by strengthening local resource tenure has broad application but requires strong governance and an international commitment to recognize user rights…Similarly, policies aimed at addressing wildlife decline must consider the social context of wildlife use and the feedbacks between wildlife scarcity and social conflict. Leadership must move beyond superficial reactions to elephant and rhino poaching and consider the complicated fate of the billions of people who rely on our planet’s rapidly disappearing wildlife for food and income.”

The actual poaching crisis is nothing new. The fact that militia groups are selling ivory in exchange for weapons is an old story in Africa. What is new is that animal welfare groups seem to have monopolized the world media and politics. If you compare the statements of some animal-welfare groups at CITES CoP14 in 2007 “Parties should put ivory beyond economic use” with the declaration of the London Conference, you will find the same language. A coincidence? I do not think so.

Western politicians are in desperate need of visibility and media coverage and the animal welfare groups are offering it to them on a golden platter. The real debate on poverty, sustainable use and development is not capturing the media, and the politicians are seeking “correctness”. But is it correct to have tens of thousands of people still migrating from Africa to Europe to escape death and starvation? Or to fence enormous areas, translocating the villagers and persecuting the local people, as human rights groups have reported from Botswana?

Botswana, home to the largest elephant population in Africa, and once at the forefront of sustainable use, took the decision to ban elephant hunting. Not on scientific grounds, as their elephant population is growing. On what grounds? We do not know. But what we do know is that, as predicted, the hunting banhunting ban is driving the communities who depend on wildlife use into poverty, reducing their income by a substantial amount. And recently, the US Fish and Wildlife Service suspended the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

You do not have to be a nuclear scientist to understand that the ultimate effect of both decisions will be an increase in poaching, because of the lack of revenues in an already economically depressed situation. If local communities are repeatedly kept out of the system and are deprived from the revenues they obtain from trophy hunting, they may turn a blind eye to poaching or, driven by poverty, may even be recruited into poaching gangs.

More importantly, it should be understood that a well-regulated trophy hunting system can help to maintain elephant numbers whilst also raising revenues to fund elephant conservation programs and benefit local communities, who share 80% of the species’ range. Given that habitat loss contributes significantly to elephant population decline, it is essential to encourage coexistence between elephants and local communities: elephants are generally unpopular because they damage crops and threaten lives.

Sport hunters have a major responsibility towards the species they pursue and perhaps the time has come for a hunters’ strategy on wildlife conservation in Africa. A call for hunting organizations and operators to join forces and identify what unites them is necessary and timely. Hunters have a vast knowledge of wildlife conservation needs and an independently guided scientific, economic and social strategy on sport hunting in Africa is long overdue.

A recent USAID press release states: “USAID Invests Over $210 Million To End Wildlife Trafficking And Support Conservation With First Biodiversity Policy” – notes:In Namibia, for example, the poaching of wildlife went unchecked. For 15 years, USAID invested in community conservancies, where local communities were given rights to manage and benefit from their wildlife through activities such as ecotourism. Today in Namibia, wildlife is an economic engine for growth. One out of eight Namibians is a member of a conservancy, which turns additional profits each year. Moreover, wildlife populations in Namibia are rebounding and continue to thrive, and—despite a poaching crisis in other parts of Africa—there is almost no recorded poaching in Namibian conservancies.

This is a very positive outcome of practical sustainable wildlife use through communities’ involvement. USAID has a long-standing and vast experience in CBNRM in Africa and is one of the most active international donor agencies in this field. Is there a communication problem between USFWS and USAID? Some statements made by USFWS in its recent suspension of import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe, such as those on Wildlife Management Areas in Tanzania and CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe,  are not taking in account USAID’s work in these two countries. In addition, Namibia’s success is also due to the fact that communities are retaining nearly 100% of the incomes derived from trophy hunting – not the lower percentages of 20% in Mozambique and 50% in Zambia.

In a report published in the Guardian newspaper, a Tanzanian villager is quoted as saying: “The elephants are now more important than we the people. Since I was born, I haven’t seen any economic benefit from the elephants in our village. We are the ones who pay everything for our development. The animals are there but they don’t pay taxes, they don’t farm yet they are more important than us. Surely, I wish them all dead.” Those familiar with rural Africa will know that this is a widespread feeling in areas where elephants and people share the land, and where the people get no benefits from elephants.

In the absence of economic benefits accruing from the elephant, negative attitudes towards the elephant will heighten and may place the elephant population under risk of increased poaching, which may reverse the progress made by many countries to date. To compensate for the direct costs associated with living alongside elephants, which include crop damage, injury and loss of human life, the elephant must yield economic returns to the landholders.

We must admit that hunting and trade bans and ivory destruction are not the solution; burning such an important economic asset, while thousands of people are starving, is a sort of crime – as is considered burning bank-notes in many countries -, a kind of soul cleansing for demonstrated inaction. It will only make wild elephants more attractive to poachers. The countries where hunting has been banned have suffered more wildlife declines than countries where hunting is still permitted (Pack S., Golden R., Walker A., Surridge M., Mawdsley J. 2013).

Animal welfare NGO’s and now even legitimate conservation ones are claiming that destroying ivory stockpiles deters poachers and smugglers, but there is the no evidence to justify these claiming. Police and law enforcement agencies around the world are incinerating huge amounts of drugs and narcotics on a nearly daily basis. Has the narcotics smuggling and trafficking decrease because of these destructions? No.

The voices of African communities sharing their land with the African Elephant are seldom heard at CITES meetings. A notable exception was the 10th meeting of the Conference of the Parties held in Harare (Zimbabwe) in 1997 where the southern African communities were well represented. As a result of this active representation, some African Elephant populations were transferred to CITES Appendix II, which paved the way for the first “one-off” ivory sale to Japan, which has been so misrepresented by animal welfare NGOs.

Outside Africa, the presence of Canada’s Inuit Communities at the 16th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to CITES (Bangkok, 2013) was crucial in defeating a proposal to list the Polar Bear in Appendix I. The communities had an opportunity to explain to the international community about their culture and livelihood-dependence on proper wildlife management.

In recent years, there have been significant advances in international thinking and action on indigenous issues and rights, including the landmark adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007 and a Fact Sheet provides an overview of the United Nations human rights system and the rights of indigenous peoples.  For example, the Convention on Biological Diversity with COP Decision V/16 recognized the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity (IIFB) as an advisory body.

A notable organization working for local and indigenous communities is the ICCA Consortium, an international association dedicated to promoting the appropriate recognition of and support to ICCAs (Indigenous Peoples’ and Community Conserved Areas and Territories) in the regional, national and global arena.

It is therefore crucial to guarantee a greater presence of local communities to International Conferences, and in particular to CITES Conferences of the Parties, in order to advance the conservation of the Elephant and other African wildlife. A possible way to resolve the increase in poaching would be to introduce into CITES a Decision that would give Indigenous People Organizations and Community-based Organizations an advisory role in the decision making process. This decision could have an incredibly positive effect on the conservation not only of the African Elephant but also of all wildlife. Decision-making mechanisms at the international level need to take into account the needs of people sharing the land and obtaining their livelihoods from wildlife, and nobody is in a better position than the communities to advocate their needs.

It is time to think about human welfare as the solution to conservation and development. Local communities and indigenous people worldwide are a real force for conservation and the basis for finding solutions to this complex issue. We live in a society in which very seldom the cry of poor people is heard.

In the end, it is also important to put ideology aside in the Elephant debate and to listen to the African people for the solutions they want to implement. Solutions that should be driven by Africa and not imported, imposed or bought. And finally, to find an appropriate ownership mechanism for Elephants and wildlife in Africa that benefits those who live with them.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Christine Lippai for comments and suggestions that have greatly improved the text. Jaques Berney and Daniel Stiles have provided useful comments to a longer version of this article. But above all I would like to thank the African rural communities that I’ve visited during the time I’ve spent in the bush in the last years, trying to understand their needs. Their knowledge on wildlife is unsurpassed. They must continue what they have being doing for centuries: obtaining benefits from the wildlife they share their lands with.

Marco Pani is an international consultant with nearly 30 years of experience in wildlife conservation and trade, with past experiences as Director of TRAFFIC Europe Italy’s Office, as Associate Enforcement Officer in the CITES Secretariat in Geneva and as staff in the Italian Ministry of Environment. He is a member of the CEESP/SSC Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi) and Crocodile Specialist Groups of IUCN, Vice President of IWMC-World Conservation Trust and Advisor to Conservation Force.

Author: Marco Pani