Thursday, March 31, 2011

Shooting Elephants and Carrying Capacity

Peter Beard, Kenya, about 1963.

Over on Facebook
a friend posted a video which shows GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons engaged in shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe.  

The elephant was a local crop-raider, and all of the meat from this elephant went to feed local villagers (as can be seen on the video). 

Parsons' elephant shoot was done under the auspices of Zimbabwe's Problem Animal Control (PAC) program, and this was not a trophy animal. 

The shooting license for an elephant in Zimbabwe is a tidy sum of money by African standards, but it's not much more than the cost to shoot an Elk here in the U.S. if you are an out-of-state hunter.

My smart, generally well-informed, and caring friend saw the video of Parsons' elephant hunt and thought it so shocking she promptly called for everyone to boycott GoDaddy.

Shocking?  I merely thought the video was very bad public relations.  But was it a horror?  Not to me. 

Now, to be clear, I know that different people are shocked by different things.  Not everyone has actually killed something, or thought long and hard about where beef, chicken, and lamb come from.  Not everyone has watched a hawk put a talon through a rabbit's eye, or heard the scream of a fox as it smacks a fender and crawls off to die in a water ditch.  Not everyone has walked through a nursing home and looked, listened, and smelled the last few weeks of a human life.

I understand that people get emotional when they see death, especially the death of such a magnificent and exotic animal as an elephant.  And I am more than sympathetic. 

The death of an elephant should be a big deal, and I am damn glad it is.

But the question to ask about Bob Parson's elephant hunt is this:  Is this hunt bad for elephants? 

Notice the plural. 

I am not asking about this elephant in particular (yes, it was a very bad day for this individual) but about elephants in Zimbabwe in general.

And the answer is no. 

To understand why, you have to be willing to park your heart for a minute and "listen with your head."

For starts, let's admit that Africa used to have a hell of a lot of elephants.  These elephants were hunted even in pre-European days, but the kills were fairly modest as the tools for killing -- spears, poisoned melons, and poisoned darts -- were not very efficient, and the human population density was relatively low. 

Around 1930, however, things started to change in Africa. 

With the arrival of vaccines and antibiotics, human mortality rates rapidly declined even as birth rates continued to remain breath-takingly high. 

At the same time low-cost, accurate, and rapid-firing guns, efficient chainsaws, high-production logging mills, and tractor-pulled plows came to the continent wholesale.

As a result, Africa's lands and wildlife took a hammering even as things got marginally better for most humans (as measured by longevity and lower infant mortality).

By 1960, it was clear things were going to have to change in Africa, and for the very same reason they had changed here in America 100 years earlier. 

In the U.S., our own population had grown by leaps and bounds during the 19th Century. 

We had gone west, broken the plains to the plow, shot out all the buffalo, trapped out all the beaver, and stretched barbed wire from coast to coast even as we poisoned our rivers and creeks with mine tailings and sewage.  

Around 1900 we began protecting some of the wild land that remained. 

Now to be honest, most of this land was swamp or worthless mountain already ravaged by over-logging (in the East) or land that was too rocky, mountainous or dry to farm or raise cattle on (in the West).  

Nonetheless, in rapid succession we set aside State Parks, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, National Forests, and vast stretches of empty scrub for our children and grandchildren to come. 

On all of this land, except for the National Parks, we allowed hunting in season. 

In Africa, the push to create vast national parks and protect both wild lands and wildlife arrived in the 1920s -- much earlier in the arc of economic development than it had in Europe or North America.

Kenya was one of the first countries to protect its wild lands and wildlife, opening one of Africa's first great parks, the Tsavo, in 1948. 

It was to the Tsavo that the young photographer and author Peter Beard first traveled in 1955. 

Of his perspective back then, Beard writes:

“ When I first went to Kenya in August 1955, I could never have guessed what was going to happen.... it was authentic, unspoiled, teeming with big game — so enormous it appeared inexhaustible. 

Everyone agreed it was too big to be destroyed."

But, of course, nothing is too big to be destroyed, is it? 

What amazed Beard, however, was that a good chunk of his part of East Africa was being destroyed by elephants.  

Elephants?  Elephants.

Beard chronicled it all in in amazing, heart-shattering photography. 

Elephant herd, Tsavo, early 1960s, Peter Beard photo.

What happened in the Tsavo -- a massive die-off of elephants that started in the early 1960s and continued off and on for more than a decade -- was due to a combination of human population growth outside of the park, combined with elephant over-population inside the park, and drought to push it all over the edge.  

In the end, what had been a forested landscape was reduced to a near-desert.

Beard's pictures of the destruction became The End of the Game, a book which still stands as one of the great visual witnesses to what can happen when "heart first" wildlife conservation goes wrong.

What Beard photographed (often by air) was shocking then, and it is still shocking now.

Dead elephant, starvation, Tsavo.  Peter Beard photo.  Notice tusks.

So what does this have to do with Bob Parsons shooting an elephant in Zimbabwe? 

Maybe quite a lot. 

You see, while elephant herds are not uniformly robust across Africa, they appear to be a little too healthy in Zimbabwe, where their numbers have more than doubled to about 100,000 in the last 30 years

Why does Zimbabwe have so many elephants? 

One factor is that very few hunters have wanted to go to Zimbabwe in recent years. 

Robert Mugabe, the brutal dictator of that country for the last three decades, has collapsed the economy to the point that many people are, quite literally, starving.  Not exactly a good place for a vacation!

Another factor is that while wildlife may be in abundance in some parts of the country, most of the local people do not have access to guns, as Mugabe is terrified that an armed populace might rise up to overthrow him.

And so the elephants have done what elephants do -- they breed and they feed. 

All good up to a point, but that point can be crossed, and there is little doubt that that has occurred in some parts of Zimbabwe.

Today, the elephant population of Zimbabwe is running far beyond the carrying capacity of protected lands, resulting in elephants frequently entering farmer's fields to destroy life-sustaining crops.

In order to manage its elephant herds, Zimbabwe has implemented a Problem Animal Control (PAC) program in which elephants that threaten local village crops are culled out

To be clear, when you get a license to shoot an elephant in Zimbabwe you are not guaranteed a trophy animal, nor do you get to decide what animal is culled, nor do you get to keep any part of the elephant. 

All you get to take with you is the experience and your pictures.

Bob Parsons is unapologetic about his Zimbabwean elephant hunt.  He says:

All these people that are complaining that this shouldn't happen, that these people [in Zimbabwe] who are starving to death otherwise shouldn't eat these elephants, you probably see them driving through at McDonald's or cutting a steak. These people [Zimbabwe villagers] don't have that option."

And, as noted, Parsons is not inventing the hungry people of Zimbabwe.  If you have any doubt about that, take a look at these pictures which show what happens when an elephant dies of natural causes in that God-and-UN-forsaken country.

But surely there is an alternative to culling these elephants, right? 

What about moving the elephants to an area where there are too few of these animals? 

That's been done in the past, but after moving over 1,000 elephants it seems that all of the nearby wild lands that can take elephants have them, and the costs are not cheap to move these massive creatures -- about $2,000 per animal in a country that does not have the money it needs to feed its own children.

What about elephant contraception?  That sounds easy enough in theory, but it's not in practice, as elephants are very slow breeders which means you have to put 75% of all breeding females on contraception for more than 10 years in order to get the numbers down, and that too will not be cheap or easy.

Are other options being tried?  Of course.  Some success has been had with elephant drives using fireworks and drums.  Some minor success has been achieved with heavy gates, grates and moats around fields, crop substitution, and the use of chili-pepper fires and oil spray deterrents.  African bee hives on trip-wires are even being experimented with.  That said, Zimbabwe's problems with elephants are not small and localized -- they are widespread and endemic. If you think it's hard to get deer out of a suburban garden, and impossible to get them off a large farm, consider what it must be like to get elephants out of the fields of some parts of southern Africa!

Put it all together and you can see why regulated, science-based elephant culling in Zimbabwe makes sense, not only for the local people, but also for the long-term health of elephant populations in that part of the world. 

So, to bring it all back around, whatever happened to Kenya and the elephants of the Tsavo?  Peter Beard is not shy about answering the question:

The game now involves accommodating statistics like every mature female in Kenya having 8.2 children. The game now involves the Bono–Bardot– Jolie–Holywood–Madonna–World Bank people. The politics of sentimentality, AIDS retardation drugs guaranteeing thousands (or millions) more AIDS babies, now already numbering around four-million in South Africa alone. BandAid, UNICEF, World Bank (high nitrogen fertilizers ruining the soil), Oxfam plus all the others. (They’ve never heard of sustainable yield!) Their seemingly heroic businesses are just unloading guilt for profit. More specifically “Buy an elephant a drink” comes to mind: suckering contributions for the overloaded national park system and all the absurdly sentimental park trustees, who could see swelling numbers of 40,000 elephants eating all the trees in the park – starving to death with stress related heart disease and of course constipation from consuming the wood. Violence, vandalism, and density-related negatives… "Buy ‘em a drink! Hug the babies.”

It amounts to selfish and presumptuous often spoiled interference from the disastrous, locust-like, human population exploding all around and replacing (if not eradicating) most of nature. And then on our end: U.N. bureaucrats, G.W. Bush at the G8, and at Kyoto; and even more awkward, his pathetic African tour, just handing out money – more silly interference, less understanding…No sense of biology, population dynamics or Charles Darwin, and most amazing of all, hiding behind clichés like “climate change”, global warming, etc… when all it is, is emissions from our own horrible exponentially expanding human population explosion (except in France, Scandinavia, and a few other places).


Read the entire interview (I am not saying I agree with all of it!) and go order a copy of The End of the Game for the pictures alone.  You will not be disappointed (though you may be a little disturbed).


grapfhics said...

On the subject of Africa and elephants, how about Hemingway's "An African Story" or "The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber"?

seeker said...

Pat, I agree much more with your previous article on there's too many people causing extinctions of whole species of animals. How about birthcontrol for the humans there.

Debi who like you did not reproduce and only owns the neutered TX JRTs. Zero population growth PLEASE

PBurns said...

I'm a demographer by training, have been an international family planning advocate by profession, and I am a blackbelt on contraceptive methods and delivery for humans (see >> for a quick run down of options).

Having said all that, there are TWO problems here: human and elephant.

The point to make here is that contraceptives for humans will not reduce the number of elephants OR people. All contraceptives for people will do is slow the rate of human population growth -- a huge step in the right direction, but not responsive to the very real, on the ground problems that exist between people and elephants right now. And, of course, contraceptives for people does not slow elephant population growth at all.


Kitty Carroll said...

I have friends who train elephants. What they eat per day is enormous!!! THREE bales of Hay, A BUSHEL of Carrots, a BUSHEL of APPLES, And about a BUSHEL off pelleted feed. $$$ to feed each day. The 'free range' wildlife parks found this out the hard way in the 70's and 80's when the free-range elephants destroyed every plant in the park. Left the park a moonscape. Plus what goes in, of course must come out!!!

Seahorse said...

Peter Beard did some extraordinary work, but what I really want is that old Series Land Rover he's leaning on.


The Suburban Bushwacker said...


A fantastic piece of writing,

Watching the video reminded me of Bell's The wanderings of an Elephant Hunter - nearly 100 yeas later people will still walk 20 miles to get protein.

The more time i waste reading the comments by the PETA crowd the more I'm struck by the thought that loves animals is so often a euphemism for hates people.


Thea said...

Hi Terrierman, I just discovered your blog and I'm now happily chewing through the archives. I have a small quibble and would just like to correct something in Peter Beard's quoted denunciation of feel-good NGO's. I can't vouch for the rest, but Oxfam most certainly DOES understand sustainable yield -- my very own mother is an expert in the field of sustainable agriculture and worked at Oxfam for several years.

Carry on!
Thea Anderson