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Of Ivory and the Survival of Elephants

At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife

by Raymond Bonner
Knopf, 322 pp., $24.00

Battle for the Elephants

by Iain Douglas-Hamilton, by Oria Douglas-Hamilton, edited by Brian Jackman
Viking, 368 pp., $35.00

The Fate of the Elephant

by Douglas H. Chadwick
Sierra Club Books, 492 pp., $25.00

Elephant: The Animal and its Ivory in African Culture

edited by Doran H. Ross
Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA, 413 pp., $39.99 (paper)

In Communist China the ownership of dogs is illegal. Enforcing the law are the Dog Police who shoulder their way into homes where a dog is suspected, find the dog if one is present, cram it into a canvas bag which they have brought for the purpose, and in front of the owners and also the neighbors they club the dog to death.

Horrible? To us, perhaps, but not to the Communist government officials, who regularly execute dogs in this manner for ideological reasons. Overburdened by a human population that threatens to exceed its food supply, the government reasons that food is better consumed by human beings, and that dogs have no place in the equation. That an offending dog’s owners might be feeding their pet with shares of their own rations is simply not worth considering. The very existence of the dog is considered a threat, and the dog is dealt with accordingly.

Few of us in the West would see ourselves as participants in similar brutality, and yet we are. The fact escapes us merely because, like the actions of the Dog Police, our own actions are guided by ideology and little else. That we must exert near total control over animals in our sphere still seems of paramount importance to many so-called conservationists; that animal populations can manage themselves and can regulate their own numbers seems to some an anathema. I am speaking in particular of the African elephants, subject of much controversy.

Central to the controversy is the international ban on ivory, proclaimed in the hope of removing the incentive for ivory poaching that had caused the collapse of the East African elephant population. Opposing the ban were the Southern African nations, including Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, and Botswana. By and large their officials control poaching so that, far from being endangered, elephants are growing in number. The game managers, who had used the sale of ivory to manage the game parks, claim they should still be free to profit from ivory. And there’s some truth in these claims. In the past ten years, large numbers of elephants have appeared in certain game parks in southern Africa. Why?

Actually, nobody knows why. Commonly, reproduction is blamed for the increasing numbers, but since elephants are extremely slow at reproducing, the explanation seems flawed. A female elephant must be about fourteen years old before she can become pregnant; gestation takes almost two years, and her infant must be three or four years old before the mother resumes estrus and can become pregnant again. Therefore, for some of the local increases in the elephant population, especially for those in which adult elephants greatly outnumber immature elephants, immigration is a far more likely explanation. When elephants are disturbed by inhospitable conditions such as drought or poachers, they may try to seek safety elsewhere. The refuges they chose may be widely known to the elephant leadership, perhaps because the conditions there are suitable for their kind. The newcomers then mix with the residents, causing a dramatic increase in the population of their new home.

Since little is known about the facts of elephant migration, what I have suggested is only a hypothesis. Even so, support for it can be found by contrasting the condition of elephants to that of the rhinos. Rhinos, too, are very slow at reproducing, but they don’t form complex social organizations or visit far-flung relatives, as elephants do, and they don’t emigrate from troubled areas, as elephants do. When rhinos are attacked by poachers, they have no choice but to stay home and be killed. Therefore, some regions have no rhinos, other regions have few rhinos, but no region with rhinos has a population boom.

To the park managers, the slaughter of “surplus” elephants (called “culling”) is believed to be a logical form of game management, and when a cull occurs both the resident and the immigrant elephants are shot by the hundreds if not thousands. This happens at a time when elephants are said to be endangered. Why are they shot? Their wildlife managers make three assumptions: first, that animal populations require human control (so the “right” biomass is usually determined by the highest-ranking game warden on the scene and therefore varies over time as well as by area); second, that the planet is our farm, and if wild animals are to be tolerated they must give us a commodity—as pigs must yield ham, so elephants must yield ivory and elephant-foot wastebaskets; and third, that elephants in large numbers eat too many trees, while park managers would prefer that they ate grasses and bushes. Of course, to mount a slaughtering effort big enough to substantially reduce an elephant population costs money, especially if airplanes herd the elephants to the killing grounds. How better to recoup the money than by selling the ivory tusks? That, then, is the argument. With certain wildlife managers, as with the Dog Police, an ideology prevails.

Of the five books considered here, two, At the Hand of Man and The Myth of Wild Africa, promote the cull-for-ivory form of management and foretell a lifting of the ban. Two others, Battle for the Elephants and The Fate of the Elephant, echo the sentiment of Oria Douglas-Hamilton, who summed up the opposition to culling with these words: “The African elephant needs management by man like it needs a hole in the head.”

The fifth book, Elephant: the Animal and its Ivory in African Culture, is a quite remarkable art book for which the editors openly solicit a place on the coffee table, feeling, quite rightly, that the beautiful photographs of elephants, events, and objects will attract readers who would otherwise be indifferent to elephant survival. The book’s scholarly yet highly readable essays range in subject matter from fine art to anthropology to animal behavior to ethology, and make up the richest such collection that it has yet been my privilege to see. And the message is eloquent: the importance of the elephant to the continent of Africa and to its peoples is immeasurable, and elephants should be saved.

How to achieve that is another matter, a problem approached with various degrees of credibility by the other books. The best known of these is Raymond Bonner’s At the Hand of Man, which for a book of its kind has received a remarkable amount of attention in the press. And there is much to recommend it. Bonner’s account of the battle to ban the sale of ivory, and of the power struggles between the numerous animal welfare groups and wildlife organizations involved in Africa is exceedingly well researched and makes very interesting reading. No one having whiffed the political infighting of the various wildlife organizations could fault his account of their policies and how they make them. Although warned about the collapse of the elephant population because of poaching, many wildlife organizations seemed oblivious to it and had to be dragged into action by their own supporters, who at least had read the papers. Some contributors will surely be discouraged to learn how their hard-earned donations were spent. Others may deplore the fact that several of these organizations, once having taken a firm position in support of the ivory trade, caved in suddenly to public pressure and endorsed the ban. As a result they reaped a blizzard of checks from animal lovers, often deemed the least qualified people on earth to set conservation policy.

On such issues, Bonner is at his best. Formerly a public interest lawyer and foreign correspondent for The New York Times, his ear for political innuendo is acute indeed. Here he is on The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and its senior vice-president, Curtis Bohlen:

It was slippery to talk about “African nations” being helped [by the ban] since most of them were against the ban and many were angry that the United States was unilaterally banning imports. That aside, it must have taxed Bohlen’s CIA training to have kept a straight face when he said it was “truly remarkable” that the administration had acted so swiftly, because WWF and the [Bush] administration were working in tandem, and Bohlen was coordinating it all.

If Bonner had left it at that, this reviewer would have raved about his work. But instead of sticking to what he does so well, he ventured into a field that by his own admission was completely new to him—and he has written a book that is not nearly so much about the politics of conservation as it is about elephants and what he takes to be the negative effects of the ivory ban. But to discuss elephants with any authority, one needs at least some knowledge of some animals, preferably of elephants themselves, and of the ways of the natural world. Alas, as subjects, animals are often considered so simple, so lowly, that many people don’t perceive the need for concrete information about them. They’re just animals, so what is there to know, anyway? But that attitude leads to glib and dangerous assumptions, and the sad fact is that neither Bonner nor anyone else can get a feeling for animal life by the usual methods of fact-finding commonly used by a reporter. Bonner says he appreciates the beauty of Nature. This is a good start, but is not nearly enough. Before one can make any sense discussing animals, one needs some close experience of their lives.

If Bonner had such experience, he almost certainly would have written a completely different book; but as he acknowledges, he had no previous connection with wildlife. It shows. Early on, he writes of lions howling, which one reads with a twinge of concern because lions do not howl. Later he refers to “longhorns of Texas” to suggest animals in large numbers, and one’s concern deepens because these days there are only two or three longhorns in Texas. The cattle you see there are mostly Herefords. But when Bonner points out, by way of justification of his approach to elephant control, that he has been an opponent of “commercial whaling and cutting down forests,” and had been “a vegetarian for a period in the Seventies” who still eats “very little red meat,” one sees the depth of his difficulty. Although these statements certainly express liberal views, they do not suggest even the most minimal understanding of any kind of animal, let alone creatures as complex as elephants. Alas, to have liberal opinions and to understand the natural world are not the same thing.

Wildlife disappeared in the United States and Europe as populations grew [and] open spaces were settled,” Bonner asserts in order to illustrate a trend that may be inevitable in Africa. But in Europe and America most of the large wild mammals are still present, albeit not necessarily in the same numbers or on their former ranges. In certain parts of the United States, the large animals that are most sensitive to changes in ecology, the predators, are even increasing. In short, some of our conservation methods actually have merit.

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