• Email
  • Print

The Fate of the Elephants

In response to:

Of Ivory and the Survival of Elephants from the March 24, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

In her review of At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife [NYR, March 24], Elizabeth Marshall Thomas commends highly my work as an investigative reporter probing the ivory ban debate and the conservation organizations working in Africa. But the book is flawed, she says, because I do not have the authority and knowledge to write about elephants.

She is right that I am not a scientist and that I have not lived among the elephants. I will not address whether one needs to be an expert in a field in order to write about it, a matter over which academics and journalists have long argued, nor will I belabor what has often been noted—that the scientists and “experts” who write about elephants and wildlife have tended to glorify and romanticize the wildlife, and have, to borrow from Ms. Thomas, revealed a lack of concern about people.

Perhaps a scientist would not have used the word “longhorns” in a passing reference to cattle in Texas—they are Herefords, Ms. Thomas corrects me—or written about “howling” lions. But for Ms. Thomas to have to resort to these “errors”—which were only used as literary images, and not in any factual sense—to support her criticisms of my book, might suggest to many readers that she is stretching to find fault.

And indeed, a careful reading of At the Hand of Man and of her review reveals that what leads Ms. Thomas to conclude I do not have the expertise to write about elephants are not factual mistakes, but rather differences of opinion. Thus, while Ms. Thomas lauds the Kenyan Government for burning $3 million worth of ivory, I reported the views of conservationists and Africans who thought it was “stupid—as one conservationist put it—that the money would have been better spent on conservation or for desperately needed social programs.

The matter on which Ms. Thomas seems to think my lack of scientific understanding about elephants most leads me astray pertains to culling, that is the reduction of the size of elephant populations by killing some.

Ms. Thomas is opposed to culling. This is a perfectly reasonable, principled position. But culling is an issue about which reasonable, principled people can differ, and indeed, many conservationists and scientists believe that culling is necessary for environmental reasons, as I explain in the book and won’t belabor here even though she gave all the reasons against culling. (Had the reviewer selected by The New York Review been a supporter of culling, I might have received the unqualified rave review that Ms. Thomas said my investigative work warranted.)

What Ms. Thomas implies, however, is that anyone who understands elephants cannot possibly support culling. She goes further, equating those who support culling with Communists who kill dogs.

Reflecting her own opinion about culling, Ms. Thomas charges that I was “led by the purveyors of ivory to believe that elephants unquestionably need culling.” She calls this a “serious mistake.”

This suggests that there exists a scientific, empirical truth about culling. There is not. It involves value judgements—whether or not man should interfere or let nature take its course; what we want to do about our ecosystems.

And it was not ivory traders whose views about culling I present in the book. The argument for culling comes from individuals with unassailable scientific and conservation credentials.

It was no less than conservationists at the African Wildlife Foundation, a Washington DC-based organization that was the champion of the 1989 ivory ban, who were behind the culling of virtually all of Rwanda’s elephants some years ago. Why? Because the elephants lived inside Volcans National Park, the very park where Dian Fossey was studying the mountain gorillas. The Rwanda Government did not feel that it could keep so much land from its people for the sake of gorillas and also have people losing crops to elephant herds. AWF sided with the gorillas. On another occasion, AWF supported the shooting of elephants, and hippos, inside Murchison Falls national park in Uganda. Again, the elephants were doing damage to people’s crops, and as an AWF conservationist noted, “the people become angry, and rightly so, and call upon the game department to shoot the elephants.”

Zimbabwe has culled more than 40,000 elephants, which may seem horrible. But there are still more than 50,000 elephants in Zimbabwe, which is about the size of California. (Who can imagine 50,000 bears in California?)

Those behind the culling in Zimbabwe are not ivory traders, but scientists with the knowledge and experience Ms. Thomas says I lack, individuals with advanced decrees who work with the World Wildlife Fund and have devoted their lives and careers to conserving Africa’s wildlife.

Zimbabwe’s chief ecologist told me that Zimbabwe’s elephant population may have to be further reduced because they were destroying the trees and habitat of other species. “There’s no point in having a national park if you allow the entire ecosystem to be destroyed,” he explained.

Even a man Ms. Thomas clearly admires, Richard Leakey, has recognized that culling may be necessary. In an interview, the director of Kenya’s wildlife department told me that he is prepared to cull Kenya’s elephant herds, unless a birth control method is found for elephants. It was an astonishing admission by Mr. Leakey (I was glad I had tape-recorded it), given that he was heralded in the West for his role in supporting a ban on ivory trading.

Rather than recognizing that honorable people can differ on culling, Ms. Thomas distorts what I wrote and engages in ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with her.

Ms. Thomas writes that I think it is a “good idea” to kill elephants who are beyond their reproductive years. It will be very clear from a reading of At the Hand of Man that I find the notion of killing elephants for commercial reasons distasteful. To say that it may be necessary is not to say that it is a “good idea.” As I wrote, I am also moved by the plight of rural Africans who suffer because of the wildlife, whose children are killed, whose crops are trampled.

Ms. Thomas asks how I would feel if I knew that in some culls lactating and pregnant elephants had been killed. How does she feel about the forty-year-old Kenyan woman who was “gored to death by elephants” when she was trying to scare them away from her small plot of land?

It is simply not as one-sided as Ms. Thomas presents it—that anyone who suggests man’s attempt to control elephants, or other wildlife is ill-informed, and worse, evil. There is a balance that has to be struck between the rights of animals and the rights of people, and how much dominion man is to exercise over animals—as the Bible enjoins—raises some very difficult moral and ethical questions. Essential reading for anyone who wants to probe those questions are Peter Singer’s classic Animal Liberation and Roderick Nash’s The Rights of Nature. These authors make strong cases for the rights of animals, but they do so dispassionately, without casting aspersions on those who hold other views.

By contrast to these authors, Ms. Thomas writes that a policy of culling older elephants would be analogous to a policy that called for the “slaughter of all CEOs and managers, all teachers, coaches, and librarians, all elected political leaders.”

It hardly seems the scientific way to advance the debate on a very difficult matter to use such intemperate language—bordering on purple prose—that accuses those who hold a contrary view of being not only “elephant killers” but indeed supporters of human killing as well.

So determined is Ms. Thomas to negate parts of my book that she does not allow herself to admit that she and I are the same side of one issue—bringing the economic benefits of tourism to local people. She doesn’t disagree with what I found—that local people don’t see much of the tourist dollar. What she criticizes me for is accepting this “status quo.”

It is hard to imagine how anyone reading At the Hand of Man could come to the conclusion that I support the status quo on this issue. In the very first chapter, about Namibia, I praise Garth Owen Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn for their pioneering work in bringing benefits from tourism to local people. And I end the book with “Hope,” as I call the last chapter, the hope coming from Zimbabweans who are changing the status quo by demanding that tour operators enter into joint venture agreements with local people. And in the chapter about Kenya, I criticize officials and conservationists there for having done too little to change the status quo.

On the matter of the ivory trade, once again, Ms. Thomas resorts to innuendo rather than a debate on the merits. Ms. Thomas says that my views on the ivory ban were formed by “listening to some of the African wildlife managers whose funds dried up with the ivory ban…. [H]e has subscribed to their ideology and is undertaking to preach it.”

Though you would not know it from Ms. Thomas’s review of At the Hand of Man, opposition to a ban was widely held by people with unassailable conservation credentials, men and women who detested ivory traders. Indeed, at a conference convened in Africa by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in early 1988, the scientists and conservationists in attendance, from around the world, were nearly universal in their opposition to a ban.

Of all the people I interviewed for At the Hand of Man, I know of only one who ever made any personal money trading in ivory. The people I listened to most, the men and women who were instrumental in forming my views about conservation in Africa during the four years I lived there and researched and reported this book, were the likes of Garth Owen Smith and Margaret Jacobsohn, whose anti-poaching program in Namibia is one of the most successful in the continent and who are opposed to a ban on ivory trading; David Western, one of the most renowned conservationists on the continent who sought a compromise that would have allowed to southern African countries to trade in ivory; Perez Olindo, who never called for a ban while he was the head of Kenya’s wildlife department, and as an associate with the African Wildlife Foundation wrote a memorandum urging a compromise on the ban issue, which the organization refused to circulate; John Hanks, who was director of African programs at WWF-International until he lost his job because he thought an ivory ban was bad for conservation and for Africans.

Above all, I tried to listen to African people, the people who live with the wildlife. If a poll were ever taken of Africans, it is likely that an overwhelming majority would favor the ivory trade, not because Africans are insensitive to the environment—they are not—but because they are desperately poor and need every possible source of income, and in the view of many Africans, with more than half a million elephants on the continent today, an ivory trade does not threaten the elephant with extinction.

I am glad that Ms. Thomas feels At the Hand of Man “cannot be ignored” in her words. But even more important, if Africa’s wildlife is going to be saved, the views of Africans cannot be ignored, and especially not by people who Ms. Thomas believes have an understanding of elephants.

Raymond Bonner
Warsaw, Poland

Elizabeth Marshall Thomas replies:

The point of my review was simply this: the slaughter of large numbers of elephants is a practice fraught with danger to the already endangered elephant population, especially since the population dynamics of elephants are imperfectly understood. To resume the ivory trade encourages such slaughter. Mr. Bonner’s reliance on the usual fact-finding methods (interviews, etc.) that ordinarily serve reporters so well is useless for this question because, very simply, there is nobody to interview. The scientists don’t know the answers, nor do the park rangers, nor do the officers of the wildlife conservation organizations. It would have helped if Mr. Bonner himself knew a little about animals, but he doesn’t, by his own admission. And this is the greatest difficulty with the book. Elephants, or indeed any animals, are not objects or machinery and do not lend themselves to facile explanation. After all, people have had captive elephants for more than 2,500 years, yet not until 1983 did anyone guess that they communicate over great distances with sounds too low for us to hear. This truth is basic and simple enough, and its discovery was relatively easy, once the discoverer, Katherine Payne, thought to search their voices for infrasound. How much more difficult to fathom their social arrangements, or their educational process, or their cultural differences, let alone the reasons for all these things. Living elephants are a source of endless fascination, and encourage a tourist trade that increases every year. The ivory trade converts elephants into scrimshaw with no long-term benefit to the people whose lands they share.

Mr. Bonner ignores parts of my review that are relevant to his letter. * I pointed out, for example, that elephants themselves seem to have ways of limiting their populations, and that the Etosha Park in Namibia was successfully, and peacefully, dealing with some of the other problems Mr. Bonner sees as requiring the slaughter of elephants. He would do well, I suggest, to consider alternatives to “culling.” My suggestion to readers with an interest in these questions is to read Battle for the Elephants by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton, or The Fate of the Elephant by Douglas Chadwick. These authors are not sentimental tree-huggers as Bonner would suggest, but are highly skilled field biologists who understand the importance of elephants.

  1. *

    Two points in my review should be clarified. While owning dogs was prohibited in some parts of China, I have heard recent reports of dogs being sold as pets in several cities. Also, while most cattle in Texas are Herefords, there are as many as 100,000 Longhorns. I appreciate the letters calling these matters to my attention.

  • Email
  • Print