Outrage over the slaughter of elephants in Africa ignores the problems that cause it.

Outrage in Western media over the slaughter of elephants in Africa ignores the very serious socio-economic and development problems that cause it.

There were two seemingly unrelated articles about Africa caught my eye this week.

The first of these was an editorial by the New York Times condemning the ‘record pace’ of elephant slaughter to feed the ivory market in Asia. As part of a larger media deluge on this topic over the last six months, it does its best to outline and condemn the problem of unregulated hunting without ever taking a look at the larger socio-economic reasons that cause it, or the role that Europe and United States played historically in creating the ivory trade.

Elephants are a cyclically repeating cause célèbre for Western media outlets. The articles usually go something like this: scene elephant slaughter, scene of wealthy Chinese people buying ornately carved ivory, round condemnation of black market trade and finally smugness all around. The most extensive article on the subject this time around is a piece by Bryan Christy that appeared in the October 2012 edition of National Geographic. The piece, which is meticulously researched and highly informative, begins with a scene seemingly plucked from a Victorian adventure novel in which hundreds of “raiders” (Christy’s word, not mine) on horseback, armed with AK47s and rocket-propelled grenades descend on a national park in Cameroon and slaughtering hundreds of elephants. Christy finishes this heart-warming vignette with: “And then they stopped and prayed to Allah.”

Oooh. Goosebumps. Is there a scarier image to (over)developed-world sensibilities than Muslims with rocket launchers charging out of the African hills on horseback? It’s right up there with the white dude on Homeland secretly praying to Allah in his suburban garage. There can be no doubt, you see, that elephant poaching is evil. It might even be terrorism.

The other article of interest this week is an opinion piece in The Guardian by George Monbiot in which he discusses the way that mineral extraction for smartphone components has fueled civil war in the Congo – a prime elephant poaching country by the way. Essentially the metals in our smartphones have some of the same links to conflict that blood diamonds do.

If you live in the Congo and are not employed murdering and pillaging for a militia, mining is, according to Monbiot, a common way to earn a living wage. It’s dangerous and exploitative of workers but it’s money. In a country where 82% of people are considered unemployed, this is no small thing. Mining as such is apparently not the problem, it is the control of mines by warlords in cahoots with foreign, ie. developed world, mining companies. Instead of bringing money into the country, the mines have a way of funnelling money out .

Here’s where I got to thinking. As a young, semi-employed man, I obsess almost constantly over how to make a living wage. Some months through my writing, I’m able to, some months I’m not. Now, If I put myself in the shoes of a man my age in the Congo – a man who, like many young men, wants to one day own a house and provide for a family – and you give me the option of either working like a slave for a pittance in dangerous mineral mines or making good money by killing elephants and selling their tusks to the Chinese, I’m only going to have two questions: 1. Where can I get a fast horse? 2. What is the going rate of rocket-propelled grenades?

We must assume that there are other ways in the Congo to put food on the plate, a roof over the head and pay for all those luxuries like education, books, televisions and medical care. But even given these options, elephant hunting still seems like a particularly good one. It’s such a good option, in fact, there are actually people who come to Africa and pay to do it.

Here, of course, I’m referring to people like Donald Trump’s sons who were photographed on safari last year. They were hunting in Zimbabwe, where some types of elephants are overpopulated and fabulously wealthy foreigners can pay safari companies to come slaughter them with high-powered hunting rifles. The media is curiously silent on this trade in safari tourism, probably because there is no way for them to rationalise a viewpoint that turns a blind eye to foreigners killing elephants for sport while villifying Africans who kill elephants for sustenance.

Another blind spot is that there is little to no discussion of the very interesting history of elephant hunting for ivory, which was pioneered and institutionalised in the latter parts of the 19th century by the ‘white hunters’ of Africa – mostly British men who led the first wave of near eradication of the African elephant.

I’m not sure what the criteria for “record pace” is at the New York Times, but they mention the number of 25,000 elephants killed in 2011. This would have been an exceedingly poor year in the late 19th century. In 1870, the famous missionary Dr. David Livingstone estimated the number of African elephants slain for the English market alone to be around 44,000. In 1894, the Gazette of Zanzibar and East Africa put the number killed for the international market at 65,000. During the late 19th century at estimated 250,000 pounds of ivory moved out of the continent to Europe, the US, Asia, and India, every year. How’s that for a record pace?

These numbers come from the book White Gold by Derek Wilson and Peter Ayerst. Once the elephant herds grew scarce and colonial hunting laws took affect, many of the white hunters transitioned into the role of hunting guides to lead people like the American President Theodore Roosevelt on pleasure hunting trips.

In 1989 the CITES convention entered into affect and Europe and the US promptly decided that ivory was unfashionable. With the help of local governments they established game reserves that displaced local hunters from traditional hunting grounds in favour of tourists and hunters who could pay the high fees to view or kill the animals themselves.

One such park, the Selous Game Reserve, established in Southern Tanzania in 1982 is named for the famous white hunter F. C. Selous, who was one of the more prolific elephant slaughterers of the late 19th century. He turned to conservationism, when he, along with Arab, Boer and native hunters had basically killed or driven out most of the large fauna from Southern Africa. That the Selous reserve, which, by the way offers concessions to foreign hunters on safari should now have problems with people ‘poaching’ their elephants goes beyond farce.

Let me be unequivocal. The killing of elephants, in its current form, needs to stop. It needs to stop because mega fauna, like the elephant and the whale are such transcendentally wonderful beings that their very existence enriches our own. Even if you never actually see one, the sheer knowledge that such a creature roams the earth, and the wonder engendered by that knowledge is ennobling to the human condition. You know this, the Chinese know this, the people with the RPGs and AK47s know this.

The reason that hunting continues is that killing large animals and cutting out their tusks to sell for ornaments is actually a lucrative job. Consider that statement an all it’s implications. Now consider this: As unfortunate and nightmarish as such an occupation may sound it exists, in part because the exploitative mineral extraction and coercive ‘open market’ economic strategies of the ‘developed’ countries have helped put many African states down a dark and basically bottomless hole of poverty in which many jobs that are not particularly savory seem quite attractive.

Certainly, the western world cannot be blamed for all Africa’s woes –the fact that China and the Philippines, among others, should show just as much disregard for other people’s environments as the West is troublesome indeed – but if the West hopes to influence a change in other countries, then they must accept that they are more than partially responsible for the economic plight of many Africans. Until jobs like mining minerals, among other things become more equitable and less exploitative, there will always be able-bodied people willing to hunt elephants. I certainly would.

I don’t have a solution to the scourge of elephant killing, but I do know four ways to ensure their extinction:

Firstly, people who are not African citizens need to keep believing that they have an innate right to tell people who are African citizens what to do with their elephants, despite the fact that they do not share natural resources with any elephants and do not have homes and livelihoods that are threatened when elephant populations grow too large.

Secondly, they need to keep supporting the diamond, mineral and natural resource industries that help to impoverish African states while maintaining the white saviour complex outlined in point one.

Thirdly, they should ignore the fact that everyone has a least a grandmother with ivory in her jewellery box and behave as if their own societies have never trafficked in white gold. This will help them maintain a moral high ground while heaping disdain on cultures that still prize ivory.

Finally, they must, at all costs, ignore the fact that rich white hunters and poor dark hunters are both, at this very moment, killing elephants, but with one group it’s called ‘sport’ and the other it’s called ‘poaching’.

Pretty simple. All they have to do is keep on keepin’ on. And when the last elephant is slouching around a zoo somewhere, lonely and waiting to die, those immaculate, morally pristine denizens of the West can decry the ‘tragedy’ of losing elephants, then forget about it and move on to the next cause that needs benediction of their divine environmental touch.