The headlines “Elephants die in Botswana” were proclaimed boldly on news platforms around the developed world towards the end of May 2020. The gruesome images of 350 odd dead Elephants even took precedence, albeit for a short while, over the constant reporting on Covid-19.
The cause as to why, remains a mystery. Why would these Elephants have died in Botswana, for no apparent reason? Poaching was ruled out because the tusks had not been removed. Many of the Elephant carcasses were lying face down on folded legs. This indicated a sudden death with the Elephant collapsing on folded legs before they had the time to lie down. There was also reported evidence of the Elephant walking in circles.
Investigation & Speculation
There were so many questions. Yet the Botswana Government maintained an ominous silence over the issue in the weeks that followed. This led to the very disturbing narrative in The Guardian newspaper in the UK that “Botswana can’t save its own Elephants”! This, for a country (Botswana) that has done exceptionally well in their conservation efforts. Take a look at this report released in 2008. The figures speak for themselves. From the first survey in 1973 when the Elephant population in Botswana was indicated at around 20,000. To a population of 55,000 in 1994, and on to the current population of around 130,000. Clearly, a spectacular recovery and a celebrated conservation success for the country of Botswana.
Yet, The Guardian relies on expert voices from the Global North. Experts who denounce the death of the 350 Elephants that died in Botswana (insignificant out of 130,000) as a “conservation disaster” that “speaks of a country that is failing to protect its most valuable resource”. The article accuses Botswana of a “lack of urgency” that “does not reflect the actions of a responsible custodian”.
This burgeoning Elephant population led to increased human-wildlife interaction with the resultant crop destruction. Botswana then re-opened controlled hunting in 2019 arousing the righteous wrath of the conservation fraternity.
This problem – of the Global North feeling the need to shoulder conservation responsibility for world biodiversity, since the South is incapable of doing so – is deep-rooted, normalized and institutionalized!
Conservation funding and research mostly come from the Global North. This is undoubtedly useful to save the world’s biodiversity. And perhaps understandable given the total inequality in global wealth distribution. Also, the fact that the tropics have inherently far greater biodiversity than the North.
But if we are to take a global view of conservation, the same standards, ethics, laws and policies to protect endangered species and ecosystems should be applied across the whole world. In reality, conservation is the burden of the Global South.
Human – Wildlife interactions across the world
Human-wildlife interactions are increasing across the world. Large, dangerous animals like bears and wolves were exterminated extensively in the developed world. Now, their numbers are beginning to bounce back, moving out of protected areas and they are interacting with humans after a gap of a few centuries.
In the developing world, animals have never lived exclusively in “protected areas”. They’ve co-existed with people across much of their range. But human populations are rising and elephant, tiger, boar and leopard numbers are rising because of successful conservation measures.
Animals in the developing world are increasingly damaging people’s crops and property, killing livestock and even people. The disparity in the management of these interactions across the world is worth highlighting.
Wolves in USA
Wolves provide a classic example. They once roamed freely across the North American continent. But they were exterminated by white settlers (along with bears, coyotes and bison, much to the dismay of the Native Americans) across almost all of the United States.
Around 1995, a few wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone (National Park) from Canada. This became an incredible conservation success story with cascading effects. The entire landscape was revived in unimaginable ways. Herbivores changed their grazing behavior. Vegetation along streams changed and even rivers modified their courses.
But, unfortunately, the story doesn’t stop here with a happy ending. As the wolf population expanded, they became the enemy for farmers. By 2008, they were de-listed in some states and farmers were allowed to shoot them. The tussle between conservationists and farmers has continued.
The government’s wildlife services themselves killed 357 wolves in 2018. A very significant number out of a population of only 18,000. Ranchers and others also illegally kill wolves, sometimes even precious radio-collared (at a huge expense) wolves that are being studied. Apart from wolves, wildlife services routinely kill a large number of animals to protect the livelihoods of farmers. During 2018, with a budget of over $150 million, they killed over 2.6 million wild birds and animals.
Europe has similar, if not as high-profile, case studies. In September 2017, Germany had its first free-roaming bison since the Industrial Revolution. One lone male Bison wandered in from Poland. This should have been a reason for celebration. Especially since many zoos have captive breeding programs to reintroduce bison.
But the poor animal was quickly shot dead as locals decided it was a threat, even though killing an endangered animal with no provocation was illegal.
Beavers introduced into the UK is a similar story. The first few were released in 2009, against farmers’ wishes. More have been released since, either accidentally or illegally by conservation enthusiasts. Just this year, farmers have killed at least 87 of the 400-odd absolutely harmless beavers in Scotland.
Wolves, bison and beavers are all relatively harmless animals in terms of the damage they inflict — there is little or no chance of them killing people. Elephants alone kill almost 500 people in India every year, their numbers are going up and 75 per cent of their range is outside protected areas.
So why does the Indian government not consider culling elephants on people’s private lands? When Botswana wants to kill a few elephants, there are vociferous protests from the very nations that kill wild animals en masse under the guise of “scientific management”, even those that cause a lot less damage.
We rarely find conservationists, scientists or journalists (particularly from the Global South) calling out developed nations about not being serious or committed to saving their wildlife in the way Botswana is now being criticised.
How and why are these double standards tolerated? Conservation should indeed be a global Priority. But an understanding of the complexity and colonial roots of this problem, including the shocking double standards that exist, is vital.
Institutionalized disparity, methodological whiteness
Scientists and conservationists in the Global South inevitably have significant experience in dealing with negative human-wildlife interactions given the much higher frequency and intensity of interactions.
But when the International Union for the Conservation of Nature constituted a “Human-wildlife Conflict Task Force”, it consisted entirely of white experts. Indian conservation colleagues were acutely aware of this and pointed it out. Then a few non-white scientists were added.
But none of the more privileged white academics noticed the imbalance in the constitution and the institutionalised problem remains. Western scientists have greater resources at their disposal. Hence, they are able to run multiple global projects to become authorities on Africa, Asia or Latin America.
Scientists from developing countries don’t have the resources to conduct global studies, but have much deeper knowledge about their specific countries. But they remain local experts or “in-country partners”.
The Conversation, a website that publishes expert opinion on global conservation issues (including a colonial piece on the Botswana elephants), only takes articles from western scientists. Social scientist GK Bhamra calls this “methodological whiteness”, where the world when seen through the lens of western experience and is assumed to be global and universal, while the perspective from the Global South is branded local.
Once aware of this disparity, it rapidly becomes evident everywhere in conservation. ‘Shoot to kill’ is considered an effective strategy for organised, armed gangs of poachers (defined as people who illegally kill animals to gain or protect a livelihood).
But we find no mention of significant punishment for people who kill wolves, beavers, or bison in the developed world (they are not even called “poachers”, though they do the same thing) even when they are armed and organized as in the case of the US.
Read the very insightful article by Tarsh Thekaekara last updated on 22 July 2020.
The actual reason for the 356 Elephants that died in Botswana on the Okavango Delta Panhandle is still unclear. What we do know without a shadow of a doubt, from our many years of experience on Safari in Botswana, that the Botswana Wildlife Authorities are very thorough and successful. They are investigating and they will release their findings when all the facts have been established. They will not bend to pressure from often ill-informed conservation groups or the Global North. The miss-information that is pandered in certain quarters does very little to aid the long term Global Conservation efforts which require ongoing funding to be successful.