Alongside biology, pecuniary incentives and conservation sociology are ever more important core foundations in wildlife management and in the efforts to conserve Africa’s – and the planets’- wildlife. In Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife, Glen Martin provides a thought provoking analysis of what he describes as the ‘ascendancy of animal rights based conservation policy’ and how it is driving the decline of many of Africa’s great game populations. The apotheosizing of Africa’s mega fauna as ‘untouchable’ has had perverse outcomes in many areas once rich in wildlife. While the reasons for decline in wildlife can stem from poaching, Malthusian population expansion and agrarian conflict, Martin highlights exactly how and why a hands-off legislative approach further compounds these threats and often provides a disincentive for local-level conservation efforts. If the people that live with and share the landscape with wildlife are divorced from conservation decision making processes, denied compensation for wildlife conflicts, edged out of wildlife-based incomes and generally shut-off from legal and sustainable use they not only lose conservation incentives but often see wildlife as a menace to other land-based livelihoods. Simply put, the old adage of ‘if it pays it stays’, albeit often bandied about a bit casually, often underpins the most effective conservation policy.
Martin spends much of his critique focused on Kenya. This country is still seen by many as the bastion of African conservation – the safari destination, famous for its abundant big game. Little do many know that Kenya’s famous big game populations have been declining precipitously in the last few decades. Perhaps more concerning is the substantial, often ill-considered support that Kenya’s ‘hands-off’ policies receive. Many people seem convinced that Kenya’s legislation that bans, or makes near impossible, any wildlife cropping, legal hunting or decentralized problem animal control is the most ethically appropriate course of action. Despite evidence to the contrary, to many it still seems intuitive that declining wildlife must be left wholly alone and this misconception remains a powerful influence for those ready to donate to certain influential NGO’s. The book is filled with the narratives of experienced and well educated Kenyan conservationists who labour under these misguided policies and who make explicit exactly why the hands-off approach hinders effective wildlife conservation in that country. Martin outlines how a broken government bureaucracy has been heavily influenced by foreign animal rights NGO’s, like IFAW, who successfully sway wildlife management policy and agendas in a manner more doctrinaire than pragmatic. Rural Kenyan’s, unable to benefit meaningfully from localized wildlife, typically show antipathy for animals they see as a nuisance and financial liability, as opposed to a potential source of manageable livelihoods.
The author then visits a country that arguably has become the new ‘blue-eyed boy’ of African conservation – Namibia. In contrast to Kenya it’s a country that allows and encourages the sustainable use of its wildlife not only through tourism in a few major ‘destination parks’ but also through its burgeoning system of community conservancies and on private holdings. The model functions on the premise that if people are allowed an active hand in managing and benefiting from local wildlife there will be an incentive to sustain those populations and their habitats. Through tourism, hunting and cropping more Namibians now see wildlife as part of their value systems and as part of their livelihoods, not as a nuisance or sentimental curiosity for wealthy foreigners.
I found the short time that Martin spends with Richard Leakey to be very enlightening. Leakey, as many will remember drew equal amounts of scorn and praise for his infamous burning of 12 tons of ivory in 1989. Leakey, then head of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), had the valuable ivory torched as a symbolic gesture in support of the ivory trade ban. For years this act earned him much malevolence from more utilitarian conservationists who saw this act as the wanton waste of a highly valuable resource in the name of a policy that would damage elephant conservation instead of enhancing it. During his interviews for this book it becomes clear that Leakey only perpetuated non-consumptive polices in Kenya because in his opinion the government and KWS were so corrupt and incompetent that allowing legal hunting, for example, would have blown the door wide open to abuse and mismanagement. Leakey’s views on traditional pastoralism, east African cattle-culture, the social imperatives for conservation and his view for the future will surprise you…
One thing that I as a hunter found interesting is the admission that Max Graham, Director of Cambridge University’s program on human and wildlife conflict, makes about the often unfortunate killing involved in problem elephant control – and its vital role in maintaining amicable local relations. He describes how many problem elephants that threaten lives and livelihoods often die miserably at the end of multiple spear wounds by residents or just as unfortunately at the hands of KWS rangers. Cumbersome KWS legal process coupled with incompetence means that many of these unfortunate beasts are dispatched inefficiently and wastefully, let alone for income, due to laws that prevent more practical solutions. He describes how ill-trained rangers often pepper elephants with inadequate rifles and without any knowledge on proper, humane shot placement. Ironically in a country that prides itself on its 1977 hunting ban Graham believes that “...we may have to establish an elephant-shooting school at some point. We need to start training people now, because in a few years this entire skill set will be lost in Kenya” (pg 144). I have read of this exact situation in other country where conservation is beleaguered – Malawi. In 2010 I read a local newspaper account of rangers trying to dispatch a trouble-making elephant. The incident turned into a messy running gun battle and ended up in the death of a local village child caught in the fray. Even the newspaper journalist critiqued the rangers for not having the tools and knowhow to place a large calibre bullet in the appropriate place to conclude the task correctly. If the completely pachyderm-inadequate US donated M16 (5.56 NATO) carried by the Liwonde ranger who accompanied us for ‘safety’ on a walk in that park was any sort of measure, that incident near Mzuzu must have been frightening indeed!
Overall I found this book very worthwhile and can highly recommend it. Martin’s writing style is very enjoyable. I personally hold strong spiritual and intrinsic values for wildlife but those share my ideological space with equally strong utilitarian and resourcist beliefs. As such, I didn’t find anything revelatory or ‘new’ in this book but rather considered it further evidence that wildlife policy shaped by a hands-off, non-use agenda is often more useful to the proponents' conscience than to wildlife and the environment. Anyone with an interest in animal rights or conservation would do well to add this to their library. Most notably, people who lack a foundation in these topics might have their eye’s opened to the reality that the Kenya style approach of governing wildlife often results in the opposite of the desired effect. With ever increasing pressures on wildlife people need to see value in their wild neighbours. Some have the luxury of spiritual, sentimental and aesthetic connections. Many others need a little more material incentive to favour antelope over cattle or not poison water holes to extirpate nuisance predators…
Here is a radio interview with Glen Martin about the book.Here is a Huffpost column from Martin, on this topic.
Here is a TED talk about the rise of Nambia’s conservancies. Note the debate that ensues in the comments about the prevalence of hunting in these conservancies. Unfortunately these are debates that are all too frequent but must be tempered with reason and researched information.
Reference: Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife. Glen Martin (2012). University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-26626-1
© Brian Joubert 2013