By Catherine E. Semcer
With an African elephant being killed by poachers every 15 minutes, the continent’s poaching crisis has captured the attention of groups as disparate as the World Wildlife Fund and the US Military. More than a simple conservation issue, the illicit trade in elephant ivory to supply Asian consumer demand has fueled the growth of organized crime networks and violent extremist groups that threaten to destabilize Africa’s emerging economies. The same smugglers ratlines that move elephant ivory also move narcotics, people and weapons. To supply that ivory, which trades on the black market for around $1800 per tusk, poachers must first kill an elephant worth up to $1.6 million to national economies if utilized sustainably, over the course of its average lifespan. The loss of each animal represents a stumble on the already slippery slope of economic and political security the continent stands on.
Since the poaching crisis emerged in 2008 the Obama Administration has adopted a series of policies and programs aimed at bringing it under control. These have included grants, training assistance and expanded law enforcement, all of which have produced valuable results. But not all of these efforts can be said to be producing their intended effect. In Zimbabwe, a US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) policy that discourages American hunters from participating in the county’s legal elephant hunting program is crippling the anti-poaching efforts that program has traditionally supported.
The Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, which oversees much of the nation’s conservation efforts, draws between 60% and 90% of its operating funds from fees paid by visiting hunters from the United States and elsewhere. Private and community conservation programs often rely on a comparable amount. With one of the largest elephant populations in Africa, and an abundance of trophy export permits available under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Zimbabwe has for decades been a popular destination for hunters seeking the experience of a traditional African safari. Old elephant bulls near the end of their life have been among the most economically valuable trophies conservation programs have benefitted from, bringing in tens of thousands of dollars each in fees.
In 2014, citing a belief that elephant numbers in Zimbabwe were at risk of catastrophic decline due to poaching, the US Fish and Wildlife Service prohibited American hunters from importing elephant trophies from Zimbabwe. The decision was made in Washington, D.C., without any consultation with the agency’s counterparts in the African nation. Conservation organizations, like Safari Club International and the National Rifle Association, brought legal challenges against the decision that they say was arbitrary and based on outdated information. In response the FWS admitted that the ban was without any basis in scientific data. At the same time they continue to enforce the ban under the justification that they lack the data necessary to lift it.
According to the Safari Operators Association of Zimbabwe, a trade group, the FWS ban on elephant trophy imports has resulted in a 30% reduction in hunters visiting the country. This loss has had a concurrent impact on the conservation programs hunters’ dollars support. Buzz Charlton, owner of Charlton McCallum Safaris, has experienced these impacts first hand.
Since 2010 Buzz has guided big game hunters in the Dande North and East Safari Areas, a 500,000 acre wildland along Zimbabwe’s Northern border. The hunting operation is a partnership with the local communities who receive 50% of the operation’s revenues. As part of the partnership, the community and Charlton McCallum Safaris support the 22 man Dande Anti-Poaching Unit (DAPU), providing them salaries and equipment to secure the wildlife resources of the area.
Supporting the DAPU guards costs approximately $100,000 per year, the funds coming directly from hunting revenues. Historically, the area’s conservation programs benefitted from 15 bull elephant hunts per season, the quota set by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management authority based on the best available science. After all fees had been tallied, the 15 elephant hunts brought approximately $500,000 into the operation, the money being split between supporting DAPU, funding community needs like medical clinics and schools as well as covering overhead and improvements in the programs operations.
“In 2014 DAPU patrols found 1 poached elephant carcass in the Dande. This season we found 5. Clearly poaching is increasing and the trend is heading in the wrong direction,” said Charlton. “This year we hosted only 3 elephant hunts, and at greatly reduced cost. The US ban makes hunting here unattractive. The revenue simply is no longer there to continue our anti-poaching program in 2016.”
The loss of revenue resulting from the US import ban and related decline in visiting US hunters has also left the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, the agency that oversees anti-poaching operations in the country’s national parks, struggling to pay its rangers. Some rangers have reportedly gone for months at a time without pay, leading to a breakdown in discipline and an increase in corruption. In a case that captured worldwide attention last year, unpaid rangers in Hwange National Park were implicated in the cyanide poisoning of 62 elephants inside the park boundary.
In response to the deteriorating trust in Parks staff, the government deployed the military to the parks to secure their wildlife resources. Due to the country’s worsening economic condition however, the government is now struggling to pay the military as well, leaving the future of their ability to safeguard Zimbabwe’s natural heritage in question.
The policy of the US Fish and Wildlife Service makes it clear that for better or for worse the United States will play an influential role in the future of Zimbabwe’s elephants. If the policy represents a wagging finger its impacts show that what is really needed is a helping hand. While the agency shows no signs of revoking the policy in the short term, it does have the opportunity to avoid exacerbating and extending its ill effects at the upcoming Meeting of Parties to CITES, being held in South Africa next month. There, a proposal will be debated that would change the status of the elephant under the treaty. If adopted it could end elephant hunting in Zimbabwe, and across Africa, even if US policy reverses course. With anti-poaching efforts, especially on private and community lands, so dependent on hunting revenue its adoption would only weaken counter-trafficking efforts at the ground level. Delegates should seek a better, more holistic path to secure one of the continent’s most valuable wildlife resources so that it can continue to benefit the continent’s people.
Perhaps more than anyplace else, Zimbabwe illustrates what happens when hunters and hunting are removed from the conservation equation. As calls to conserve Africa’s wildlife become more amplified on social media and elsewhere, decision makers should remain conscious of the critical, practical role hunters’ dollars play in facilitating the results the public is ultimately demanding and that African economies require for their future security and prosperity.
Catherine E. Semcer is the Chief Operations Officer of Humanitarian Operations Protecting Elephants (H.O.P.E.), a 501(c)(3) organization providing world class training, advisory, assistance and procurement services to African anti-poaching programs. H.O.P.E. would like to thank the Golden Gate Chapter of Safari Club International and Safari Club International Foundation for their generous support in the making of this documentary.