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Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa's Wildlife
By Glen Martin
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Never an Eden
For anyone who has traveled the developing world, Nairobi is instantly recognizable. It is the doppelganger of Manila, Mexico City, Lagos, Bangkok—a dynamic conurbation of immense size, swelling almost visibly, with a core of decayed high-rises surrounded by concentric rings of slums and gridlocked roadways. The only clues that this is the capital of Kenya, the heart of East Africa, are the marabou storks perched disconsolately on the fever trees along Uhuru Highway, the city's primary thoroughfare. Somehow, they still evoke the veldt and the bush, the teeming game.
Fifty years ago, lions hunted and black rhinos browsed in the acacia scrub on the very outskirts of town. Today, the only sizable expanse of open land near the city is Nairobi National Park, a partly fenced thirty-thousand-acre reserve that is adjacent to Kenyatta International Airport and still contains fairly robust populations of plains game. It is not unusual to see the bloated carcass of a zebra or impala that somehow broke through the wire next to the airport's service road, only to be struck by a cab shuttling passengers to and from the city.
The park, however, is a mere remnant of what was. More (or less) than that, it is hardly representative of an intact and functioning East African ecosystem. Rather, it is a de facto landscape-scale zoo that exists because of the fences. Nor is it inviolate. Poaching, poisoning, and encroachment by livestock herders and squatters all go on here, reflecting in microcosm the processes that are degrading game populations and habitat throughout the region.
Not far from the park is the bosky suburb of Langata. This exceedingly pleasant purlieu is characterized by large tree-covered lots, well-appointed homes, and a pervasive tranquility that contrasts markedly with the chaos of central Nairobi just to the north. Songbirds throng the trees, and leopards still occasionally drift through, subsisting on rats, cats—and especially dogs, a highly favored prey item. Leopards remain the one charismatic predator in Africa that has held its own. Like coyotes in North America, they are fecund and flexible, able to adapt to a variety of habitats, including suburbs and slums. They are as happy to den in a culvert or abandoned building as in a cave or in an inselberg or a baobab trunk cavity. In Langata, as throughout all of Kenya save the very heart of Nairobi and Mombasa, dog-lovers still secure their pets at night.
Kenyans in the professions or government service live in Langata. Among them is a smattering of white citizens, mostly elderly and retired from government, farming, or both. Their status is ambiguous, their very existence a reminder of the colonial period, a time fraught with strife and blood. Still, they are Kenyans, and their love of country typically is profound. They have endured many vicissitudes, and both age and experience have made them philosophical. Ian Parker belongs to this cohort.
I came here one morning to interview him as part of an investigative project on East African conservation issues. Many of the people I had talked to earlier had emphasized the necessity of meeting with him: Parker, they said, had perspective. He understood the history of game management—more to the point, he had contributed to that history; he was part of it. He was unsentimental and science oriented. He could see and explain the Big Picture. After some effort, my cabbie found his home—a small house set well back from the road in a grove of large trees. Parker answered the door at my knock. We sat down, drank hot beverages—tea for him, coffee for me—and talked into the afternoon.
Now in his seventies, Parker is spare and fit, his erect posture a testament to his military background. His movements are precise, his demeanor reserved, his eyes cool and calculating. But he is no martinet. Humor is integral to his personality, as dry as the Laikipia bush-lands north of Nanyuki. His long face, seamed and florid from a lifetime of brutal sun, is often illuminated by a wintry smile as he relates self-deprecating and mordant anecdotes that typically involve unexpected or inexplicable violence—hallmarks of many conversations in Africa.
As a commander of a platoon of the Kikuyu Tribal Police, Parker fought the Mau-Mau on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. Later, he spent decades as a game ranger and warden, ultimately responsible for wildlife management in a district that covered thousands of square kilometers. He shot hundreds of elephants in culling operations aimed at protecting the rangelands and killed a comparable number of Cape buffalo that threatened tribal and colonial cattle with bovine diseases. He battled Somali shifta (bandits) who were terrorizing pastoral herders, and he implacably persecuted poachers. He consulted on game management and traded in ivory. He is one of a remaining handful of professional hunters and wardens who experienced East Africa at a time when it was a wilderness surrounding a few islands of human habitation, unlike the current obverse.
Parker has published a couple of memoirs, in which his life seems Brobdingnagian, heroic in scope. Hemingway and Robert Ruark wrote about men like Parker and desperately wished they were like him. Since Parker's early years as a "settler boy" on a Kenyan farm, his life has been defined by the wild creatures of East Africa, from the Daddy Christmas swallowtails he netted as a toddler to the elephants he both hunted and protected as a man.
Nor is his life one of contemplative rustication today. A couple of years ago, he and his wife circumnavigated the shoreline of Lake Turkana by canoe. This huge Rift Valley lake is located in the no-man's-land of Kenya's Northern Frontier District, hard on the Ethiopian border. It is situated in one of the hottest, driest places on earth. Its alkaline waters teem with crocodiles, and shifta haunt the sere shores. It is wild in every sense and dangerous in the extreme; roads are both rough and rare, and civil authority and medical care are wholly absent. Get in trouble around Lake Turkana, and no help will be forthcoming. Yet Parker recalls the trip as a pleasant idyll, a sojourn marked by incomparable vistas, pleasant days of fishing for huge Nile perch, nights spent under skies gaudy with stars.
"It was marvelous," he recalls. "If you've lived an active life, you really can't spend your later years sitting around doing nothing. Inaction is a depressing prospect." Lately, Parker has taken up sailboat racing. "I'd never done it before, and I'm enjoying it tremendously," he says. "It's a thrilling pastime."
But as Parker looks back on his life, he has no illusions of overarching accomplishment. All the years he spent as a game warden, diligently enforcing regulations and apprehending malefactors, now seem to him, in large degree, wasted effort. Kenya's megafauna continue to decline despite the best efforts of game wardens, wildlife biologists, animal enthusiasts, and a 1977 hunting ban that was originally hailed as a template for the salvation of the continent's wildlife.
"The one thing I had a real chance to do in my career was stop the spread of the Indian crow," Parker muses, "and we didn't pursue it." Corvids from the Indian subcontinent, Indian house crows are large, slim birds that first showed up on the Kenyan coast in the 1970s. "I was working the coast at that time, and there was only one small colony of them. If we had put some effort into it, we could have eliminated them," Parker says. "But the powers-that-be had other ideas about where our energy should be expended."
The house crows quickly spread from their small redoubt and now are wreaking havoc on native birds throughout coastal Kenya and Tanzania. Like English sparrows, they thrive in disturbed habitats, including suburbs and farmlands—areas that are spreading rapidly throughout East Africa at the expense of pristine woodland and savanna. And like English sparrows, house crows use roads and railways as convenient paths from one potential habitat to another. "They represented my one real opportunity for effecting beneficial change," Parker says with a wry smile. "And I wasn't able to take it."
Parker is thus less than optimistic about the future for Africa's wildlife. He acknowledges that many well-meaning and well-funded efforts by people of good conscience are under way to stem and reverse the decline of the game. But, he says, it probably won't be enough. It's not just the poaching, the government corruption, the ongoing implacable conversion of habitat to cropland and grazing commons; those trends, he says, are mere symptoms. The real problem, the only problem in his eyes, is shifting trends in biomass.
"In the past decade, Africa's human population has grown by, oh, something like one hundred million people," Parker says from a chair in the cool, shadowed interior of his Langata cottage. He sips tea between sentences. Two small terriers lie at his feet, occasionally jumping up to patrol the room, gnaw at skin irritations, or beg for a caress. "So with a little basic math, you arrive at something like fifty billion kilos of biomass added to the continent. And that's vertebrate, omnivorous biomass, mind you—human beings. More than that, modern humans consume disproportionately more resources than other vertebrates, including earlier humans who had simpler lifestyles. They require not just a subsistence diet; if possible, they'll secure a surfeit of food, of many varieties. And things like cars, air-conditioning, televisions [consume even more resources]. So they—we—represent a tremendous demand on any resource base."
To the newcomer, East Africa is vast, seemingly endless. The Serengeti stretches to the horizon, speckled with plains game. The hills and gorges of Laikipia and the Northern Frontier in Kenya, bordered by the eastern Rift Valley, form a gigantic fractal landscape that defies normal conventions of space and boundary. But Parker has patrolled this land for fifty years, from Uganda through Tanzania. To him, it is familiar, discrete, comprehensible—and finite. And it is not large enough, rich enough, to respond to the demands now made on it. Something has to get the short end of the stick. And that, says Parker, is the megafauna—and the people who historically depended on the megafauna, such as the Wata, a near-extinct Kenyan tribe whose members specialized in hunting elephants with powerful longbows and poisoned arrows. All have been supplanted, he says, with the "strange form" of human being: modern, technologically savvy, urbanized primates whose social status depends on the accumulation of wealth, namely, the conversion of natural resources into goods and money.
As is the case with many people, elephants in particular engage Parker. But unlike most pachyderm fans, he does not romanticize them. He acknowledges their deep intelligence and complex social order. But for him, they are, more than anything else, the emblem of wild Africa—more accurately, the wild Africa that was but now exists merely in tourist brochures. Wild Africa was largely doomed, Parker says, when it started getting chopped up into nation-states. "The large fauna, particularly elephants, had evolved with few geographic constraints," he says. "They literally had the continent at their disposal, and they ultimately came to require resources on a continental scale to survive."
Parker explains that East Africa's great elephant herds originally traversed thousands of miles in their migrations, traveling from Ethiopia to Zambia and back in stately, seasonal rounds as they sought forage and water. And wherever they went, they shaped ecosystems. "They were one of the great evolutionary engines on the continent. An area that contained too many elephants was ultimately stripped of forest. Then the elephants declined in number or moved on and plains game moved in, until the forest came back. Then the elephants returned, and on and on." This dynamic resulted in a rich tapestry of habitats, with many "edges": mature and secondary forest, brushlands, savanna, transition zones of every permutation. This varied habitat in turn supported a tremendous diversity of wildlife.
"The problems start when an area has too many elephants that can't go anywhere," Parker says. "And elephants started running into real obstacles when Africa began the transition from a series of tribal homelands to nation-states that supported greater numbers of people with accompanying infrastructure—more and larger farms, cities, roadways. Elephants had evolved to need a continent, and then the continent was denied them."
East Africa's national parks were conceived to provide elephants and other megafauna with an option to extinction, but in Parker's view, they have merely delayed an inevitable collapse. "Within ten years of creation, virtually every national park had elephant problems," Parker recalls of the early days of his career. "They flattened landscapes, utterly disrupted local ecosystems, drove the decline of many species. They could not be allowed open-ended population growth in circumscribed areas. Ultimately their populations would grow beyond the means of the available habitat and finally collapse—but not before they had destroyed everything."
That led to culling—a practice that Parker and a handful of other wardens refined to a science. It was not a business for the faint-hearted, he acknowledges. Given the complexity of elephant society, tremendous stress can be generated in a herd if certain members are selectively killed, particularly older female members, who act as askaris (guards) and instructors of younger elephants. "It is much more humane and much less disruptive to the larger population if entire family groups are killed quickly," Parker says. "If you shoot the matriarch, the remaining elephants cluster around her, and you are able to take them down in very short order. Ultimately, we got it down to where a few of us could kill an entire herd in fifty seconds." Culling also had other benefits, in Parker's view. Local villages were given the meat, highly esteemed food on a continent where protein shortages are endemic. That created a certain tolerance for elephants among farmers who cultivated lands on the margins of the parks, where the animals sometimes foraged: "They felt there was something in it for them."
Too, ivory from the culled elephants both contributed to communal tribal wealth and supported the conservation efforts of Kenya's early wildlife services. Ultimately, of course, the ivory trade generated its own dynamic, one that led to the cessation of legalized hunting in Kenya. Parker acknowledges that poaching for ivory played a significant role in the reduction and even the elimination of local elephant populations, but he insists the African elephant was doomed as a populous, free-ranging species long before the Ivory Wars of the late twentieth century.
"Human beings evolved with elephants," he says, "and we were adapted to them. We shared this continent with them for millions of years and were able to exploit the same habitats." But then, says Parker, the "strange form" of humans returned to the continent after hundreds of thousands of years of global peregrination and evolution. They brought with them technologies and cultural imperatives that allowed them to reshape the land—demanded it of them. Since this strange form invaded, wildlife habitat in Africa has steadily diminished.
"As a game warden, I was brought up with the idea that conservation is a growing thing, an idea that would only gain power with time," says Parker. To a certain extent, he says, the decades have borne out that intimation: conservation and its later permutation, environmentalism, have never been more voguish. But the reality shows that where it counts, real conservation is declining. As a percentage of government expenditures, the greatest amount of money put into Kenyan conservation was around 1900. Also, in 1900, 23 percent of Kenya's land was game reserve—absolutely inviolate sanctuary where hunting was proscribed. Today, only 4 percent of Kenya's land has reserve status." Driving the land conversion, Parker observes, is population growth; Kenya's human numbers have shot up from eight million people at the declaration of the country's independence in 1963 to thirty million today. Since 1977, the year the hunting ban was introduced, wildlife populations have fallen by 70 percent.
Excerpted from Game Changer by Glen Martin. Copyright © 2012 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
1. Never an Eden
2. The Man Who Hated Hyenas
3. Dreaming the Peaceable Kingdom
4. From Automata to Sentient Beings
5. My Cow Trumps Your Lion
6. Death to L’Ancien Régime
7. Reality Check
8. The Kenya Model
9. An Inalienable Right
10. Buy (or Lease) It and They Will Come
11. Even the Cows Must Pay
12. Elephant Man
13. The Sage Reconsiders
14. Commodifying Conservation
15. Not a Primary Issue of Concern
16. Hard Choices
17. The Nation on a Plate
18. Topsoil and Condoms
19. Summing Up in Diani
What People are Saying About This
"Martin builds a convincing case. . . . But the real value of Martin's book is in showing how hard it is to find any conservation strategy that works in the complex reality of today's Africa. . . . Walking the fine line between unregulated killing and managed hunting will not be easy but, Martin concludes, it may be the only hope for Africa's wild creatures."New Scientist
"Africa's wild megafauna are caught in the crossfire between animal-welfare campaigners and conservationists. . . .
In this pacy, unsentimental account, Martin . . . points out that measures such as ecotourism and protection for iconic species have backfired dramatically."Nature (2)
"The real value of Martin's book is in showing how hard it is to find any strategy that works in . . . today's Africa."New Scientist
"Martin's work incisively probes complexities most wildlife lovers have likely never considered, but urgently need to, before some of their beloved species utterly disappear from the earth."Booklist
"A perceptive if partisan examination of a continent-wide controversy over how best to preserve Africa's amazing wildlife heritage."San Francisco Chronicle
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A well written and researched book on the current state of Wildlife and wildlife management in Africa. The book looks at Kenya, Tanzania, and Namibia. What is glaring is that in order for wildlife to survive in Africa it must pay for itself. Without a value attached to it, an animal is worthless to people of that country. This is a a great read if you are a hunter, conservationist, or someone who truly wants to be educated about issues like elephants and lions in Africa. The author takes the time to meet and listen to farmers, politicians, animal rights groups, NGO's and biologists.