Residents, tourists, beasts: A delicate balance





Published 4:00 am, Monday, April 17, 2000

By Kathy Chenault

PILANESBERG NATIONAL PARK, South Africa – A bull elephant strides majestically through tall grass, the day’s last rays of sunshine glinting off arcing ivory tusks as he stops to shred and devour leaves, twigs and splintered branches from a tree.

Nearby, tourists scramble to their feet in a game-viewing truck, marveling at the gray hulk. Cameras and binoculars swing into position. Shutters click. One man stands transfixed, binoculars trained on the mammoth mammal. “Wow. What a creature,” he says.

Such scenes are common from the vast savannas of Kenya to the tree-spiked hills of South Africa, where tourists from around the world lodge in plush resorts or tented camps to venture into the African bush on modern-day safaris.

But underlying these encounters with romanticized African beasts, conflict festers between conservationists stressing wildlife protection and community leaders pushing projects to help Africa’s desperately poor people.

Attention will focus on that duel this week in Nairobi, when delegates to the U.N. Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, or CITES, consider South Africa’s request to sell 30 tons of stockpiled ivory to a Japanese buyer. Animal welfare organizations oppose the plan, fearing a resurgence in poaching that led to the ivory ban in 1989 after years of elephant slaughters slashed African herds.

The renewed ivory debate comes as another contentious issue looms over South Africa’s elephants: a plan by the Makuleke tribe to let hunters kill two elephant and two buffalo on land grazed by animals from Kruger National Park. The tribe wants to raise money to build a lodge on its property across the park’s border, hoping to resuscitate a moribund economy in a community beset by 80 percent unemployment.

Despite pockets of wealth, South Africa remains a country struggling to create a better life for the majority of its 40 million people oppressed under the racist apartheid regime. And that takes money, more money than the country has for job-creation programs or large-scale poverty relief.

But wildlife management also requires huge chunks of money. Thus, the dilemma: How do you choose between helping long-suffering South Africans and protecting animals that enhance the country’s image as a wildlife haven?

Emotions are feverish on both sides, the battle of images intense. In Washington last month to urge U.S. lawmakers to oppose ivory sales, the director of Kenya’s Wildlife Service stood next to a 4-foot photograph of a maimed elephant. The pachyderm’s face was hacked and bloodied, its tusks chopped off.

Half a world away from Washington, on 24,000 hectares in the northeastern corner of South Africa, the Makuleke tribe confronts a bleak existence. Most people live in shanties with no running water, electricity or telephone service. Many children are chronically malnourished.

Their only hope for change is ecotourism, tribe spokesman Lamson Maluleke said. And developing ecotourism – game-viewing excursions or photographic safaris – requires capital, Maluleke said.

“We know it is important to protect our wildlife,” he said. “This would be a once-off thing, just to help us get the money we need for ecotourism projects.”

An explosion in elephant populations is the main reason given to justify both plans – the hunting proposal and the suggested ivory sale. That, in itself, is a testament to the ivory ban’s effectiveness.

CITES imposed the ban in 1989 amid estimates that African elephant numbers had plunged from 1.3 million in 1979 to 600,000 in 1989. But eight years after the ban took force, many African countries reported large increases in elephant herds and huge problems trying to cope with them.

The massive mammals sometimes rampaged through villages. Culling projects, such as one suspended by South African officials in 1994, fueled outrage.

South Africa’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism estimated that the country’s elephant population grew to 12,000 in 1999, up from 8,000 in 1981. During the same period, elephant populations increased to 106,000 from 20,000 in Botswana, to 10,000 from 2,300 in Namibia, and to 70,000 from 49,000 in Zimbabwe.

In 1997, CITES delegates approved a request from Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia to sell ivory stocks, an experiment aimed at raising money for conservation and community development. When delegates begin discussing ivory sales on Tuesday, those three countries will seek permission for new sales and officials in South Africa will request a one-time exemption from the ivory ban.

U.N. officials announced on March 29 that the trial sales, carried out last year, had been successful, raising $5 million. Those three countries now want annual ivory sale quotas of 12 tons for Botswana, 10 tons for Zimbabwe and 2 tons for Namibia.

In South Africa, the proposed ivory sale, expected to fetch at least $3.8 million, will highlight wildlife’s income-generating potential, says Environment and Tourism Minister Valli Moosa. That is the key to promoting conservation in poor rural areas, he said. The proposal also asks permission to sell 152 tons of elephant hides.

“Conservation is not just an indulgent pastime,” Moosa said. “It’s directly linked to the livelihood and economy of this country at the end of the day. If people see us getting money for this ivory, then they will know there is a good reason for conservation.”

Tony Twine, economist at the independent Johannesburg-based consultancy Econometrix, estimates tourism netted $12.3 billion for South Africa in the year ending March 31. That represented 10 percent of national GDP, Twine said. And in South Africa, wildlife is the strongest draw for tourists.

According to the South African proposal, the 30 tons of ivory offered for sale would come from stockpiles at Kruger National Park, most of it from animals that died of natural causes or through culling.

The money will go for anti-poaching efforts, new land for elephants and projects to relocate elephants from overcrowded parks or to open up areas with other countries for cross-border grazing.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare opposes a South African ivory sale, saying it could excite demand that had died down after the ban took effect.

“Indirectly, these sales could lead to the further slaughter of elephants,” said Jason Bell, the organization’s Cape Town-based campaign director.

He also said he fears “this is a nice foot in the door” that could lead to more sales.

Bell lauded South Africa’s wildlife conservation programs, but said countries in West, Central and East Africa could face extreme difficulties protecting elephants if ivory trade resumes.

“These countries just can’t protect their elephants. They have so many other problems,” he said. “South Africa should be looking at this conservation issue from a global perspective. It won’t just affect Africa, but also Asian elephants.”

No one knows the full extent of elephant poaching. According to South Africa’s Environment and Tourism Ministry, poachers killed six elephants in South Africa during the past five years. Officials from Kenya, which opposes ivory sales, have reported an increase in poaching. But U.N. monitors say they have not established a link between last year’s ivory sales and elephant deaths.

Lamson Maluleke, spokesman for the Makuleke tribe, says his main priority is easing hardships endured by the tribe’s 11,000 members.

Under a plan being worked out with South African officials, the tribe would receive about $71,500 from an outfitter who would bring in big-game hunters. But the proposal stalled, and officials say hunting will not start until the tribe, Kruger National Park officials and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism agree on how to conduct the big-game adventures.

In the meantime, the Makulekes are desperate.

“The people are very poor. They need help in every area: health, education and social development, like upgrading schools that have rotted,” Maluleke said. The hunting “can give us an important start.”

So the dilemma continues. Not even people who express great fondness for Africa’s wildlife can agree on solutions.

After a three-hour game drive at Pilanesberg National Park, Irish businessman Jim Wilkenson blasted the hunting proposal and South Africa’s request to sell ivory.

“It would be a heinous crime to kill those animals or do anything that could hurt them in any way,” he said. “If the country is poor, there are other ways to help the people.”

But Tracy Wolff, who became a wildlife guide at Pilanesberg because of her love for animals, says ivory sales might yield more positive results than just raising money.

“If we can flood the market, maybe it will bring the price down and discourage poaching,” she said.

Moosa, the Environment and Tourism minister, is girding for a fight at the CITES meeting. The U.N. report in March saying monitors found no link between last year’s sales and poaching could help his cause. The United States opposed last year’s sales by Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, but has not decided how it will vote this year, said a U.S. Embassy spokesman in Pretoria.

“I know it will be difficult,” Moosa said. “There will be quite a lot of heat about this.”


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