The Elephant War

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Image by Flickr user: decafinata / Creative Commons

In the small rural community of Mola in northwestern Zimbabwe, villagers have an uncommon regard for the word campfire. To them it means food, a medical clinic, school, jobs that pay well. CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources) stands for a radical and uniquely African approach to conserving wildlife that has done more to save elephants than any other conservation program on the continent. Yet the program–which allows villagers to sell the rights to hunt wildlife, including elephants, on their land and use the proceeds for village improvement–has invited the wrath of American and European animal rights groups. In what has become an escalating war between African and Western conservationists, CAMPFIRE officials argue that, unlike the West’s protectionist policies, which have historically isolated humans from nature, their approach is both more holistic and more suitable to the African landscape, and reconciles the preservation of animals with the needs of impoverished people.

Beginning in the 1890s the British colonial government in Rhodesia moved rural people from their fertile ancestral farmlands into so-called communal areas, which, like many Indian reservations in the United States, were far less productive. The villagers were prohibited from hunting wildlife on their lands and from protecting themselves and their crops from marauding elephants and other dangerous animals. Dispossessed of their land and denied the right to hunt, they often turned to poaching.

In 1989, realizing that rural people’s dependence on wild species could be an important factor in economic development and conservation, the Zimbabwean government transferred proprietorship over the wildlife in the Nyaminyami district (where Mola is located) to the villagers. Through CAMPFIRE, the government returned responsibility for the management of wildlife and any benefits derived from it–Including income generated by hunting, meat marketing, and tourism–to the people who share the land with the animals.

Today, 24 of Zimbabwe’s 56 districts participate in the program, generating an estimated $2 million in revenues per year–a huge sum in a country where the average annual household income is $150. Ninety percent of all cash income is produced by safari hunting (in 1993, 171 elephants were hunted). All CAMPFIRE-produced revenues go directly to the local communities. How the money is used–to build a school or a medical clinic, or to hire local game rangers to help protect the animals–is decided by the local villagers.

We are very fortunate to have CAMPFIRE, says deputy headmaster Mawonei, echoing the sentiments of other villagers in Mola. “We were able to build our primary school, which holds over 790 students, with CAMPFIRE money. We are still overcrowded with students–there’s a ratio of 40 students to one teacher–and some students have to walk two hours from home to the school because we can’t afford to buy a minivan to transport them. But CAMPFIRE money helps to educate many students and to care for their health.”

CAMPFIRE appears to benefit the elephants as well. Drought, competition for land, and poaching had reduced the elephant population in Africa from 1.3 million animals in 1979 to fewer than 700,000 in 1987. Since the CAMPFIRE program was instituted, Zimbabwe’s elephant population has increased by nearly 55 percent, to over 82,000 in 1995. “When rural communities are allowed to benefit from harvesting the wild, they try to protect the wild, not destroy it,” says Jon Hutton, projects director of Africa Resources Trust, a voluntary organization that helps implement the CAMPFIRE programs.

Animal rights groups, including the Humane Society of the United States, don’t see it that way. Writing in The Wall Street Journal (July 23, 1996), Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society’s vice president, succinctly stated his organization’s position: “If we could shut down sport hunting in a moment, we would.” The Humane Society is actively trying to end funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has pumped more than $5 million into CAMPFIRE since its inception. Teresa Telecky, director of the Wildlife Trade Program for the Humane Society in Washington, D.C., says, “We want to help people rise from poverty, but not [through] trophy hunting. . . . We’d rather see them earning money from cottage industries such as farm fishing and shoemaking.” The organization contends that rural communities would profit more if USAID gave them the money directly instead of pumping it into the CAMPFIRE program.

But Rob Monro, general secretary of Zimbabwe Trust, the nonprofit organization that helped create CAMPFIRE, says that outright aid from the West historically has been an ineffective way of alleviating poverty and encouraging community development. He insists that CAMPFIRE promotes self-reliance, and that by utilizing indigenous resources in a responsible way it enables rural communities to help themselves.

“The top priority in Africa is human survival, not conserving animals, and an elephant carcass can feed a lot of hungry people,” Monro says. “Protectionist and animal rights groups seem to be concerned with the survival of a few ‘megaspecies’ like elephants and whales instead of conserving all of nature, which also includes people. These groups are a major threat to CAMPFIRE. They are highly influential in policy circles and are opposed to any form of commercial use such as hunting. This opposition–which includes trying to block funding from USAID–could reduce the economic value of wildlands to rural people and act as a disincentive for them to maintain wild species. We don’t tell the West how to use its resources; people in the West shouldn’t try to dictate to us how to manage ours. It’s a form of ecoimperialism.”

CAMPFIRE does have its overseas advocates. “At a recent conference in Washington,” says Hutton, “we had representatives from the hard right, such as the Competitive Enterprise Institute–they like us because CAMPFIRE is about the privatization of wildlife–sitting at the same table with a group of hard left academics who like us because CAMPFIRE has a strong communal element to it. Unfortunately, the Green movement confuses animal welfare with conservation. They’ve taken the human element out of conservation, which is really how it has worked in the United States, isolating and preserving. This is Africa; this isn’t the United States. People here have to live with wildlife, and elephants have to fit in with the people.”

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