Opening the Ivory Door: An Exercise in Democracy Pits Conservation against Animal Rights
Rembert, Tracey C., E Magazine
On the parched outskirts of Hwange National Park in western Zimbabwe, Mabale villagers were screaming epithets, flailing arms and legs, and beating drums and pots, creating an unearthly din. This wasn't some ritualistic African dance--the villagers were trying to intimidate a herd of elephants. The same elephants that create awe in the American tourists visiting southern Africa also cause massive property and crop damage in rural Zimbabwe, and hundreds of injuries each year. In the Mabele village, the brave counter-offensive failed, and the elephants' visit left a legacy of collapsed fences, destroyed huts and ruined gardens in an already impoverished community. In other parts of the country, elephants have broken dams and pipelines, leveled forests and orchards, and degraded waterholes and riverbeds.
There are 70,000 elephants roaming Zimbabwe, a country the size of California. From 1991 to 1996, 368 people were killed by rogue elephants there. The situation, when combined with the lure of fast money in the highly-restricted ivory trade, could be expected to result in rampant poaching. But it's not happening.
What, then, is protecting Zimbabwe's elephants? Many say it's the controversial program there that's handed over the management and property rights of elephants and other game animals to the villagers themselves, making rural communities rethink the value they place on wildlife. The Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) was launched in 1989 in response to massive poaching by locals that arose when they were denied hunting rights under past British rule. Landowner Clive Stockhil proposed that rural communities be given wildlife management and ownership rights back, and in turn, local councils could assess hunting fees for particular animals, and collect revenues that would finance development in rural areas. Since Zimbabwe's National Park Service was already culling elephants (17,000 from 1960 to 1988), Stockhil and his allies believed placing a dollar value on each animal would ultimately support threatened wildlife and habitat, and eliminate the "nuisance" killing of elephants by villagers.
With CAMPFIRE funds, one group of Shangaan villagers has purchased a grinding mill, and built roads, a clinic and a school. Others have purchased tractors, built electric fences to keep elephants at bay, and upgraded management gear. "Our national government doesn't have the money to do these things," says CAMPFIRE Association Vice Chair Jerry Gotora. "They realized CAMPFIRE was a way to develop the country in a sustainable way." But other villages say profits and development have been sorely absent in their region. Heena Patel of the Indigenous Environmental Policy Center (IEPC) claims, "Rural communities are neither managing, directing nor benefiting from program activities. Instead, several hundred households have been forcibly evicted or coerced to resettle to make room for lucrative trophy hunting ventures." She also points out that many rural councils have grossly mismanaged or stolen funds, and that the private safari industry is one of the big beneficiaries of the program.
Since CAMPFIRE was launched, Zimbabwe's elephant population has almost doubled, growing from 37,000 to 70,000. In contrast, between 1979 and 1989, over all African elephant numbers dropped from 1.3 million to 600,000 due to illegal poaching. According to CAMPFIRE Association's Jacomea Nare, "The poaching and illegal hunting has stopped completely, because everyone in the community is a policeman now. …