The Question of Elephants at Hwange
Imagine the scene: It's the cold season, because the meat from a kill stays fresh longer in cold weather. Your team's plane flies overhead, looking for the runty herds because the larger ones are being saved to breed. Once your plane targets a herd of 65-70 elephants, the pilot alerts the truck drivers. You load up and start the 20km drive towards the herd. You and five others form a circle, staying downwind, and stealthily walk towards the unaware elephants. In an instant, you start shooting. You aim for the bigger elephants first. You notice the cows forming a protective circle around the young calves and you take them out, one by one. It's over in 3 or 4 minutes. With the adults dead, you herd the calves into trucks to be later sold to circuses or for export, then attend to the task of slicing up the hide, packing the meat for food, the ivory for goods, and the bones to be crushed for bone meal. "[To them] it's basically a management operation," says John Foster, who has been here 30-odd years and explains that "the bush is my hobby."
Furthermore, local farmers have been complaining about the animals raiding their crops and even drinking from swimming pools. Paolo and Trinity, who work at the New Game Reserve Hotel in the town of Dete nearby, say elephants are frequent visitors to the town. "It's because they are free. Nothing hunts them," says Paolo.
How about some more complicating factors:
First of all, no one can agree on the numbers of elephant in Hwange. Elephants migrating can range 30 km and as far away as the Okavango Delta. There have also be instances of the same animals being counted two or three times. The foreign community was outraged that Zimbabwean officials wouldn't allow independent researchers to conduct their own counts. It was at this time that the ivory export ban went into place, mandated by the United Nations Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). But, by selling secretly through other countries, the Zimbabwean industry was able to side step the officials.
Some of the dilemmas of the situation involve how to accurately assess the impact of the elephant population. Reporting on the elephant problem from the ground is tricky. A car travels on the road where the waterholes are located. Elephants spend a great deal of time at the watering holes drinking, eating, and bathing. But this is deceiving if you are going to judge the elephant's destruction by this alone. If seen from a plane, the elephant's destruction is not widespread. Elephants are in fact hard to find outside of the watering hole area.
With the CITES ban lifted, just in the papers recently was news of an ivory auction on April 7 to Japanese bidders. There has been more and more talk in elephant circles of the need for another cull in Zimbabwe. "Just don't put us all in one room together," jokes de Montille, about his colleagues and friends who all have different viewpoints about culling. "I think elephants are so destructive. It's good [culling], okay. It's not good for the animals but in general it's better," says Dominic, a Zimbabwean baccalaureate student whose views reflected those of most black Zimbabweans I've asked, an echo of National Park official policy that there are "too many elephants in Hwange National Park." But, as de Montille points out, "we need more independent research. It's one thing to talk about numbers here and statistics there and another to be in the middle of living, breathing elephants..." He points out the example of the densest concentration of elephants in Africa: the 300 individuals on 80,000 acres known as the "President's Herd."
This herd has had minimal effect on their land, and show how elephant populations can respond and adapt to their environment. He suggests that, due to a number of reasons, some of them financial, some of them ecological, some political, that the government does not have a long-term management plan in place. "It's more crisis management...stamping out bush fires," he continues, of Zimbabwean policies. It boils down to the question of "What is the final use of the piece of land?" Is it for wildlife like elephants, or human use like farming?
"The most important thing," he concludes, "is don't believe anything anyone tells you. Dig a little deeper below the surface. Have an inquiring mind." I hope you follow his advice and do your own research, because your generation will inherit the question of whether wild creatures like elephants will or will not continue to roam the planet. Good luck!
Kevin - 13 Guys and a Girl: Training to Become a Commodity
Monica - Elephants, Elephants Everywhere! A Visit to Hwange National Park
Making a Difference - Go and score a goal!
Abeja - From 1st World to the 3rd: How Big Is Your Mess?
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