Book Review: At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife

Book Review: At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife

By Raymond Bonner


By: Norma Bennett Woolf  Date: 01/14/2012 Category: | Wildlife Journal |

While browsing the shelves of new books in my branch library a few weeks ago, I came across John Hoyt's Animals in Peril: How 'Sustainable Use' is Wiping Out the World's Wildlife. I'm always interested in what and how the other side thinks, so I picked it up and leafed through. While scanning the pages, I noticed that Hoyt devoted an inordinate amount of space to a diatribe against former New York Times foreign correspondent Raymond Bonner, an advocate of sustainable use of wildlife, and Bonner's 1993 book At the Hand of Man.

Hoyt called Bonner a racist, a defender of animal slaughter, a distorter of facts, a blunderer, an uninformed apologist for the ivory trade. He quoted David Brower's review of Bonner's book that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly: “Errors in fact, flaws in logic, and an unmitigated tendentiousness mar Bonner's book throughout.”

I just had to read Bonner's book to see what words had precipitated such outrage and scorn. I think Hoyt and Brower reviewed a different book by a different Raymond Bonner.

At the Hand of Man is an on-the-scene account of the machinations that led to the worldwide ivory ban, one man's opinions backed by considerable observation, conversation, and research that address the critical issues of wildlife conservation and human economic and social development in sub-Saharan Africa. More than 280 supporting documents and conversations are included in footnotes, and the bibliography runs for more than two pages. References include World Wildlife Fund documents; interviews with Russell Train of the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation and E.M. Max Nicholson, a founder of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources and WWF; and dozens of books about Africa, elephants, conservation, and animal rights. Interspersed with the investigative work, the discussions with Africans and conservationists, the observations of the colonialist attitudes of foreign white environmentalists, Bonner talks about the wildlife, the beauty, the desperate need to save the great expanses and herds for the people and for their own sake. His empathy for the Maasai and other tribes is pragmatic; he sees wildlife from an outsider's view of its magnificence and an African's view of its danger and potential economic benefit.

Journalism is a second career for Bonner; he left the practice of public interest law to write. He and his wife lived in Nairobi, Kenya, from 1988-1992, where she was stationed as a correspondent for the New York Times and he covered politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. He has written two previous books, Weakness and Deceit: US Policy and El Salvador and Waltzing with a Dictator, The Marcoses and the Making of American Policy; both were honored with Robert F. Kennedy, Overseas Press Club, and Sidney Hillman Foundation awards.

Bonner went to Africa as a save-the-whales, almost-vegetarian, pro-ivory ban liberal. He visited many of Africa's great parks and reserves — Maasai Mara, Amboseli, Tsavo, and Kora in Kenya, Akagera in Rwanda, Kaokoveld in Namibia, Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania — and talked to villagers, game officials, conservationists, and safari guides. He visited George Adamson in Kenya and Dian Fossey's mountain gorillas in Rwanda. His perspective on animals is neatly summed up by this passage on page 240:
“I do not understand what it is that drives a man, or woman, to pick up a rifle and shoot an elephant, or a lion, or a leopard, or a kudu for sport. And whatever “sport” or physical challenge might have been involved in the days when Churchill, Roosevelt, and Hemingway went on their hunting safaris, when it was necessary to hike for miles and days, is certainly gone now when most hunters reach their farthest points in Land Rovers and walk only a few miles as they stalk their prey, and then return by vehicle to camp, where the beer is cold. But whatever one thinks about hunters and hunting should not cloud a judgment about whether they can be good for conservation.”


Two themes

Bonner's book intertwines two themes: protecting Africa's people and their culture is the way to protect Africa's animals, and foreign environmentalists pander to radical elements and impose an ecological colonialism on the African people much like the military colonialism of the past. He uses the campaign to ban ivory as the focus of his growing conviction that sustainable use, not prohibitions on wildlife products, will save Africa's wildlife and people.

He builds his case with a historic prospective of Western use of Africa's wildlife, from the great safaris of Roosevelt, Churchill, and European royalty in the first quarter of this century to the great Hollywood films of the 1940s and 50s to the rise of the conservation movement. The first viable international conservation organization was the still-prestigious International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, founded in 1948. However, African wildlife did not become a world issue until the founding of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961. IUCN was a scientific organization working on conservation strategies; WWF was a public relations and fundraising organization, seeking money to support IUCN scientists by publicizing the plight of various species.

About the same time that WWF launched its association with IUCN, several wealthy American big game hunters created the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation. Convened by tax court judge Russell Train — the first chairman of the White House Council on Economic Quality and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency — AWLF was backed by political conservatives, many of whom had hunted in Africa and feared that African independence would place untrained Africans in charge of conservation and thus spell doom for game.

The initial efforts of AWLF centered on training Africans to take over as game wardens. Its first large grant helped establish the College of African Wildlife Management in Tanzania. In 1983, AWLF dropped “Leadership” from its name, and today it funds research on wild animals instead of continuing its original purpose of helping Africans become conservators of their own wildlife heritage.

Today AWF is still run by wealthy white Americans from offices in Washington DC.

WWF is indisputably the largest conservation organization in the world; it has several national organizations as well as an international office in Gland, Switzerland. Bonner's description of WWF is unflattering to say the least, and he has much evidence, including internal WWF memos and reports, to support his perspective. WWF is also a European and American-run organization that does not embrace African participation in conservation strategies at the highest levels.

Aided by poachers who illegally slaughtered the great beasts, WWF raised millions on the backs of Africa's elephants. The organization campaigned to ban ivory and ivory products, even though ivory was also obtained by legal means and many legitimate African artisans supported themselves and their families by carving ivory into jewelry and other items.

WWF also insisted on conservation of elephants to the detriment of human populations: under pressure from this organization and others, African nations established national parks to keep natives from using some areas so elephants and other animals would not be disturbed and instituted shoot-on-sight death sentences for poachers. Many of these parks were then opened to “eco-tourism,” but the money earned was not allocated to conservation efforts and the numbers of tourists proved annoying to wildlife in some areas.

A major consideration in the decision to ban ivory was the fact of ingrained corruption in many African governments. The governments were not doing the job, so the WWF and others moved in to do it for them. But rather than institute programs that brought natives into the solution, most of this interference was paternalistic and authoritarian.

However, Bonner found some programs that did work, including one in Tanzania that paid former poachers as game wardens to protect the elephants, one in Kenya and another in Zimbabwe that allows the people of the Nyaminyami district to make money from wildlife. Since the lack of money and food often drove farmers to poach elephants, paying them to protect the animals has removed the incentive to kill.


Conclusions

Bonner lays the decline in wildlife at the feet of the whole African experience.

“Poachers have taken their toll on the game, especially the elephants and the rhino. But even if there had been no poaching, the herds would have thinned, and even if poaching is brought under control, the wildlife will continue to vanish. It has and it will because Africa is changing. When Roosevelt came to Africa, when the game was plentiful and the spaces wide open and it seemed inconceivable that either would ever disappear, the population of the African continent was 100 million; today it is 450 million.”

The clue to the solution lies in understanding the complexity of the issue. There are lots of people to consider, but the density is still less in Kenya, whose population has tripled since its independence in 1963, than it is in France or Italy. Much of Kenya's land is arid, but modern irrigation techniques can solve that problem as it has in Israel and Southern California.

There are corrupt governments to overcome, but education and an infusion of money to wildlife projects that also save people can go a long way to bring successful conservation plans to fruition.

Westerners may see burgeoning population and its accompanying development as a death knell for wildlife, but many Africans consider saving those animals as major threats to their survival as wild herbivores freely ravage family crops, elephants destroy crops and their own habitats and sometimes trample villages, and carnivores prey on livestock and even humans.

Westerners may also see Africa as a great conglomerate of states, not as individual nations with individual problems. The fact is that elephants are not endangered throughout Africa and are considered pests in some areas and countries. A controlled cull of these herds, with ivory available for the world market, would go far to keep herds stable, provide income for natives, and build conservation partnerships based on practical considerations instead of solely on emotions and fund raising needs of WWF and other conservation groups.

Still the liberal, however, Bonner closes his epilogue with these thoughts:

(indent) “Still, I could accept an ivory ban. Elephants are sentient animals: they form family relationships, grieve over the death of relatives, communicate over long distances with sounds we cannot hear. I have felt the thrill of going for a morning walk and coming upon a long line of elephants ambling across the grasslands, or an infant waddling alongside its mother, or a bull putting its tusks on each side of an acacia tree, then with its huge forehead shaking the tree until the pods fall and picking them up with its trunk. It is painful, the thought of killing one of these creatures just to make a profit from its ivory. But the poverty of Africans is just as painful, so I could accept an ivory ban if the world community compensated African countries for what they lost in ivory revenues and if the western world came up with money for conservation.”

And finally: “All we have to do to preserve Africa's wildlife is care about the people as much as we care about the wildlife. Both are in the hands of man.”

So what did Hoyt complain about? He called Bonner racist for a bias against white control of African conservation efforts and in a unique twist of logic, even claimed that Bonner is actually anti-black because he resents whites helping blacks save their wildlife. He then maintained that Bonner and a handful of white African conservationists are trying to impose their “anti-elephant” views on African nations that support the ban.

Hoyt also asserted that Bonner overlooked the fact that the ivory trade made money for Asians and westerners, not Africans. But he missed a major point of Bonner's book — that the fix is bi-level: eliminate corruption by supporting efficient, honest game control departments, and keep the money in Africa for Africans, not prevent trade in ivory altogether.




About The Author

Norma Bennett Woolf's photo
Norma Bennett Woolf -

Editor and Writer for the National Animal Interest Alliance.




All Authors Of This Article: | Norma Bennett Woolf |

 

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