Translocations – animals as “wild” card natural resources

Last year Namibia made headlines when it initiated a project to capture and transfer approximately 146 wild animals from its national parks to its long-time political ally Cuba. The project was christened “Noah’s Ark 2” and is currently in its second phase – the first batch of animals already living in a Cuban zoo. Among the animals trans-located were Big Five game, as well as animals more common in Namibia such as ostrich and oryx.

The project is reported to have cost the Namibian government at least N$ 25 million and the Cuban government a further U$ 15 million to accommodate the animals when they arrive in Cuba. The translocation, according to the Namibian government, complies with wildlife trade watchdog CITES’s regulations. The enormous cost of this venture left me perplexed as to who was actually benefitting from this whole deal.

Namibia – Cuba relations strengthened by massive wildlife transfer?

Cuban zookeepers said the introduction of “African animals” is necessary to restock the stagnant gene pool of Cuban zoo animals. The government also hopes to boost the local tourism market and bring in much needed cash by having exotic animals in its zoos. On a micro-level, this may seem plausible. But looking at the bigger picture of Noah’s Ark 2, I cannot see how the sudden transfer of so many wild animals from Africa to a tropical Caribbean island can benefit the animals. Considering the stress and hardships the animals suffer during their capture, passage and translocation to an unfamiliar environment, the language of this consignment seems to echo terms used during trans-Atlantic slave trading.

The distance, both physical and psychological, between Cub and Namibia will be a stressful factor for the transferred animals

The distance, both physical and psychological, between Cub and Namibia will be a stressful factor for the transferred animals

The precise details of the deal between the countries are unclear. The Namibian government referred to the project as a “gift” after an envoy to Cuba in 2010 allegedly promised a donation of wild animals to Cuba. These allegations prompted conservationists in Namibia and abroad to suspect the Noah’s Ark 2 scheme was a “favour” from the SWAPO-dominated Namibian government to Cuba, in recognition of Cuba’s military and political support during the pre-independence liberation movement.

It appears once again that animals are being used as expendable “wild” cards to foster long lasting diplomatic between the Cuban and Namibian governments.

Other translocation types include moving animals for commercial hunting purposes, where game is transferred for the purpose of being shot on different hunting ranches. Though this concept may be hard to stomach, trophy hunting benefits conservation efforts in other areas with the enormous financial gains it attracts. Also translocations seek to eliminate human vs. nature conflict, where animals are relocated to safer, less populated locations.

Translocations are sometimes necessary – especially when the alternative is for the animal to die in its current location. But transferring 146 free-living wild animals, from national parks where the animals are theoretically best protected, without any immediate threat to a zoo is unnecessary. Surely there were less public and expensive options available for Namibia to “thank” the Cuba?

As it was, Namibia received negative publicity for its role in Noah’s Ark 2. Cuba will continue in its struggling economic state with the expenses of a few more depressed lions and elephants. Admittedly, none of the game sent to Cuba was transferred illegally, nor is the translocation likely to damage existing game numbers in Namibia permanently.

What has been damaged is the wild animal’s status in the eyes of the Namibian government. In one deal, Namibia essentially put its entire wildlife population up for sale by way of paying for Cuba’s support in military aid and other expertise in wild animals.

Still, this is better than killing the animals and selling off the meat and trophies to some other buyer that Namibia owes a thank you to – a scary proposition, considering the number of donor countries Namibia has had in its past. But in principal, the line is getting blurry – dead or living wild animals have a price on their heads. And this is in Namibia, a country with a relatively good reputation when it comes to conservation issues.

If states are serious about protecting their wildlife, or as they’d have it “natural resources”, they must remove any notion that animals living within state-protected national parks are (or could be) for sale.

Newsmaker of the Year 2012 pits human tragedies against animal tragedies

This January the National Press Club (NPC) announced the scourge of rhino poaching has the top newsmaker in South Africa for 2012. Other notable contestants for the biggest newsmaker were the shooting of miners at Marikana and the Western Cape farm workers strike. When journalists and members of the public launched protestations about the NPC’s choice, the NPC stood by its decision, saying that the rhino story was the most common and covered thread throughout the year.

An article authored by Ben Fogel on GroundUp outlined most of the protesters case well enough. He eloquently argued that, in the aftermath of Marikana, an immense tragedy and injustice that dealt in human lives, how was it ethical for the media to declare the rhino as the top newsmaker?

The fact that rhinos were the number one newsmaker, ahead of miners killed at the hands of the police for protesting over low wages, was disrespectful to the human lives lost in an act of such gross injustice that the Marikana was immediately compared to brutal, apartheid-style riot control.

Fogel raised a very strong question – and one that if looked into deeply enough may reveal some disturbing answers. It revolves around what society values most.

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(photo from EWN)

VS.

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(photo from National Geographic news)

According to the NPC, rhino poaching in South Africa made greater waves than the events at Marikana.

Here we saw the rhino-poaching saga, which Fogel saw as an animal story, being positioned before that of the striking miners, a human-interest story. Fogel’s main complaint with this was that the South African media, and by extension South African society, was more interested in partaking in an uncontroversial issue that would not divide South African society, whereas the events at Marikana continue to split opinions and support in South Africa. In other words, the media took a cheap shot at reporting on current issues by not engaging with the really controversial, difficult and arduous human-based topic represented by the Marikana tragedy.

Rhino-poaching saga is not an animal interest story. It is as human interest as it gets. It brings together and deals in international communities, cultures, interest and money. And it brings them all onto South African turf. The story is hardly ever about a rhino’s cruel death or suffering because no concept of this. What we are familiar with is the human dramas that prevail when the valuable horn is placed into circulation.

Aside from the dead rhino and its horn, most of the attention focuses on who slaughtered the defenceless animal; for what purpose; and how they were allowed to do so in a country where the constitution unequivocally protects the rights of vulnerable animals. Now if I were to replace the word “animal” with “miner”, I may very well be writing on Marikana. Reporting on rhino poaching provides a platform for society look at itself in disgust that it allows such things to happen to the animals and beings we see (or should see) ourselves as guardians of. That is the exact same reaction to the Marikana massacres that Fogel would want to see.

Thus the concept that the popularity of the rhino-poaching saga is indicative of the South African public pussyfooting around real, problematic issues in our society is seriously questionable. Essentially the press coverage rhinos get indicates an identical form of concern for the state we humans are in that we would show about the events of Marikana.

The reason that Marikana did not get the press coverage was, aside from the media’s poor documentation of the event (sinister details how the miners died were revealed later in Greg Marinovich’s reporting) , is that South African society is so desensitised to this human-on-human violence. One could may say that even if it had been properly reported on, Marikana still would not have got the number one newsmaker spot.

This marks a significant shift in the way humans see the wild animals. While we can watch horrifying images of humans killing humans, we shy away when we see a large grey beast keeled over with bloody nose.

There is a question that lurks deep down in most of us: exactly what has the rhino done to deserve this treatment from us? Humans can exert control over other humans, as well as over animals. But animals are constantly at the mercy of a humans’ whim. It is this recognition that the rhino is the underdog in this human-interest story, not the fact that it happens to be cuter and less problematic than person with all his humanly difficulties being killed by members of his own species.

Fogel is right. We are taking the easy way out. It always has been morally easier to defend beings weaker than us. That we should be attacked for this characteristic is a “preposterous” proposition, even for Fogel.

We are all sick of violence. We hate it that everyday innocent people die at the hands of unjust other people. But if we must have it, and it seems South Africa does not know how to live without it, then can we just leave the wild animals out of it?

I’m almost extinct, do I deserve some attention now?

DSC_0614Ever heard of a pangolin? A scaly anteater perhaps? Or a creature whose ancestors have walked this Earth for 40 million years, one of the Earth’s earliest modern mammals?

Doesn’t ring a bell? You’d be forgiven. Hardly anyone sees them in Southern Africa. They are nocturnal or crepuscular mammals that survive off eating ants. They have no teeth; their tail, body and head seem to merge into one; they can’t run and they roll themselves up into a ball when they feel the situations is getting dodgy. It is also an animal can be compared quite comprehensively to the rhinoceros.

National Geographic Footage of a pangolin

Follow the Spoor wildlife YouTube blog on pangolins

So why has no one heard about the pangolin? And what is so remarkable about this little mammal weighing a maximum of just 12 kilogrammes to be compared to the fierce and majestic rhino?

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolins exist in Africa and Asia, much like rhinos. Tree dwelling pangolins are more prominent in Indonesia, China and South East Asia, while ground pangolins live in Africa. Pangolins and rhinos have few natural predators – not much can penetrated their thick outer layers. The most telling comparison however is what can kill them and why they are being killed.

For the rhinos it is their horn. For pangolins it is their scales. Both scales and horns are illegally poached and traded as traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. The main market for these commodities is South-East Asia, and the business is growing significantly.

The rhinos and the pangolins share one more common characteristic – their only defence mechanism is also their one-way ticket to extinction. What separates the pangolins from the rhinos is that the pangolins are going that way without as much fanfare – and thus much faster.

This pangolin's armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

This pangolin’s armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

In December 2012, Chinese customs officials seized 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individual animals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. This one seizure comprises of more poached individual animals than the number of rhinos poached in South Africa during the last 20 years!

What makes this seizure even more worrying is that while conservationists in Asia and Africa have a fairly accurate idea of how many rhinos exist, there are no such available data for pangolins. A recent survey conduct by an Ivy League researcher conducted in rural Namibia, once though to hold viable populations of pangolins, found that while many farmers knew what a pangolin was, they could not recall seeing one in the last 15 years, giving an indication that pangolin population are dropping drastically.

There is no telling how detrimental the pangolin trade is to the species. The lack of scientific data is due to two factors: the difficulty in observing the pangolins; and the lack of interest in the creatures beyond their commercial value.

A female pangolin

A female pangolin

The pangolins drew the short straw when it came to society deciding which animals it would idolize. This brings the question of what society deems is “worth saving”. The main problem I have here is not that the pangolins are being poached – rhinos, tigers and elephants share my sympathies. It is the fact that they are being killed in outrageously high quantities without the attention they deserve.

Are the pangolins just not newsworthy? A possibility. Cape vultures, Wild dogs, Riverine rabbits and Geometric tortoises also fall into this bracket. While rhinos face extinction in a storm of news coverage, these animals are disappearing very quietly.

Am I not pretty enough to save?

Am I not pretty enough to save?

The danger lies in deciding which creatures society will make an effort to conserve. If pangolins and rhinos are poached to extinction for almost identical reason, and society chooses to focus on one but not the other, we must ask ourselves to consider the real reasons for us supporting an anti-poaching initiative. Is it because we like the animal being poached? Is it because we don’t like the people behind the poaching? Or is it all a bit fuzzy, but it just happens to be easier to be anti-rhino poaching because there’s already a bandwagon waiting?

If this is the prevailing attitude, we’ve already lost the entire conservation cause. Taking a stand for something is not easy. It takes consistency, commitment and discipline. Society cannot, without a cloudy conscious,  choose to defend one and not the other  if the same injustices are being suffered by both.

Some of Africa’s most critically endangered animals are not getting enough media and conservation attention.

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Cape vulture – perceived threat to livestock

Haas

Riverine rabbit – severe habitat loss

Psammobatesgeometricus

Geometric tortoise – habitat loss

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Wild dogs (the painted dog) –  perceived threat to livestock.
 

Keep the Trophy Hunting Elephant in the Room

Conversations about wildlife and conservation in Southern Africa almost always touch on trophy hunting, or the hunting of wild animals for sport.

And most times trophy hunting would be decried as a rich hunter’s folly, an outdated form of masculine exhibitionism, another animal lost to our collective greed or society’s hypocrisy at conserving on the one hand and hunting for sport on the other.

That is until the conversation turns to a massive elephant in the room. Something no one wants to mention but every conservationist has this hidden somewhere on his or her mind.

It is the enormously lucrative nature of trophy hunting.

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A hunter with a 60 pound tusk-carrying elephant in his or her   sights is looking at paying at least $46 000. And that’s just for the right to pull the trigger aiming at the elephant. Not the permits, transport, lodge fees, professional hunter fees, customs taxes or the animal’s carcass. That’s all included in the after-the-hunt-hangover. And that’s not even the expensive range – hunting a black rhino, a critically endangered animal, can cost up to $350 000.

If big game hunting isn’t your thing, then even a lowly steenbok, an animal whose trophy horns may compete with the length of a tarantula’s legs, will set you back about $400. So from the steenbok to the black rhino, wild animals are having big bounties placed on their heads. The question is not if someone will pay the trophy fee. It is how much these prices will increase as wild animals become rarer or their trophies become fashionable.

No wonder then that trophy hunting is still being discussed in conservation circles. What is intriguing is that it is being spoken of more frequently and more seriously.

Let’s face it – conservation is becoming very expensive. There, the elephant is out of the room!

Theoretically, trophy hunting isn’t such a biggie. It offers a much needed cash inlet for conservation and, if managed correctly, can be quite sustainable as well as lucrative. Most big hunting outfits attract and give significant funding to conservation schemes across Southern Africa. They also often benefit local communities by offering high-end tailor-made safaris that require much labour and local expertise.

Yet, aside from arguments about whether or not trophy hunting is really benefitting the wildlife or just the owners of the concessions to the trophies; or the negative ecological impact of trophy hunting, I fear trophy hunting will become too much of a good thing/necessary evil.

The gap between seeing a black rhino as an exotic, nice-to-own trophy and a priceless being that should be cherished is narrowing. And scales are listing towards the trophy hunter’s side. I can almost see the bounty advertisement with a sketched face of a black rhino. Underneath it reads: “Wanted: dead or alive”.

I’m worried particularly about the “dead or alive” part. Trophy hunters are willing to spend money on killing endangered animals. It is their choice and their money, but as long as their actions are permitted by society, the fate of the last big game will not be their responsibility. It will be ours.

I am not suggesting trophy hunting will lead to the extinction of wild animals. At the moment the poachers seem to be winning that race.

Yet trophy hunting and poaching share two important characteristics: firstly, if human society puts a price on an animal’s head – no matter for what purpose it is intended – it means the animal becomes a lucrative and, by definition, an expendable asset; and secondly, an animal killed by the bullets of trophy hunter or those of a poacher’s AK-47 is a dead animal – the only question is into whose bank account the bounty money gets paid.

A dead rhino poached

A dead rhino poached...

… or a dead rhino trophy hunted is still a dead rhino.

So if we’re not careful about freely putting prices on wild animals’ heads, there will no longer  an elephant in the room when we talk conservation and wildlife – undoubtedly he too will be mounted on somebody’s wall.

Playing God – or just doing our best?

Last week the BBC reported fencing off lion populations in national parks is the only way to ensure lions’ survival. Scientists of the wildlife journal, Ecology Letters, said that such extreme measures had become necessary, as lions increasingly came into areas of competition over habitat with humans across Africa’s savannahs.

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A new, tighter habitat for lions?

The plan proposes to export the fencing systems used by private game ranchers in South Africa to areas in West and East Africa. In places such as Tanzania’s Serengeti fences are relatively uncommon. Across Africa, lions have lost 75% of their former habitat and their populations have declined by 80%, leaving just 15 000, a sobering statistic that few conservationists expected.

With the lion population in such dire straits, the fencing plan seems a logical solution to halt their slide to extinction. Similar ideas for the protection of rhinos have been touted. In South Africa, farmer John Hume is even advocating the farming of rhino horn to reduce the number of animals being poached – he claims he can get 60kg of rhino horn off a male during its lifetime. And the animal doesn’t die. Schemes of farming wild animals, such as buffalo and antelope have existed since the 1970s when wildlife ranching began in Southern Africa.

While such measures appear inescapable today, the concept of farming or sealing off wild animals in something of a glorified zoo does not wash with me.

Not only have the animals been stripped of their land and livelihood, but also their dignity.

Translocations, breeding schemes, confined habitats, sterilization, artificial fertilization – these are all terms that conservationists bandy around when discussing how to save the next species, be it rhinos, lions or field mice. Are we playing at being God?

Have we come to the point where we can just move animals around like pawns in a chess game? Wonder what the rhino thinks of this!

Is it ethical to move animals around like pawns in a chess game whenever we feel they are being endangered? Wonder what the rhino thinks of this!

Human society is using its evolved intellectual powers to manipulate the weaker beings that it shares the Earth with to its own advantage, not  to improve the volatile relationship between wildlife and humans, but to avoid fixing and changing its own ways. It appears human society has lost control of its own members and is instead has chosen the easy way out by changing the wildlife.

Looking back to 1909, American President Theodore Roosevelt’s African Safari saw 11 400 animals killed. This included elephants, rhinos and lions. Nowadays this hunting spree may be described as a massacre, a rich man’s folly and a political stunt. However it did gain attention. Roosevelt knew that a safari of “taming” Africa would do exponential wonders for his popularity, because at the time wild animals were held in higher regard than they are today. Rhinos were ferocious, lions were to be feared, wounded buffaloes were deadly. In other words, wild animals were respected enough to be hunted by the world’s most powerful man.

Teddy Roosevelt conquering a white rhino - a big beast for an even man

Teddy Roosevelt conquering a black rhino – a big beast for an even man

Undoubtedly, modern day conservationists face a different challenge to Roosevelt – that of saving wild animals from extinction. No easy task, considering the decreased respect humans have for wild animals. Yet the animals can only take so much stress of translocations, scientific meddling and experiments with their species before they throw in the towel.

So I find myself wondering how far society will  go in pushing wildlife to the edge before restraining itself, or if indeed it will restrain itself. I’m not suggesting we leave the wild animals to their fate at the hands of encroaching humans that would happily see them stuffed, mounted or on a spit.

What I am suggesting is that before we put the lions in their glorified zoos, we must find a way to limit our spatial expansion before shrinking their habitats.