Opening the Ivory Door

An Exercise in Democracy Pits Conservation Against Animal Rights

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.

Photos: Tracey C. Rembert / 1997

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 a selective kill that put 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, overall 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.”

There’s a growing belief among conservationists, particularly the World Wildlife Fund, Wildlife Conservation Society and the African Wildlife Foundation, that if the endangered wildlife of Africa is to survive, villagers need a vested interest in the animals, which live largely outside national park boundaries. Under CAMPFIRE, rural councils supposedly profit by collecting a hefty fee—about $12,000 to $15,000 per animal—from safari enthusiasts to shoot elephants, lions and other big game. Of CAMPFIRE revenues collected, almost two-thirds come from elephant hunts.

CAMPFIRE generates about $2.5 million each year, but is further subsidized by $28.1 million in U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) monies, which opponents of CAMPFIRE—mainly in the U.S.—say solely subsidizes trophy hunters and profiteers of the ivory trade. According to the Humane Society of the U.S. (HSUS), trophy hunting is opposed by 84 percent of the American public, and reestablishing the trade in ivory is even more unpopular.

Last June, a decision by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) opened up limited Japanese trade in ivory with Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia (countries with healthy elephant populations), giving three governments an opportunity to unload almost 70 tons of ivory that were collecting dust in warehouses. Full international ivory trading could begin as early as 1999. HSUS Vice President of Governmental Affairs Wayne Pacelle says that if that trade resumes, “then a signal will be sent to poachers throughout Africa that there’s a market for this product.” Pacelle’s also concerned about a possible four-year extension of USAID funds going to the program, since legislative battles to end such subsidies, like last year’s Fox-Miller rider to HR 2159, have so far failed.

Pacelle further charges that Zimbabwe’s elephant population explosion isn’t because of CAMPFIRE, but a direct result of the ivory ban which CITES implemented in 1989. “CAMPFIRE can not take credit for this growth if only 16 percent of its elephants live on CAMPFIRE lands,” Pacelle adds.

Western CAMPFIRE opponents point to Kenya as an example of an African country that protects its wildlife and has built a successful ecotourism industry—without elephant hunting. But Kenya has seen its elephant population decimated; it dropped from 167,000 to 26,000 between 1970 and 1997.

Because CAMPFIRE focuses on only a few charismatic game species, Zimbabwe is also encouraging ecotourism. As Pacelle points out, “There are more tourists visiting Africa now to photograph wildlife than to shoot it.” But critics within the U.S. environmental community say Zimbabweans have a vested interest in making CAMPFIRE more successful than ecotourism—mainly, so that ivory stockpiles can be lucratively traded in the near future.

Some Zimbabweans are resentful of outsiders telling them how to manage their wildlife. “Many of these groups come from an overdeveloped world, and they don’t understand our predicament,” Gotora says. “And if animal rights groups can’t convince their own government to stop hunting in the U.S., how can they expect to stop hunting here?”