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  • Writer's pictureJon T. Peterson

The Wind of Change

Updated: Sep 29, 2019

In 1960, United Kingdom Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan gave his famous “Wind of Change” speech in South Africa. In his speech he said, “The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, the growth of national consciousness is a political fact”. Needless to say the speech caused discomfort in South Africa and some felt it represented the abdication of colonial interests in the continent.

In 2019, other winds are stirring in the world of African wildlife conservation. For decades the dominant voices have belonged to foreign non-governmental organizations. They have largely controlled the discourse regarding the role of Africans play in managing their wildlife. In the space of just two months, certain events have signaled a growing discontent with this arrangement.

On May 7, the Kasane Elephant Summit was convened in Botswana. This meeting was presided over by the heads of state of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe plus a representative from Angola. Parts of these nations collectively form the largest transboundary protected region in the world. The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area or KAZA encompasses 106 million acres. This an area the size of France and twice the size of Great Britain. Within its boundaries KAZA is home to more than half of remaining population of African elephants. While elephant numbers are in decline in the rest of Africa; the population of elephants in KAZA is growing. Elephants have become such a problem that a multi-nation management plan had to be formulated to meet the challenge.

On May 23, President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana lifted a five year hunting ban enacted by his predecessor. The international uproar was immediate and vocal. Despite that very few people were demanding action, President Ian Khama made a unilateral decision to stop hunting on government concessions starting in 2014. This made him the darling of the international media but the Batswana living in rural areas felt much differently. They were resentful at not being consulted and upset at the resulting loss of income. In 2018, when Masisi became president he started a lengthy series of discussions with his constituents asking for their opinions on the ban. By tradition anyone may speak at these meetings called “kgolta” and interruption is frowned upon. Human/wildlife conflict had started to increase since the ban and people were dying. Crop losses due to elephants were escalating and ruining livelihoods. To compound the problem, elephants were now showing up in areas they had never been seen before. After careful consideration, President Masisi made the decision to lift the ban. He decided to place the welfare of his citizens ahead of international opinion.

On June 11th, debate over the legal trade in ivory was reignited. The spokesman for Zimbabwe’s wildlife authority declared “if we are not allowed to trade will we not take part in CITES discussions on elephant.” The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora is a multilateral treaty governing the international trade endangered plants and animals. Since 1989 international commercial trade in ivory has been banned. Some African nations have decided to stockpile ivory while others, such as Kenya, have held public ivory burns. The first such burn was held in 1989 and the spectacle consumed not only ivory but 20,000 liters of jet fuel and oxygen. Countries with stockpiles have held onto ivory in hopes that trade will someday be legal. They wish to turn the ivory recovered from poaching and natural mortality into something positive; funding conservation projects. This position is supported by Zambia, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana and is expected to be a hot issue at this years CITES Conference of the Parties in August. While there would be numerous obstacles to overcome, the counties will the most elephants are unanimous. They want trade.

From June 23 to 25 the Wildlife Economy Summit was held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. The focus of the summit was to create “a new and effective wildlife economy” with local people playing a central role. Called “A New Deal for Communities”, the summit wants wildlife tourism to reduce poverty by providing jobs for rural communities. Different sustainable use policies are integral to the plan. President Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe called for “free trade in hunting products as these can have an important effect on national and local economies”. Mnangagwa wants to ensure that “a full and fair share of benefits from the wildlife economy flow directly into communities”. The goal is nothing less than a reset of the agenda for community based natural resource management.

These decisions are at the heart of a debates over wildlife use. African nations want to make their own conservation decisions but Western interests seek to undermine that autonomy. Africa may no longer be chained by colonial oppression but it is being hobbled by foreign interests. From this debate a new voice is being heard. A voice that demands that Africans be in charge of conservation in Africa. Who better to manage the wildlife than the people who live with the animals? Why should international opinion supersede the wishes of ordinary Africans? Why can’t communities benefit from their own resources on their terms?

While we struggle to answer these questions, a breeze is picking up and the wind is starting to blow.

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