No to auctioning off the great elephants of Namibia

We are back only a few days from the wilds of Namibia where some of the most isolated people in Africa, the Himba, hold on to a parched landscape of beguiling prehistoric features in the oldest desert on Earth. And already we learn of the planned sell off of 57 of their greatest treasures, elephants, due to be sent abroad, even possibly to China. What on Earth is the government thinking? What on Earth is CITES thinking to allow such a travesty of a transaction to go forward? Madam Secretary General, Ivonne Higuero, must stop this cowardly act ever materializing. The elephants of Africa have suffered enough.

We were privileged to have a remarkably dedicated Himba guide, head of the Rhino Trust, leading us through remote sand rivers and valleys that would confuse most GPS systems. It is the challenge of finding one’s way in the labyrinth of some of the most secluded geologies on Earth.

But it is on this entrancing and often bewildering land that abuse of the highest order continues to plague Namibia. While being lauded for its rhino conservation record, of late, Namibia has had some bad press for the sale of elephant calves to China and the very controversial auctioning off of a rare black rhino in 2014 for 350,000 dollars to a Texan hunter, which was hailed by some scientists who still believe in sacrificing older individuals in favor of the species. Jeff Flocken, North American director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, exclaims that this killing “sends the signal that the animal is worth more dead than alive.”  The community-based conservation efforts working with game guards and monitoring systems using HWCSRS the Human Wildlife Conflict Self Reliance Scheme, would shame these practices as being entirely anti-conservation.

Even vaunted groups such as the WWF have found favor with hunting rhinos and other big game, which begs the questions how conservation can support rare species while encouraging trophy hunting. “WWF believes that sport hunting of Namibia’s black rhino population will strongly contribute to the enhancement of the survival of the species,” citing the generation of income for conservation and the removal of post breeding males.

Our Himba guide, who started working in conservation as a teenager, used to regularly see rhinos in the same field as his sheep . Rhinos were almost part of their extended family. Rhinos who posed no threat. Rhinos in the old days were not an uncommon sight. And while lions also lurked in proximity to the herds, as recently as earlier this year, the community we spoke to said lions only took out three dogs. The Himba worked with local rangers to monitor and if possible deter lions from encroaching on Himba livestock. But exceptional drought, sparse vegetation, and even floods have degraded the land on which the pastoralists depend. Overgrazing is also an ever-present reality among herders who are trying new strategies in land use management to survive. Despite the hardships of an arid “Eden” as Garth Owen Smith the Goldman Prize winner, visionary and conservationist calls this part of the world, desert elephants have been coming back to areas they used to inhabit in the 1960’s.

The Himba, who honor the “holy fire,” have been part of the holistically based Community Based Natural Resource Management for years and the success of the program in Namibia and in Botswana, Zimbabwe and other countries is a key approach for mitigating human wildlife conflict across Africa. Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCA’s) such as the Okavango Zambezi TFCA, which includes five countries and 20 national parks, game reserves and state forests will be the largest in the world. Such transfrontier efforts are essential to safeguard the largest extant population of elephants on Earth.

A serious problem comes when a government such as Namibia, allied with CITES, abets in the possible exportation of dozens of elephants not only in violation of community-based programs but contrary to everything conservation should stand for in this vulnerable time. How can a government rationalize the exportation of elephants for commercial use? Namibia even declined to take part in the Great Elephant Census paid for by Paul Allen several years ago. Namibia claims its elephant population has increased considerably over the last few decades . Can this be trusted?  There could be far fewer elephants than the 16,000 to 2o,000 Namibia claims. There may be only 6,000. Mark Hiley, operations director for National Parks Rescue in Zimbabwe, skeptical of Namibia’s polices, has said, “Falsifying elephant populations statistics and exaggerating human-wildlife conflict can be used by governments to generate revenue from inflated hunting quotas, justify sales to zoos or hunting farms and initiate ivory-generating culls. Corruption is now as big a threat to elephants as poaching.” 

Modern wildlife practices exercised by governments today are betraying not only local indigenous people but the wildlife that attracts tourists, who bring much needed resources to the region. The trauma elephant social structure has had to deal with during the massacre last decade of over one third of Africa’s elephant population beggars the imagination. The separation of calves from mothers and the fragmenting of elephant society cannot be condoned or even tolerated. Selling elephants to foreign countries results in isolated individuals leading miserable lives and the cruelty and total lack of welfare involved in captivity for such social beings should be considered a crime and abuse at the highest level.

As Adam Cruise, the environmental journalist writes, Namibia’s plan could seriously impact some of the desert elephant —while not a separate species from the savanna elephant are rare and endangered. “These captures and exports are likely to endanger some of Namibia’s isolated elephant populations, in particular the uniquely adapted elephants from the Kunene region in the northwest of the country,” Cruise writes.

Photo credit: Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Namibia intended to capture half of the 170 elephants it had originally wanted to sell from the Kunene region. Although Namibia sold only 57 at auction “the figure is still large enough to have serious negative effects on the viability of the dessert adapted elephant population,” writes Cruise. “The removal of just a handful of elephants from the Kunene region could have severe consequences on an already fragile elephant population reeling from years of drought, trophy hunting and government mismanagement.” The desert adapted lions of Namibia have undergone the same scourges as its elephants.

As Neil Greenwood, Regional Director for Southern Africa of IFAW, states, “Selling elephants will not prevent human-wildlife conflict. The most effective way to mitigate the problem of conflict is by working with communities to ensure habitats are managed properly and solutions found to ensure wildlife and the people who live alongside them are protected. This has been proven time and time again throughout southern Africa.”

Specially designed elephant water points or cisterns away from villages, such as the ones we observed in Derriet, worked wonders for the local village. There, three local women explained to us that when it was time to water their goats they said “go,” the elephants would finish drinking and go. One elder even said “they understand our language!” Elephants posed no problems for the villagers, their children or their livestock. Lions, that is another story.

As recently stated by biologist Sangita Iyer in her plea to the Secretary General of the U.N., Namibia’s behavior with regard to its elephants should be a wake-up call to everyone who still cares about the natural world and the recent massacre this most ineffable species has had to endure at the hand of man in the last decade. The break-up of elephant families is sheer trauma and its effects are reverberating still across the continent. We were charged by some of the wildest elephants on Earth just a few weeks ago enroute to visit the Himba people. We backed up at full speed in the twilight of a night that felt like the edge of the known world. Few foreigners venture this far north in Kaokoland and when we sped off driving backwards as fast as we could, we understood this was a singular haven where humans were simply not welcome.

Elephants should be afforded their sovereignty, their last kingdoms, their sanctuaries. It seems that CITES is betraying itself and the wild by allowing the auctioning off of these cornerstones of the world, the elephants. To even let one elephant be separated from its family is an act of treachery committed by the “ministers “ of  the environment. They are behaving like merchants, and mercenaries. The abuse and cruelty inflicted on elephants and indeed the natural world has reached saturation. 5.9  million NAD for 57 elephants cannot justify the suffering of individuals whose species  has gone through an elephantine  holocaust. Even if “appropriate and acceptable destinations” are found limited to “in situ” destinations that are in their natural range, perhaps in neighboring countries in southern Africa, they continue to be treated as commodities. Zimbabwe sold elephants ranging in price from$31-41 KUSD between 2016 and 2019. As humanity continues to treat animals as things, Earth and its species continues to bear the scars of victimhood at every turn.

As one local elder once told Smith, humans “cannot make a tree” let alone a forest or an elephant despite our yearning to bring back a genetically modified mammoth.  If the CITES General Secretary cannot put a halt to this brand of inhumanity at this late stage of the 21st century, then the elephant population of Africa will continue to suffer. Climate change is already having deleterious effects on populations across the continent.

Some remarkable testimony comes from Christian Bethselson who fought alongside 1,200 rebels against Charles Taylor in Liberia in 2003. He explains that the civil war came to an end with the sighting of an elephant mother and her calf where no-one had ever seen an elephant before. He stated emphatically that seeing the elephant was a sign of peace, and a sign for the fighting to stop. Everyone had to put down their weapons. Christian was adamant that humanity could not destroy the peace of the elephant. That even the future of climate of the world was partly dependent on the survival of the elephant because of their tremendous ability to seed the land and reforest landscapes. And when the fighting stopped other animals came back to the forests. There was a chance for renewal. The perfidy of separating elephants from each other and exporting them as goods in the human fabricated scheme of things must stop or there will be no chance for holding onto the biosphere. 

The elephants of Namibia are not commodities in diplomacy to be bandied about for governmental whims.  If a country like Kenya can cope with rogue elephants whose population is comparable to that of Namibia’s with twenty times the human population, why can’t Namibia? Protecting the environment should not have to depend on legality and the machinations of human engineered quotas and artifice but ultimately on a morality that honors life. As sequoias have burned so very recently in California, humans, one species, have crippled the fabric of existence almost beyond recognition.

The obscene game of trading animals, really our allies on Earth, has to stop or as Nature is already bent on showing us, she will eventually do away with so-called civilization. Elephants are the greatest canary in the coal mine of planet Earth. Let us leave them in peace. What happens to them, will happen to us.

Learn more about Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson’s work at their website.

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