When the African Elephant Takes the Place of Yuka the Mammoth

On the sidelines of the fourteenth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) in 2007, an interesting conversation was taking place between two delegates in a corner of the World Forum Convention Center coffee shop.

“I wonder why we should over-protect the elephants,” said one delegate. “If you do not trade in ivory, it will devalue the elephant and this in turn will lead to its extinction. It will become extinct like the mammoth anyway… we should harvest it, use it, and build the economy of African countries before the whole thing goes into the black market… the elephant population in some of the regions has grown to an extent that it is killing people and destroying crops.”

The other delegate had a countering view. He argued, “Elephants are not to be traded, or even viewed as a commodity…. It’s a life, like humans, that deserves protection, and mankind should not be the reason for its extinction… we should fortify the parks… eliminate any human interference… and use should be non-consumptive tourism alone. If ivory sale is approved, illegal poaching will be severe… elephants are almost extinct in some parts of Western Africa….”

The conversation between the two continued, dwelling more on the viewpoints based on cultural interests, etc. Later in the day, a compromise agreement was made to allow the sale of the registered and verified government-owned ivory stocks of four southern African countries to countries whose internal controls on ivory sales were verified as being sufficient by the CITES Secretariat.

If the fate of African elephants, rhinoceros and several other charismatic species such as gorillas and tigers remains precarious, the disappearance of several of the lesser-known species will not even reach the news headlines.

Today, as I write this story, the African elephant is on the brink of extinction in West and Central Africa. The two views expressed in the conversation between the delegates are reflections of two countering core beliefs — anthropocentrism and ecocentrism. The policy process on conservation and management of nature is often a reflection of these two core beliefs, which remain strongly embedded among policymakers and will continue to remain so until there is nothing to talk about.

The conflict between these views within the conservation policy subsystem remains one of the biggest roadblocks in identifying a suitable approach to protecting wild flora and fauna from extinction.

If the fate of African elephants, rhinoceros and several other charismatic species such as gorillas and tigers remains precarious, the disappearance of several of the lesser-known species will not even reach the news headlines. For a journalist, reporting on depletion of butterfly species or frog species does not necessarily sell more newspapers. The same is true of television channels and other news media.

One of my experiences talking to a journalist working for a newspaper in Nairobi provided interesting insight on how media perceives environmental news in Kenya. According to him, wild fauna and flora do not always interest Kenyans. He added, “They are sympathetic to their fate but intrinsically not passionate. They want to know about politics, crime, gossip, jobs, and new mobile phones in the market. Yes, ecological matters interest only a small specific group of people and the Muzungus [white people] who are paid by their governments in Western countries.”

In a way, a serious flaw within conservationism in Africa is that its orientation is associated with colonialism or a white man’s passion. As it also appears, when we talk about mass extinction, studies are generally carried out by Western researchers, funded by organizations from European or Northern American countries. One challenge may be that the world has to bend to the Western perception of conservation. This disconnect between ideologies is another reason for the low priority that conservation receives in parts of Africa and East Asia.

A paper written by Anthony Barnosky and his colleagues from the University of California, Berkeley, and published in the journal Nature highlighted some interesting findings:

A question that may be asked here is: why should the blame for the sixth extinction lie solely with Homo sapiens when mass extinction in the past happened before the existence of man?

The explanation that palaeontologists and biologists give is that the sixth extinction is the first to occur during the existence of Homo sapiens, and it simultaneously began 100,000 years ago. Unfortunately, during a time when the world was not as interconnected as it is today, human consumption patterns and the number of species in the wild were very unclear.

This phenomenon is well explained by Garrett Hardin in his essay written for Science in 1968. He explains the ‘Tragedy of the Commons” through a metaphor of herdsmen where each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit in a world that is limited. The ruin or tragedy begins when all men rush, each pursuing one’s own best interest, in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons, whether it is the oceans or the vast forestlands around the world.

The self-interest mentioned by Hardin is very much evident in our species’ discoveries too. What we have today is an estimate based on a small subset of species evaluated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

One could argue that species researchers are also directed by power and incentives, meaning scientists will have less incentive to pursue research in which the society as a whole is not interested. Also, one should understand that the process of acquiring knowledge or information, at times, may not be just for understanding the status or solving a problem, but it can also be used to reach a higher ground of bargaining power. Thanks to power politics and conservation informatics, today the IUCN remains the supreme authority in defining conservation priorities

If species research relates to incentives, previously I have shown how incentives relate to the priorities of the society. The low priority that conservation receives is a fundamental issue in finding answers to the problems. Our education system is partially responsible for this. The description of a picturesque nature begins with chapters and stories with which we become familiar from kindergarten. But while we grow up, our explicit instincts are inclined more towards our own development. This development demand unknowingly encourages competition, either directly or indirectly, within the same species — with peer competition on top of the economic and social pyramid — or with other species where we take the liberty to exploit the species or its habitat for our own purpose. This survival instinct is transmitted as an impulse from local to national and global policies.

The above-mentioned claims can be empirically traced back in history, where it is quite obvious that the investment in nature and conservation started with its exploitation. The only time when humankind really thought about nature was when we realized that human action on the environment would bring an end to humanity itself. By the late 1960s the environmental impact of industrialization started taking a toll on both humans and nature, which eventually gave rise to the environmental movement where the preservationist approach gained more momentum.

But by the late 1980s, the concept of sustainable use slowly developed — like a compromise between the preservationist and the utilitarian approach, or a convergence between capitalism and socialism. Sustainable development was also a victory for economic and political liberalism or neoliberalism and, for the same reason, it was perceived in different ways when it was discussed in different forums and in different countries.

From the past to the future

As we walk from past to future, the work to protect species in decline is taking some shape. But the efforts are not unanimous. I doubt if Asian countries — including China, Japan and India — would take the lead in launching a global species conservation fund, which I think is a key requirement to slow down the extinction rate.

Unfortunately, the biggest misnomer that has hit conservation is in fact the global financial crisis and the crisis of the European Union. As mentioned earlier, global interest for conservation has never been on top. Rather, it has always remained somewhere at the bottom of the priority pyramid. For Asian countries to bring in a global species protection programme, they will have to allow their businesses to thrive in some of the countries where the species exist.

For example, some would argue that government conservation grants to other countries correspond with favourable terms for national business interests, such as preferential or strategic access to the grantee country’s resources (timber, minerals and other products). As a result, conservation can hinge on the support of business — a hard game with fewer choices.

The second problem is population growth. The human population explosion is going to reach its peak in India and China. The African population is also rapidly increasing. The case of China can reveal how its economic growth led to species exploitation at a global scale and generated excess market value for the world. If African population and prosperity could rise to the level of Asia’s, it will be interesting to see whether the demand for consumptive use of wild flora and fauna would be much higher, as culturally (unless culture changes with prosperity) Africans are more in favour of bush meat or exotic meat than the Chinese. The growth of China has also proven how traditional cultures and etiquettes get more branded (i.e., widely viewed as delicacies) with a rise in the economy. None of this will feed conservation demands.

Thirdly, policymakers’ choices on defining a progressive policy for species conservation are at stake, as they do not necessarily need to be species lovers or experts themselves. They have to rely on science that is provided or accessible or convenient. Often the convenience takes precedence over the actual solution and a convenient policy may not always be the right policy for conservation.

Ironically, a large portion of our global commons remains in the hands and directives of the government, and policies are framed not just on one choice but also on several larger contexts. This accords higher priority to development, including how it can bring harmony in bilateral business opportunities.

At a national level, a policymaker combines both the social and economic advantages before considering the environmental context. The reasons are obvious: social and economic impacts have larger consequences for bureaucratic stability than environmental issues.

As a result, a policy outcome generated from all these points covers a broader context; it will not specifically address any issue in particular. Though scientists and NGOs do tease out the terms mentioned in the policy documents to win their argument, they are often not the most important to a policymaker.

A classic example of this scenario can be explained through one of my private discussions with an officer working on environmental crime in a South-East Asian country. When illegal wildlife crime became serious, the government called a meeting of all the enforcement officials to discuss wildlife crime. The meeting ended with promises and steps to be taken, including sharing information with the International Criminal Police Organization.

But soon after the meeting, the enforcement officers were a bit reluctant to endorse wildlife crime as a serious issue, as it didn’t stand as a priority for them. As a result, the meeting did not generate anything more than a mere minutes document and a press release.

These disconnects between law enforcement officers and environmental crime can be considered a global trend, especially when it comes to an issue of priorities. Therefore, not surprisingly, one of the wildlife crime units in the UK had to be funded by an NGO to be kept alive.

Policymakers’ interests can also be driven based on external economic incentives. An example from Tanzania, where the Maasai are asked to leave their land in Ngorongoro Conservation Area, displays a more serious consequence.

If governments are the custodians of the commons, then are governments responsible if they perish?

I was in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area last year and interviewed the chief of the Maasai community. According to him the Maasai culture does not permit killing wildlife for meat. In the past, there was a custom of killing lions for pride, but that practice is long gone. So when government officials seek a change in the Maasai’s culture, one wonders what is this for?

This is another example of where the anthropocentric interests elude the deepest sense of conservation and even local culture.

The question to be asked here is, if governments are the custodians of the commons, then are governments responsible if they perish? When we talk about governments we should understand that they are a mix of individuals of different characteristics and interests. The only common thing between them is when they follow a government order. But government orders are not just meant for preservation of nature. There is always a human-centric loophole and it depends on the officer to decide how he should view the law — be it for either conservation or anthropocentric purposes.

How is the world looking at alternatives?

It is now almost evident that we cannot prevent the sixth extinction. Instead ‘slowing down’ this extinction is probably a better way to phrase it. Scientists are already preparing for the next step, waiting for the moment when science will finally catch up to bring back an animal that humans had driven extinct. But the challenge will not be about reviving a species alone; it will be a question of reviving their habitat as well.

The commerce in the whole recreation exercise looks more attractive than the value of creating the species itself. While I was writing this essay, a 39,000-year-old female baby woolly mammoth named Yuka, from the Siberian permafrost, arrived at an exhibition hall just 500 metres away from my office here in Yokohama, Japan. The fee to see the mammoth ranges roughly from US$9 to US$22.

What will it be like if a mammoth is revived? Imagine the commercial value associated with just viewing it. Entrepreneurs have already got into the de-extinction business from reviving mammoths to passenger pigeons. The other side of the de-extinction project will be its misuse. A revived animal will always have a high market value compared to its predecessors, which became extinct. This value generation could lead to a speeding up of the extinction/de-extinction cycle.

Though I wrote a bit on an issue that is so complicated to solve and surrounded by several state sovereignty paradigms, I, as anyone else, can only hope that we will see positive changes in the whole system of thinking about nature. Species extinction is not the only concern; it is the magnitude of it that may be threatening. Over the course of this century, we will probably lose major species that we are familiar with — from African elephants to tigers and rhinoceros.

Discussions are now underway regarding whether or not rhino horn should be on sale, which will trigger market demand for another of those “big five game species” that bring scores of tourists and income to Africa. Tigers are still farmed in China and India will continue battling and blaming China.

These are the fates of the species we know; there are several species being traded that are not yet in CITES. And, if no one bothers, they too will just disappear like the mammoth. If an extinction list — followed by caricatures of wildlife described as robots, cartoons, and manga characters — is what we will have to offer to our future generations, we can conclude that the end of Life has come, where humankind has proved to be the supreme being that has survived as the fittest, only to live in an empty world.

By that time, the African elephant will join Yuka the mammoth to be exhibited in the museums of the developed world.


Minor editorial changes made on 23 September 2013.

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When the African Elephant Takes the Place of Yuka the Mammoth by Remi Chandran is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.


Remi Chandran is a UNU-IAS PhD Fellow with the Science and Technology for Sustainable Societies programme and affiliated with the Department of Urban and Regional Planning and Geo-information Management at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. As an architect of the Wildlife Enforcement Monitoring System (WEMS) project, his PhD research looks into the beliefs within wildlife policy subsystems and how they influence the implementation of WEMS in Asia and Africa. Mr. Chandran has more than 13 years of experience working with governments and United Nations organizations in the area of environmental governance issues, and has managed several national and international development projects.