OPINION: Slick “Hunter Proud” Video Uses Bad Ecology to Promote Elephant Culling, Trophy Hunting, and Ivory Trading


By Phyllis Lee, Keith Lindsay, and Katarzyna Nowak, National Geographic, A Voice for Elephants

Date Published
The Elephant and the Pauper: The Ivory Debacle is a recently released 50-minute video by the Hunter Proud Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit charitable public foundation and lobbying organization based in Houston, Texas.
The video was circulated in the first half of January 2015 to members of the IUCN Specialist Groups and to CITES membership, with the specific aim of lobbying for hunting and consumptive use of African wildlife.
The film—whose proposals for gaining revenue from ivory and sport hunting come at a time of unprecedented poaching and killing of elephants across their range, including in Zimbabwe—is risky to the point of irresponsibility.
The Hunter Proud Foundation has turned the clock back on decades of progress in conservation and wildlife management. With opinions unsupported by evidence, the “documentary” misrepresents the science of elephant population dynamics and their ecological roles—science that is indispensable to informing conservation and management approaches.
The outdated ideas about elephant ecology, along with the blinkered call for a return to agriculture-style intensive management and population control, are conflated with the legitimate, but entirely separate, aims of community-based natural resource management (CBNRM). Intervention in the form of elephant culling is said (incorrectly) to be dependent on the sale of elephant ivory, which is then mixed in with trophy hunting and (incorrectly) presented as a necessity for the financing of CBNRM and social development.
The biggest threat the video poses for public disinformation is in advancing the ivory trade Decision-Making Mechanism. This conceptually risky instrument, which would encourage increased sales of ivory and trigger even greater levels of illegal trade, is due to be discussed at the next CITES Conference of the Parties (CoP17), in September 2016.
The video’s major—and unacceptable—flaws follow:
Outdated Ideas of Elephant “Overpopulation Problems” and “Carrying Capacities”
The film rests on long dismissed ideas of elephant “carrying capacities” and “overpopulation,” which we’re surprised are being expressed and circulated to a 21st-century conservation audience.
Ecological researchers and, increasingly, wildlife managers have recognized that ecosystems are shaped by self-regulating processes, and that diversity across landscapes and change through time are essential features of natural landscapes, rather than “disruptions” to be beaten back. The continual processes of change—not rigid structural stability—taking place in these systems should be the primary focus of conservation action.
Much of the research community, and many managers, accept that ecosystem structure and function are not about elephant numbers but instead about elephant distribution across a landscape and in relation to plant communities. Elephants are architects of plant diversity rather than simply “management problems.”
Managers in sub-Saharan Africa, such as in Tanzania and in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, have taken this approach on board with their elephant management, replacing culling with water-point management, and fencing with promotion of animal dispersal, through corridors and protection of meta-populations.
To illustrate its contention that parks need intensive intervention, the film makes unsubstantiated and disparaging claims about supposed mismanagement of elephants in the key populations of Tsavo National Park, in Kenya, and Chobe National Park, in Botswana, which it contrasts with the enlightened management of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park.
During the 1960s to 1970s, Tsavo East National Park experienced a prolonged increase in elephant numbers through reproduction and concentration to avoid hunting and incompatible land use in the surrounding region. The park warden at the time decided against interference, and elephant foraging during this period led to a change in the dominant vegetation cover from dense bushland to open bushed grassland. In the decades after a severe drought and die-off of elephants in the early 1970s, followed by intense poaching in the 1980s, Tsavo changed from grassland back to bushland.
These changes, attributed to variation in both elephant density and fire regime, were scientifically documented by Leuthold and illustrated by the filmmaker Simon Trevor in the 1995 documentary “Keepers of the Kingdom.” Trevor argued—with visual evidence—that culling is far less effective in sustaining natural long-term habitat dynamics than are elephants’ natural die-offs.
Studies of pollen cores in Tsavo from the past 1,400 years show that continual change has been the rule at local and landscape levels, with several shifts between high and low tree cover over periods of 250 to 500 years.
In Chobe, similar changes in tree cover under elephant browsing have been documented, with the observation that animal and plant communities are now returning to the state that existed before the extirpation of elephants during the intensive ivory trade in the 19th to early 20th century. The conclusion reached was that there were no ecological grounds for elephant reduction, although local reduction or redistribution was advocated to resolve land use clashes with farmers now occupying former areas of the natural ecosystem.
In Zimbabwe’s Hwange—offered in the film as a more enlightened alternative—the apparent ecological “problems” of elephant-induced habitat change were in fact caused by the early park managers, who created an extensive network of pumped water sources throughout the park. Meanwhile, boundary fences kept wildlife away from access to the few natural watercourses. Over time, densities of elephants and other herbivores became artificially high, leading to widespread vegetation change and an atmosphere of apparent crisis.
The Department of National Parks and Wild Life Management (DNPWLM) took the decision to reduce elephant densities by killing large numbers, but they could have achieved a more satisfactory solution by strategic closing of water points to create areas of high and low herbivore density, allowing natural mortality to bring populations in line with food supplies.
The argument advanced in the film is that it is more humane to cull elephants than to allow them to die from lack of food. This disingenuous concern for welfare is ironic in light of the DNPWLM’s current actions in forcibly removing scores of juvenile elephants from their families for export to a life of suffering in foreign zoos.
Depiction of Trophy Hunting and the Ivory Trade as Sole Revenue-Generating Mainstay for Communities
The video makes considerable, but selective, reference to Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE program. This pioneering initiative is not without its difficulties, but we (and many others) acknowledge it as a model for empowering rural people to make decisions about—and benefit from—natural resource use.
We argue strenuously, however, with the film’s strong emphasis on trophy hunting of elephants as if it is the only source of rural income, when there are many other species that can be hunted sustainably within conservative trophy quotas. The assertion that elephant hunting is a mainstay—and that without it, communities get no benefit at all (particularly in light of the relatively small contribution of trophy hunting overall to Zimbabwe’s economy)—lacks evidential support.
The film also ignores the value of living elephants and of the many diverse revenue streams other than hunting and ivory trade that can and should be shared and controlled by grass-roots communities in conservation landscapes. These income sources include ecotourism, forestry, fisheries, mining royalties, and payments for carbon storage and other ecosystem services.
The video accuses the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) of “eco-imperialism,” calling USFWS’s 2014 decision to ban the import of elephant trophies from Tanzania and Zimbabwe unsubstantiated and a breach of treaty (which treaty is not entirely clear). The film’s protagonist, the Zimbabwean Rowan Martin, asks, “Why does the USFWS insist on having proof that money generated from trophy hunting contributes to conservation?” And he accuses the service of disrupting the “flow of money” by encouraging the establishment of conservation trust funds.
It is, however, a condition of the regulatory body, CITES, that funds generated from the consumptive use of controlled species go to promote the conservation of that species, and this use of funds be demonstrably and transparently clear.
It is implied, but not stated, that ivory sales themselves are important to the CAMPFIRE program and to local communities. In fact, any proceeds from ivory sales are relatively modest on an annual basis, and they are administered in a top-down fashion through centralized national government mechanisms rather than devolved to rural community participation.
Demonstrating that funds (either from hunting or ivory sales) contribute to conservation has been a challenge even for the regulatory body CITES, which has fallen back on statements as non-specific as “development programs within or adjacent to the elephant range.” Thus the major trade body itself fails to equate elephant deaths for ivory consumption with any genuine conservation activities.
Promoting Corruption-Prone Mining Models
The collapse of and lack of transparency in the multibillion-dollar diamond industry—and that industry’s failure to help alleviate poverty in Zimbabwe—should be a cautionary lesson for those who think the “mining” of declining African wildlife populations will reduce poverty in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is riddled with corruption and poor governance, which urgently need addressing before benefits can be transferred from the urban elite to the rural poor.
The proposal that the diamond model—using an international “Central Ivory Selling Organization,” which would control the storage and distribution of ivory from a centralized location—be used to establish a trade in African elephant ivory was made by Rowan Martin, hired by CITES in 2011 to lead author the initial “Decision-making mechanism for process of trade in ivory” (DMM).
This proposed mechanism has since been denounced as flawed, including in collective responses made by CITES member states and members of the African Elephant Specialist Group.
One criticism was that “the logic of the Central Ivory Selling Organization would be to promote demand for ivory, aiming to maximize prices, just as De Beers does for diamonds.”
It has recently been pointed out that the Kimberley process, established to bring an end to trade in conflict and blood diamonds, would also fail to regulate a legal wildlife trade, given that diamonds from countries banned from selling them still enter the market.
The modern paradigm in ecology and conservation—promoting spatial heterogeneity and temporal dynamics—would produce little ivory for the international trade. Conversely, a sustained trade in ivory requires a steady supply, which would depend on regular culling, justified by the narrative of old-fashioned ecology claiming elephant “overpopulation.”
This latest production starring Rowan Martin is as flawed and propagandist as his version of the DMM.
The Elephant and the Pauper: The Ivory Debacle is deeply misleading on key issues of ecology and conservation. The conservation community should reject its use as a source of “information” in any and all meetings, particularly those of the IUCN specialist groups and CITES Secretariat, and at the upcoming CoP17.
If the pronouncements of this film are heeded, we strongly believe it will be extremely dangerous for the future of African elephants.
Phyllis Lee and Keith Lindsay have been ecologists with the Amboseli Trust for Elephants, Kenya, and have worked in research and conservation in Africa and Asia, for more than 30 years. Katarzyna Nowak is a roving conservation scientist with more than a decade of field research experience, including in Tanzania, South Africa, Costa Rica, and, recently, Chile.