Outdoors: Bob Easterbrook Sr. works for elephants, Zimbabwe


Lydia Lohrer, Special to Detroit Free Press

Date Published

You might just pass him by. He’s tall, but getting old. His beard is pure white. Deep eyes set in high cheekbones. Just another older white American, right?

Not so much. He may not have a Wikipedia page, but his contributions changed the lives and added to a significant portion of the income of millions of Africans.

Bob Easterbrook Sr. is too shy to tell his story, but I’m not.

Years ago, the avid bowhunter visited Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, a country in Africa about a third of the size of the U.S. He was mystified because the natives seemed to hate the wildlife that captivated him.

“I sat hidden in the trees as natives welcomed poachers carrying heavy machine guns to destroy the elephants. I was terrified, and I couldn’t believe my eyes,” said Easterbrook.


Easterbrook learned that elephants wreck things. “Imagine if you worked on a garden to feed your family, and no grocery store was around. Just when it was starting to grow, someone wrecked it overnight,” he said. “The natives didn’t like elephants at all. In fact, they felt that way about kudu and lions, too.”

When Cecil Rhodes took possession of what is now Zimbabwe in the 1890s, fertile land was set aside for colonists, and Africans were compelled to live in agriculturally-barren areas. National Parks were established and Zimbabweans were banned from killing wild animals. Even though harvesting game had been a part of Zimbabwean society for eons, it became illegal to pursue many of the animals they had depended on for food, clothing, and tools.

Animals destroyed food crops and posed a threat to local communities. Locals found themselves clashing with elephants, and just about everything else. Though they regained the right to take game eventually, it wasn’t enough, so they welcomed poachers.

Easterbrook and his team of hunting friends came up with a different solution. They called it CAMPFIRE, Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources. The natives were suspicious.

“We wanted them to protect the elephants,” he said. “We came up with money for farming equipment and to protect elephants from poachers.”

The natives reluctantly became hunting guides, assisting in the taking of a few legally hunted elephants, instead of the unlimited massacres perpetrated by poachers. When poachers crossed into the territory of hunting guides, the guides began to run them run off and eventually defend the animals with their life.

Though only 54 elephants were taken that first year, the income generated from those elephants represented 65% of the total income of the three million residents in the country, according to Easterbrook.

“Suddenly they liked hunters,” said Easterbrook. “They could afford to build walls and farm the land.”

Farming with modern equipment was unfamiliar to some. Easterbrook recalls one man declared his hoe useless.

“He didn’t know what it was for, so he tried to split wood with it. You know, make kindling. The government began educating people what they should do with things like hoses and hoes. We contributed to this effort, but minimally,” he said.

The jobs created by the program went to those in the highest poverty areas of the country.  Though in some African countries, profits go mostly to rich landowners, CAMPFIRE is operated on communal lands.

“From the person who builds the roads to get there, to the folks that cook at hunt camp, to the guide, to the person who does laundry, to the ranger and the scouts, it became beneficial to save elephants for legal, limited hunting instead of killing them indiscriminately like poachers,” he said.

This also applied to lions, which Easterbrook says the natives weren’t too fond of. “No one wants a strange, big, snarling dog in their backyard with the kids. Imagine how they felt about lions,” said Easterbrook.

Easterbrook urges people to think hard before they hate on Safari hunters.

“You can’t really understand it if you just go visit a park where animals are practically tame. You have to go to the wilderness where they are hunted, talk to the people who get the meat from the hunters and the jobs,” said Easterbrook.

Recent statistics show that Zimbambwe is one of the few African nations where elephant populations have remained stable. Poaching hasn’t stopped entirely, but it’s no longer a solution to their woes. The rest of the continent has seen a 30% drop in elephant populations.

A recent attempt to stop poaching has backfired. Elephant parts can no longer be shipped out of the country, even if acquired legally. According to testimony in a lawsuit filed against the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, over 100 elephant hunts were cancelled in the first year policy went into effect. At $30-$50,000 a hunt, the community impact is immense.

Zimbabwe has been running a trade deficit for years, and is literally running out of paper money. Those exports in American dollars go a long way – except when they are forbidden.

To compensate for losses sustained by a well-meaning but ineffective policy, the Zimbabwean government is selling baby elephants to China for $25,000 a crack. An uptick in poaching has also been observed.

Though Easterbrook himself never hunted an elephant, he understood years ago that some want to, and not only is it to the benefit to the community, it may be the only way to save them.