As is the case with elephants, human wisdom comes from our elders. Experiences and memories important to our survival and everyday conduct is transferred from father to son, mother to daughter. Without this transfer of knowledge and roadmap for behavior, how would we know how to respond to the dramatic times we are facing as a species at the moment? Most of that map seems to have been lost to the larger part of this species of animal known as homo sapience. And just maybe it is time to redraw a new map for our behavior if we are to survive the coming calamities we have created.
My father once told me this story that he witnessed on a big five hunting farm in South Africa.
A hunter arrived from some European country for his annual trophy hunt. He was booked to hunt various species on his quota, and the hunt went down with a great deal of success. The last on his list was a white rhino, an expensive and sought after species in any trophy collectors books. The rhino to be shot had been identified by the reserve management months in advance as an old and potentially non-breeding bull, ready to be harvested.
The hunt proceeded in a professional manner, tracked carefully on foot by the client, professional hunter and a team of trackers. As the little group got within range to take a shot and make the kill, the client took up position and sighted his large caliber rifle on the unsuspecting beast grazing less than 80m away. The PH urged him to take the shot, but the client lowered his rifle, and asked for a camping chair to be fetched from the vehicle.
After making himself comfortable in the chair, he proceeded to stare intently at the rhino through his binoculars, and taking photographs of the unfazed bull grazing away, oblivious of the lurking threat of death so close by.
“So this is my rhino?” he whispered. “The one I have paid for?” “Yes Sir, this is yours” the confirmation came from the PH, puzzled by the hunter’s response. The client spent another agonizing half an hour photographing and staring at “his” rhino, and as the bull finally wandered of out of sight, he stated: “I will shoot him tomorrow” and started walking back to the vehicle.
As the client has booked and paid for another few days in the lodge, and the rhino was relatively easy to locate, the staff was not to concerned about this odd behavior their client displayed. The next day, the same procedure was repeated again. And after tracking and locating the rhino, again the client sighted for a few minutes through his telescopic sights, put the rifle down, and asked for a chair. Same confirmation of ownership, same reply from the PH. “Maybe tomorrow I’ll kill my rhino then”, and back they went for a lovely brunch at the lodge.
On day three the staff had a chair ready for the hunt, and to the frustration of the PH, again the client did not take his trophy.
On his final day of departure the client sat down with the very confused farm manager. “So I have paid to hunt this specific rhino bull, and chose not to kill him now, right?”
“So this means he belongs to me, right?” “Correct Sir”. “Well, now I would like to book, and pay for my hunt with you again for next year, and I will come and shoot my rhino then. I have paid for his death, so I choose to give him one more year of life”.
Somehow it won’t surprise me if that rhino bull is today still merrily wallowing in his favorite mud hole on that farm. And somewhere in Europe a hunter falls asleep at night with a smile on his face, remembering that once in the African bush he made a choice, not based on anything more rational than the feeling at that moment that it was the right thing to do.
The debate about temporarily buying the life of the only breeding elephant bull in the Ugab River last year, was not based on some pre-decided policy. It was an act of desperation. When you realize that somewhere someone has made a decision in ignorance of years of research, facts and reports. A decision based on policies like the overused “sustainable utilization”, without any realistic idea of what the numbers are that would make such utilization sustainable. With an inevitable outcome we could only act on one principal, what is the right thing to do?
Sustainable utilization, like the word sustainable development seems to have become a paradox. The word is actually very seldom attached to non-consumptive utilization like tourism (that can also be unsustainable), but mostly refers to consumptive activities like trophy hunting and culling. The first principal of this policy has to be a profound knowledge of exactly what there is to be utilized. Without an accurate and transparent census, we should not even begin to talk about the what. The second need is to know where. We need to understand the bigger seasonal migration picture between the arid and higher rainfall areas to know if we are not harvesting animals in some areas where we regard numbers as high, when I could have a detrimental effect on areas where they are already low.
The last big issue is how. This can only be addressed, if the aforementioned issues are clearly solved. What are the financial implications comparatively between uncontrolled consumptive utilization and well-planned non-consumptive utilization? What is the best way for all parties concerned to utilize a specific resource?
I do not believe any of these criteria have been properly met in the decisions that have been made over the past few years of resource utilization in the Kunene region. We have however witnessed a dramatic visual decline of wildlife stocks and breeding elephant bulls especially in the southern regions.
So what would the right thing be to do? If the lack of political will to change the current state of affairs leads to the demise of the last of the breeding bulls in the western desert, maybe the right thing is to buy the life of every large bull that is known as a seasonal resident of the desert regions.
As a species, us humans are standing at a balance point, already tipping towards our own demise. All because we have been convincing ourselves for thousands of years that our use of the planets resources had been sustainable. We were sure that development and growth could be made sustainable. But we were mistaken. The earths finite resources are running out in our lifetime, and the consequences are being felt as we speak.
To draw a new behavior map regarding our use of this planets resources, takes firstly massive political will to look beyond short term gain through the use of natural resources as a bargaining tool, and secondly each and every one of us to ask ourselves “what is the right thing to do” on a very personal level. For it is not about buying the life of one animal. It is about buying time for our species.
If we don’t have the will to move beyond the rhetoric, soon the banner of “sustainable utilization” will be flying over an empty desert landscape, and our children will be the ones to ask us “did you do the right thing?”
Elephant-Human Relations Aid