Much ado about illegal ivory

Published in The Nation on Friday 3rd April 2015

Written by Alick Nyasulu

 

11082525_10155342758600315_6648880096754969999_nSo we got the wildlife debate started. The media of all kinds has been awash with debate on the expected burning of ivory said to be worth some millions of the green dollar. Somehow, I felt it showed the perceptions of the general public regarding the state of public finances. Do not burn the ivory but sell it and get the millions into the Treasury some have argued. Burn the ivory and show the criminal gangs we have zero tolerance for illegal poaching one camp argues. But what is the real problem?

As we debate whether burning or selling off ivory, it is important to understand what we are doing. Taking either of the two actions must be construed as a solution to some problem. Getting that problem right is equally important. The consequences of wrong diagnosis, if I go medical, are often disastrous. Compensation for wrongful death never brings life as we all know. It leaves scars.

The ivory trade is a symptom of how we have paid lip service to conservation over the last two decades. Some of the animals being butchered ruthlessly are not mentioned, but wildlife is disappearing at alarming levels.

Elephants easily come into the fray because of the value ivory fetches in some of the countries that are exponentially becoming more affluent. The other animals are not, but they are very much part of a wildlife that must be conserved.

As this debate tolls, I reckon the starting point is to view wildlife as a resource that can help generate export revenues through tourism. But the question is who is responsible for protecting wildlife? A few months ago stories run of the horrible working conditions of personnel responsible for guarding our parks and game reserves. Some of the highlights included lack of basic equipment plus motivation issues for people who work and protect animals from criminal gangs with multi-million dollar rackets. With it has also come the issue of indigenous wood harvesting that heads to the same areas. We have a situation where both ivory and forests are being harvested and ironically on the same flight.

Recognising wildlife and forests include the realisation that nature is an eco-system that must thrive. The forests are catchment areas for rivers that supply water in our country. Water shortages are fast becoming the norm. the protected forests are a habitat, not only for elephants but various animals.

Before one opens a mouth to promote eco-tourism, they should realise that green-tourism means nature, forests and wildlife. All I am saying is that if we are taking lessons from the ivory stuff, resources of the Ministry of Information, Tourism and Culture should be skewed towards parks and wildlife than is the case at the moment.

Wildlife and nature are public goods and services that no individuals owns. You would not go online and promote your rats or rabbits to attract animal loving tourists. The idea is that private enterprise can play their own individual roles to promote tourism and they rightfully do so.  But they play almost zero role in protecting animals or conservation and the taxpayer has to foot the bill. It is justification to now get the Department of Parks alive with the resources it requires reflecting how we seriously value tourism.

The starting point as we ponder what to do with the ivory is to accept that poaching and deforestation is a crisis. Animals and forestry products are being harvested at alarming levels and mostly illegally. While some of the activities are quite legal, let us not be coerced to balance the budget through quick revenues. I reckon the philosophy should be economic gain through sustainable use of wildlife products.

It is time to mobilise ourselves to protect our wildlife and be very ruthless in how we deal with all elements of criminality with their malignant appetite for illegal trade in wildlife products. It is now or never as we risk having rats and cockroaches as the only kind of wildlife.