Now that the ancient use of the war elephant has been related to contemporary circus and other performing uses of the elephant, it is useful to examine two leading theories of how best to conserve the rapidly declining populations of elephants. Two opposing viewpoints, “Sustainable Use” and “Non-Consumptive Utilization,” have intriguing points of contention.
Sustainable Use (SU) maintains that if an animal—especially an animal that is harmful and dangerous to indigenous human societies—can provide economic benefits and financial reward to the country in which it lives, the people of that country will have a greater interest in conserving the animal, thereby assuring the animal will be protected. SU theorists claim that the lethal use of elephants provides money for humans, cuts down on environmental impact (African elephants have long been criticized for destroying huge numbers of certain trees in Africa), provides more range for the surviving elephants who will live easier lives as a result of the culling/killing of the elephants. At the center of this argument is economic incentive, and as a result big game hunting of the African elephant is one of the most supported methods of SU, since a wealthy western hunter might spend up to $100,000 on a hunt, killing around ten elephants (Mundy, 2006).
While it may seem these points have merit, Non-Consumptive Utilization (NCU) claims elephants—and other animals—should be valued intrinsically and not killed for profit. NCU proponents also claim ecotourism, such as photographic safaris and elephant watching treks, have the potential to bring in far more currency while not harming the elephants. A leading advocate of NCU, Paul G. Irwin, offers that over an elephant’s lifetime it can bring in over a million dollars in NCU revenue (Irwin 131). Undoubtedly both sides of the Sustainable Use debate have many members who are passionately committed to the conservation of the elephant. Nonetheless, this researcher believes methods of financial gain from the elephant which focus on its intrinsic value should be explored in lieu of practicing Sustainable Use.
To argue the case of Sustainable Use, P.J. Mundy’s article “The African Elephant—Something to Use and Cherish” published in the International Journal of Environmental Studies in 2006 is useful to examine. Mundy, who developed his views during his time as an ecologist in the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, is well versed on the plight and situation of the African elephant. Mundy states that the population of the African continent is increasing at the world’s fastest rate, 2.2 per cent per year, while only six of the 42 African countries do not exist as low-level economies. In 2006, Zimbabwe’s human life expectancy was only 33 years and Mundy expressed a strong and urgent interest in how Africans can turn their natural resources into profit in order to improve the admittedly negative quality of living for the continent’s humans.
The elephant is presented as one of Africa’s natural resources, and Mundy cites the many aspects which provide value. Mundy mentions the very valuable ivory of the elephant. He argues the elephant is indeed very photogenic, but NCU will not bring the financial incentives needed. Mundy reports that in Zimbabwe the government fee for trophy hunting of elephants is around $12,000 (Mundy 589). Taxidermy and shipping fees also bring in revenue. Often spending $100,000 on a three-week hunt, he argues, “one hunter is therefore worth a lot of money to the host country…even though he/she has perhaps collected only ten ‘heads’ in the process”(Mundy 590). Mundy continues: “…one trophy hunter is worth many tourists, and it is easier to see how value from a dead elephant goes into the local community, such as the meat. Clearly one trophy bull (dead) is worth many family groups (alive)” (595). The elephant’s value, in this case, is clearly not intrinsic but derived from the profit and value it provides humans. The ecologist also says, “One has only to watch local people cutting up a shot elephant to appreciate the animal’s importance; its actual value to the consumer and co-use of the same environment” (Mundy 595). Hunting of the African elephant has long been the main focus of the very profitable safari and sport hunting business in Africa, but hunting and tusks are not the only valuable items that may be used to generate economic incentives.
At the time of Mundy’s article, the inflation rate in Zimbabwe was hovering around 1000%, no doubt a dire situation. The author mentions the usefulness of many parts of the elephant: “The leather makes wonderful boots (I personally have a pair) and briefcases, etc.” (Mundy 590). Bracelets can be made from the hairs at the tip of the elephant’s tail and small tables and lamp stands are frequently made from their feet, as well as the infamous wastebaskets which used to be a mark of the upwardly mobile in Britain. Umbrella stands are also made of their feet. Another valuable item each elephant has to offer is meat, which can feed many people. Also its own reproduction is a renewable resource that can be harvested as well. The live export of calves orphaned due to their parents being killed to zoos and circuses around the world can indeed produce tremendous revenue. The dung of the elephant is even offered as an economic commodity since it can be used as compost or turned into a type of paper.
Sustainable Use, for all the negative appearance on its surface, is said to have elephant conservation at its core. Mundy says, “…it is clear that the African elephant is a very valuable animal, whether alive or dead…however…to get value from a dead elephant, one has to have enough live elephants in the first place….” (590). And to manage these elephants, SU believes culling to often be a very effective method. Culling keeps the population to a manageable size and the heavily useable products of the elephants are auspicious by-products of the cull.
SU also maintains culling is good for the environment. For a long time, elephants have been destroying certain types of acacia trees in Africa, and this has been considered a problem. Culling and trophy hunting provide economic incentives as well as reduce the number of elephants destroying the trees and environments. It is true elephants are one of the few land mammals who customize their landscape, often tearing down many trees and stripping the bark with lethal consequences. Elephant density reduction has been suggested as a method of reducing the damage to these trees. Mundy says, “The elephant debate has been dominated by animal lovers and not at all by tree lovers. Why should trees be killed by elephants? Are elephants in that sense predators?” (591).
P.J. Mundy and other SU supporters clearly put human concerns before animal concerns. He says, “increased numbers of elephants must also cause increased destruction of crops, and worse still increased death of humans” (592). Mundy says as the African human population continues to increase drastically and encroach upon lands previous roamed freely by elephants, human-elephant conflicts will only increase and that, “human-elephant conflicts cannot be tolerated; the humans must be protected against marauding wildlife…a human death cannot be valued against an elephant death” (592).
However, for all his illogical sophistry, Mundy does at least condemn illegal poaching. His solution to quelling ivory poaching is not stricter law enforcement or game patrol, but providing enough incentives to discourage and stop the activity, e.g. assigning the elephant even higher economic value. SU proponents reject NCU as a viable possibility. Mundy says, “Endless photographic (non-consumptive) safaris in themselves will not produce a thriving elephant population. An income of foreign currency from a burgeoning ecotourism industry will not give results to elephants if it buys Mercedes-Benz cars instead” (594). Mundy concludes by saying elephant poaching and Sustainable Use are undesirable to sensible and vociferous groups of westerners and that SU remains the only truly scientific method with which to save the African elephant. NCU, it is gleaned, is a foolhardy alternative based in emotionalism and anthropomorphism.
P.J. Mundy makes some seemingly logical claims regarding Sustainable Use that are highly centered on human benefits derived from the elephant. To some, his argument seems based on an unpleasant supposition that elephants must in some manner pay their way and contribute to failing human economies in order to justifiably be conserved. In this vein, SU could be considered an evolutionary offshoot of elephant exploitation for human benefit akin to the use of elephants for war or performing.
Paul G. Irwin, president and chief executive officer of the animal welfare group the Humane Society of the United States, could not disagree with P.J. Mundy and Sustainable Use more. In his 2000 book Losing Paradise: the Growing Threat to Our Animals, Our Environment, and Ourselves) he examines the question of killing rare animals with the hope of saving them. Irwin says the problem with SU is that the methods of culling and hunting it supports will only work if “the animals are killed or captured at a sustainable rate that does not wipe out the species” (125). He argues that economic valuing of the elephant and its products is not encouraging use of them that is in any way sustainable. Calling Sustainable Use “the rallying cry of a new generation of big-game hunters and traffickers in wildlife” (Irwin127), he claims it is the same theory that was once called “consumptive wildlife management” and with it the destroyers of wildlife are attempting to present themselves as the saviors of the wildlife they pay significant amounts of money to kill.
Sustainable Use, by providing increased economic value to animals, actually promotes unchecked killing of wildlife at an unsustainable rate. Irwin cites that in the single decade between 1979 and 1989 the population of the African elephant was reduced from around 1.4 million to only 600,000 due to the ivory trade and big-game hunting. Problematically, the price of ivory increased along with the number of elephants being killed, thusly negating any practical feasibility of Sustainable Use. Only with the elimination of the ivory trade in 1989 did this “poaching orgy” finally settle down (Irwin 129). SU theoretically attempts to conserve wildlife through unfortunate but necessary lethal techniques of population control and financial gain. However, Irwin argues practically it only creates an inflated and thriving commercial market for endangered wildlife. He also states, “Case after case in which sustainable use has been tried, it has created a commercial market for wildlife that has stimulated uncontrolled, unsustainable killing of the animals involved” (128). This is most urgent as bans on culling and one-off ivory sales are becoming more common throughout Africa.
Irwin closes his chapter with some observations on big-game hunting and the extinction of certain species, something SU drastically opposes, mainly for financial reasons. In Africa, the big-game animals are being eliminated to the point of extinction primarily by ivory poachers and big-game hunters. Irwin says, “A ‘sportsman’ using searchlights at night shot the last three cheetahs ever seen in India. The last Barbary lion in the wild was shot in Morocco in 1921” (133). It appears the main focus of sustainability in SU is the sustainability of human life. Any concern for the animals appears either weak or thinly veneered. Given P.J. Mundy’s anthropocentric remarks regarding his perceived hierarchy topped by humanity, one wonders his thoughts and feelings on Irwin’s observations regarding the last three cheetahs in India. No doubt the hunter paid the proper hunting fees and had filed the proper paperwork. Most likely, some indigenous community in India profited from this. Admittedly, this is conjecture, but the question of who earns more importance—animals or humans—has not been answered by science and should not be closed for discussion in anyone’s mind, on either side of the debate.
Irwin and NCU argue for intrinsic valuing of elephants who have rights to exist and to be left alone by the ever-encroaching onslaught of human population. Sustainable Use appears to be simply commercial commoditization and exploitation of animals and the outcome rarely varies, Irwin tells the reader. He also further illustrates the danger of this commercial exploitation by mentioning another huge creature, the hugest on Earth in fact: “Consider the blue whale, the largest creature ever to live on earth. Between 1900 and 1965, over 325,000 blue whales were reportedly taken. The season was finally closed when only a mere 20 blue whales could be found and killed in the Antarctic” (139). Did the whales get more adept at avoiding whalers, or is there little sustainability in Sustainable Use? Given there are now possibly as few as 3,000 blue whales left on Earth, it appears the latter. SU appears to have the nonhuman animals’ utilitarian survival at heart; however, closer examination seems to offer some stark contradictions. At the very least, the theory of Sustainable Use should be scrutinized and considered as only one possibility among many other, non-lethal, possibilities.