Elephants and rural development

The first time I looked an enraged elephant in the eye, I was standing outside a compact car with snow capped Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance.  He was on the hillside just above us.  His glaring eyes were red and his ears were spread wide.  We jumped in the car and took off.

The elephant had good reason to be mad.  The cooperative president who was with me wanted to divert the water from the elephant’s national park to irrigate farmland for his cooperative members.  Though I go to Africa to help cooperatives like his and I know his farmers need water, there is no way I could agree with him.  It’s a dilemma everyone in rural development faces.  The rural poor often want to get rid of wildlife.  And they are succeeding.

The earliest estimates put the number of elephants on the African continent around 26 million.  Today there are less than 400,000 with at least 100 more being killed every day.


Elephant slaughter began to drastically increase in the 1950s when many African regions gained independence from colonial rule.  The European love of wildlife was not passed down to the new African states.

Poaching elephants started increasing even more this century with the growth of a consumer class in China increasing demand for ivory. In 2012, the price reached $1,000 per pound in Beijing.  Two tusks of a male elephant weigh about 250 pounds.

In 2016, the price per pound had risen to $1500/pound and National Geographic reported that poaching is so intense “that in 10 years’ time we could lose 50 percent of Africa’s remaining elephants.”

Rhinoceros horn is even more valuable: $25,000 per pound.  The only rhinos you can see in Africa are in fenced enclosures with several guards for each rhino.

In a couple of weeks I head back to Kilimanjaro to work with another cooperative.  Fifty years ago wildlife roamed where these cooperative members farm.  I’ll help their farms become more productive and profitable.  I just wish I could do the same for the wildlife of Africa.

Everyone wants to help starving children in Africa have better lives.  We are succeeding and African nations’ populations are booming. What will keep them from continuing to decimate the wildlife of Africa?

A partial solution is to commercialize wildlife.  Wildlife numbers are actually increasing on well-guarded reserves where tourists pay big bucks to see elephants and zebras, giraffes and rhinos.  I’ve been to several of these reserves in Malawi and Kenya. I’ll soon be in others in Tanzania. So they get a little income from me.  Wish I could do more.

I’d like to believe that we could establish and support big enough reserves to not just protect elephants and rhinos but also the thousands of lesser known species which face mass extinction. I’d like to think that people will soon realize how essential the biosphere is to our survival.

But I’ve seen the destruction of wildlife and whole reserves when a weak central government confronts the vast demand for elephant tusks and rhino horns in China.  I visited one reserve in Mozambique where the lake was dry because the water had been used for a Chinese goldmine and all the animals killed or put in cages.

What’s needed is a powerful government which values wildlife.  To some extent we have that today in South Africa and Namibia.  Namibia had 7500 elephants in 1995 and has more than 20,000 today.  Unfortunately Namibia is mostly desert so it can’t support many elephants.  When will the other countries of Africa wake up and protect their wildlife?



Balance and inner peace promote and require creative destruction

“Harmony and balance” seem like good goals. You may be attracted to yoga and Taoism because they are philosophies of harmony and balance. Balance is something most of us strive for in our lives, our work, our relationships.  Unstable, unbalanced people are usually to be avoided.

We are attracted to concepts like balance of nature and climax communities.  Many of us like to think that balance and stability are good and natural in the world and its ecosystems. Once upon a time, this view was promoted by eminent ecologists such as Eugene and Howard Odum once viewed the mature climax community, e.g. an oak-hickory forest in the American Midwest, as a steady-state system which is far more sustainable than a growth-oriented ecosystem.  Many modern agroecologists seem to also see the most sustainable system as a well-developed, stable, mature system which recovers from disturbance and adapts to change.


But disturbance and transformation and change underlie the ability of us and our ecosystems to achieve stability and balance.  In fact, stability and balance of our bodies or an ecosystem are the net result of the ongoing adaptation and change of hundreds of subsystems. These subsystems are constantly adapting and changing to enable you to feel balanced and in harmony.  Your body is constantly repairing itself and regenerating itself and fending off microscopic attack.

The calmness and inner peace which most religions urge us to achieve are attitudes which enable our bodies to fend off and adapt to disturbance. But none of us and no ecosystem can just maintain the status quo forever. All people and all ecosystems have adaptive cycles characterized by phases of rapid growth, mature stability, release and disorganization, and reassembly and reorganization leading back to rapid growth, stability, release and reassembly ad infinitum.

In fact, too strong a focus on stability can undermine personal and ecological resilience.  This was learned first in forest management.   A stable, mature forest in which fires are suppressed will eventually become a raging inferno which scours the landscape.  The result is often massive erosion and destruction of seeds and roots.  Artificially maintained stability of the forest results in reduced capacity of the system to regenerate.  An unstable ecosystem, with small fires and other disturbances occurring every year, maintains a variety of systems from meadow to savanna to forest.  Disturbance is required to maintain the diversity needed for resilience.

In our own lives, we often don’t want to see our children grow up, we don’t want to change occupations, we don’t want to change our habits.  Yet the healthy person, just like the healthy ecosystem is always adapting, changing, growing.

Every system has a temporal dimension which requires both phases of rapid growth and phases of disassembly.  The mature forest seen as a natural climax community by early ecologists and held up today as a model for sustainable systems by some agroecologists was known by both aboriginal Americans and Australians to be a much less productive phase than the grasslands and savannas which precede it.  Consequently they each regularly burned their landscapes creating more open areas for pasture and deeper soils through the incorporation of manure from the increased populations of ruminants.

Disruption and disassembly is required to induce a new growth phase.  When ecosystems are allowed to be composed of a series of growth and disassembly-release phases, they are usually more productive, increase soil quality and water conservation capacity, and store more carbon than systems permitted to progress to steady-state maturation.  Aborigines found that the technology of fire enabled them to maintain their ecosystem primarily in a growth phase.

Today’s ecosystem managers are similarly using technology to continue rapid growth phases instead of settling for mature, steady-state phases.  Paradoxically, the disruption and growth phases must be balanced lest they destroy resources (soil and water) instead of enhancing them.  This often happens when greedy managers convert the increased productivity into extracted profit.

The conventional wisdom in many sustainability circles that stability and balance are good and growth is problematic should be leavened with the reality of ecosystems.  In fact, trying to maintain stability and a climax community may actually erode resilience.  By keeping one particular system stable, the resilience of the larger system may crash.  U.S. agricultural commodity policy–promoting stability while decreasing diversity, redundancy and flexibility—is widely believed to undermine ecological resilience of our agricultural system.

The inability of some to escape the siren call of stablity has led to a misinterpretation of ecological resilience in most sustainable agriculture circles.  Resilience in sustainability circles is often the materials science sense of ability to bounce back from disturbance and maintain key functions and components.  In that sense our commodity production system is very resilient.  By maintaining commodity support payments through effective lobbying efforts, the system continues to bounce back and retain all its key functions and components.

As resilience becomes a term more widely bandied about, we can be sure the materials science definition of resilience will be most attractive for those trying to uphold the status quo—just as ag administrators in the early 1990s declared that “everything our college does is sustainable agriculture.”

Some sustainable agriculture advocates are also intent on preserving particular practices and systems.  As such advocates become more familiar with adaptive cycles and ecosystem resilience, may they embrace the creative destruction at the heart of all resilient ecosystems.

Just as you, in your search for harmony and inner peace, may come to realize it is an attitude which promotes the most creative destruction.  You may even see that inner peace requires creative destruction.