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?