Conservation: Facing the future

From the heart of Africa, Byron Pace catches up on the most recent news for wildlife and what that means for the future

Never did I think I would find Johannesburg a tranquil place. If it wasn’t for seeing my grandparents, this city would be little more than a place I passed through.

But after spending the last few weeks in and out of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), it’s like a beach holiday by comparison.

If you have ever been to an Indian city like New Delhi, with that crazy bustling mix of people and cars, squalor and poverty, and that distinctive, continuous undertone of lingering smoke from cooking and burning rubbish – well, it’s kind of like that.

Many people gave me a quizzical look when I said I was heading to the DRC to film. They were very much under the impression that it is simply a country you do not go to – dangerous and awash with rebel groups ready to kidnap foreign tourists, and if that didn’t put you off then the chance of contracting ebola probably would.

This was no holiday destination. Yet, outside the craziness of Kinshasa, the DRC wasn’t the country people outside made it out to be. It is true that I never ventured to the eastern edge, where a lot of the conflict lies, but that’s the point – the DRC is a massive country, the second biggest on the continent behind Libya.

The opposing sides of the country may as well be completely different places. The lure of the interior looms and should see me there before the end of the year.

Don’t get me wrong – there is a long history of horrendous human rights violations and genocide in the DRC, and in the east specifically, the lives of most people include the threat of death, either through starvation or at the hands of militant groups. Yet among the human misery, without question it is one of the most incredible, beautiful places I have ever been.

What was immediately obvious to me was that unlike many other places around the world, loss of habitat was secondary in many places to loss of wildlife. By this I mean, in many cases the habitat lies largely untouched, uninhabited, yet devoid of much life through years of war, poaching and exploitation. Birds and mammals have been eaten to the edge of existence, or killed for their horn and tusks.

This offers an incredible opportunity for recovery if sufficient protection can be put in place to safeguard wildlife. Indeed, the elephant relocation to the new privately owned park just outside Kinshasa was just that. A restocking programme, taking animals from parts of Africa where surpluses existed, to restore the environmental dynamics of the area.

Documenting this endeavour would become one of the most emotionally charged and life-changing events I’ve ever experienced. The full extent of this I can’t share at this moment, but I will return to the story in these pages over the coming months.

One thing that is clear is that the efforts of conservation are not without sacrifice, and those who blindly comment with uninformed opinion from the other side of the world have never grasped the reality of what this means. 

The last few months have been turbulent for the hunting community at home, and worrying for the global status of wildlife. Chris Packham and his crew continued their relentless campaign of misinformation against grouse shooting as the opening day of the season came and went. We knew this was coming of course, yet largely speaking, our response has once again been found wanting.

We are just not good enough for this fight, and though I am usually the optimist, ready to help carry the torch, I am losing faith in our community. The loss of driven grouse shooting seems a likelihood within my lifetime now, and the implications of this sit firmly with the shooting community and its organisations. We are not even in the same league when it comes to communicating our message. It’s disheartening to say the least.

The DRC offers wild, untouched landscapes with real potential for recovery

While this fight rages, with new accusations on a daily basis, the world turns and changes around us. As I write this, the opening ceremony for the postponed 18th Conference of the Parties of CITES in Geneva has just finished, and in the next few weeks we will see the implications of their decisions.

Among the many species and issues to be discussed, the trade of ivory and rhino horn are probably the most controversial, and indeed pertinent to the documentary I am currently putting together. We can return to this next month in reflection of the decisions made, dedicating a full article to the matter. 

In overview, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries have put in proposals that would allow the trade of ivory and rhino horn as a way to help manage their wildlife populations.

This collective of countries contains three quarters of the world’s elephant, estimated at 420,000 animals, and arguably has some of the most successful examples of wildlife conservation through sustainable, regulated utilisation.

Though SADC includes all countries lying south of (and including) the DRC and Tanzania, the proposal is only for those countries that have stockpiles and sustainable current populations, which includes Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

I met the Director General of the ICCN (Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature) when I was in the DRC, and we discussed this in some detail. It was clear that they wanted to support neighbouring countries that had proven sustainable use and conservation success with their wildlife, but was in no doubt that their own country was not ready to be included in this.

By his own admission, they had a long road ahead to secure and re-establish their wildlife dynamics, but they didn’t not wish to stand in the way of countries who could benefit from trade where it wouldn’t be detrimental to their populations.

Of course the argument remains that any legal trade of horn or ivory can be used to mask the illegal underground network. Yet, as is clear from the evidence at hand, the opposing African countries to this proposal, which include Kenya, have failed to protect their wildlife with no consumptive use and trade in place.

While Botswana’s elephant population has climbed from around 30,000 in 1983 to a conservative estimate of 130,000 animals today, Kenya managed to lose half their elephants to poaching in less than 10 years during the 1970s, with populations further decreasing from around 275,000 in the early 70s to today’s estimated 30,000.

Kenya banned hunting in 1973. It will be interesting to see solutions to current over-populations and if CITES will help alleviate this with their decision.

As a closing thought, and something that deserves greater coverage, we hear this week that the Trump administration has weakened the ability for the Endangered Species Protection Act in North America to help protect vulnerable species and ecosystems.

Africa’s iconic species remain a subject of hot debate

Though it is not perfect, and arguably in need of change and reform, the new measures seem to pave the way for future exploitation, where political considerations can override scientific principles of ecosystem protection.

It also appears that climate change-related threats to species could be blocked as justifications for listing species. It is a worrying direction to be taking and another topic that deserves further review as soon as the details come out of the woodwork.

Oh, and the administration just reauthorised the use of devices called M-44s, which kill by spraying sodium cyanide into the face of lured animals, mainly foxes and coyotes.

Whatever the need to control wildlife populations, the use of such methods and poisons can’t and shouldn’t be supported. This would be an excellent opportunity for animal rights groups and hunters to stand shoulder to shoulder. 

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