Africa's political big game

Politicians and Poachers
May 19, 2000

Clark C. Gibson ends his book by remarking that "Creating wildlife policies (in Africa) that can work means more than establishing the trends and performance of biological systems and passing laws to protect them. It demands an understanding of the most important political actors and the institutions that affect their behaviour. The study of wildlife policy thus requires an understanding of politics." This closing shot restates a message that the author has pushed on virtually every single page: that politics is all.

To which one might respond: "So what else is new?" Politics informs most human activities, directly or indirectly. True, the wildlife scene in Africa is riven with political pushings and shovings. There is much money to be made from wildlife, within the law and without. It will not always be so, as human populations swell and wildlife habitats are reduced, meaning that the herds of elephants, zebras and such dwindle.

All this places a premium on making money as swiftly as possible, and it causes political machinations to proliferate. The scope for conflict of purpose is illustrated by ivory markets. In recent times, ivory has been used covertly by governments and rebels alike to raise funds to buy weaponry, oil and other products. Today, most countries have come to favour a total ban on the ivory trade, though that has sometimes served to push up the price of illicit ivory and stimulate poaching.

The situation is further complicated by several southern African countries demanding to be allowed to sell ivory from government-sponsored elephant culls in national parks. But the official sale last April of almost 60 tons of tusks from Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana may have reinvigorated smuggling networks. This all supplies abundant scope for political chicanery to flourish in accord with Gibson's thesis.

After a fine opening, however, the book's message becomes tedious. Chapter after chapter sings the same song, illustrated by the author's experiences in Kenya, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We read continuously about institutional structures, political economies, distributional conflicts, endemic corruption and the layered labyrinths of policies that mostly turn out to be inimical to the wildlife cause. The main conclusion seems to be that if all the actors involved were to see the world as Gibson views it, much would be well.

This does not accord with the analyses of many practitioners with decades of on-the-ground experience. Certain wildlife experts, such as David Western of Kenya, probably the most innovative and authoritative wildlife scientist in Africa, do not even get a mention. One gets the impression that Gibson had made up his mind about what is amiss with wildlife conservation before he had set foot in Africa. For sure, he mobilises stacks of evidence to support his thesis, though it is theoretical as much as empirical. His approach throws fresh light on what underlies wildlife activities. If only he had more time for alternative standpoints.

Based on my 24 years of residence in Africa, I find the book illuminating to the extent that it uncovers certain factors that generally remain overlooked by the many persons who pronounce active policies to save the remnants of Africa's wildlife. Overall, however, the book is sadly limited.It is described by the publisher as a work that "will appeal to students of institutions... and comparative politics". Indeed. But there is much more to African conservation.

Norman Myers is honorary visiting fellow, Green College, Oxford.

Politicians and Poachers: The Political Economy of Wildlife Policy in Africa

Author - Clark C. Gibson
ISBN - 0 521 62385 5 and 66378 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 245

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