“Nairobi has a priceless and unique possession in the proximity to its centre of the most remarkable pieces of game country in the world. Indeed I have not seen … any area of the country … which contains a variety and abundance of animal life at all comparable to that found in the Nairobi Commonage. … Natives … have children; they also have … cattle, sheep, goats; many will doubtless want to make gardens: in short they introduce a variety of factors making for the spoliation of nature. … Less than five percent of [Nairobi’s] inhabitants have ever taken the trouble to penetrate a couple of miles into the Game Reserve beyond the aerodrome. Game is still too much of a common-place, and it is taken for granted. It will not always be so.”
Written in 1931, the Game Warden of Nairobi’s argument that the Kenyan state should privilege the needs of wild animals over its colonial subjects speaks to a central theme of Keith Somerville’s comprehensive study of how the hunting of elephants has been intertwined with the history and political economy of much of sub-Saharan Africa. Declaring that he is not writing a history of elephants, nor making an explicit case for their conservation, Somerville instead makes the persuasive case that it is essential to give local African communities a direct role in the management of wild game if elephants are to survive in the 21st century. This argument directly rebuts the position of colonial era “white hunters” and “experts” like the Nairobi Game Warden who treated the ordinary people seeking to control and profit from the animals who lived in close proximity to them as criminals and poachers. While the suggestion that the selective killing (“culling”) of surplus animals is necessary for their preservation may not sit well with those who nurture a romantic view of African wildlife, the steady decline of elephant herds over the past century suggests that the conventional conservation strategies favored by western experts are not viable.
Declaring that he is not writing a history of elephants, nor making an explicit case for their conservation, Somerville instead makes the persuasive case that it is essential to give local African communities a direct role in the management of wild game if elephants are to survive in the 21st century.
Based on meticulous research in state and non-governmental organization (NGO) archives, accounts of western traders and hunters, the “Elephant Database,” key conservation journals, and Somerville’s own experiences covering African ivory hunting and smuggling for the BBC and other media outlets, Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa tells the story of how contemporary wildlife conservation policy and practice has failed, largely because it remains rooted in the colonial era. While the policies advocated by colonial experts like the game warden of Nairobi were ultimately exploitive, self-serving and inherently corrupt, the first generation of African nationalist leaders made little effort to change them because they valued the economic aid and other forms of development assistance that western donors tied to the continuation of policies that privileged animals over people. The explosive growth of tourism after the Second World War provided an additional incentive to continue the colonial game park model. After an initial period of relative stability and prosperity in the 1960s, a global economic crisis, which resulted from the 1973 OPEC oil embargo, brought the post-WWII commodity boom to an end. This crash hit sub-Saharan Africa particularly hard and made increasingly corrupt rulers even more inclined to view their elephant populations as an exploitable resource. The situation became even worse in the 1990s when the neoliberal structural adjustment reforms, which western donors now insisted upon as a condition for continued aid, incentivized underpaid civil servants and policemen to hunt elephants and smuggle ivory to make ends meet. The various wars of revolution, ethnic conflicts, and other spectacular outbreaks of violence that have plagued the continent in recent decades have only made the survival of elephants even more precarious.
Somerville, now a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, is well qualified to tell this depressing story. He has firsthand knowledge of the ongoing and often bitter debates between wildlife experts over whether elephants should be managed as an exploitable resource or be entirely protected as an endangered species. A total ban on hunting, while pleasing to western conservation groups, tourists, and documentary filmmakers, means that elephant herds often grow beyond the capacity of game parks to support them, thereby leading to environmental degradation and incursions onto neighboring farm land. Controlled hunting (culling), on the other hand, serves as a cover for poaching and smuggling by continuing to accommodate the strong global demand for ivory, particularly in East Asia. Somerville professes not to take sides in the debate, but he is clearly more sympathetic to a modified version of the culling policy that would involve local communities more closely in the management and exploitation of elephant herds. While he admits that community-based conservation and sustainable use policies have not generated enough wealth to give ordinary people a sufficient incentive to protect elephants and eschew poaching, his position that conventional conservation programs have failed, and will continue to fail, because they are based on corrupt and authoritarian colonial era wildlife policies is convincing. Indeed, a Kenyan friend who has a modest farm outside Nairobi cannot take action against the antelope that destroy her crops every planting season because the Kenyan government’s 20 million shilling fine (roughly $193,000) for killing protected wildlife would bankrupt her. On the other hand, as Somerville acknowledges, the managed approach to elephant conservation has its limits as well as it depends upon a thoroughly regulated international ivory trade to ensure that poaching and smuggling is no longer feasible or profitable.
Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa is thus compelling reading for anyone interested in the history of wildlife conservation and its role in 20th-century African history. It refreshingly puts local communities at the center of debates that too often focus exclusively on wildlife. In this sense, the book is a nice corrective to a Disneyfied “Lion King” depiction of Africa as a place without people. For readers who grew up with popular wildlife documentaries like Born Free and Living Free, which charmingly anthropomorphize a pride of Kenyan lions, it will also be interesting to learn that George Adamson, the hero of the films, was a colonial game official who was notorious for poisoning hyenas and other less photogenic forms of wildlife. In addition to documenting the continuities between colonial game practices and policies advocated under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna & Flora (CITES), Somerville also usefully explains how the anti-ivory campaigns of the 1990s backed by western conservation experts (“prima bwanas”) made it impossible for African nations to manage their elephant herds sustainably. Depicting all forms of elephant hunting as barbaric, conservation groups stigmatized wearing ivory through mass advertising campaigns built around catchy phrases like “Dressed to Kill” and “Accessories to Murder.”
There are, however, some small complications with the book that undercut its appeal to both lay readers and Africanist scholars. To some degree, Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa falls into the category of what could be classified as a “term paper book,” that is, one that structures its entire narrative around a single commodity: salt, coal, cod, germs, guns, steel. Somerville is too accomplished a scholar to argue explicitly that ivory was the primary causative force in African history, but he sometimes gives this impression by noting the presence of elephants and ivory hunters in virtually every key African event over the past two centuries. Similarly, while historians will appreciate his precise attention to detail, non-academic readers may become fatigued by his exhaustive documentation of elephant population levels and virtually every incidence of ivory hunting during this period.
Somerville is too accomplished a scholar to argue explicitly that ivory was the primary causative force in African history, but he sometimes gives this impression by noting the presence of elephants and ivory hunters in virtually every key African event over the past two centuries.
Africanist scholars, on the other hand, may take issue with Somerville’s tendency to portray “traditional hunting communities” as simple people living in harmony with nature. In his understandable desire to highlight the inequities of colonial and national conservation policies that criminalized their activities, Somerville over-romanticizes foraging communities because they once hunted elephants with bows and arrows. As persuasively argued in Robert Gordon’s The Bushman Myth, this approach risks confusing African hunters with their prey by treating both as endangered species.
These concerns do not, however, undermine the force of Somerville’s book. Recent press reports noting declining ivory prices in China are cause for optimism that the global appetite for elephant tusks might eventually wane. But there is no denying Somerville’s insistence that it is Africans themselves who will determine the long-term fate of this popular photogenic animal. At its core, Ivory: Power and Poaching in Africa is both an impressively comprehensive history of African ivory hunting and a thought-provoking reminder that the only way elephants will survive into the next century is if the ordinary people who live with them have a stake in their survival. This should be a common-sense argument, and it is a sad reminder of the pernicious legacy of western imperial rule in Africa, particularly as it relates to conservation policy, that it is not.