Stopping Wildlife Poachers Isn’t Easy and Can’t Be By "Us"

The elephant that charged me.

During my Peace Corps years in Togo, I lived on the edge of a wildlife preserve called Le Fosse aux lions. Created out of what once had been twelve villages, by 1988 (when I arrived) it was the home of a herd of about forty elephants. My experience with one of them led to my essay “Elephant Morning,” which led to my editing One Hand Does Not Catch a Buffalo, a collection of more than seventy pieces written by Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Africa.

In 1995, five years after my Peace Corps tour ended, I returned to Togo to attend a wedding. In the meantime, I soon learned, all of those magnificent elephants had been killed and the twelve villages re-established.

Today, in The New York Times, Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society writes that all it takes to preserve wildlife is the commitment of resources and willingness to support security measures. She writes:

Until we provide the resources and security to safeguard the world’s great natural treasures, populations of great apes and countless other species will slowly wink out across the world, and our awe-inspiring natural heritage, the product of millions of years of evolution, will continue its slide into oblivion.

It’s not quite so simple, unfortunately.

Leaving aside for a moment the neo-colonialist “we” of one addressing a rich audience in the ultimate metropole, Bennett blithely ignores the greatest reason for wildlife destruction and lack of security for it: national instability. Le Fosse was well-protected by Togolese government agents until the central government virtually collapsed in 1991. At that point, the people who had been removed from their homes so that the park could be created found guns (from Ghanaian relatives across the border, I have heard), killed the elephants, and re-built their villages.

No matter how much “we” spend now, no matter how much security is in place today, wildlife will never be protected effectively over the long term by “our” efforts alone. Real protection requires stable governments with iron-clad means for transitions of power. Until these are in place, everything else simply delays the destruction of the wildlife to the time of inevitable political collapse.

How can this be changed? How can stability be achieved?

First, “we” have to stop thinking about what “we” can do for “them.” Political stability and protection and wildlife are going to come when the local population desire them. “We” cannot impose either on “them” effectively from outside.

The government of Togo established the fosse without consulting the people in the villages that were destroyed. The desire was to please foreigners and to promote tourism. This led to a disconnect between the government and its park and the people living around the park–and a great deal of anger. The surrounding villages had to absorb the population of the razed villages, straining area resources, making everyone poorer, though the government claimed that the resulting tourism would make them all richer (it did not).

Only if there had been a government in place whose first responsibility was to the people it governed, a government that consulted the population and actually listened to it and worked with it would it have been possible to save the elephants of northern Togo. No amount of “resources and security” from outside can provide that. The same is true everywhere. Until the local people actively support protection of wildlife, no lasting protection will ever be established.

There’s nothing “we” can do to change that.

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