Wednesday, September 10, 2014

We don't care about elephant murders.

Who doesn't like pictures of cute baby elephants? (They are called calves, but it is cuter to call them baby elephants, right?) Who won't get outraged by excruciating tales of the "murder" or "genocide" of elephants and rhinos? That is the language of the wildlife conservation-cum-protection movement. It is winning supporters in the world capitals of nations that have wiped out their wildlife heritages. It will win few hearts and minds in Kenya, or Africa for that matter.

On 31 December 1981, Jerry Rawlings launched a military coup in Ghana. A short while later enemies of the people were rounded up, tried by military tribunals and executed in the National Stadium in Accra. The military junta ruled for a decade. When elections were held, Mr Rawlings was elected with a landslide and served two terms. He retired peacefully and is, every now and hen, called on by the African Union to lead peace missions around the continent. Ghanaians and Africans alike don't care that Mr Rawlings is a two-time coup plotter or that the "enemies of the people" executed under his command were not tried fairly or impartially.

On 13 July 1985, simultaneously at Wembley Stadium in the United Kingdom and John F Kennedy Stadium in Philadelphia, USA, western activists held the largest concert in the world to raise funds for the starving peoples of Ethiopia. Live Aid was in response to the catastrophic famine that had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and was set to decimate an entire generation. For the most part Africans did not care. South Africa was busily ensuring that apartheid would remain the ruling philosophy until hell froze over, Uganda was just getting into the swing of things with its rebellion against Milton Obote's government, Kenya was busily implementing IMF and Wold Bank-driven structural adjustment programmes that would cripple public services. Africans, then and now, did not give two shits about the starving masses of Ethiopia or any part of Africa for that matter.

On 7 August 1998, simultaneous bombings took place in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam against US embassies. Hundreds of Kenyans were killed in the attacks. Africans didn't give two shits about the bombings per se; they worried more that if Omar Hassan el Bashir continued hosting Usama bin Laden, they too could become targets of bin Laden's murderous attentions because of those countries' relations with the United States. Dead Kenyans did not feature high in the least of concerns; political instability did if al Qaeda waged war in Africa on a large scale.

Those campaigning for the "rights" of wildlife need to keep this in mind. Even their exhortations that wildlife resources are primary generators of employment and foreign exchange will not wash because for the most part, the profits from wildlife-driven tourism are almost entirely repatriated and the employment generated is not of the production variety and is prone to fluctuations that have nothing to do with wildlife. The great recession of 2007-2008 took a great toll on tourism globally. As did the Eyjafjallajökull disaster in 2010 and the string of al Shabaab kidnappings and bombings since November 2010.

The vast majority of Kenyans are not emotionally attached to wild animals. That we keep seeing them as "wild animals" is a partial explanation. The more germane one is that wildlife has always been the preserve of the wealthy, especially kaburus from the colonial era. Game Parks, National Reserves and conservancies are merely the newest devices for depriving poor Kenyans of land for their families and their livelihoods. We do not have a stake in the conservation of elephants or rhinos; the fewer of them near our farms, the greater the guarantee of good harvests. Even intellectually we do not care about the fate of wild animals. Because of the skewed ownership of the profits from wildlife, we are not even part-owners of the heritage. The few of us who have been "trained" to see things this way only see the cheque at the end of the month. We do not buy the argument that what happens to elephants will affect us in the long run. We are happy enough to see kaburus suffering slightly. Schadenfreude, the Germans call it.

Wildlife in Kenya has been a kaburu thing for as long as the subject has been alive. What the kaburus called the native population was to be policed as far away from the wildlife as possible. Since we have never been owners of the wildlife in Kenya, we don't care, one way or the other, if they are all wiped out. Since we have always associated wildlife with violence against us, both by the wild animals and the state, we do not care if they are being "murdered" or not. And since it is the high and mighty who seem to have a hand in the "slaughter" of elephants and rhinos, and many of us have sworn fealty to the selfsame high and mighty, all the kaburu-mzungu campaigns to conserve and protect wildlife will come to naught in the long, long run.

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