Saturday, 25 November 2006

Shearwater statement on Hwange elephant capture

Following a joint initiative by the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe and Shearwater Adventures to capture and translocate 12 sub-adult elephants from a severely drought affected area of Hwange National Park, Shearwater has attracted some highly contentious criticism from various sources. The most vociferous of these include Sharon Van Wyk, free lance journalist for African Geographic and author of a recent overview of the Elephant Safari Industry and the US based Animal rights group- International Fund for Animal Welfare. (IFAW). Their criticism has been coupled with a call from some quarters to boycott Shearwater products.

This public condemnation has been made without any communication with Shearwater therefore we would like to take the opportunity to express our point of view.

Shearwater Background
Shearwater has been at the forefront of eco and wildlife tourism in Zimbabwe for 25 years. While operating as a commercial enterprise Shearwater has always recognized the need to lead by example and contribute to the preservation and promotion of Zimbabwe’s wildlife heritage. There are few environmental causes in Zimbabwe that we have not been involved in.

Through out this period we have maintained a close relationship with the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. The current sustained economic crisis has affected all aspects of Zimbabwean life including the National Parks where dedicated people continue to work tirelessly with meager resources to protect Zimbabwe’s wildlife legacy. There are few outside Zimbabwe who are prepared to offer assistance so those of us who remain face a daunting task.

In recent months Shearwater has assisted with the relocation of Rhino from distressed environments to greener and safer pastures and has provided Helicopter support to a Rhino poaching operation in Hwange. Shearwater has also been active in the "Save Hwange Campaign" and is currently working with National Parks and Wildlife Authority to expand our involvement in the maintenance and sourcing of water supplies in the Park. In undertaking these initiatives we have had many discussions with the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority on the elephant population crisis in the park.

Elephant conservation debate
Many people within the wildlife industry have different views on what is the best policy with regards to elephant conservation. What is generally accepted by all is that human encroachment and loss of habitat is the single biggest factor in the decline of elephant populations throughout Africa. Perversely there are pockets were elephant populations hugely exceed the carrying capacity of the land and it is the management of these areas that causes such controversy within the conservation industry. Previous wildlife management policies have included culling, relocation, experiments with infertility drugs and non intervention.

At one end of the spectrum there are some passionate conservationists who believe the solution is to cull in order to preserve the habitat and at the other there are those who are equally passionate and believe that the natural cycle will eventually lead to regeneration. There is so much emotion attached to this debate that for many it is easiest to adopt a do nothing policy for fear of incurring the wrath of certain extremist sectors of the conservation community.

No answer has yet been found that addresses the problem to the satisfaction of most stakeholders and currently the non-interventionists seem to hold sway with a wide base of international support. However one thing that cannot be disputed is that over population in any given area results in further loss of habitat, shortages of food and water and huge stress for all the elephants and other species in the vicinity. In extreme circumstances, as has been seen in some areas of Zimbabwe in the last two years, this can, at worst, lead to a lingering death for many animals, elephants included.

Hwange National Park crisis
There are some respected environmentalists who support the non-interventionists process and argue that population implosion will be followed by regeneration and a natural balance will be restored.

It is one thing to support the theory from the sidelines but quite another to witness the devastating result.
Hwange National Park is probably the worst affected area in Southern Africa were the combined impact of elephant overpopulation, global warming induced climate change and meager resources are fuelling the perfect storm for a starvation based elephant implosion. Some estimate that over 1000 elephants have died during the last year alone. African Geographic reported 21 drought related elephant deaths in the Wilderness Safaris concession area last year which represents less than 4% of the Hwange Park and under Wilderness management represents the best maintained area of the park. The improved rains this year has made little difference to the elephant plight and Parks ecologists estimate that somewhere in the region of 100 elephants a year are dying in the area which was identified for the capture. The scale of the problem should not be underestimated.

The Sinamatela region of the park in the northern area contrasts vividly with Wilderness concession and was recently described by ex-National parks warden Mike Le Grange as a holocaust. Fire has further the area between the northern area of Hwange and Vic Falls. This is the region where the elephant capture took place.

The Elephant Back Safari Industry
The elephant back safari industry has always been viewed with a degree of suspicion by various conservation bodies a situation not helped by the participants themselves who have perpetuated myths, shrouded their activities in secrecy and engaged in protectionism. Some participants appear willing to go to extraordinary lengths to maintain a monopoly in the industry including vilification of other operators and manipulation of the facts.

In Sharon’s excellent report on the industry in African Geographic she states that there are approximately 130 domesticated elephants in Southern Africa. Many of these elephants are either cull orphans or young abandoned elephants. Most of these abandoned elephants were captured during the drought in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s often under harrowing circumstances. The reason many of these elephants were abandoned was because when faced with thirst and starvation elephant family unit structures collapsed as mature elephants maddened by thirst and hunger stormed from one dry water source to the next leaving the young and weak behind to fend for themselves. This is exactly the situation on the ground in some parts of Hwange today.

She concludes that although the animals she encountered are well cared for she is of the opinion that enough operators exist and no other elephants should be used for these purposes. A conclusion that will delight those elephant back safari operators who are intent on trying to monopolise the industry through the control and ownership of elephants which are already being used in the industry.

Shearwaters role in the elephant safari industry
Shearwater has operated Elephant Back Safaris on a very well managed private game reserve outside of Victoria Falls for almost 10 years. The land has been converted from a hunting concession into a wildlife sanctuary and it is here that our elephants thrive. They lead relatively stress free lives, and are loved and very well cared for by their handlers. They never go hungry or thirsty and they spend plenty of their time roaming freely.  The 6,000 acre reserve they live on is fenced but the elephants would be more than capable of breaking through the fence if they so desired.

Shearwater and National Parks of Zimbabwe Shearwater and National Parks of Zimbabwe agree on the following
  • There is a chronic overpopulation of elephants in Hwange;
  • The loss of habitat is accelerating;
  • Many animals including elephants are dying due to the scarcity of food;
  • Improved rains this year have done little to alleviate the situation;
  • The situation will get worse;
  • That the death of herd members as a result of drought and starvation is a far bigger contributor to the breakdown of family herd units than the capture of a small number of sub-adult animals for use in the tourism industry;
  • We have to face the reality on the ground;
  • We share a belief that the people of Zimbabwe must benefit from the wildlife resource and currently both the wildlife and the people are suffering as a result of severe economic hardship;
  • We believe in sustainable utilisation of wildlife resources;
  • We agree it is better to do something rather than nothing;
  • We agree that we can expect little outside help and must try to find solutions which advantage the local environment and population without being pressurised by outside parties who do not share our realities.
Neither Shearwater nor the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority of Zimbabwe suggest that the habituation of elephants offers a lasting solution to elephant conservation in Hwange and recognise it barely scratches the surface of the problem. However we do agree that a live habituated elephant is infinitely preferable to a dead wild elephant and selective elephant capture and training has a role to play in this complex debate.

We recognise other Southern African countries may have different resource bases and alternative solutions and we are not qualified to comment on their situation. However we do feel that we are better qualified than others to determine what is best for Zimbabwe our elephants and our people.

We firmly believe that the selective capture of sub-adult elephants in Hwange, who we identify as the most vulnerable in the herd structure, achieves the following;
  • Survival and a safe future for the elephants concerned;
  • Reduces some of the strain on the remaining herds;
  • Desperately required revenue for National parks which can be applied to assisting the Parks struggling infrastructure;
  • Employment and revenue to Zimbabwe’s beleaguered people;
  • A source of badly needed foreign currency;
  • A resource to educate visitors about the elephant plight and to encourage further contributions to the conservation effort;
  • An opportunity for Zimbabwe to remain the leaders in this fledgling industry.
The Hwange elephant capture 
In early November Shearwater successfully carried out a game capture exercise in an area of Hwange National Park which was identified by Parks as being particularly over populated and where the signs of stress and suffering from the elephant herds was self evident. Shearwater specifically targeted sub-adult elephants which are the most vulnerable and whose capture least affects the social structure of the herd. We choose animals that were displaying evidence of deterioration and which we believed we could help resuscitate. As a result 12 animals have now been translocated to Victoria Falls. Sadly one elephant did not survive the translocation and died soon after arrival at the game reserve due to its very poor condition.

This process was carried out by a highly respected game capture organisation and was closely monitored by both the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Authority and the SPCA. Whilst this exercise only improves the overpopulation problem in the area by a small degree it does, none the less, improve it and if that means that the pressure is reduced on other animals then we consider it a worthwhile exercise and a better option than either culling or non-intervention.

The future of elephant habituation

Shearwater respects that others may have different views on this subject and simply asks them to respect our views and the fact that we remain open and honest about our activities.

We recognise the important role that foreign organisations such as IFAW play in conservation but sometimes find their views at odds with the reality on the ground, particularly in countries such as Zimbabwe where their failure to consider any viewpoint other than their own makes open debate impossible. Attempts to vilify any commercial enterprise involving elephants may not be in best interests of the people of Zimbabwe or the elephants they claim to be protecting. Letting an elephant die of starvation to satisfy the utopian ideal far removed from the starkness of the actual situation is in our opinion the greater act of cruelty.

We welcome debate about the role of habituated elephants within the tourism industry and hope that we can participate in an honest and open manner.

We would welcome legislation, licensing and approved guidelines that establish:

  • Circumstances were elephant capture is desirable;
  • Criteria for selection of elephants;
  • Number controls;
  • Improved capture techniques;
  • Improved training methods;
  • Roles and responsibilities of licensed operators.

  • This can only be achieved if we:

  • dispel the myths;
  • bring the debate into the open;
  • drop the charade of protectionism adopted by some industry players;

  • Shearwater stands by it actions and is ready to face the challenge ahead.

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