- Reviewed by
By Keith Somerville. London: Hurst & Company, 2016.
For people who do not live or work in Africa, or have no direct or ongoing connection to the work of international conservation organizations trying to conserve African wildlife, stories about the steady and perhaps inexorable decline of large mammal populations, and most especially of the iconic African elephant, are bound to seem puzzling. On the face of it, the treatment meted out to African elephants, most especially since the European colonization of Africa in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the advent of powerful firearms, has been positively Hobbesian: nasty, brutish, and short. Things always seem to get worse, never better, to the point that the extinction by human agency, aided by environmental factors such as habitat loss, of at least some African elephant populations no longer appears to be a remote possibility. That is, on the face of it and for most people around the world, an awful prospect.
But, if it happens, who or what will be at fault?
That is the question around which Keith Somerville skates in this tremendously appealing and useful book—a book which I think every serious student of African elephant conservation ought to read.
The book is not primarily for academic readers and makes no explicit claim to be a work of serious historical scholarship. Somerville worked in Africa as a career journalist for the BBC. This made him a direct observer of some of the events he describes in this book. He is and has also been for a long time well-connected to many of the principals involved in efforts to conserve African elephants. And he has read and makes good use of most of the major book-length studies of elephant conservation and the ivory trade. All these resources are used to good advantage in his book, with the result being a very well-informed, suitably nuanced, and considerate analysis of the processes by which and the reasons why the conservation of African elephants has proven over many decades to be so frustrating and disappointing. The book takes the long view historically (Chapters One through Three) and is careful to pay attention to the complex geography of elephant conservation in Africa (Chapters Four, Five and Seven). Indeed, one of the great strengths of the book is the assiduousness with which Somerville differentiates the dynamics of the ivory trade and its impacts on elephant populations among the major regions of Africa, and within regions by country. Thus, the reader comes away with a clear sense not only of why elephant conservation is a different problem in southern Africa than it is in East Africa but also why the approach to the problem differs within regions by country. For someone approaching the subject for the first time I know of no other book that serves as such a comprehensive introduction.
More importantly, in my view, this is the first book to shine a bright light on the critical role played by the domestic politics of African states in the abject failure of those states to accomplish effective conservation outcomes for elephants since the publication of Clark Gibson's Politics and Poachers: The political economy of wildlife policy in Africa (1999)1 and Rosaleen Duffy's Killing for Conservation: Wildlife policy in Zimbabwe (2000).2 Duffy focused on the post-independence politics of wildlife policy in Zimbabwe. Gibson enlarged the view by looking in addition at Zambia and Kenya. Both books clearly established that post-independence wildlife management agencies were poorly equipped to manage the resources entrusted to their care. Both books made it clear that sensible conservation policy was frustrated by corruption reaching all the way from the bottom to the top of the political system. And both books established beyond any doubt that politicians and bureaucrats were much more interested in using wildlife policy to meet their own distributional goals than in following best conservation practices. Somerville, in addition to revisiting the Zimbabwe, Zambia and Kenya cases, looks in some detail at Tanzania, Uganda, Sudan, Zaire, the Central African Republic, Burundi, Botswana, South Africa, and to lesser extent but...