E8: What Would the Elephant Matriarchs Think?
It seems that every time you switch on your television you hear about the world's power brokers meeting somewhere under the banner of the Group of Eight, or the G8, or the G 20, or the G 20 plus something. This week, a new group met for the first time ever under the banner of the E-8.
The E-8? "Never heard of them," you say and you would be correct. What started out as a bit of a tongue-in-cheek play on the G8, a group of eight ministers from eight countries with elephant populations met in New Delhi, India to try to create a platform for calm, rationale thought and possible solutions to the threats facing elephants in the fifty countries that have elephants around the world.
This was the first time that African and Asian countries had come together to specifically discuss the conservation of elephants with ministers leading the way. Before you think that this was just another meeting of bureaucrats, hold on. They did agree to a recommendation to hold an international forum in 2013 which will draw together the fifty countries that have elephants and which will look at the conservation of elephants over the next fifty years; the 50/50 Elephant Forum is to take place in New Delhi. There were, however, much more subtle things going on behind the scenes.
This type of meeting often gets bogged down by technical issues or really contentious issues such as ivory trade. Our position going into the meeting is that the sale of ivory is simply not a global solution to elephant conservation problems and that discussion of the issue usually destroys the calm, rationale atmosphere that the meeting was supposed to promote.
Two of the countries attending, Botswana and Tanzania had, in the past, both advocated for the sale of ivory. Kenya, a well known foe of ivory sales was also attending the meeting so the possibility that things could get nasty was real. Asian countries are typically not involved in the issue of ivory trade and I hoped that the coming together of vastly different cultures would cause everyone to pause and realise that there was much to be learned from one another.
The meeting began with each minister presenting a short overview of their countries challenges and, true to form, the minister from Botswana came out fighting and said he would never hide the fact that he was there to promote trade and that if the delegates wanted a debate, he would give them one!
Silence and a few whispered comments made the rounds of the room but, the fact was, no one was here for a fight and his challenge just sort of fizzled out.
The juxtaposition of countries where the killing of an elephant was unthinkable and countries that proposed to kill them was dramatic. The Indian ministry of environment talked about the "deep national depression" following a train accident that killed seven elephants.
The mention of culling elephants seemed so out of place in the Indian context that it was clear to see that bringing this group together was already having a positive affect and it showed in the casual remarks hears around the room.
As the ministers from Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and India spoke, you could hear the African delegates whispering in amazement whenever the population of some of these countries was mentioned.
India described human populations centres with 5 million people as "towns" and some of those towns were in areas set aside as elephant reserves. The notion of human-elephant conflict took on a whole new meaning.
Every country gave statistics about how many elephants were living outside of protected areas and it was clear to see that the Asian approach to dealing with elephant, and human populations, was incredibly different from the African experience.
Some of the most surprising moments came at the most unexpected times. In the afternoon of our meeting, there were three technical sessions and one of them was called "Culture and Ethical Perspectives" surrounding elephant conservation.
I decided to attend as I was fascinated by the thought that the very foundation of a culture could form the basis of a conservation plan. As I entered the room, I was greeted by a rather cold welcome from the minister from Botswana but took my place a few seats from him and hoped for the best as we began the discussion.
To everyone's surprise the minister from Botswana, somewhat abruptly, blurted out a few questions.
"Who came first, the humans or the wildlife?" "Who are we to decide what is ethical when it comes to taking care of wildlife?"
As the room just sort of sat there, he continued.
"Instead of bringing together the Ministers of eight elephant countries, I would like to see us bring in the matriarchs of elephant herds from our eight countries and see what they have to say about all of this!"
Okay, this was different and not at all what I had expected to hear especially after the minister had just told the group that he might like to shoot me!
One of the guiding principles at the International Fund for Animal Welfare is that we believe wildlife belongs in the wild.
I wasn't really sure what the minister was saying so I decided to ask a few questions myself.
" Mr. Minister, do you believe that wildlife belongs in the wild and should not be fenced in?"
"Yes," he thundered.
"Mr. Minister, do you believe that it is unethical to fence in animals such as elephants which need to roam to find food and water?"
"Yes, I do," he thundered.
" Mr. Minister, do you agree that it is unethical for people to selfishly assume that they can develop the earth with no regard for the needs of elephants and other wildlife?"
"Yes, I do," he thundered.
A silence came over the room and he suddenly said, "IFAW, we agree on something."
I jokingly asked the record to show that IFAW and the Minister from Botswana agreed on the points just discussed and there was a nervous laughter around the room.
The ice had been broken though and the two of us followed up our conversation over tea. I asked him if he really thought the matriarchs of the herds would find much of what we do in the name of conservation unethical and he said he really believed they would.
I was struck by his sense that many of the problems we face are caused by basic human selfishness. I couldn't argue with that. I smiled and said,
"I have to be honest though, we are not going to agree on the sale of ivory." He smiled and said, "for today, let's concentrate on the things that we do agree on" and graciously invited me to Botswana for a visit.
I think we both learned that some differences may be insurmountable but that doesn't preclude agreement on other issues that are also important to elephant conservation.
I left thinking the matriarchs would be a bit happier.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare works around the world to save animals in crisis including elephants, visit http://www.ifaw.org for more information about how you can help.