Media furore over the shooting down of a helicopter in Tanzania masks a bigger picture of commercial hunting and evictions of indigenous tribes in the name of wildlife, writes Navaya ole Ndaskoi. It’s time to rethink ‘white saviour’ mythology and develop new models of conservation that respect and engage with African communities, recognise their achievements, and inspire a new generation of conservation heroes.
“Trophy hunters and all the Friedkins of this world think, with their heads on the ground and feet in the air, that by killing elephants for fun they are helping preserve elephants.”
On 30th January a helicopter was gunned down in the Greater Serengeti Region, Tanzania.
The attack left one Briton, Captain Roger Gower, dead and a South African, Nicky Bester, wounded.
Within hours the incident went viral online with articles portraying Gower as a wildlife saving hero, shot down while he was on an anti-poaching mission.
The social media was literarily filled to the brims. Foreign press had its field day too. The BBC, CNN, the Guardian, The Independent, AFP and all the others celebrated Christmas nearly a year before. The Telegraph went a bit far quoting campaigners saying “the killing would be poaching’s ‘9/11’“.
Tanzanian officials, like vultures congregating over a carcass, rushed to the site of the wreckage. Notable among them were the Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Prof. Jumanne Maghembe and Alan Kijazi, Director General of the State-owned parastatal, Tanzania National Parks.
The way Prof. Maghembe bemoaned on the death of Gower equals only to a eulogy given to a fallen hero in defending his nation. As Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane wrote convincingly in their book, The Myth of Wild Africa: Conservation Without Illusion, published in 1992, “nothing plucks the heartstrings better than a lion cub or a baby elephant.”
Several friends telephoned me asking that I comment on Gower and the tragic episode. However, there is the African saying which goes, “Do not shoot a dead sheep.” The honorable thing to do, therefore, is to wish Gower a safe journey in his trip to join the ancestors. I will concentrate the main fire instead on some fundamental issues surrounding the tragic attack, a chain of events showing that Gower was not simply on an anti-poaching mission.
To claim this is an effective way of immortalizing his memory. Yet the reality is that Gower was working for a company that sells game hunting trips, that plays the role of ‘gamekeeper as conservationist’. The attack on Gower’s helicopter is the second of its kind, following the shooting of Andrew Kock in the same area in 2011. Kock was working for yet another trophy hunting company called Robin Hurt (T) Ltd.
Trophy hunting of elephants in Tanzania
The mass media in general and travelogue in particular is deliberately misleading the unsuspecting world public about poaching, especially of elephants, in Tanzania. In February 2014 the British Government hosted a conference in London to help eradicate illegal wildlife trade. Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, who is himself an enthusiastic foxhunter, claimed, “More than 30,000 elephants were killed last year, amounting to nearly 100 deaths per day.”
President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, addressing the same conference, asserted that “a new census at the Selous-Mikumi ecosystem revealed the elephant population had gone down to just 13,084 from 38,975 in 2009.” These figures are included in numbers of elephants in Tanzania.
Kikwete, shortly after sounding nice in London, issued a Hunting Permit to eight members of the family of billionaire Thomas Friedkin to kill for pleasure 204 animals including eight elephants. The online version of the Guardian in an article published on February 1st 2016revealed that Gower recently came to “Tanzania to work for the Friedkin Conservation Fund.”
What is Friedkin Conservation Fund? Thomas Friedkin started a game hunting company in Botswana in 1972. In 1989, he chose to hunt in Tanzania and after purchasing a preserve there, began Tanzania Game Tracker Safaris (TGTS). TGTS make profits by selling game hunting for fun trips. The company “returns some profits [from killing animals and donations]through the Friedkin Conservation Fund, a non-governmental organization established in 1994.”
Trophy hunters and all the Friedkins of this world think, with their heads on the ground and feet in the air, that by killing elephants for fun they are helping preserve elephants.
It is not only elephants that the trophy hunting industry kills. They also illegally bait and kill lions. The Western press shed crocodile’s tears when Cecil the Lion was shot in Zimbabwe. Yet suddenly, following the downing of the ill-fated chopper, it started heaping praises on the Friedkins.
Land grabbing and evictions – in the name of conservation
The second issue is unparalleled land grabbing in the area in question. Moringe Parkipuny (in his unpublished MA Thesis titled ‘Maasai Predicament Beyond Pastoralism‘ dated 1975) and Prof. Jan Shetler (in her book Imagining Serengeti) documented in shocking details how Prof. Bernhard Grzimek, a soldier and one-time member of the Nazi Party, led the eviction of the Maasai and other tribes to give room for the creation of Serengeti National Park in 1958.
Tanzania has set aside 40% of her territory for wildlife conservation. This is in the form of national parks, a conservation area, game reserves, forest reserves, game controlled areas and marine parks. By comparison, continental United States, one of the countries supporting preservation initiatives in Tanzania, has set aside less than 4% of her land for conservation.
Third, there is discontent in villages on the fringes of Serengeti National Park. Tension springs from creation of new forms of wildlife protected areas in territories belonging to indigenous peoples.
In 1998, for example, Frankfurt Zoological Society, a Germany-based not-for-profit wildlife preservation agency, spearheaded creation of Makao Wildlife Management Area in Meatu District. Irambandogo, Mwangudo, Makao, Sapa, Jinamo, Mwabagimu and Mbushi Villages lost over 47,000 acres of ancestral land to the new form of preservation.
In 2011 the worst eviction took place. In the name of wildlife preservation Mwiba Holdings Limited and TGTS, banding together like poisonous worms, worked together to see Hadza hunter-gatherers, Datoga pastoralists and Sukuma agro-pastoralists brutally evicted from Makao Wildlife Management Area.
Court cases were fabricated against many indigenous people. Courts freed many of them after long legal battles. Some, like Masunga Luchemba, is in remand for four years now facing a murder case. Normally a murder suspected cannot be bailed in Tanzania.
Often people disappear in this part of the world. Two brothers Gineau Gidahasi and Gitienga Gidahasi went missing in 2015. Villagers level accusing fingers to Mwiba Holdings which in turns strenuously denies any wrong doing. The missing young men are presumed dead.
The foreign press has massive space to flood with crocodile tears following deaths of Gower and Kock but the same hardly publishes anything about local victims of conservation in Tanzania.
Elitism and the white saviour complex
Fourth, Nelson Mandela once said that a protected area in Africa “is a preserve of a rich elite.” He got it right.
The Greater Serengeti Region is immensely a popular destination of the privileged of this world. These include Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton. Others are Bill Gates, Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in Asia, Roman Abromovich, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Andrew Young, Chris Tucker, John Wayne, Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie and many others.
Lastly, but in way least, is the chronic racism in the wildlife and tourism sectors in Tanzania. If names are any indication Roger Gower and Nicky Bester are people of European stock. To be sure, it is impossible not to notice that famous wildlife preservationists working in Africa, and especially Eastern and Southern Africa, are white.
Think of Mike Fay, Jane Goodall, George and Joy Adamsons, Bernhard and Michael Grzimek, Diane Fossey, the Leakeys, Delia and Mark Owens, David Western, Moss, Joyce Poole, the Douglas-Hamiltons, Jean and Mathieu Laboureur, Bill Webber, Craig Packer, Ian Redmond, Amy Vedder and the new species.
In his groundbreaking book, Celebrity and the Environment, published in 2009 Prof. Daniel Brockington, Director of Sheffield Institute for International Development asks:
“Why, in Africa, should this domain be dominated by white people? In South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya conservation was and often still is dominated by the descendants of white settlers.”
It is not because there are no indigenous African conservationists, for they are numerous. It is because in the dominant paradigm of conservation indigenous Africans can take on only three roles: as ‘poachers‘; as ‘squatters’; and as obedient servants of their white masters.
And it is because the African approach to conservation is a very different one to the élite European, colonial, fortress model that began with hunting reserves for the exclusive sport of white hunters: one in which people and wildlife co-exist in harmony as we have done for millennia.
It is high time for Africans to set out a new narrative of conservation. One that resonates with our people; inspires engagement, especially from the young; which recognises our achievements and heroism; and which, alone, can ensure the survival of of our great continent’s natural heritage – because it is our own.
Navaya ole Ndaskoi is a Maasai Custodian of Relevant Knowledge. He is an esteemed news analyst in the areas of social justice, pastoralism, conservation and tourism. His shattering articles have been published by NewAfrican, the London-based best selling pan-African magazine, and the highly circulating weekly newspaper in Tanzania called RaiaMwema.