An elephant’s worth is like everything in life – it is worth more to some than others. There are those who love elephants so much that they could never put a value on them – they believe elephants are priceless. Then there are those who like elephants but have never given much, if any thought, to their value. Then there are those who may not like elephants at all, like those who have had their crops destroyed and livelihood threatened by elephants, and simply wish they were gone.
So how do you value an elephant? Do you see elephants as intrinsically valuable, intelligent and majestic in their own right? Do you base an elephant’s value on how much someone is willing to pay for one? How much someone is willing to pay to see one? To kill one?
There are many ways to value animals, and the value we assign to animals tends to determine how far we are willing to go to protect them. When animal advocates made it clear earlier this year that the current administration wasn’t doing enough to protect elephants, Trump responded by creating the International Wildlife Conservation Commission, established to report on the benefits of hunting wild elephants in certain African countries. Every member of the IWCC is pro-hunting, and nearly all of the members have strong ties to organizations like Safari Club International or the National Rifle Association - one of the members, Peter Horn, even co-owns a private hunting reserve in upstate New York with Eric Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. These groups value animals, and elephants in particular, based on the size of their trophies.
Evidence of this can be found in the group’s most recent meeting transcript, in which the majority of input from IWCC members centered on how to get trophies through border control quickly and easily, and how to convince the public that ending hunting operations in some African countries would be the end of the world for those villages (in the process, openly mocking true animal advocates). Sadly, the Associated Press reported one member, Cameron Hanes, as stating that “hunting allows animals such as elephants to ‘have value,’” indicating that an elephant’s only value is its trophy.
From the beginning, the IWCC has focused only on the monetary value of an elephant hunt, not the value of the elephant itself. The IWCC fails to consider what would happen if true conservation measures, aiming to keep elephants alive, were implemented. It also fails to account for the fact that an elephant can only be killed once, giving it a one-time, finite fiscal worth in terms of hunting. An elephant can be photographed, studied, glimpsed, washed or fed in some sanctuaries, and otherwise enjoyed over and over during its lifetime, but it can only be killed once.
So, assuming the only way to value an elephant is in terms of how much money it will bring to the surrounding community, how do we compare the value of a living elephant to a dead one?
In African countries, elephants are typically allowed to roam, either in the wild, or in national parks, or reserves. They are suffering due to poaching, hunting, and human-elephant conflict. Because wild lands where elephants once roamed free are being taken over by human development, elephants and humans are increasingly at odds with one another. Elephants pose a safety hazard to villagers and can also pose an economic one when they eat or trample crops.
In Zambia, 42 communities have coalesced to allow “consumptive tourism,” meaning hunting, where fees from hunting are split. A large percentage, 50% as of 2002, remits to the national government “through the Department of National Park and Wildlife Services.” That money would then be used for “natural resource management.” The individual community would receive the other 50%. The community’s 50% share would be further split up between the community leader, or “patron;” the Community Resource Board administration; assault protection; and the rest to community development projects. Assuming a hunter would be able to return to the U.S. with a trophy, he or she would pay, in rare cases, up to $100,000. (If the US bans trophy imports, the amount a hunter is willing to pay plummets).
The iWorry campaign by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust estimated that a living elephant brought in almost $1.6 million over its lifetime in ecotourism dollars through places like Kruger National Park in South Africa or Amboseli National Park in Kenya. That’s because, while each photo-snapping tourist may pay fewer dollars to potentially see an elephant than a hunter would to kill an elephant, that income can be repeated as long as the elephant is alive. A hunted elephant, in contrast, means a one-time injection of cash into a community.
Big game hunters, like the ones that make up the IWCC, want us to think that hunting is the best way to save elephants, because of the money that is injected into the communities. The reality is that these communities are often poor, and lack the resources that more developed, tourist-friendly countries have. Compare Zambia and Zimbabwe, which allow hunting, to South Africa and Kenya, who have huge national parks and reputable tourism industries. For example, in Botswana, the president issued a moratorium on elephant hunting and demanded that villages transform into tourist-friendly places instead, but the government failed to provide money with which to make this happen. Of course, his plan failed. But with proper investment, these communities could have seen exponentially more income from their live elephants from tourism, rather than a few one-time payments from elephant hunters. It just takes investment.
In poor communities, the environment is rough, which is exciting for a hunter but uncomfortable and intimidating for a tourist. It takes money for communities to become tourist-friendly, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or that it’s not worth doing. It should also be noted that many times, the elephants that are hunted are older bull elephants, who are no longer breeding and therefore would not contribute to population growth. That’s what the IWCC said, anyway. I don’t know about you, but I would be thrilled to pay to see a bull elephant roaming in the wild, as many times as I could afford to. So, the argument that hunting an elephant is somehow more understandable just because the lone male elephant is past breeding age, is not convincing. Should all elephants not be valued equally?
Even assuming a hunter pays the highest price to hunt an elephant, $100,000, that still pales in comparison to the $1.6 million a living elephant can bring in over its lifetime.
Elephants in southeast Asian countries like Myanmar and Thailand have a much different story. These countries have both wild and domestic elephant populations, and both are in trouble. In Thailand, there are three times as many elephants in domesticity as in the wild. And domestic elephants need to be cared for by humans, which costs money.
Domestic elephants traditionally had a working relationship with humans until very recently. For example, in Thailand, elephants were historically used as logging animals, until timber logging was outlawed in 1989. As logging animals, they were privately owned and cared for by mahouts. When logging was outlawed, the elephants and mahouts were put out of work, and had to resort to tourism, show business, or begging to make ends meet. This often leads to abusive training practices, poor nutrition and medical care, and overworked elephants. Most of these elephants cannot be returned to the wild, mostly because there is almost no “wild” left for them to inhabit, and because they have been domesticated and therefore need human care.
While caring for elephants used to be a respectable career, passed down from father to son, it is now considered a low-skilled job and it doesn’t pay well. However, these mahouts often aren’t trained to do anything else, and furthermore, they don’t want to abandon their elephants. Thus, the choice is not so much between hunting dollars and eco-tourism dollars, as it is between eco-tourism dollars and abusive and harmful tourism dollars.
This is why funding sanctuaries is so important. While many experts say elephant rides and other instances of elephants working are not inherently evil, the low profits from these activities sometimes lead mahouts and other employers to overwork the elephants to make more money. When the sanctuary’s focus is the proper treatment of and care for the elephants, facilitated by paid mahouts, both the elephant and mahout benefit.
But, as is becoming brutally clear, economic and political instability makes it difficult to establish a healthy tourism industry. This is globally applicable. Consider a hunter, who expects to wade through marshes and experience a little bit of danger on his or her expedition, versus a tourist with a camera, who is likely expecting to feel safe and relatively comfortable on his or her journey. Eco-friendly tourism requires reliable infrastructure, something many of these politically and economically unstable countries don’t have.
Stability, infrastructure, safety – all of these aspects depend on the state of the human population in these places. We can’t make the animals safer unless we invest in the people. In African countries, villagers won’t care about protecting elephants if they can’t feed their families. In Asian countries, mahouts can’t give elephants proper nutrition and medical care if they can’t feed themselves or their families. To protect elephants and other wild animals, we have to invest in the people who interact with them. Not because we have to, but because we want to, and we can’t assume someone else will. The first priority is always people. But where people and elephants live in close proximity, these dueling priorities can form one, shared priority.
That’s why The Elephant Project is the answer, world-wide. Villagers won’t need to rely on hunting dollars or the meat from elephant kills when The Elephant Project invests in every aspect of their lives, building on the five pillars, including Communities/Sanctuaries, Research, Retail, Education, and Collaboration. The Elephant Project values elephants based on how a sustainable elephant population can benefit the people and environment. Sustainability is key, and hunting elephants simply doesn’t compare to lasting, humane economic investment in the land, people, and wildlife in these countries.
Creating a safe haven for elephants, where they are heavily guarded against poachers, where hunting isn’t necessary, and where human-elephant conflict is rare, if not eradicated, elephant families will flourish, exponentially increasing their value to the community. The denser the elephant population in an area, the more tourists are willing to spend for a chance to see them in their natural habitat. The more elephants we can monitor, the more we can learn about them. The faster we can stop poaching. The faster we can make the relationship between elephants and humans a symbiotic and mutually beneficial relationship. But that comes from investing in the people as much as in the elephants, which is what The Elephant Project is doing. We want, and the world needs, living, breathing, majestic elephants, and we need the IWCC to change its valuation metric to consider the best options rather than putting their hobbies first. A live elephant is more valuable, intrinsically and economically, than a dead one.