When the desire to be both conservative and outrageous overtops the need for objective reporting you get … Ivo Vegter.
Month after month in Daily Maverick and occasionally elsewhere, Vegter bolts another bit of doubtful scaffolding to the unsustainable free-market edifice with the dedication of a hired gun.
Our local representative of the Christopher Hitchens school of political and economic contrariness writes well, of course, but does leave himself open to being called out on his manipulation of truth and dubiousness of sources. It’s happened before and I’m going to do it again.
In a review of Vegter’s book, Extreme Environment, Mail & Guardian’s environmental writer Sipho Kings took him to task for cherry-picking facts to support his argument and world view. “He cites enough information to overwhelm the opposition,” said Kings, “It is how he wins arguments.” In a reply, Vegter deeply resented the claim that he was a cherry-picker.
In writing about the Deepwater Horizon that spilled tonnes of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, Kings noted that Vegter, an environmental writer, didn’t castigate BP for trashing the Gulf so much as environmentalists and media for their alarmist pronouncements and headlines.
Kings also noted that Vegter spent 39 pages dismissing the entirety of science that proves humans are driving climate change. A source for this dismissal was evidently a documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle, which was so riddled with problems that Channel 4 in the United Kingdom apologised for airing it.
In a vitriolic rebuttal of an article by David Bilchitz, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Johannesburg who traces the links between rhino trophy hunting and poaching, Vegter focuses on Bilchitz’s lesser point of animal rights and ignores the main point.
This is contained in Bilchitz’s question: “Why should poor individuals in Mozambique refrain from killing rhinos to support their families when wealthy Americans, Europeans and Asians are granted permits to shoot them on the game farms of wealthy South Africans?” It’s a fair question.
Vegter quotes economist Michael t’Sas-Rolfes, a noted promoter of selling animal parts to save animals, as having “clear evidence that strong property rights and market incentives constitute the most sensible model of rhino conservation”. There’s no such thing as clear evidence. (see here)
There’s a big difference between selling rhinos to save them at a time when poaching was low to selling their horns into a market where these are now worth more by weight than gold.
It’s cheaper to poach than breed, so why would the poaching stop if trade in horn was legalised? It would simply stimulate a bottomless Asian market, provide an avenue for laundering illicit horn and increase the possibilities for corruption.
Vegter, however, calls Bilchitz’s paper “absurd philosophical sophistry” and “intellectual masturbation”.
He quotes the sale of South American vicuña as a success story to follow in an approach to rhino conservation, but fails to mention that marketing vicuña wool in an effort to stop poaching has become a disaster.
When I asked one of the conservationists who initiated the vicuña marketing process, Professor Christian Bonacic of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile, about the trade, he said (I quote from my recording): “We thought that after legalising the trade, communities would protect vicuña from poachers because of the economic benefits. But as soon as trade resumed, massive poaching started up again.”
What got me going, however, was Vegter’s recent take on elephants, which must qualify as the sin he attributes to Bilchitz: absurd philosophical sophistry. In an article in Daily Maverick entitled How ‘endangered’ species destroy the environment, the major destroyers turn out to be animal rights activists and unculled elephants.
His core assertion is that elephant populations in southern and eastern Africa are booming, threatening the collapse of ecosystems, and should be culled. The reason they’re not being and the reason they’re listed as endangered is because of the influence of urban “greenies and animal-rightists” who don’t understand wildlife management.
Here’s an aside before I continue. A journalist cannot possibly know all the facts of what they report. This is especially true of an environmental journalist reporting on areas where science, complex research, geographical differences, politics, international treaties and financial considerations intersect.
To inform the public usefully and honestly, you need to interview specialists in the many fields and consult often long, complicated reports, websites and books. Therefore the public is, in a sense, the victim of the journalist’s choice of sources.
A key source to whom Vegter says he is “indebted… for much if the information in this column” is a hunter named Ron Thompson and his book Elephant Conservation.
When Vegter gives the unsourced assurance that “experts agree”, this is his expert who – according to elephant scientist Professor Rudi van Aarde (who holds the chair of Conservation Ecology at Pretoria University) – has never published in a peer-reviewed journal, where real science is reported.
“His work was published by himself,” Van Aarde commented when I asked him about Thompson, “and hasn’t a thread of science to support it.”
Thompson undoubtedly knows about culling and killing, however. According to his website he has spent 25,000 hours in pursuit of Africa’s elephants and has killed “more that 5,000 elephants, 800 buffalo, 50/60 lions, 30/40 leopards, about 50 hippos – and many more”.
After that carnage, his views on the conservation of wildlife are hardly the best source to stem the massive destruction of elephants currently taking place on the continent. For Thompson, as with Vegter, the problem is not the insatiable demand in Asia for ivory stimulated by rising wealth in China and one-off sales in the past, but again the “greenies”, and I quote him:
“We have been trying to carry too many elephants for far too long in practically every national park in Africa – for the purpose of satisfying the needs of tourism and for satisfying the emotional and irrational needs of urban people world-wide. For this we have the animal rights brigade to thank!” (link)
Scientific research, seemingly, is irrelevant to Thompson and in terms of elephant numbers, poaching seems more of a solution than a problem. It just needs to be directed to the overpopulated areas.
When the US banned the import of elephant trophies from Zimbabwe, Thompson fired off a letter to President Obama, the gist of which can be expressed as a syllogism:
- There are too many elephants in Africa, and they should be killed.
- Hunters kill elephants.
- Therefore, hunting is good.
Being an environmental journalist and not an expert, I put these questions to people who are specialists, asking them:
- How many elephants are there in Africa?
- Are there too many elephants in eastern and southern Africa as Vegter claims?
- Do elephants destroy ecosystems?
- Is culling a solution to population growth?
Vegter bases his population estimates on a 2006 count which is 10 years out of date (why?). There is much more recent information.
The first reliable estimate of Africa’s elephants was conducted from 1976 to 1979 by the Kenyan elephant conservationist Ian Douglas-Hamilton. The total at that point he estimated at 1.3-million. By the early 1990s this number was found to have more than halved to 600,000.
Results of the Great Elephant Census, undertaken by Elephants Without Borders in conjunction with the Paul Allen Foundation and co-ordinated over 20 elephant-range countries, will be out later this year and will be the best shot we have at total numbers.
Preliminary results show slight increases in South Africa and Zambia (though an 85% decline in Zambia’s southern Sioma Ngwezi National Park), and a relatively stable situation in Botswana and Zimbabwe (though a 72% decline in the Zambezi Valley).
Tanzania, however, has lost 53% of its elephants to poaching in six years (109,000 to 51,000). Selous Game Reserve lost 95% of its elephants in the past three decades, from 120 000 to just 7,000.
In the last five years, Mozambique lost 48% of its elephants, with the Niassa region in the north crashing by 63% in just three years. In terms of overall population decline, the most severe poaching has been of forest elephants, which declined by 63% between 2002 and 2012.
As elephant numbers along the eastern regions become scarcer, poaching has moved south, with Kruger having lost 42 elephants in the past 12 months.
Timothy Kuiper, WESSA’s project officer on elephant monitoring, told me that according to most recent estimates by the CITES Monitoring of the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE), in the three years between 2010 and 2012, over 100,000 elephants were poached in Africa, 41,000 of them in southern Africa.
“This averages to about 13,600 killed a year (37 a day) in southern Africa alone, which is similar to the birth rate,” said Kuiper. “Considering this, alongside natural mortalities, it means that poaching is very close to unsustainable in southern Africa. If it grows, it will start causing larger declines in elephant numbers in the region. So Vegter’s point that elephants in southern Africa are doing extremely well (too well) is not supported by more recent data.”
According to Marion Garaï, head of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, between 2010 and 2012, across the entire continent, elephant poaching has overtaken the birthrate. During that period, an elephant was killed by poachers, on average, every 16 minutes. A report by Interpol estimates that, in the past 10 years, two-thirds of African elephants have been decimated by poaching.
Garaï added shocking figures for central Africa: “In the past 10 years the population there has declined by 62%, with Gabon’s Minkebe National Park population of forest elephants dropping from 22,000 to 7,000. Garamba National Park in the DRC has had a 50% decline in five years.” Vegter, she concluded, quotes antiquated data.
So elephant populations in Africa are far from booming. According to Van Aarde, “for the 70 populations for which we have good time series data, we know that 18 have been stable and only five increased exponentially. The remainder are declining. Vegter’s assertion that there were 207,000 elephants in Botswana in 2013 is simply incorrect. The number in that year was 130,000, has been at that level since 1996 and is a stable population.’
Vegter’s claim that Hwange National Park has 50,000 elephants and is “dangerously overstocked” is also false. The latest survey by the Zimbabwe Wildlife and Environment organisation last year found 20,373.
Another of Vegter’s claims – that elephants in southern and east Africa are about to overwhelm their ecosystems – was strongly countered by Van Aarde. He dismissed as a thumb-suck Vegter’s assertion that elephants are a threat to other animals and plants by “taking down” an environment: “Ecosystems don’t collapse,” he said, “they change in response to disturbances.”
Sam Ferreira, Sanparks large mammal ecologist and a world expert on elephant management, said he found an environmental journalist using Thompson’s work to justify culling to be irresponsible. He explained that environmental disturbance took many forms – fire, floods, droughts – of which elephants form a small part. “Disturbance by elephants… contributes to environmental heterogeneity and hence environmental resilience.”
Sanparks suspended culling in 1994, not because of pressure from “greenies”, but because solid science pioneered by Van Aarde and others discovered there was a better way. They found that elephant numbers were related to access to water, so provision of boreholes throughout Kruger was leading to an expanding population.
The solution was simple. Kruger began closing boreholes, leaving elephants to deal with their environment with less human intervention. Longer trips to water together with times of drought increased calf mortality and reduced herd expansion. It was also found that as herd densities increased, elephant population growth decreased. In other words, natural pressures reduced elephant birthrates. Kruger’s elephant population has stabilised at about 17,000.
Ferreira told me that culling had been instituted initially to avoid ecological impact, but research had found that vegetation change was not effected by elephant densities. Longer trips to water also spread the browsing load on trees, improving biome resilience.
These solutions do not hold for small, private reserves, some of which are, essentially, large zoos. Without a plan, elephant numbers will increase. Poor micromanagement, however, is not an excuse to cull elephants across the subcontinent.
So I am left with a puzzle about Ivo Vegter. South Africa has some of the top elephant specialists in the world who were happy to respond to my questions. He must know these people exist, but instead he uses an unscientific, ageing elephant killer to justify his argument to cull. It is, as Sipho Kings said, cherry-picking information sources. But to what end? This remains a question anyone reading Vegter’s columns needs to ask. DM
Postscript: Dear Ivo, if you plan to write a column supporting legal trade in ivory before the forthcoming CITES meeting in Johannesberg, read this first: Does legalisation reduce black market activity? Evidence from a global ivory experiment and elephant poaching data.