Skimming rapidly over the surface of my written work, Don Pinnock launched a scathing attack on me. What got him going, he says, was my recent column which argues that elephant overpopulation threatens the ecosystems of many reserves. His article demands a comprehensive response. Since his column is rather unfocused, I’ll start at the top and work my way down.
In his headline, he accuses me of “fractious fulminations”. Luckily, I used to read the dictionary for fun as a child, so I’m aware that fractious means: inclined to make trouble, unruly, having a peevish nature, cranky, irritable, readily angered, and quarrelsome. It also means “stubbornly resistant to authority or control”, which is actually true, unlike the ad hominem slights on my character. Fulmination is to issue a thunderous or explosive verbal attack or denunciation. If we don’t quibble about whether writing constitutes a verbal attack, a good and beautifully ironic example would be Pinnock’s own column.
In the first sentence of his introduction, he commits his first lie, by saying I pass myself off as an environmental journalist. I have never described myself as such, not even on the jacket of my book about the environmental movement. I describe myself as a columnist who writes about many subjects, one of which happens to be environmentalism.
I deny the accusation of being “conservative”. My strong faith in both scientific progress and human liberty means I’m resolutely anti-conservative. Sadly, the adjectives “progressive” and “liberal” were taken by people who really are conservative and illiberal, whom I also oppose, so I’ve had to make do with the term “libertarian” when a simplistic label is needed. I also deny the accusation of being a “hired gun”, since I am resolutely independent, much to my bank manager’s chagrin.
I find the comparison between my modest work and that of the late, great Christopher Hitchens immensely flattering. All I can say about that is that you don’t spell his surname “Hitchings”, as any journalist worth his salt would know.
But enough about me. Pinnock cites one of the few negative reviews of my book, Extreme Environment, written back in 2013 by Sipho Kings. Without any apparent sense of irony, he notes that it accused me of cherry-picking. He writes: “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.”
But that is not true. Both in my book, and in my column on the subject written shortly after the accident, I agreed that it was serious, and that BP and its contractors failed on several levels. My point was that it wasn’t as apocalyptic as environmental doom-mongers would have had you believe. Just as much as BP tried to play down the seriousness of the accident, environmentalists were exaggerating it for their own ends. The central thesis in my book was to distrust environmentalists just as much as you would distrust corporate spin. I certainly did not hold BP blameless.
The deliberate misinterpretation of the term “exaggerate” is a common theme with Pinnock. When I say someone exaggerates environmental impact, Pinnock creates a straw man, saying I don’t care about it, or even that I claim there is no impact at all. As he vindictively says in his introduction, I “back the rights of those with money and power to destroy the environment”.
No, I don’t. I always, repeatedly, and explicitly, advocate for the responsible management of the environment as a healthy, productive resource. I also always say that companies ought to be held accountable for their mistakes, and face both criminal and civil consequences, if necessary. What I never advocate, however, is environmental destruction. Saying otherwise is just dishonest.
Pinnock then claims that the source for my chapter on global warming was a documentary, The Great Global Warming Swindle (which is a little dated but still recommended viewing). Pinnock has obviously not read my book, preferring to trust that single negative review. It said that I “freely quoted” from this documentary, but even that is not true. My book contains one quotation from one person in that film, namely Nigel Calder, former editor of New Scientist magazine, to the effect that global warming provides a great motivation in research funding proposals.
The rest of the chapter was based on the work of numerous other scientists and media sources, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The chapter has several pages worth of source citations in small print. For someone who accuses me of cherry-picking, Kings made an inexusable generalisation from a single quotation. Pinnock took this second-hand information and further generalised it to suggest 39 pages of my book were based on a single source. This is an outright lie.
In trying to discredit the film, he cites a letter to the BBC’s Channel 4 from George Monbiot, complaining that it was screened as part of the same series as one of his own films about climate change policy. Monbiot makes a few vague allegations about inaccuracies in the film, but every documentary has its problems and this one certainly has its critics; a single journalist’s complaint to the BBC hardly discredits the entire thing. Even if it does, it would in no way affect the validity of the specific quotation I used from it.
Pinnock proceeds to say, again quoting Kings, that I spent this chapter “dismissing the entirety of science that proves humans are driving climate change”. That is also untrue. What I did was to cite several high-profile examples of exaggeration and unethical behaviour in climate science, in support of the need for scepticism about climate change alarmism and caution in supporting expensive policies to counter climate change. I included several outright admissions from highly influential people, like James Lovelock, author of one of environmentalism’s gospels, The Gaia Hypothesis, that history has proven their predictions about climate change to have been exaggerated. I wrote that climate change is real and human activity no doubt contributes to it, but that this does not mean it is a looming catastrophe that can only be avoided by imposing costly preventative measures upon the world.
Saying the threat of climate change has been exaggerated and is not a crisis that warrants onerous rules and regulations is a far cry from dismissing the entirety of climate science. Fitting the pattern he’s established, Pinnock creates the straw man that I said climate change isn’t real at all, simply because I said it might not be as bad as we’ve been led to believe by green groups, the media and some high-profile scientists. This is dishonest, but it is a hallmark of environmentalist rhetoric about anyone who dares to question the threat climate change poses, or what the appropriate policy response might be: just call them science deniers, and so discredit everything they say. Unlike me, Pinnock does pass himself off as an environmental journalist, so parroting the green movement’s PR talking points does not do him credit.
In my article disputing David Bilchick’s view, that calling for the protection of rhinos as a species contradicts the government’s stated policy of sustainable consumptive use, Pinnock says that I addressed only his lesser point about animal rights. Conveniently, he did not link to my column, but even if you read only Bilchick’s piece you’ll note that his entire argument is predicated on this supposed lesser point: that one cannot protect a species without protecting each individual that makes up that species. My piece argues why this is a fallacy.
As for the question that Pinnock thinks is more worthy of an answer, why we should deny poachers the right to harvest game if we permit hunters to do so, the answer is simple: property rights. If you own cattle, you may milk them or slaughter them at your own discretion. Others may not. Being the owner of the cattle farm means you’ll want to ensure the sustainability of your herd, because it is the source of your future income. Others might neither know nor care about the well-being of your herd, and in any case have no rights to it. There is no rational reason to believe game is any different from domesticated animals in this regard.
He criticises my reliance on the decades-long work of respected environmental economist Michael t’Sas-Rolfes, providing only a single link to an article by “specialist guide, safari operator, photo-journalist and consultant” Ian Michler, who in turn cites a single study which criticises the theoretical models upon which economic projections about rhino horn trade are based.
Economic projections are, of course, inherently uncertain. This is why central planning has never worked. No single person or group of people has the prescience to reliably foresee what might happen in a market. But this is equally true of the economic theory that is used to argue against trade in rhino horn, and the conclusions of the paper Michler cites reflect that uncertainty.
While we’re on the subject of Michler, he elsewhere relied on an anti-trade report commissioned and funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which is an animal rights organisation doctrinally opposed to trade in or consumptive use of wildlife products. I debunked that column in detail, emphasising a point I frequently make: that trade in rhino horn is not a panacea that will magically stop poaching, just as legal trade in beef and leather does not stop cattle poaching. Trade can, however, improve incentives and resources to protect rhino, which might reduce the existential threat to the survival of the species. This is preferable to the status quo of trade prohibition, because it is clearly not working.
Before Pinnock gets to the meat of his critique, he criticises my use of the vicuña as an example of a species that has been brought back from the brink of extinction by conferring legal ownership on communities and legalising the trade in its products. This is one of the rare success stories cited by the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Another is crocodiles. Both species are doing well not despite being farmed for commercial purposes, but because they’re being farmed.
He claims, citing a conservationist involved with the vicuña, that after the population grew enough to render them out of danger of extinction, trade in vicuña products has “become a disaster”. But the article to which Pinnock links provides no evidence at all for this opinion. Worse, it gets the current population of vicuña entirely wrong. Instead of 200,000, which Pinnock’s source quotes, the IUCN Red List reports the vicuña’s present population as 347,273. It is classified as being of “least concern”, and its current population trend is increasing. Clearly, the “disaster” is news to the IUCN.
Finally, we get to the elephant conservation question. You might suspect by now that I wouldn’t consider Pinnock’s criticisms to be made in good faith. And indeed, this turns out to be the case.
For example, he identifies Ron Thomson as a hunter, but neglects to acknowledge that Thomson has 57 years of experience managing wildlife, 30 years of which he spent working for National Parks Boards in Zimbabwe and South Africa actually managing elephants and other big game. Thomson is a practical conservationist, not an ivory-tower scientist. The critique that he hasn’t published in peer-reviewed journals is a crass attempt to dismiss as irrelevant his vast practical experience in the field.
The expert Pinnock quotes to support this criticism of Thomson’s book is also revealing. Professor Rudi van Aarde is the driving force behind the cessation of culling in the Kruger National Park, and his academic credentials are impeccable, as Thomson himself notes in his book. But Pinnock omits to mention that Van Aarde comes in for scathing and sustained criticism from Thomson, in particular for accepting sponsorship monies from the animal rights activist group IFAW for the Conservation Ecology Research Unit he heads at the University of Pretoria. The book is also highly critical of the “starvation management programme” Van Aarde imposed upon the elephants in the Kruger National Park, and for claiming that this population has now stabilised, as if “stable” is synonymous with “sustainable”.
Given that Thomson’s book attacks Van Aarde directly, the latter’s opinion of the book is hardly a matter of academic neutrality. Yet Pinnock either does not know this, or does not believe his readers need to know it.
Pinnock accuses me of failing to name sources when I say “experts agree” with Thomson, but I extensively quoted the IUCN, and linked to academic papers supporting the central thesis of Thomson’s book, namely that elephant overpopulation is a threat to biodiversity. That makes his accusation patently false. It is also easy to find more support, both academic and even among environmental groups, for the view that elephant overpopulation is a problem in some game reserves.
The WWF quoted Dr Hector Magome, conservation services director of SANParks, saying exactly what Thomson argues: “With a natural growth rate of 6% to 8% a year, the population currently has the potential to double their numbers every decade. Increasing numbers of elephants are causing major changes to the vegetation of the park, destroying trees and reducing habitat available for other wildlife species. When elephant numbers go up, tree numbers go down. At what point do you want to stop that?”
To repeat what I wrote about the official IUCN Red List data, it says that elephant populations are increasing overall, thanks to growing populations in southern Africa and some in East Africa, which offset losses elsewhere. And to repeat Thomson’s key point about overpopulation: elephants ought to be managed as individual populations instead of as a species as a whole. Treating the entire species as endangered is not helpful, since populations that are under threat require very different management practices from those that are healthy and safe. Doing so actually causes harm to ecosystems.
This is relevant in light of the barrage of statistics that Pinnock proceeds to quote. First, he says that I quoted outdated population statistics, and ignored more recent data. But he promptly goes on to say: “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.”
Yeah, that’s what I said. Perhaps more recent data about specific populations can be found in scattered studies and draft reports, but if Pinnock wants to take issue with the official data I used from the Red List, he should take it up with the IUCN.
It is true, as Pinnock points out, that differing estimates exist about some specific populations, but that hardly amounts to error on the part of Thomson, or me. The claims about Hwangwe National Park from a former manager of the park should carry some weight, and despite the number Pinnock cites (from a waterhole count which I could only find reported as 22,414), Thomson’s estimate of 50,000 head is bang in between the 54,000 espoused by Zimbabwe’s minister for the environment, water and climate, Saviour Kasukuwere, and the 45,000 estimate contained in Elephants and woody vegetation around water in Hwangwe National Park, a 2012 academic book by Kanisios Mukwashi from the University of Zimbabwe. Perhaps not all the elephants kindly presented themselves at waterholes for counting.
Mukwashi’s book addresses the damage caused by elephant overpopulation in great detail, and confirms Thomson’s thesis that high elephant densities in nature reserves cause the overutilisation of woodlands. As for specific population statistics, the book says: “[M]ost of the population estimates are wild guesses and conservationists questioned population estimates. Recent data on continental elephant population trends is scarce.”
As for the population size in Botswana, an article in National Geographic suggests that the estimate Pinnock used comes from an aerial survey conducted in 2010, which counted only 130,000 elephants in that country. That would suggest a population that has stabilised over the last decade. I quoted Thomson, who wrote that the Botswana government in 2013 reported an elephant population of 207,000. Indeed, the Aerial Census of Animals in Botswana/Dry Season 2012 reported a figure of 207,545. (I cannot find the document online, perhaps because of a misconfigured government server for the Botswana Environmental Information System, but besides the National Geographic article above, it has also been widely reported elsewhere.) Preliminary data from the Great Elephant Census appears to revert back to a count of 129,939, without any explanation for the high 2012 figure reported by Botswana in 2013. I’m willing to accept that the 207,000 number might have been an error on the part of the Botswana government, but I wouldn’t blame Thomson for quoting it, nor is there firm evidence to refute it. Either way, whether the population increased by a factor of 2.5 or four since 1992, when it stood at around 50,000, makes little difference to the observation that Botswana’s elephant population is robust and healthy.
Whatever the absolute populations in Botswana and Zimbabwe’s Hwangwe National Park, they do not counter the claim that both Chobe and Hwangwe host more elephants than their ecologies can handle, as reported in the scientific literature. However, there is a reason Pinnock might want to quote selective newer data from draft reports. Doing so allows him to cherry-pick his data.
In an attempt to undermine Thomson’s claim that many major elephant populations are healthy, and sometimes exceed the carrying capacity of their game reserves, he mostly cites numbers of elephant populations in decline. But that doesn’t prove Thomson wrong at all. Pinnock appears to either misrepresent what Thomson, and I, wrote, or he has fallen for a trivial logical fallacy which an experienced journalist should be expected to avoid.
Nobody suggested that threatened populations do not exist, or should not be actively protected. Thomson explicitly distinguishes between safe and unsafe populations. The point is that some populations are not threatened, and those populations should not be managed as if they are. When wildlife organisations and scientists advocate contraception for elephants – an extremely arduous, expensive and impractical measure – they implicitly acknowledge that overpopulation is a problem in some regions. Showing that it isn’t a problem in some other regions, as Pinnock does, does not undermine this claim. In fact, it reinforces the idea that different populations should have different conservation statuses and different management policies.
He goes on to quote Van Aarde again, suggesting that ecosystems merely “change in response to circumstances”. This contradicts an established body of science about the ecosystem damage, especially to large trees, caused by elephant overpopulation. When the largest land-bound herbivores on Earth run rampant, sure, nature will eventually respond by starving them. But the very same lack of browse that would starve the elephants has serious repercussions for the rest of the ecosystem. Perhaps scientists don’t agree on the extent of the damage, or the time it would take to recover, but that an academic of Van Aarde’s stature lightly dismisses this as a non-issue is revealing, given his close association with animal rights activists like IFAW.
Finally, in a postscript, Pinnock touches on the question of whether legalisation of trade in ivory would reduce black market activity. The problem with the “experiment” that suggests it doesn’t is that it involved a once-off auction by governments in 2008. Such an auction does not a market make. As I put it in a 2013 column on exactly this subject, “Putting a toe in the water makes it seem colder than it really is.”
The paper Pinnock cites refers to “partial legalisation”, and notes a correlation between the 2008 ivory auction and rising poaching levels, but its conclusions do not easily extend to full legalisation of the market in elephant products, nor does it prove causation. If it were true that banning trade would stop poaching, we should see plenty of evidence in the case of rhinos, and counterevidence in the legal trade in other game species. Animal rights activists suppose that ivory or rhino horn are somehow substantively different from other products harvested from nature. There is no reason to believe this to be true.
To conclude what already is a far too long (albeit painstakingly comprehensive) rebuttal, I’d observe that if Pinnock had read my book, instead of relying on a single critical review, he would have found a quote in the very chapter on climate change he denounced. It’s from a 1997 article in The Economist, and it reads: “You can be in favour of the environment without being a pessimist. There ought to be room in the environmental movement for those who think that technology and economic freedom will make the world cleaner and will also take the pressure off endangered species. But at the moment such optimists are distinctly unwelcome among environmentalists … Environmentalists are quick to accuse their opponents in business of having vested interests. But their own incomes, their advancement, their fame and their very existence can depend on supporting the most alarming versions of every environmental scare.”
That expressed my view well then, and nothing has convinced me otherwise since. Criticising the hyperbole or policy proposals of the environmental movement does not mean, as Pinnock would have you believe, that you support destroying the environment. That allegation would be as unfair as if I’d said Pinnock gets all his information by exaggerating book reviews written by journalists with whom he knows he will agree. In accusing me of cherry-picking my sources, because I didn’t quote all the people he would have liked me to quote, Pinnock cherry-picks his facts, and states some outright falsehoods. Considering how easy it was to fisk this hackjob, you’ll forgive me if I don’t take it too seriously. DM