Tusk, tusk

Campaigns against ivory poaching put African people on the sharp end of survival.

Ray Crowley

Topics Politics

The US charity African Rainforest and Rivers Conservation Organisation (ARRCO) is funding a new anti-poaching unit in the Central African Republic. With an ex-military leader and trained gunmen, the unit presents a formidable force against ivory poachers – it has already arrested three men and killed a fourth.

There are several things about the anti-poaching brigade that bother me. The first is that poachers are portrayed as the scum at the bottom of the immoral waste-bucket – ruthless men who kill elephants for sport and sell on tusks for greed.

But it can’t be much fun being a poacher. Not only do you face the danger of running around in the jungle with a bunch of wild animals – you also have gun-toting environmentalists hot on your heels. I can’t believe that poaching is something you would do because you can’t grasp ‘the subtleties of ecological theory’, as one ARRCO representative claimed (1).

The story brought to mind some grainy camcorder footage that I once saw made by a group of students from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). On their travels in central Africa, the students had come across a wasted man making a meagre living selling statues by the side of a road. The comments accompanying the tape were not on the poor living conditions the man had to put up with, but more a kind of ‘tut tut tut, the man’s figurines are carved from ivory and tropical timber’. The students even had the audacity to reprimand the man.

ARRCO seems to understand that poaching stems from people’s needs, as they have plans to train local villagers in eco-tourism and farming techniques as an alternative to killing elephants. Eco-tourism is a compromise between the fact that people in the third world have to make a living to survive, and the Western concern that they don’t damage the environment. In real terms, however, eco-tourism can be just a big stamp of approval on poverty.

Tourists can rave about the eco-hotel in the middle of nowhere, with no nasty road down to it, that is run entirely on natural resources. If they get sick, their expensive travel insurance can pay for them to be airlifted out. People who work in the hotel get a wage, so visitors can feel good about themselves. But the area still has no development, and employees without travellers’ cheques may still die before their colleagues can carry them to the nearest health post. Fantastic.

I have another eco-friendly idea. Why not supply poachers with better equipment – guns to fire tranquillisers so that they could take the tusks from the animals without having to kill them? There would be more elephants left to breed, so as to produce more ivory, and without the big tusks the elephants wouldn’t destroy all that rainforest and have to be culled so often.

But that might be too much like common sense. It seems that many of the projects funded by Western charities in Africa are based not on what might be good for the continent, nor on what Africans want, but rather our own prejudices and ignorance.

Let’s all sit here smugly, enjoying the comforts of simple things like jobs, adequate housing and healthcare, munching on our organic fruit, and tell Africa how to treat its elephants.

Ray Crowley is speaking at the WORLDwrite Summit for Serious Development on 12 June at the School for Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. For more information, call +44 (0)20 8985 5435 or email

(1) Mr Lindquist of Arrco, cited in Charities hire gunmen to stop elephant poachers, Guardian, 13 May 2002

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Topics Politics


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