Conservation in Central Africa - Time For A More Business Like Approach?
... Or Conservation - the Ultimate Challenge to Big Business
I would like to predict that the resulting document would describe a drastically different approach from current attempts to deal with what is now recognized as a major conservation crisis. Actually, that is what is needed?! A drastic new approach might very well represent the last chance for most of the primates and other wildlife of Central Africa.
To begin with, I should establish my credentials and qualifications for commenting on wildlife conservation and business practices in this part of the world. My educational background is in business. I have a degree in Economics from a Swiss University and one in Hotel Management from Cornell. I have lived in Africa for over 20 years. During this period, I have twice held Africa-wide positions for a large international hotel-management company.
Twelve years ago, I started seriously looking at wildlife photography as a new career option. Today, while still working as a consultant to the tourist industry, most of my time is spent on photography. Taking pictures, in turn, led me to conservation. For the last eight years, I have been sporadically researching the commercialization of the bushmeat trade, visiting various Central African countries on a regular basis.
Today I see the bushmeat crisis as more than just another story. I am convinced that what is happening on the bushmeat front is symptomatic of events and trends in the region in general. Bad governance clearely seems to go hand in hand with bad conservation. If we can use images of butchered gorillas and chimps to illustrate just how bad governance in some of these countries is and if this in turn results in the kind of outcry which might improve things on the conservation front - then I am convinced we have also improved the lot for the people. Wildlife conservation and people conservation could go hand in hand.
I have had the opportunity to discuss bushmeat-related topics with many conservation executives. Coming from a business background, what has surprised me more than anything else, is the lack of ways of measuring results on the conservation front; that no attempt is made to establish criteria against which performance can be assessed.
In my hotelier days, I was responsible for properties in several of the countries concerned. All general managers worked to specific targets and financial budgets. Independent quality assessors would go in unannounced, with long questionnaires to be filled in. Guests would be encouraged to send their comments to head office. If the management did not live up to expectations, their Africa tours were often short-lived. In countries where even good managers could not produce acceptable results, management agreements were terminated. This is the way business works worldwide.
Many conservation organizations with operations in the countries concerned have budgets similar to those of large hotels, but there seem to be no real targets against which to evaluate the performance of the managers in capital cities or field workers out in the provinces.
Take, for instance, the Congo Republique before it degenerated into its present state. It used to be one of the more organized countries in Central Africa, and several large conservation organizations had offices, even head offices, in the capital, Brazzaville.
I started visiting the Congo regularly in the early '90s, mainly to document the operations of the three great-ape sanctuaries there. (Two cater to chimpanzees and one to gorillas. All of them care for dozens of 'bushmeat orphans'.) Here are some of the facts I compiled on these trips:
- Bushmeat from a wide variety of species was available for sale in all the major markets, irrespective of it being closed or open hunting season.
- While the meat of protected species was disguised in some markets, it was openly on display in others.
- For a while, elephant steaks, frozen and vacuum packed, were on sale in the capital's most up-market supermarket chain. (When I questioned the French manager, he told me it had been imported from Chad. He thought that solved the problem. He had never heard of CITES).
- The Prime Minister went on TV, during the closed hunting season, to encourage all school children to spend their holidays hunting and fishing.
- When some concerned individuals in the West responded to the initial publicity by writing letters to the Congo Embassy in Washington they got a reply stating: "There is no poaching problem in the Congo"
- In the same letter the ambassador made the following statement, "We'd like you to know that orgainzations composed of Congolese and international experts (Japanese, British and American) and sponsored by the World Bank .... take care of and protect the Congolese wildlife against any danger." This shows how the governments concerned like to justify the status quo by hiding behind the presence of foreign NGOs.
- At the Conkouati Wildlife Reserve, we filmed a lorry being loaded with bushmeat, right next to an IUCN vehicle. When we interviewed one of the traders and asked why the cost of the meat doubled by the time it reached the coastal town of Pointe Noire, we were told that the government rangers manning the road blocks would need to be 'paid'. When we asked how much, we were told the more protected the species the higher the price.
- On our first and only evening in Ouesso, the gateway to the renowned Nouabale Ndoki National Park, we filmed a lorry carrying tons of bushmeat, including the carcass of a silverback gorilla. A Western researcher was dutifully recording yet another dead gorilla in his 'bushmeat book'. This was seen as a question of assessing the sustainability of the trade, and not of reporting it to the authorities and doing something about it..
- The next day, the police chief kicked us out of town, asking us to charter a pirogue to take us to neighboring Cameroon. He gave us an armed escort in a track suit. We assumed this was for our own protection. In the first village out of town we stopped to load a large bag of ivory, which was to be 'escorted' to Cameroon.
- Two years later, an ABC crew filmed an elephant graveyard halfway between the Nouabale Ndoki National Park and the Odzala National Park. They counted 280 carcasses.
- The Reserve de la Chasse de la Lefini is the largest protected reserve in the Congo. It is also the site where the first group of orphaned gorillas has been rehabilitated. I visited twice, and walked for hours in the savannah and forest without seeing any trace of wildlife. The local trackers informed me that there were two hippos left. The last chimpanzees and gorillas had been shot in the 1960s. In this region it was not a question of population pressure or habitat loss. There is no encroachment. Market hunting for the capital Brazzaville, some 2½ hours away had resulted in the wildlife being wiped out. With regular flights from Ouesso having bags of meat dripping blood as one of their main cargoes, it is easy to guess what supply and demand will do to wildlife in the long term, even to
the more remote parks and reserves.
This brings me back to objectives and targets: Where is the hope for conservation when: poachers are not arrested, loggers who break the law do not lose their licenses, and ministry officials ask you: What is the point when the Minister of the Environment eats bushmeat at every official function, and ministry officials rent out guns to poachers to supply the restaurants they own in logging concessions? (This happened in Cameroon, but I am sure the story is not so very different in Congo.)
What do you tell a villager who happily suggests that you first go to the capital and tell off the big guys who loot the national resources and economy in a big way, and then come back to him and tell him not to cut this tree or shoot that gorilla?
What hope is there for conservation under these circumstances? Are all of us who are concerned about the future of the wildlife and habitats in these parts simply wasting our time and a lot of somebody else's money?
A prominent conservation organization, to whom I offered a bushmeat expose for their in-house publication wrote back saying:
"The chief drawback, of course, was our firm conviction that publishing your article with your compelling photographs would have wide repercussions that certainly would adversely impact our scientists in Africa. An essential and exhaustive part of their job is to maintain good relations with the governments and indigenous people so that the Society's conservation projects will be permitted to continue."
To me, this says it all. It is a license to look the other way. For conservation organizations, it is suicidal to admit failure. Only success attracts donations. So let's tell the public about some of our very minor success stories. And let's ignore the mayhem around us.
Field representatives are expected to toe the company line: Maintain good relations. Do not make waves. It is a bad career move to be confrontational.
This need to be associated with success was apparent in mountain-gorilla conservation. Half a dozen conservation groups were competing to report past success rates: 347 apes, 355, now 364, etc. Today, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single conservation project (except for the maintenance of some parks) that is tackling the bushmeat issue head on. The chance of failure is too high.
To bring this back to a business context: If a multinational ran conservation in Africa, they would set targets first. They would measure the results, and if targets could not be met they would pull out and go somewhere where a return on investment is possible. This would be somewhere where there is political will, or where it can be generated - in hotel management terms, where a ministry or a minister who does not pay his bills can be shown the door.
The IMF and other donor organizations regularly pull out of countries, especially if there is no political will. And they no longer make any bones about it. Currencies collapse and politicians shout, but the tune is called by the person who pays the fiddler.
I have never heard of a conservation organization quitting a country in a storm of publicity.
Conservation organizations do not criticize each other. This is another unwritten rule, and "the quiet, diplomatic approach achieves more than shouting and screaming" is a slogan I have heard over and over again. Is this not just another excuse for looking the other way? The governments concerned like to hide behind the fact that these major organizations have hung out their shields in their capital cities. Where is the problem? As long as these prominent groups are involved, we must be doing something right?
The facts are:
- The rate of loss of habitat, natural resources and species in tropical Africa is now higher than ever before. The quiet, diplomatic approach has totally failed, and a lot of time and money has been lost.
- As for the bushmeat trade: it has now been commercialized to the point where it has become an integral part of the economy. The problem has now gone beyond the scope of conservation organizations. Even the loggers had to throw in the towel: One executive of a major French firm told CNN that they were now afraid of the poachers, who had automatic weapons.
- Some German loggers who are fed up with the bad publicity recently asked the transporters of their timber to tell their drivers to stop carrying bushmeat. The drivers went on strike, and the loggers and transporters had to give in.
- The Congo Republique has now disintegrated; not surprising, considering the lack of law enforcement on the conservation front. In Gabon, a prominent German logging firm has just started operations in one of the national parks. In Cameroon, things are about as bad as they can get before the situation deteriorates into a scenario like that in the Congo Republique. In the DRC (since this was written although at the edge of disintegration), loggers are frantically looking for US$ 50 million to link the Central Congo River Basin to the logging-road infrastructure of Congo, the CAR and Cameroon. We will then be able to buy bonobo meat in the markets of Douala.
But, as long as the conservation community needs to publicize its very limited success stories in order to survive, and as long as they insist on the 'quiet, diplomatic' approach and classify shocking bushmeat publicity as sensationalizing the issue, there will be no such outcry.
Our politicians, as much as any, govern by opinion poll. If the public speaks, the decision makers listen. The ivory crisis, whale hunting and seal clubbing became major issues through public concern. What will it take to turn the large-scale slaughter of chimpanzees, gorillas and elephants into a similarly emotional campaign? If we can do nothing for our closest animal relatives, what hope is there for the giant pangolin and the potto? And what does that say about mankind as a whole?
In tropical Africa, the western donor community is still taken seriously. If large sticks and carrots are our best hope, then our best bet is to link donor funding to environmental performance, in the same way as human rights issues are linked to donor assistance.
As a photographer, I would want to close with a picture that this journal unfortunately cannot publish. This image is the result of a German journalist asking me to illustrate the price difference between bushmeat and that of domesticated species, such as pork and beef. We went to the Yaounde bushmeat market and bought two gorilla arms. We then acquired the equivalent amount of beef. Next, we bought the frozen head of a chimpanzee and matched it with a much bigger pig's head. We took all this back to the hotel and stuck on price tags to illustrate that beef and pork were less than half the price of gorilla and chimp.
This is clearly a question of supply and demand: the supply of great-ape meat - and that of other species - to satisfy the taste buds of a growing urban middle class willing to pay a premium for the product. The problem is that this practice is no longer sustainable, and has not been for some time. (Plus it carries a serious health risk for mankind as a whole: See Ebola, HIV/SIV and HTLV/STLV). Increasing demand and decreasing supply will inevitably result in prices going up. With a limited resource, this will go on until there is no more supply, which according to a Polish missionary will elicit the response: "Why has God done this to us?" Supply, demand and pricing are the domain of economists and business people, so why not see what kind of 'solution' they can come up with?
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