Tusk, Tusk

by Kenneth Brower
Peril and Hope for Africa’s Wildlife by Raymond Bonner. Knopf, $24.00.
A YEAR AGO, in Cameroon, I accompanied a French doctor, François Morel, on some of the occasional visits he paid to a pygmy encampment in the rain forest of Campo Reserve, near the border with Equatorial Guinea. Dr. Morel is sixty. An old Africa hand, he killed many elephants in his youth, when elephants were everywhere in Francophone Africa. Now, with elephants scarce, he is full of regrets. On the path to the pygmies, Morel walked briskly but noiselessly, hoping always to surprise the pygmy ganga, the sorcerer, before the man could slip away. The ganga was Morel’s competition as healer, and the doctor hoped to work out a rapprochement. The sorcerer was never home.
One day on the path we met a pygmy with a shotgun. The shotgun was French, an old engraved double-barreled Darne, and Morel exclaimed happily on seeing it. Taking it from the pygmy, he squinted down the barrel, broke the piece open, and peered inside the breech, all the while making appreciative clucking sounds. The pygmy watched unhappily. He was a big man for a pygmy, and his teeth were bad. We had seen him each time we visited the camp. Once we had asked him the whereabouts of the sorcerer. He was the sorcerer, but we would not learn this until later. Morel, hefting the sorcerer’s shotgun, told me that his own father had owned a Darne just like it. It was a gun too expensive for the pygmy himself to own, the doctor said. It belonged to the mayor of the nearest Bantu village. The mayor would give the pygmy a cartridge or two, and the pygmy would hunt in return for a percentage of the meat. I smiled at this theory. Morel was new to Gampo Reserve. He had only just encountered this shotgun. How could he possibly know that it belonged to the mayor? But it did! It belonged to the mayor! And it was true about the two cartridges, as I would learn later from the mayor himself. It was a pattern so common in Francophone Africa, this poaching by proxy, that an old hand like Morel did not have to ask. He could read it as clearly as if it were engraved there in the scrollwork on the gun.
Another day, on a dirt road deeper in the reserve, Morel and I saw a Camerounais soldier standing with some pygmies beside his car at the side of the road. The soldier, a Bantu in a camouflage uniform, stood head, shoulders, and chest above his companions, and was several shades blacker. Morel stopped our battered Renault alongside. “La chasse?" the doctor asked. Hunting? “Oui,” the soldier said. “Pièges?” Morel asked. Traps? Yes, the soldier answered, looking slightly uneasy now. Ah, Morel said, but this was a reserve, n’est-cepas? No, the soldier lied; this section lay outside the reserve. We bid the man adieu, and Morel drove on down the road. Rounding a turn, we saw a pygmy with a shotgun over his shoulder. “Weapon of soldier,” Morel told me in English, and we waved at the pygmy as we passed.
This is the reality of wildlife preservation in postcolonial Africa, and in most of the rest of the Third World. Parks and preserves are scattered all across the Dark Continent, but most are just paper parks, shaded portions on the map—illusions. The worst poachers in Africa, more often than not, are the game wardens. Africa’s wildlife is in its most precipitous decline since the biosphere’s last big collision with an asteroid. This is the catastrophe that Raymond Bonner seeks to address in At the Hand of Man.
BONNER’S PARTICULAR concern IS the elephant, and his argument is wonderfully counterintuitive. The problem with the elephant is not so much the poachers and ivory dealers, he says. The problem is the conservationists. The World Wildlife Fund, the African Wildlife Foundation, and the other outfits concerned with the elephant have had their policies hijacked by the greed of their fundraisers. In contravention of sound conservation practice, oblivious of the wishes of the African people (or openly contemptuous), these rich white men have foisted a misguided ivory han on Africa and the world. The elephant is, if anything, overprotected. The best way to save elephants, paradoxically, is to kill a percentage for their ivory.
Reporting on the environment is a departure for Bonner, who in the past has reported on politics. (His two previous books are on U.S. policy in El Salvador and the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.) Departures of this sort are often advantageous: they permit a fresh eye, a freedom from dogma. Most books on the disappearance of African wildlife have been by people in the “religion,” as environmentalists sometimes call their movement. Bonner cannot be called an apostate—he was never even baptized. These departures, of course, may also have disadvantages. The fresh eye can be too fresh. The newcomer can be insufficiently grounded in the facts, language, history, and arguments of the field. In this book disadvantages overwhelm advantages from the start. Bonner brings his own dogma to the writing, and his ignorance in environmental matters is profound.
Bonner is much more a reporter than a writer. Some authors are both, but Bonner is not one of them. His is not a prose style designed to give much pleasure. His writing is, among other things, totally without humor. For an evocation of the Africa he is talking about—the landscapes, the animals, the people— you need to keep the old, dog-eared Dinesen, or the Hemingway, or the Beryl Markham around. Bonner has not composed a single African image or description that will stick with you.
The elephant, central figure in this book, is among the missing characters. The first elephant we meet lies in a pool of blood, her face hacked off for ivory. All Bonner’s subsequent elephants are faceless too, in a figurative way. The elephants of Raymond Bonner are all destroyers of the shambas of African peasants, uprooters of whole forests. We learn nothing at all about elephant behavior, society, lore. The most wonderful of recent discoveries about elephants—that they communicate over great distances by low-frequency sound—is never mentioned. Last year, on rain-forest paths in Cameroon, my French doctor, Morel, would drop to all fours occasionally to demonstrate the amble of the elephant. His performance was transforming. He became an elephant. Bonner never tries the equivalent thing in his prose, never drops to all fours to help us see and understand the elephant. This is partly because he is not equipped for it, as an observer or as a writer, and partly because undue sympathy for elephants would work against his thesis.
Bonner is an advocate of “culling” and of “sustainable utilization,” as are, he claims, all conservationists with any sense. He seems to have no inkling of the history of abuses perpetrated in the name of those two concepts. Culling is often just killing. Sustained utilization has seldom been sustainable. The woods are full of calculated euphemisms—the “multiple-use" of our own U.S. Forest Service, for example—that sound wonderful but cannot be accepted at face value. Bonner writes of ecosystem “management” as if it were like managing a store. Human management of wild resources is a nearly unbroken history of hubris, miscalculation, and error. That nature manages ecosystems better than human beings do—an article of faith in the religion of the environmentalists, and a firm principle now of ecological science—Bonner seems not to have considered.
In one argument for culling he writes that “a herd of elephants goes through an area like a slow tornado, snapping off branches and uprooting trees, leaving devastation behind.” That slow tornado of elephants—Bonner’s finest elephant image—he uses to justify shooting elephants in order to save the forest. There exists, apparently unread by Bonner, a great and growing ecological literature documenting the importance of nature’s various agencies of largescale renovation—fire in forests of lodgepole pine, typhoons and crown-ofthorns starfish on the coral reef, herds of grazers on the grasslands, windfalls in the rain forest, elephants on the savanna. Has it not occurred to Bonner that his slow tornado of elephants might have a role? What does he make of all those hundreds of millennia in which Africa’s elephants and Africa’s trees coexisted somehow, before rifles arrived for culling? Bonner concludes his slowtornado paragraph by complaining of “the general public, understanding little about the complexities of ecosystems.” The party vague on ecosystems is Bonner himself.
IN THE GREAT shuffling herd of conservationists, Bonner has found two or three heroes. One is Garth OwenSmith, of Namibia. To Owen-Smith, Bonner suggests, goes credit for the idea that local people should be involved in parks, and that some of the benefits of wildlife preservation should accrue to them. “It is a principle few Westerners have absorbed,” Bonner writes. On the contrary, I know of no Western student of Third World parks who does not recognize this principle, It is the watchword now. A big literature exists on the need for local participation, and on how to achieve it.
Bonner complains that animal-rights groups, in their campaign for an ivoryban, “indulged in hyperbole, incited passions with horror stories, and leveled ad hominem attacks on anyone who disagreed with them.” This is a fine summary of Bonner’s own approach. His book is an edifice of ad hominem attacks on anyone who favors the ban on ivory. When not guided by “emotion,” of which Bonner disapproves, the pro-ban people are fuzzy thinkers, or sometimes clear thinkers who in their hearts know better, in which case they are cowards. Often, on top of this, they are well-heeled.
The term “patrician” seems to have for Bonner the damning force that “pedophile” might have for the rest of us. He feels the same way about “elitist.” When the conservationists really irritate him, he squeezes off both barrels, “elitist and patrician,” simultaneously. One of the patricians Bonner goes after in the chapter he calls “Patricians” is Russell Train, the first chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard Nixon, and now the chairman of the World Wildlife Fund in the United States. Bonner lists Train’s clubs, schools, and affiliations with a joyous, bloodthirsty pleasure, as if each one—St. Albans prep school, Princeton, marriage to a Bowdoin, the Long Point Hunt Club—were another nail in a tight coffin of Bonner’s construction. Most of the “Patricians” chapter is an appeal to class prejudice, built on the assumption that we all share it.
That someone as new to the field as Bonner should even set out after Russell Train, a conservationist with more than thirty years of good work in Africa behind him, a principal architect of the World Heritage System, and the only bright light in what for environmentalists was the wasteland of the past three Republican Administrations, is hard to take.
Sometimes Bonner’s ad hominem attacks are laughable. His attempt to smear—or perhaps “tar” is the word— Charles De Haes, the director-general of the World Wildlife Fund, is one such. Of the sinister background of the director-general, he writes,
De Haes’s official résumé—that is, the one WWF distributes—makes a point of noting that he went to work for the tobacco company “although himself a non-smoker.”It then says de Haes “helped establish companies" in Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. What it does not say is that these were companies that sold cigarettes. Maybe de Haes didn’t smoke, but he made money by encouraging others to do so.
Bonner has forgotten, perhaps, something he told us earlier about his paragon, the conservationist Garth OwenSmith. Owen-Smith’s volunteer rangers, he writes, “were paid the equivalent of $25 a month, and received rations of maize meal, sugar, tea, coffee, tobacco, soap, and milk powder.”Bonner’s hero, this is to say, did not stop at dealing tobacco to his African employees. He dealt them dental caries, jangled nerves, and probably—as many Africans arc lactose-intolerant—curdled stomachs. In Owen-Smith the sins of Charles de Haes are virtues.
Sometimes the ad hominem is not so amusing. Throughout his book Bonner is very free with the accusation of racism. About Prince Philip, an important WWF figure, he reports, “At a meeting of the Commonwealth heads of state, most of them from the Third World and black, Philip said to an aide, ‘You wouldn’t think the peace of the world rested on this lot, would you?' On another occasion, he referred to the Chinese as ‘slitty-eyed.’”
Bonner offers these items without citation. At which Commonwealth meeting did the first incident occur, and who was the aide, and who the fly on the wall? It seems an extraordinarily impolitic remark for Philip, the consort of the Commonwealth’s Queen, to have uttered. And what is Bonner’s source for the comment about Chinese eyes? Prince Philip has been a genuine small-p prince of a fellow in his dedication to environmental causes. For a man in a hopelessly elitist position, he succeeds remarkably well—from all accounts I’ve heard—at being a regular chap. If his name is to be maligned, it should be with a little documentation.
Bonner is lightning quick with the bold generality. “Making contact with Owen-Smith was not easy,”he writes, “He does not live in the city or hang out at conferences, like most Western conservationists working in Africa.” And later: “Owen-Smith cares about Africans, is not condescending toward them, and knows the value of listening to them, which sets him distinctly apart from nearly all other Western conservationists in Africa.”
Africa is a big continent. There are more than fifty nations there, and hundreds of conservationists at work. Does Bonner really know where most conservationists in Africa hang out, and how they feel about Africans?
Bonner is forever claiming that “most scientists" and “most conservationists” believ e as he does about ivory. He arrives at these conclusions by a journalistic technique that I guess we might call “intuitive polling.” All of us who write —even the gum-chewing authors of two-page term papers—know about, and often Lise, this technique. We stumbled upon it while struggling with our first deadline in third or fourth grade. Few of us, however, indulge in it as frequently as Bonner does.
Bonner takes Africa’s conservationists to task for the whiteness of their organizations, the leadership in particular. This problem is not unique to Africa’s conservation movement, of course. Reasons for it are plentiful, and Bonner himself discusses some—the fact, for example, that few Africans of previous generations trained in the held. But it is shameful indeed, and the conservationists should remedy it.
I can’t help noticing, though, that Bonner himself is white. Until recently a staff writer for The New Yorker, he lived for several years in Nairobi with his wife, Jane Perlcz, then the East Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. When was the last time a New Yorker report from Africa was written by a black African? I’m drawing a blank. And “Jane Perlez” is not, I think, a Masai or Kikuyu name. Why wasn’t an East African the Times bureau chief in Fast Africa? Shouldn’t a black African be writing Raymond Bonner’s dispatches from Africa—and writing this book, for that matter? Racial imbalances are always more galling and inexcusable in professions other than one’s own.
Bonner faults the conservationists in Africa for failing to consult Africans about their fate. Indeed, he calls the first section of his book “Listening to Africa,”and his complaint is that white conservationists never do. The curious thing is that Bonner scarcely consults Africans himself. He brieflv quotes Perez Olindo, Kenya’s foremost black male conservationist, and a few black Namibian game wardens, and a few Masai, but 90 percent of his voices are white. This is partly inevitable, given his complaint that all the major players are white. Still,
I wish he had found a way to work in more nonwhite opinion. What do the small-time ivory poachers think about their trade? How do big-time traffickers (often government officials) rationalize it? What was going through the heads of those Ugandan soldiers who decimated their country’s wildlife with automatic weapons, mostly just for fun? These are the people, after all—these black people—who are squeezing the triggers, not a handful of pallid conservationists.
Perhaps someone will come forward with good arguments against the ivory ban. If so, I am eager to hear them. They are not to be found in this book. Errors in fact, flaws in logic, and an unmitigated tendentiousness mar Bonner’s case throughout. The World Wildlife Fund, for all its good works, does have flaws: too much secrecy, too much coziness with the powers that be. Somewhere in all the smoke Bonner smells there is clearly a little fire. But the fact that conservation organizations have flaws is not much of a revelation.
Africa is a tragic continent. Great, sad stories are unfolding there: war, poverty, famine, AIDS, drought, desertification, deforestation, the decimation of game. Bonner’s angle, his stroke of genius in approaching this vast story, is an indictment of the World Wildlife Fund. It is as if Shakespeare had written Othello as an exposé of irregularities in Iago’s bookkeeping. Bonner has fingered the wrong villains, examined the wrong psyches, written the wrong book.