Tom Wolf teaches sustainable ecology and economics at Colorado College. He recently returned from Zimbabwe

The Clinton administration has an opportunity to lead the world toward saner, more sustainable ways of living with endangered African wildlife like rhinos and elephants. This week, Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt will lead a U.S. delegation here for the biennial meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Modeled after the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the convention attempts to protect wildlife by regulating international trade in such commodities as elephant ivory and and rhino horn. It includes 138 signatory countries. And like its inspiration, its many failures show it to be a bitterly divisive failure best summed up in a phrase recently overheard here: “The killing fields of CITES.”

Glen Tatham, chief warden for Zimbabwe’s national parks, says his country has set aside a higher percentage of its land for wildlife than any other African country. The paradoxical result: too many elephants and too few rhinos. Meanwhile, a CITES-induced elephant population is exploding out of the parks and into the surrounding farming and private ranching areas. With their enormous appetites and prodigious strength, the elephants are converting entire forests into dry, open, brushy savannah, thus destroying habitat for many other forest-dependent species. Most of the world’s remaining African elephants live in Zimbabwe.

If we want to save endangered African wildlife, is the CITES ban on trade in ivory and hides really the best way?


During a visit to a large private ranch on the borders of Hwange National Park, I met wildlife rancher Buck DeVries. He reported that “CITES, for us, is a sad story. It rewards poachers rather than those who care for wildlife. Before CITES, in 1989, there were 6,000 black rhino. Now there are only 300.”

Five years ago, before DeVries switched from cattle to ranching for wildlife, he employed three people. Now he has jobs for 300 in an operation that includes trophy hunting on his land for bull elephants that wander out of the park. DeVries would also like to harvest the horns of black rhino, marketing them through auction. “Rhino horn grows back. I had 16 rhino, but poachers shot them just for their horns. Millions of dollars go to the gangsters behind the poachers.”

CAMPFIRE, the brainchild of U.S. Fulbright scholars, offers a lesson. (The letters stand for Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources.) It brings free-market solutions to bear on the problems of villagers who must live with the threat of too many elephants. I met with the CAMPFIRE participants in the Tsholotsho Rural District near Hwange National Park. When elephants from the park raid their crops, they can arrange for a trophy hunter to cull the problem animal (if it is a bull) or for park-service personnel to make the kill if it is a cow. In 1989, they were dealing with five elephants. This year, a herd of 200 came to dinner--and stayed.

I expected to see blood in the eyes of the locals. But CAMPFIRE manager Kembo Tshuma told me, “When people see an elephant, they see money.” The community building, he said, cost one elephant. (That’s about $8,500, the price paid by a trophy hunter.)

In 1981, Zimbabwe ratified CITES, which mixes science and politics to formally “list” species threatened with extinction. CITES employs centralized command-and-control tactics, which tend to favor developed nations. In the 1970s and 1980s, many African nations either tolerated poaching or liquidated their own elephants and rhinos. Before the CITES ban on ivory trade in 1989, these species experienced alarming declines. There still is vigorous international demand for products, ranging from Yemeni rhino daggers to ivory jewelry to aphrodisiacs for the Asian market. A pair of black rhino horns currently goes for $50,000.

Zimbabweans estimate their total elephant population at 66,000, a figure challenged by some environmentalists but supported by the environmental division of Price Waterhouse. This is an increase from 46,000 in 1980. It occurred in spite of vigorous culling programs (until 1989) and natural mortality.


At the meeting, Zimbabwe will propose a sustainable elephant-conservation program to fix CITES. It will ask that the ivory ban be lifted to allow a strictly controlled legal trade in existing stocks of elephant products (33 tons of ivory, 25% of which belongs to CAMPFIRE) for two years. The proposed trading partner is Japan, which has internationally approved ivory controls and has expressed strong interest. There will be no export of ivory of unknown origin or ivory known to originate outside Zimbabwe. All net revenues will return to conservation, either the national parks or CAMPFIRE, depending on the tusks’ owners.

This proposal is, in many ways, more sustainable and market-oriented than the centralized U.S. system. Rather than ram endangered species like wolves down hostile ranchers’ throats in the vicinity of Yellowstone National Park, Babbitt could learn a lot from the Zimbabwean way of living with wildlife.

Most wildlife biologists back some version of lifting the elephant trading ban. Among them is David Cummings of the World Wide Fund for Nature. His studies show that both the numbers of humans and the numbers of domestic livestock in Zimbabwe have reached their carrying capacity. Add an elephant population twice the size the land can carry, and you will see a dim future for Africa’s wildlife.

I may have gotten a glimpse of what wild life would be like if Zimbabwe’s proposals are not seriously considered. In a highly secured area near Matusadonha National Park, I saw one of the few surviving black rhinos. Warden Zephania Muketiwa had taken me through a series of security checkpoints manned by an anti-poaching force. I found myself looking at a pair of rhinos calmly browsing the fodder trees they share with the elephants. Next to them, on guard 24 hours a day, stood a tall, thin, intense man with an AK-47, cocked and ready.

While gazing at this unsettling scene, I remembered a nugget of wisdom I’d gleaned from Jonathan Kingdon, probably the world’s leading authority on African wildlife. Animals have many values, and one of them is what they tell us about ourselves. Kingdon said, “Animals are good for seeing!”