Wildlife genocide I: The big elephant in the room

One of the pictures from "Grey Matters"

ON THE way to work one morning last month, I picked up that early forecaster and reporter of the world around me, London’s free Metro newspaper.

Usually the paper would be adorned by scatterings of light news and tabloidy pieces, but on this particular day (the morning of 27 Feburary), one article stole my attention.

It was a report on the forthcoming documentary by British filmmaker Gemma Catlin, entitled Grey Matters. The movie, the report explained, would investigate the crisis of the death of many elephants in Zimbabwe’s game reserves.

I found that even though the piece spotted the problem, it overlooked the cause.

That a burgeoning population of elephants overwhelms the North Western region of Zimbabwe is a fact too big to ignore.

It is, excuse my punt, a mammoth-sized predicament that is too big to miss.




The last time I checked, Zimbabwe had an elephant population exceeding 100,000 – which is one of the largest on the African continent. These growing numbers are straining the country’s resources and posing a threat to plant life.

If you have seen elephants at close quarters, you will know why they are deemed one of the most destructive forces in the jungles and savannahs of Africa. Experts say adult elephants consume about 100 to 300 kilogrammes of food a day.

At their peak, these behemoths eat more landscape than any machine-run forest clearing operation could ever do in a day.

The problem now, is that the elephant’s natural habits are putting a strain on the environment and exerting a heavy tilt on the ecosystem’s delicate balance.

In Zimbabwe, national parks are not fenced, so the elephants often skip their boundaries and invade farmlands of villagers.

This is why the government of Zimbabwe introduced the CAMPFIRE programme (Communal Areas Management Programmes for Indigenous Resources), which allows people to have some elephant meat – a delicacy in this part of the world.

Tough love

Harsh as it may sound; controlled culling is the only way to go.

From the tone of Catlin’s documentary trailer above; and the Metro report, I am anticipating an argument to the contrary. If so, Catlin will be in the company of many in Europe and the world in general, who feel that killing some elephants to fine-tune ecology is to be abhorred.

The more powerful of this grouping, occupy influential positions in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also known as the “Washington Convention”).

This body met in Bangkok, Thailand a few weeks ago to review the convention on the international trade in endangered species including elephants. Resolutions are yet to report any marked (positive) changes.

But we know that for years now Zimbabwe has been lobbying, campaigning and petitioning that its fellow members in CITES support its bid to trade in ivory in a controlled and accountable manner.

The southern African country has accumulated over 50 tonnes of ivory, worthy an estimated $US 10 million; and has asked the international body regulating its trade for permission to auction its stocks to fund conservation of the animals, including the elephant.

Chadenga the giant

When I interviewed Vitalis Chadenga, Zimbabwe’s director-general of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in 2011, he told me that some $US 30 million was required each year for conservation of the animals and anti-poaching activities. Chadenga blamed a pro-Western political agenda for CITES’ harsh stance on Zimbabwe.

Chadenga was up against conservationists in CITES who worry that the culling of elephants and the sale of their tusks could fuel demand for ivory, especially in the fast-growing emerging economic powers of Asia where it is often used in carved ornaments, or used as an aphrodisiac.

He told me that the 175-member CITES group had been hijacked by Western protectionist and animal welfare groups.

A passionate, affable and giant of a man himself, Chadenga sadly passed on last year.


Conservationists have attempted to employ contraception, in place of culling with little to show in results.

The sensible and logical way to protect the environment and future elephant populations, as well as other wildlife, is to periodically cull the elephants and keep the population at manageable levels.

It’s about understanding the impact and helping to keep the fine balance.  More importantly, it’s about human survival.

Words, Photography and podcast by@makiwahenry

Additional photography courtesy of Gemma Catlin.