Animal rights: wildlife’s death by ideology

Anthropomorphism and the wealth of animal rights groups have failed African wildlife, but that’s not the message getting out to donors in the West.

This is one of the conclusions in Glen Martin’s book, Game Changer, which explores the failure of conservation and the well-established animal-rights groups who have come to dominate so much of it.

Martin argues for change, particularly for conservation underpinned by both trophy hunting and sustainable utilisation.

Ultimately, he reasons that what we’re doing now is not working and, after taking the reader on a circuitous tour of east African conservation, politics and daily realities, he sums up what needs to be done in the last two words of his book: “whatever works”.

As trite as that might sound, by the time you’ve reached the end of Martin’s very readable and well researched book, it makes perfect sense. Like Africa itself, conservation is complex. There is no silver bullet. Hunting will not, on its own, save the game of the African plains; yet nor is Kenya’s hunting ban working, because wildlife numbers have plummeted in the decades since it was enacted.

I’m sure I don’t need to detail to you the reasons hunting is beneficial to conservation. Placing a value on animals – be it monetary, for food or cultural – ensures they’re protected as a resource; a source of wealth, health or wellbeing. It doesn’t matter if it’s trophy hunting or subsistence living, people will conserve creatures they see as valuable.

Martin’s book demonstrates the truths of this in examples ranging from the remarkable growth of the rhino population down to the attitudes of individual Africans in their daily lives.

More importantly, perhaps, he demonstrates how and why the conservation establishment is a dangerous failure. Animal rights issues have twisted everything so that individual creatures are more important than the long-term survival of a species. Martin traces it directly back to the lions hand-reared by the Adamsons, the big cats that inspired the “schmaltz” of Born Free.

Out of this, groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) sprang up. IFAW has dug itself deep into Kenyan society, and Martin shows how it has used its wealth to buy influence, trading on the image of orphaned elephant babies to bring in Western funds yet becoming a monolithic barricade to meaningful conservation efforts. It has created its own truth and will not broach alternatives, despite the fact that Kenya’s wildlife is dying under IFAW’s watch.

Martin interviews Richard Leakey, the man infamous for implementing Kenya’s ban on hunting, which has been in place since 1997, and finds that Leakey is not anti-hunting and that he believes Kenya’s situation is in many ways worse than ever. Leakey partly blames the misplaced agendas of IFAW and similar groups.

Animal rights, Martin says, are basically incompatible with conservation. That is at the heart of the problem.

He investigates Namibia, which enshrined hunting and sustainable use as policy two years before Kenya enacted its hunting ban. There, he eats a surfeit of meat and finds a country that celebrates hunting. The nation does have its problems, but it appears far better off than Kenya.

Martin’s chapter on Namibia is edifying from a hunter’s point of view, but Martin doesn’t go on to argue that hunting is the answer. It can work, he says, and it should be included, but he finishes Game Changer by looking broadly at eastern Africa. Nothing there is easy, especially solutions.

He leaves us with no doubt that animal rights and the powerful groups that espouse them are only making the situation worse. African wildlife will not survive by being given rights. The cuteness of orphaned cubs will not save lions as a species. Anthropomorphism will not save wildlife. In fact, it may do the opposite.

Published by the University of California Press, 2012. Hardback, octavo, 254 pages, illustrated.

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Mick Matheson

Mick grew up with guns and journalism, and has included both in his career. A life-long hunter, he has long-distant military experience and holds licence categories A, B and H. In the glory days of print media, he edited six national magazines in total, and has written about, photographed and filmed firearms and hunting for more than 15 years.