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The ironic history of conservation movements and the rhino horn trade

Michael Smith
Tuesday,  Apr 11,2017,23:38 (GMT+7)
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The ironic history of conservation movements and the rhino horn trade

Michael Smith

The history of African rhino conservation is paradoxical because it began with hunting. The protection of rhino began in the late 1800s in East Africa with white hunters, who were excessively wanton killers of game, desiring to ensure future hunting stocks. The preservation of the natural heritage of the British Empire. A century-long holocaust of elephant killing for the ivory trade preceded this. The British and European conservation and hunting regulations favoured white hunters over indigenous hunters but didn’t stop the Asian middlemen living in Africa who just moved their ivory and rhino horn dealings into the shadows.

The original pressure to protect African game such as rhino can’t be understood without first understanding the sprawl of elephant society. The African elephants crowded the plains of Africa like houses in London.  Rhinos shared the plains with them. In the trade for “our ivory’, as one English Captain put it, the black rhinos amid the elephant herds were by-catch; a profitable by-catch as the horn was prized for carving and medicine in Asia.

The British joined in the destruction of the African paradise in the 19th Century. British and European explorers had discovered an abundance of elephants with a frenzy of commerce around them. The Egyptians had thrust into the ivory resources from the north in Sudan and the Arabs and Indians had pushed in from the East Coast. The British administrators of the colonial protectorates and British East African Company tried to take the ivory trade from the Arabs, Egyptians and Indians. The Arabs proved to be masters of trading, but gradually their domination wearied. The newly arrived British Consul in the ivory trading centre of Zanzibar recorded that 488,600 lbs of ivory was exported in 1859. Livingstone estimated 44,000 elephants were killed for export to England in 1870 with annual total mortalities up to 65,000 by 1894.

At the peak of Arab, Egyptian and Indian domination, 2,000 African-porter-strong caravans bore ivory and slaves to markets in the African interior. Fifty to eighty pounds of ivory on each porter’s head. 18,000 pounds to 28,000 pounds were prize loads for caravans. Ivory was a household item to the people of Europe and America in the 19th century, like plastic is in the 21st century. And like the Chinese manufacture of plastic goods in the  20th and 21st century, 19th century China bought raw African ivory and manufactured ivory goods, games and trinkets to be exported back to the chief consumer nations of America, Britain and Europe. Marco Polo journaled that “Most of the ivory is carried to Oman whence it is sent to India and China.” The ivory the Chinese bought was for ivory carving, both for the export and home market. The Chinese in Africa didn’t get their hands bloody; they just brokered deals. In 1894, 80 percent of ivory that went through Africa’s main ivory port, Zanzibar, ended up in America. Billiard balls and gun handles. English cutlery makers in Sheffield bought  quantities of ivory for handles.

Ivory was almost a currency. Before the English and Europeans took over, everything in the East African ivory markets was bartered, the traders swapped everything from blue beads to beautiful women with the African suppliers. A savvy Arab trader could turn $3 worth of copper into a $1,000 of ivory with a series of clever barters. Ivory was the world’s most valuable commodity and travelling with it in the caravans and the ivory markets in the East African interior was rhino horn. A much lesser commodity in terms of national economies but more valuable by weight.

The economic importance of the ivory trade (and rhino horn) needs to be emphasised. Written accounts since the second century and the middle ages show the ivory trade was more prominent than the slave trade. African tribes were keen for the money. A big tusk could be bartered for a beautiful slave, a cow or a new shirt.

In the 1800s Arab merchants such as Muhammad Ali and Tipu Tib from Egypt and Sultan Said from Zanzibar were known at the ivory trading centres at Khartoum on the Nile or at Ujiji and Unyanyembe in Tanzania. Asian middlemen set up residence in Ujiji in the 1860s, the rice grown in a nearby swamp an important staple for them.  2000 people attended the markets daily for a trade in scissors, opera glasses, cloth, picture books, gunpowder, handkerchiefs, slaves and beads for ivory and rhino horn. An Indian, Musa Mzuri, was among the Indians that monopolised the trade at Zanzibar. The Indian agencies had been operating 200 to 300 years. They dominated. Zanzibar, which was the ivory market for all of East Africa, supplied 75 percent of the world’s ivory in 1891. European agencies were keen to wrestle the trade from the Indians in charge at Zanzibar. Not an easy task.

Companies like the British East Africa Company eventually took control. The African entrepreneurs were the first to go. An estimated 170,000 black rhinos were killed for the rhino horn trade between 1849 and 1895 to supply 11,000kg/year to Asia. Entire horns, pieces or shavings from Yemen dagger handle carving, it didn’t matter for the medicinal market. Then the trade gradually transformed into a sport for trophies. White hunters took over from black, but the trade to Asia continued. Hunting was important to the British elite in the Victorian era. Trophies made up the trade.

The 19th Century South African ivory market in the 1830s marked a new era of blood lust. English visitors enroute for military or civic duty in India wanted to hunt. White hunters and their guests shot South Africa almost out of elephant and rhino except for in a few areas by 1860. Smooth bore rifles meant death was never quick, but the visitors still glorified it in British best seller novels.

As far as Britain was concerned elephants and rhinos were treasures of the Empire. By 1870 colonial hunters worried about the “reckless shooting of excessive numbers of animals”. In 1903 UK hunter and conservation activist Edward North Buxton helped form the world’s oldest international conservation society, the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire (SPWFE) now called Flora and Fauna International (FFI). Buxton believed many European hunters lacked “true sportsmanship”. Buxton described Africa’s herds as “a precious inheritance of the Empire, something to be guarded like a unique picture” and Africa as “a paradise of varied life which is now irretrievably lost through the carelessness and wastefulness of white men”. It was the same in Sudan, South Africa, Somaliland, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Elites and hunters made up a large part of SPWFE’s membership.

Early conservation initiatives responded to the disappearance of game. A conference of stakeholder nations including Germany, France, Britain, Portugal, Spain, Italy and the Belgian Congo resulted in the 1900 Convention for the Preservation of Animals, Birds and Fish in Africa. Hunters objected but Buxton said “the legitimate sportsman has no reason to fear it and the mere butcher should be gibbeted”. British conservation delegate Captain Keith Caldwell denigrated subsistence hunting by the “natives” or hunting for profit especially when it was trophy hunting for profit. “The quickest most certain way of wiping animals off the face of the earth was to commercialise their trophies,” Caldwell said.

The SPWFE had to fight against its image as a club for “rich sportsmen” and reframe itself as a scientific society. Secretary of State for the Colonies Lord Crewe said in 1909 that the society was not just representing the interests of hunters. “It is not with you simply a question of preserving game for sportsmen, although that is a side of the matter in which many members no doubt take interest; but you are here, as I say as a scientific society in the main…” Hunting however remained central to Buxton’s philosophy in which revenue from hunting licenses funded species protection.

Kenya was a “prehistoric utopia” in a “tropical Neolithic slumber” just waiting for US ex- President Theodore Roosevelt’s safari hunt in 1909. He shot everything he could find and had plenty of carcasses to enjoy his lunch beside. Roosevelt started something. He gave the legend of the white hunter a legitimacy that attracted thousands.

Kenya was an emotional watershed for white colonial hunters in the early 20th Century. When Kenya’s game diminished noticeably it was mourned poetically. Novels like “Out of Africa” glorified white hunters while pining for the utopia they had ruined. The white hunters who were British, European and American elites and royalty were no strangers to history but blind to the elephant herds previously decimated throughout Africa. Had they not learned from Livingston’s journals or the account books of the British East Africa Company that paradise is finite?  They loved paradise for sport, but it was spoiling. Game control to clear land for the Empire’s cattle, sheep and railways became their sport. It was “our ivory” according to British Captain Keith Caldwell.

Roosevelt said game laws should reject animal rights. “Game laws should be drawn primarily on the interest of the whole people, keeping steadily in mind certain facts that ought to be self evident to anyone above the intellectual level of those well-meaning persons who apparently think all shooting is wrong and that man could continue to exist if all wild animals were allowed to increase unchecked.”

Despite the sentimentality and new regulations Kenya welcomed thousands of white hunters from Britain, Europe and America. They supplied a good portion of their ivory and rhino horn trophies to Asian markets. Roosevelt, Ernest Hemingway and the Prince of Wales were famous examples. An ivory trading centre was set up about 1900 in Mombasa in Kenya. By 1960 Mombasa took over as the centre of the world’s ivory trade from London, evidence that elite white sport and game control supplied the ivory and rhino horn trade. The Game Control Officer in Lariak in Kenya’s Rift Valley, Samaki Salmon, shot 4000 elephants. In Uganda, Captain CRS Pitman shot 3992 elephants for game control. A few months hunting for the Game Department killed 600 rhinos. From 1944 to 1946 one man, J.A. Hunter, shot 996 rhinos in Kenya. His records show he collected their horns to sell probably through the markets at Mombasa.  Kenyan safari hunter and documenter Peter H. Beard sold his trophies. “Three hundred thousand square miles of unspoiled hunting lay before us – and the chance to profit from trophies!”

Records of three East African countries Kenya, Uganda (a British protectorate from 1894 to 1962) and Tanganyika (now Tanzania) show exports of 1,600kg/year or the deaths of 555 black rhinos per year during the 1930s, 5,000kg/year during World War 2, 2,500kg/year after the war, 1,800kg/year in the 1950s, 1,300kg/year in the 60s and 3,400kg or 1,180 rhinos per year (similar to today’s poaching numbers) in the 1970s. Many of those horns were from hunting trophies or game control. For the century between 1880 and 1990 only three Asian countries, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan kept rhino horn import records. Where are China’s records?  Taiwan’s main supplier was South Africa, South Korea’s was Tanzania and Japan’s Kenya; all countries were British protectorates.

But “adventure unlimited” soon finished. Beard regretted that the “gentlemen adventurers of Central Africa” had showed “natives and the Asian middlemen how to kill for profit on a large scale”.

Until the mid 1970s when CITES entered the picture, the trade between countries in rhino horn was legal and sometimes documented. The records from exporting nations mismatch with importing nations as traders at both ends underreported to avoid customs duties. During the 1960s and 70s three countries took fairly even shares of East Africa’s rhino horn: Yemen, Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong was a known entrepot for China. History shows Britain’s dual role in conservation and hunting in Africa. Historical records also link British, European and American hunters to Asian middlemen.

British, European and American hunters played a key supply role in the ivory and rhino horn trade in Africa in the 20th century while their countries were key markets for ivory throughout the previous century. Rhino and elephant numbers have never been even close to recovering from that 200 year period. In fact by the 1960s white and black rhinos were almost wiped out completely.

The responsibility historically is shared by Britain, Asia, Europe, America and Africa who all profited. These days with over 25,000 elephants and over 1,000 rhinos being killed illegally for profit each year, the bygone days of 65,000 elephants killed a year and one man shooting 996 rhinos ironically seem forgotten. The conservation groups who owe their inception to white hunters never mention it. The irony may not be completely lost though.

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