Elephants’ graveyard

Between 1970 and 1982, according to the magazine Onyx (Vol. 16, p. 225), the number of African elephants declined sharply. Reliable counts in a large number of different regions showed a fall of between 80 and 95 per cent. The conclusion from this is that unless action is taken — for example to prevent the poaching of elephants — this attractive animal will soon be extinct. The African elephant’s plight is not, of course, unique; many forms of wild life are under threat and there are numerous organisations which campaign on behalf of the various endangered species.


There are similarities between the situation of the modern elephant and that of the pleistocene megafauna which were prominent in most parts of the world about two million years ago. Their disappearance came about largely as a result of their conflict with human beings, who were fairly efficient hunters. Consequently the megafauna became extinct in Eurasia over 10,000 years ago; in Australasia this happened within the last thousand years and in North America within the last 500 years (P. S. Martin, Prehistoric Overkill, Yale, 1967). The reason for this is fairly simply; the very size of the large mammals, which had once been an advantage for their self-defence, became a liability when hunting had advanced sufficiently to make size of no value against a well armed hunter. Furthermore, the vast amounts of food which an elephant needs to keep going (in Frankfurt Zoo elephants are fed nearly 185lb. of fodder each day) put the megafauna in competition with human beings for what were then scarce resources. The effects of hunting large mammals is accentuated by the fact that they take a comparatively long time to reproduce themselves.


The decline of the megafauna’s modern counterpart, the African elephant, coincided with the rise of capitalism. It was competition among the rising capitalist nations for the raw materials and the markets of the continent which first brought the unfortunate elephant into contact with “civilisation” — which in the elephant’s case meant a group of well armed hunters. The first example of this was in South Africa, where hunters could make vast profits (between 1500 and 2000 per cent) on the sale of ivory to the Dutch East India Company. By the 1830s the huntsmen — mainly Boers — had virtually wiped out all the Cape Colony elephants and then they moved north with devastating effect, massacring great hordes of elephants. Had enforceable Game Laws not been passed in the 1890s, the African elephant would probably have become extinct by the first world war.


It was the system of production for profit which both nearly wiped out the African elephant and saved it. Tusks were produced — that is, elephants were shot — for the profits from the ivory but the elephant was relieved from the murderous pressure when it became useful not just as a source of ivory. In the Belgian Congo the elephant was domesticated and used in agriculture and forestry. The opening of the many game parks allowed elephants to become a tourist attraction; the liquidation of the elephant no longer made good economic sense. There were other ways of making a profit from the animal, than shooting it.


This process, in which capitalism has driven a species into near-extinction and then preserved it, has not been confined to the elephant. The white rhinoceros was nearly hunted out of existence for its horn (which was believed to be marketable as an aphrodisiac) but again has been saved through its popularity with the paying tourists. The ostrich was almost obliterated because of a demand for its skin but has been saved by the fact that it is more profitable to turn out ostrich products in ostrich farms. Consequently wild ostriches have no further attraction for the hunter and are largely left alone by them. There are many similar examples.


But this stay of extinction may only be temporary, conditional on the species remaining valuable when it is alive. And this has been the fate of the African elephant, which is now again under threat and whose numbers have declined sharply. There are two main reasons for this.


The first is the ivory trade; ivory is still in demand as a valuable commodity. One dealer estimates that it is usually worth over £40 a kilogramme. The exact number of elephants slaughtered for their ivory is uncertain; Dr. Douglas Hamilton has said that between 100,000 and 400,000 were killed for their ivory in 1976, an estimate disputed by Ian Parker who believes that fewer than 55,000 elephants in fact died for their tusks (Onyx. Vol 16, pp 235-8). Of these deaths Parker estimates that only 20 per cent were killed “legally” (by government-licensed hunters or in management culling programmes). The remainder were illegally poached and exported to their market quite openly as, according to Parker, export licenses for poached ivory are quite easy to obtain by bribery and other means. Illegal ivory is of course quite indistinguishable from that which is allowed to be shot. The world’s major ivory importers are Hong Kong, India and Japan, where the ivory is carved, polished and sold, bringing in huge profits to the hunters, dealers and the sellers of the finished products.


The second major reason for the recent decline of the African elephants is their size. Because of the need for large amounts of food, the creatures are constantly on the move. Each family group will range over a set area to feed itself and the size of these ranges varies between 25 and 1,200 square miles (I. Hamilton, Among the Elephants, 1975, pp 231-3 ). But these ranges have been put under great pressure through agricultural development; consequently the elephants have been virtually confined to the National Parks and any outside these boundaries are liable to be shot as a danger to the crops.


The shooting of elephants to protect crops must not be seen, however, as a conflict between the elephants and human beings for scarce resources; it is the result of a clash between the elephants’ need for food and the interests of the crop growers. The crops are not produced to satisfy human needs but to realise a profit for the people who have invested in their growth. It was the demands of the crop owners which led to more effective boundaries of the National Parks (which are themselves drawn in an attempt to maximise profitability) and the drastic reduction in the elephant ranges. This reduction has meant that there is insufficient spare land for the elephant population which, according to Ian Parker, is a more important factor in the recent decline of the elephant than the ivory trade (Onyx, Vol 16, p 238).


So the numbers of the African elephant have declined rapidly because a live elephant is generally regarded as less valuable than a dead one. In face of this over-riding consideration in a capitalist society, the various wildlife protection societies are impotent. The African elephant can only survive, in a social system in which a minority of people own the means of life, if that minority believe that its survival is in their interests. In the 3rd century BC, Ptolemy II tried to prevent elephant hunting tribes from pursuing their prey because their killings were detrimental to his military strategy, which involved the use of elephants. Since then, there have been several attempts by the ruling class to boost the elephant population, the latest of which is the National Parks.


Should we bother about the fate of any one species of wildlife? How vital is the demise of a million or so elephants compared to that of the 30 million people who die each year of starvation or the threat of an all-destructive nuclear war which will make the human race an extremely rare species? Well the decline of the African elephant illustrates important points about the nature of capitalism and of socialism.


The first of these is the essential callousness of a social system in which production is for profit. In this all things, including the elephant, exist through a calculation which puts a price on their life and on their death — an equation which currently operates against the elephant and so hastens its demise, in much the same way as human beings may be written off or maintained on very low levels of “benefit” when they are no longer productive.


Secondly, what of future society? Will socialism allow free development of all forms of wildlife, whatever the consequences for the human race? Would it encourage the locust and the tsetse fly to thrive? When the means of production are communally owned there will be a totally different mode of wealth production, with different motives; commodities will be replaced by free access to use values. Free of the distortions of property society, the people of socialism will be able to assess comprehensively the totality, and the true balance, of the relationship between wildlife and the human race. If there should be a situation — a natural disaster, perhaps — which forces one into competition with the other for scarce resources then socialist society may well take the decision, democratically, that there is no alternative to an humane cull. It may even decide to obliterate some species.


That would be a regrettable, but unavoidable, step to take but it would be taken in the interests of humanity, unlike the motivation under capitalism for the slaughter which clubs the seal pup bloodily on the ice, which has the elephant die in slow agony from gunshot wounds and all in the name of profit.


John Critichfield