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Dispatches : Nature

The Last of the Desert Dwellers

Namibia, some would say, is an African country that actually gets wildlife conservation. So much so that a conservation mandate is actually written into its constitution. Which makes it all the more perplexing why the Namibian government has issued permits to hunt its iconic desert elephants. 

That policy has certainly sparked a lot of Internet outrage. There's a campaign on Facebook devoted to saving the elephants, and a recent entry expounds on the killing of a 17-year-old bull named Delta, apparently the first elephant shot because of the permits: 

“Delta was killed close to his family, and a short distance from a school, where there had been peaceful co-existence between humans and animals for some time.” 

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-mom-baby_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert elephants can now only be found in Namibia and Mali."}%}

The furor is predominantly based on the fact that only 100 of these animals remain in Nambia, according to Laura Brown, a scientist and the director of Desert Lion and Elephant Conservation. And since word broke about the permits, there have been conflicting news reports, allegations of government secrecy, and suggestions—and counter-claims—that the permits were issued in exchange for political votes. So what’s really going on?

The answer is murky, but it starts with how Namibia manages wildlife. In 1996, the Nature Conservation Amendment Act spawned the formation of conservancies, which essentially gave rural communities consumptive and non-consumptive rights to wildlife. There are 79 conservancies, with 240,000 people living in them.

According to Colgar Silkopo, Director of Regional Services and Parks Management at Namibia’s Ministry of Environment Tourism, permit allocations for wildlife occur at the beginning of each year. This year, MET allotted nine elephant hunting permits to six local conservancies in the Kunene and Erongo regions in the northwest—areas where the desert elephants live. 

Seven of these permits are trophy-hunting permits. And the other two are “own use, which means, they can be used for meat,” explain Silkopo. However, these “non- trophy animals can be hunted by the conservancies themselves or a professional hunter or company they have a contract with.”

But is this actually antithetical to Namibia’s conservation ethos? Like most things about elephants in Africa, it depends on whom you talk to.

Dr. Margaret Jacobsohn is a trustee at Namibia’s Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) and a Namibian anthropologist who has been working in community based conservation for three decades.

{%{"image":"http://media.outsideonline.com/images/namibia-desert-elephants-three_fe.jpg","caption":"Desert dwellers were once more widespread across Africa, until hunting in the 1980's caused numbers to plummet."}%}

She recently wrote an opinion piece for Africa Geographic stating she’s against any elephant hunting, but says that doesn’t mean there’s an irony at play: “No, there’s no irony here. The irony is not in the trophy hunting. Rather, it is that the public—those who do not live with wildlife—is attacking the country with one of the best conservation records in all of Africa.”

CJ Carrington, a South African freelance writer who wrote about the controversy for the organization Conservation Action Trust, says she does find Namibia’s actions antithetical to its conservation mandate, especially because she believes the government has tried to keep the permits on the down-low. “Attempting to keep it secret and then scurrying to provide flimsy excuses—these are not the actions of an institution with nothing to hide.”

What is clear is that the whole concept of wildlife conservation in Africa is altogether complicated. “Listen,” says, Brown, who has been closely studying some 70 of the remaining desert-dwelling elephants for nearly a decade, “there are many different ways African nations maintain wildlife. Some governments throw all the animals into a national park and keep the people out. Some don’t have national parks and all the wildlife is gone. And Namibia has an in-between, where you have these conservancies where people decide the use of the wildlife.” 

Brown makes a point of explaining that hunting isn’t new in Namibia, just all the sudden attention to it. “Hunting has always been allowed in Namibia. It is always been able to issue permits to hunting. It just hasn’t been highly talked about. In fact, Namibia has been very much ignored [in the conversation about Africa’s elephants] until very recently.”

Brown says that eventually, her organization would like to see people deter elephants with non-lethal means. “That is something we are working towards. “But at this point,” she adds, “the country just isn’t there, yet.”

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Your Travel Photos Are Helping Rhino Poachers

Seeing a rhino in the wild is one of Africa’s quintessential safari experiences and a lump-in-your-throat moment for those lucky enough to realize the dream. This is what you came to the continent for, right? 

Maybe you’ll zoom in with your SLR camera and snap some great shots that you’ll edit later and share online with friends. Or perhaps you’ll take quick pics on your cell phone and post on Facebook or Instagram within minutes.

Either way, what you might not realize is that the second you share that photo online, you could be helping a rhino poacher find his next victim.

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Finding Rhinos

The Hospitality Association of Namibia recently posted a photo on its Facebook page of a sign hanging in a safari vehicle that reads: "Please be careful when sharing photos on social media. They can lead poachers to our rhino. Turn off the geotag function and do not disclose where the photo was taken."

Geotagging is the process of automatically including geographic information in cell phone pictures. When you share your photos with others, the information is embedded within the photograph, and anyone with access to the Internet can extract that data from your picture.

Plug the longitude and latitude into Google Maps, for example, and you could discover the exact spot where the photo was shot, give or take a few feet. Combine that with the fact that rhinos are very sedentary and often hang out in the same general area for days at a stretch, and you have a potentially serious situation.

"If you’ve got a fresh GPS coordinate for a rhino—or you know where it’s going to water every night—it’s very easy to quickly find and poach it," explains Chris Weaver, director of the Namibia program for World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Rhino poaching has dominated the news recently, as the number of endangered animals killed over the past few years has risen astronomically—all in an effort to sell the horns of the prehistoric mammals. Some believers of traditional Asian medicine think pulverized rhino horn will cure strokes, convulsions and fevers, among other ailments.

Though there is no scientific proof of such medicinal value, rhino horn is nonetheless highly prized—so much so that a single rhino horn can fetch $250,000 on the black market.

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Faux Tourists

As more and more of the endangered rhinos are killed, conservationists and government officials in some parts of Africa have become extremely protective. In fact, they try not to discuss the animals publicly anymore.

"While Namibia would love to boast about its success with relocation of protected species into private parks and the growth of its rhino population and rhino tracking activities, unfortunately such positive news may draw poachers to our area," said Gitta Paetzold, CEO of the Hospitality Association of Namibia. To combat this, several organizations have started educating travelers about how poachers can pluck GPS coordinates off photos that tourists post on social media sites.

Poachers can also examine your photos and identify markers in the background, such as a particular grove of trees or a mountain peak. And some illegal hunters even pose as tourists, going on guided expeditions on game farms or in national parks. The first time this happened, in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Park, two men killed a pair of white rhinos. The men were later arrested. It’s even happened in India, where poachers killed a pair of one-horned rhinos in Kaziranga National Park.

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Guides, of course, lead their visitors right to where the rhinos are, and the faux tourists may then snap photos without raising any suspicions. Would-be poachers or informants can then send a photo with a location tag to anyone or return to the spot later to seek out the rhino.

Weaver was recently exploring the Namibian desert with some guests when he came across a group of tourists who took an unusual interest in two white rhinos. They snapped more than the typical number of photos of the animals with their cell phones and spent more time with them than Weaver has observed during his 20 years working in Namibia.

"I’m thinking, how would a person know that they’re not just forwarding these photos on to China or Vietnam and saying ‘How much will you pay for information on this rhino?’" Weaver said. "Pass that on, and five minutes later, you’ll have an answer back: ‘I’ll give you X amount for that set of horns."

It’s not a far-fetched proposition. In South Africa, for example, officials have become more vigilant about rhino tourism, documenting the names and visits of tourists. Weaver said he’s even heard of some spots where cell phones are forbidden on safari vehicles.

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How You Can Help

Although visitor photos may inadvertently help poachers on occasion, there is a silver lining: travelers can actually be a huge aid to rhino conservation efforts, especially in Namibia where tour operators work with community members who value wildlife and work tirelessly to protect it.

"You as a tourist are actually making a difference," WWF’s Weaver says, explaining that a portion of tour payments go toward community conservation efforts. "Your tourist dollars create long-term incentives for people to set aside habitat for wildlife and live with wildlife."

To ensure you’re not aiding poachers with your travel photos:

  • Disable the geotag function in the settings section of any smartphone you use to take photos.
  • Strip off the location data on photos previously shot.
  • Be mindful of privacy settings on social media sites. if posting photos of rhinos, only share them with trusted contacts.
  • Pay attention to fellow tourists. If you see someone acting out of the ordinary or hear a few too many questions about where rhinos are and how long they’ll stay there, alert national park staff or your guide. That person could be a poacher informant.
  • Be wary of sharing too much information with overly interested people, such as taxi drivers or hotel staff. If a line of questioning gets too detailed about the location of an animal you saw that day, answer vaguely.

Learn more about what WWF is doing to stop rhino poaching.

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Do Animals Feel Love?

There is “absolutely no doubt that animals love,” says Marc Bekoff, professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and author of The Emotional Lives of Animals. What makes him so sure? Years of observing wolves, coyotes and other animals in their natural habitats.

“A long-term close relationship, commitment to another person,” Bekoff says. “You travel with them, you defend territory and food, you have a family, you miss one another while you’re apart.”

That loving behavior he observed is supported by an experiment detailed in a recent article in The Atlantic, “Dogs (and Cats) Can Love.” In the experiment, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University Paul Zak collected blood samples from a dog and a goat after they played with one another. He then measured the animals’ levels of oxytocin, or “the neurochemical of love.”

The dog had a 48 percent increase in oxytocin, meaning it viewed the goat as a friend. The goat, however, was enraptured. “It had a 210 percent increase in oxytocin,” Zak explains. “At that level of increase, within the framework of oxytocin as the ‘love hormone,’ we essentially found that the goat might have been in love with the dog.”

And what of those animals that pair up for life, such as certain types of birds? Although penguins don't mate for life, they can sustain long-term relationships, says Dee Boersma, the cirector of the Magellanic Penguin Project at the University of Washington. One pair she observed was together for 16 years.

Boersma’s Ph.D. student Jeffrey Smith studies why female penguins, given the choice, will pick one male as her mate over another, but they have yet to pinpoint a reason. “We’re not sure if it’s a behavioral thing or if she sees a nest that she likes,” he says. Could this X factor be love? 

Boersma cites a story of seeming heartbreak among Galapagos penguins. When a male penguin disappeared, his mate remained in the nest waiting for him. Even when another male lured her away, she continued to return to the old nest.

“Was she pining away for her love?” Boersma asks. “She was distressed but was it love? With a bird brain is it the same as human love?” Perhaps not, but that doesn’t necessarily make it any less like love, just different.

“It’s not to say that dog love is the same as human love,” says Bekoff, “but your love might not be the same as mine.”

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