Category Archives: Conservation

About efforts to rehabilitate land, animals, or protect aspects of the environment.

African Wildlife Encounter #2: African Wild Dogs with Puppy

On this day while in Tembe Elephant Park we were working to habituate three African Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs) to the sound of the vehicle. The goal was to get them used to our vehicle so that we could both identify all the members of the pack, check their health, and eventually dart them for translocation to a safer area. To do this, we routinely had to locate the alpha female which wears a radio-collar and place parts from a dead Nyala or Impala on the ground, chained or tied to a tree.

A recording of Painted Dogs making a kill was played and usually after 10-20 minutes the pack would have found us and sniffed out the free food. This was the first time that we saw the puppy come out from its den.

Painted Dog pups typically den for their first several weeks, suckling from their mother and, when they’re old enough, eating food regurgitated to them from their older pack members or small bits of food brought back for them. After only a couple of months they must be strong enough to follow the pack’s nomadic lifestyle and keep up on the exciting hunts. Once old enough to keep up with the pack, Painted Dogs typically let the youngest eat first to make sure that they have enough nourishment, which is why we see the adult deferring to the youngest member. The twittering sounds heard int his video mostly come from this feisty pup who is excited to have this feast and also bravely guarding his meal!

Like their canine cousins, Painted Dogs give birth to several pups per litter. Unfortunately the little pup in the video, probably 8-12 weeks old, was the only survivor. While it’s not uncommon for pups to be lost due to weakness or disease, it’s most likely that predator persecution by lions was the cause of this pup losing its siblings.

The pup was very strong and active during the observation period, as shown in this video. The high-pitched vocalizations that are heard are characteristic of Painted Dogs and serve as a means of expressing excitement over their meal and letting others in the pack know that there is food to share.

More Information:

Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.

African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as often as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.

Unlike Lions and other species that live in a close-knit group, Painted Dogs often let their young eat first. This suggests that the dogs are not only grouping for social reasons, but because they are stronger as a pack and only as strong as their weakest member.

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Benefits (Part 3)

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Impediments (Part 1) can be read here. Part 2, Moral Dilemmas, can be read here.

Benefits of Wildlife Conservation

While there are many financial, emotional, and physical expenses related to wildlife conservation there are myriad benefits. What makes these benefits hard to invest in, and difficult to relate to, is that we don’t always know the result we’ll have when conserving a species for future generations. In some cases the payoff might take many decades or what is discovered might not be of any immediate scientific value. If it takes years to capitalize on discoveries then the discovery itself is less exciting, but during that time we will inevitably make strides in our understanding of the way our world works, the way it was created, and have the opportunity to make it better for future generations.

These unknown benefits are what drives humanity’s curiosity and are integral to our ability to understand and adapt to our world. Discovering the unknown is one aspect that drives research and development at NASA which not only performs important science experiments but also gives back to the American people, and the people of the world, through sharing technological developments.

There are many known benefits of wildlife conservation that we can begin to study and consider relatively quickly. While these developments may not be life-changing technologies they do impact our understanding of evolution, genetics, trait inheritance, natural selection, sexual selection, and social behavior within the entire animal kingdom. With an understanding of the way that animals function alone, in groups, and fulfill their roles as a species we can also make comparisons to the way that human societies work and even the way our brains process and perceive information. We can even learn from the behaviors and emotions of primates in the way they interact within their society or with their mates and gain a better understanding of how human emotions develop, what behaviors are intrinsic to being a specific gender or fulfilling a gender role, and the way that physical and mental disorders change the social dynamics of a group.

National heritage and pride also plays a role in determining what wildlife conservation projects are undertaken and it should also be considered a benefit of successfully conserving an at-risk species. China spends millions of dollars on programs to increase the number of pandas both in captivity and what few thousand are left in the wild. This is a symbol of pride and something that their people can feel good about as it reflects well on their country.

Similarly, the Bald Eagle holds a special place in the heritage and pride of Americans and has undergone protection and wildlife conservation of its own. Both the national bird and national animal of the United States the Bald Eagle symbolizes freedom and strength. To various Native American cultures it has represented peace or fertility and even regarded as a spiritual link between humans and their gods.

Human-related pollution and use of pesticides are thought to have indirectly, but significantly, contributed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Bald Eagles and reduced their ability to raise healthy offspring. But action taken in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s lead to stronger protections on the bird of prey that was already illegal to hunt in the United States and Canada. Since then the population has rebounded and continues to increase across North America, contributing to the restoration of balance within the ecosystems. While this preservation of a species doesn’t provide the country with any economic benefit, and isn’t even a tourist attraction, it does bring back a species important to the heritage of the United States.

Economic incentives are the easiest aspects of wildlife conservation to relate to for the average individual, but exploring the connections between flora and fauna and profits for humans can be tricky. Honey Bees are one of the easiest examples of a type of conservation that can have a dramatic impact on human agriculture and quality of life. Bees, and the Honey Bee in particular, provide an essential duty in pollinating plants that provide flowers and fruit and as a byproduct these bees produce honey for themselves which humans harvest. Losing honey through the use of harmful pesticides, parasites, and climate change would not be a great strain on the economy, but would end the free labor that bees provide through pollination would be incredibly costly, valued at billions of dollars a year. It’s thought that current pesticide use may be poisoning the bees and in turn making ill the birds that eat them, creating a combination of disastrous effects along the food chain.

Without bees many of the fruits that they pollinate would have to be hand-pollinated or millions of dollars would have to be spent researching and developing a type of fruit or flower that can reproduce without pollination. This would result in fruits similar to the modern banana, a fruit that is largely grown in third-world countries where land and labor costs are extremely low, and whose costs to harvest would make agriculture in the United States much more expensive and unable to compete with foreign markets. Without wildlife conservation, which goes hand in hand with understanding and conserving native plant species, we run the risk of unhealthy environments and a damaged agricultural sector.

Invasive species are damaging to agriculture and the local environment as well. This species could take the form of a plant that is resistant to chemicals that kill weeds that take root among crops of vegetables, making it more expensive to harvest crops because additional labor is needed to remove unnecessary plants from the ground and remove the rodents and pests that might feed on those plants. Invasive species can also be parasites that transmit disease to local wildlife, some of which can jump from wild animal to domestic animal, endangering our food and our pets.

Without proper conservation of our natural habitat the risks posed by introducing non-native species runs high. The United States already has a huge variety of non-native species of plants and wildlife on its soil, but the invasive species are the ones that are damaging the environment, the national heritage of the country, and endangering the health of our agriculture, livestock, and ultimately ourselves.

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Moral Dilemmas (Part 2)

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Impediments (Part 1) can be read here.

Wildlife conservation has great importance to the terrestrial and sea environment and those that are beholden to it for food, clothing, and business. However active conservation carries with it a set of moral obligations both to us and to the species and ecosystems that are affected by any action taken against or in the interest of the environment.

There are also a number of risks and costs associated with the objectives of conservation and it is the moral responsibility of the citizens of the region and the world to ascertain the long-term effectiveness of conservation, its impact on our future as well as the regional environment, the ability to provide food and culture to future generations, and many other details that may change over time, impacting our original goals and the final outcome of conservation projects.

In some cases wildlife conservation projects may take decades and even extend beyond a single human generation. With little or no pay not many people are willing to devote so many years of their life to an undertaking that might see dramatically different organizational structures and goals over the course of various presidencies, environmental administrations, and changing environmental variables. All of these aspects detract from the ability to perceive and actualize the ultimate objectives of the project and make it harder to show the merits of conservation efforts to a world that wants an immediate return on its investment.

Moral Dilemma of Saving Specific Species

Specialization and adaptation play a significant role in the long-term success of a species. However some species are so well adapted to specific environments that after millions of years of evolution they’re unable to adapt to a changing climate or environment significantly different than the one they evolved in. This presents a difficult moral choice for humans to make: let a species naturally die out or spend resources, time, and effort preserving the species so that we might learn about the species’ struggle to survive. With this knowledge we might learn more about genetics, sexual selection based on long-term/environmental variables, habitat change and destruction, and even the effects of inbreeding due to population decline.

There is another moral dilemma however, this one involving which species to save in an interconnected framework of species each dependent upon another to keep the ecosystem balanced. An example of this is the African Elephant which can destroy habitats suitable for Cheetah by allowing saplings in a field to grow into a forest. But Elephants can also create a hunting ground for Cheetah who need clear, open fields where they can use their speed to their advantage in catching prey. In order to create these habitats Elephants can topple enormous trees for hectares around depriving smaller animals, especially birds, a place to nest or escape to safety. If this is the natural order of things, and by all accounts it is, then removing the elephant from the ecosystem risks changing the habits of the birds and other animals that have evolved to adapt to such situations. In these cases overpopulation of certain avian species can lead to a decimation of snakes and woodland rodents, further cause imbalances within the ecosystem. Ultimately there may not currently be funds to protect all the species in this interconnected environment and the deciding factor in which species gets saved is either the NGO or a local or national government providing funding for projects specific to that species.

Food supply for humans is another factor affected by our morals and one that affects not just terrestrial farming, but also the fishing industry. In 2011 the world depended upon more than 83 million tons of fish, mollusks, and crustaceans pulled from the sea, roughly 60% of total fish production. With so much food coming from the wild rather than being farmed over-fishing and poaching of Tuna, Swordfish, and Sea Turtles can have devastating impacts on our long-term food supply as well as the environment’s ability to sustain its resources that we rely so heavily upon. These aquatic creatures  also prey on certain species of Jellyfish and a drop in predators may be one reason that some Jellyfish populations appear to be on the rise.

There is also a trade-off between conserving one species or another, particularly with keystone species: wildlife that can disproportionately affect their local ecosystem Humans spend significant resources on the conservation of Lion, Leopard, and other well-known species, but less on species that aren’t as valuable to their environment or aren’t as well understood, such as the Pangolin. Other wildlife, such as the Giant Panda, are conserved because of their popular status in the media, as well as the Cheetah, even though both species seem to be incapable of thriving without human intervention. The Cheetah in particular seems to be at a genetic dead-end not wholly related to human interference with habitat destruction and genetic isolation thought to have started roughly 12,000 years ago.

Invasive species provide another aspect of conservation and ecology to take into account. In environments largely untouched by foreign plants even a single invasive plant species can cause significant problems to the balance of the local ecosystem. Non-native plants may be immune to defense mechanisms of native plants, preventing the reproduction of the native species. These invasive plants can also have harmful effects on the wildlife populations by presenting an inedible or dangerous food source to animals that may eat strange plants out of desperation.

Similarly, the unsolicited introduction of a wildlife species to an area large or small can have huge consequences on the local food chain and off-set the population of other species. In some cases this can result in vermin moving closer to human dwellings, causing property damage and increasing the spread of disease among humans and their pets. It can even affect crop yields as rodents or insects driven away from their original habitat devour our agricultural crops.

High upfront costs may also be associated with saving wildlife and some of this comes from taxpayer dollars — sometimes from countries that don’t even natively have the species being saved. In many cases funding comes down to whether a group of people believe it’s worth spending public funds to save wildlife or to preserve the natural beauty, and ecology, of the region. This can turn into a popularity contest where keystone species  such as the Elephant receives much more consideration for funding than do less attractive species, such as Hyena and Vultures, that prevent disease and remove waste from the local environment.

Money ear-marked or set aside by local or government projects offer another point of contention. If renovating a beach to provide a long-term nesting location for sea turtles also improves property values of beach-front real estate is this a fair use of public funds? On the other hand should insurance and government aid to repair damage done to coastal properties by storms and natural disasters also allow funding to go towards wildlife conservation projects with overlapping goals?

Ideally monetary investment in a healthy environment should have a long-term payoff. But the benefits may be hard to realize for small communities or those dependent on a strong tourist economy to provide even basic income. In these situations it’s essential for the national government or non-governmental organizations to provide funding where local communities cannot. But the choice of how this is achieved and who benefits the most — the wildlife or the people — may get lost in between. Without important considerations of our moral obligations and moral desires we’ll have increasing difficulty finding balancing environmental aspects and our goals.

Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards: Impediments (Part 1)

Wildlife conservation appears to be a very straightforward prospect: saving animals keeps those animals alive for future generations. The immediate conclusion is that it must be morally good and just in every scenario. But wildlife conservation of all types depends upon understanding the way that the animal interacts with its ecosystem, its placement within the “food chain,” fiscal and physical feasibility of conserving wildlife that may have a very broad distribution across the globe (particularly for migratory species), as well as moral dilemmas caused by trying to balance an ecosystem that has become unbalanced due to events that we may not even fully understand. In addition long-term impacts of species rehabilitation and re-population must be taken into account both to understand the impact of this species on its ecosystem for many generations to come and to estimate the overall costs of such an undertaking, as morally justified as it might be.

The Wildlife Conservation Risks and Rewards topics will explore a series of topics relating to general wildlife conservation efforts and underscore the necessity of wildlife conservation goals to coincide with the natural duties of the species and do so in such a way that nearby human developments are not adversely impacted as a result.

Impediments to Wildlife Conservation

Human apathy towards the local, regional, national, and world environment is one of the most widespread dilemmas that faces wildlife, livestock, and environmental health. This apathy and disregard comes not only from people who are unaware of the effects that humans have on the environment, but also businesses that avoid taxes (some of which go towards repairing environmental damage) and that illegally dump or pollute local resources in order to save money. This behavior not only harms the local wildlife in the area but can also affect the health of rivers and irrigation systems that humans rely on for their food.

Ignorance about the intrinsic relationship between various ecological and social systems also plays a large role in impeding conservation efforts of all types. Climate change is an easy example of something that impacts our ability, as humans, to go about our lives, but also impacts our food, distribution, mental health (such as a growing number of cases of light sensitivity and mental health problems in northern latitudes).

At a smaller scale local communities often view the wildlife around them as being theirs for the taking or, in the event of people that have been displaced from their traditional homeland, rightfully theirs. So they may not see anything morally wrong with killing an endangered animal that raids their crops, even though it may have a greater ecological impact than they understand.

The ability to educate people about the laws of their country as well as the moral and financial choices that they must make to kill or save an animal fall short of the true problem: human-wildlife conflict occurs because two dissimilar groups attempt to share the same land. Educating a village about the merits of wildlife conservation is good, but it can be a time consuming task that leaves out educating or properly taking into account the needs of the other party: such as a solitary male elephant that insists of raiding crops for his own survival. Faced with the option to get a free meal most people and animals would take the opportunity assuming the risks were not extraordinarily high. To thwart this fences and other deterrents may be used to keep out wildlife that are dangerous not only to the local community’s food supply but also to individuals in the community who might incite an attack. There may be many ways to achieve a satisfactory result, but the best way is the one that takes into account the traditional values and lifestyle of all groups involved.

Local, regional, and national restrictions on conservation are largely ignored by the average person, but can have substantial effects. In particular regulations to prevent certain types of flora or fauna conservation or laws that withdraw funding from organizations designed to protect the long-term health of ecosystems near human developments. This impacts wildlife and local communities: everything from water problems on the west coast to pulling funding for beach restoration in Florida impacting beach-front property values and turtle conservation.

Additionally some conservation efforts may conflict with established industries, such as logging and mining, or may be at odds with popular hobbies such as hunting. Governments take these factors into account when permitting or denying conservation efforts in specific areas the same way that the government determines where and why it is or isn’t permissible to drill for oil, even in national parks and other protected lands.

Regional conflicts, especially in Iraq and many parts of Africa have helped fuel the current elephant and rhino poaching crises. While this distant problem seems inconsequential to westerners the rebel armies and syndicates that are causing this violence are getting their weapons from organized crime groups in Asia in exchange for exotic animal parts. As more and more people are displaced by violence and conflict from this the more the west feels a need to send monetary aid to these countries. However this does nothing to solve the root cause of the conflict nor does it provide a long-term solution suitable to the people and wildlife affected.

Some governments fear NGOs that aim to provide sophisticated and pro-active wildlife conservation, particularly anti-poaching services, because it is a perceived threat to established military dictatorships and the resulting balance of power. Having foreigners come in and provide paramilitary training to locals to stop human-wildlife conflict, protect wildlife, and community education programs to reduce human-wildlife conflict is something these governments are very wary of.

Thoughts on Volunteering in Africa Without a Firearm

When I talk about my volunteer experiences I often get asked whether I carried a firearm and what it was like to be in situations where I had to interact with dangerous game and people. But in the areas that I’ve volunteered in, which I would consider to be low- and medium-risk in terms of poaching, a firearm hasn’t been necessary. Getting into a situation where your life is threatened by wildlife or poacher is more likely due to not having the knowledge and skills to avoid a conflict you can’t win or an encounter you can’t escape from. Having knowledge and respect for the wildlife and people present in the surrounding areas is far more important than being able to react violently to a threat that could have been avoided, or safely neutralized, in the first place.

Guns vs Animals vs People

One aspect of working in the wilderness that many people forget is that the animals don’t know that anti-poaching rangers, conservationists, or helpful volunteers are on their side. They view us as a potential threat just as they would any predator because the way that humans interact and move through the environment is in a predatory fashion. We move directly towards our goal, not cautiously in an arc (a passive movement), slowly getting closer while watching for potential predators. And we’re designed to prey on others: we have the advantages of excellent color perception, binocular vision for depth of field, strength,  and so many other advantages that predators also share. Animals are smart enough to see us for the predators that we are and react accordingly.

Most animals run away when disturbed by humans and this is true even of other predators. While we think of lions and leopards as fierce and fearsome adversaries that could easily kill a man, they don’t want to risk a confrontation that might get them mortally wounded. Wildlife’s incorrect assessment of human strengths and weaknesses plays into the strength and safety of anyone that moves through the wilderness. Understanding animal behavior is a big part of staying safe in any situation, and understanding human behavior corresponds to dealing with all human interactions, whether at work or in the field tracking poachers.

And for the most part, small arms and even medium-caliber rifles are not going to stop large animals like African bufflo, elephants, or rhino that are charging a human. These animals can run surprisingly fast and have skulls that can stop some bullets, making an attempt to aim and fire a waste of time. Better to be respectful of the wildlife in the first place and not risk their life or yours.

Skills and Training

Learning how to be respectful of the environment and the wildlife within is essential to staying safe. The training gained from anti-poaching rangers, security professionals, and military specialists is essential. So is the information gained from the people local to the region, who have grown up in the area and understand how to avoid threatening wildlife and if necessary avoid dangerous game entirely. Moving quietly or noisily can be important depending on the types of wildlife one expects to encounter. Additionally moving so that you are positioned up-wind of potentially dangerous game provides them an opportunity to catch your scent and allow them to make the decision to move away on their own. That way you don’t accidentally walk into a herd of elephants that would prefer not to be disturbed.

Staying open-minded and alert are other essential aspects of respecting wildlife and moving safely through areas where poachers might be lurking. Choosing the easiest path through dense foliage might not be the best idea because it might be a popular “highway” for large animals to use. Moving along paths that one can’t clearly see the far end of can be equally dangerous and sometimes moving through tall grass and slogging through mud is a safer route to avoid an unpleasant encounter.

Poachers understand how animals behave as well and following preconceived paths can lead into an ambush, something that smart, experienced poachers will employ whenever they think they are threatened by pursuing rangers. Knowledge of the lay of the land and how to cut-off or counter-ambush a group of poachers becomes essential techniques for anti-poaching rangers through the use of unconventional movements and tactics. Most important to avoiding common behavior and falling into a trap is to be adaptive to changing situations. This is an advantage that motorized anti-poaching groups have over poachers as they can quickly move units to positions well ahead of the poacher’s eyes and ears and attempt to ambush them while they flee on foot.

Teamwork and Numerical and Technological Superiority

Operating as a team is essential to completing patrols and snare sweeps in a reasonable amount of time. And the way that people look at things, the way they perceive the world around them, means that having different sets of eyes and ears focusing on the same task yields very good results.

Especially in encounters with wildlife or hostile humans it’s important to have a numerical advantage to show a strength through unity that the other animals or people might not want to fight against. In the case of wildlife this usually means that they will move off in a safe direction and do so in a non-threatening way. Most animals — and people — are not going to engage a group that is obviously numerically superior to its own.

However armed or well-trained poachers may not be as easily dissuaded by numerical superiority by anti-poaching rangers or related assistants, so that numerical superiority, along with the cohesiveness of teamwork, can be used to quickly overwhelm and overcome a dangerous group. In Kruger National Park there have been incidents where armed poachers have been arrested by a smaller force that used the advantage of surprise and speed to overwhelm them. It turned out that some of those poachers didn’t even know how to use their weapons effectively, which didn’t prevent the poachers from being dangerous and discharging their firearms. But the use of teamwork effectively and decisively  removed the threat and arrests were made with no anti-poaching rangers getting hurt.

Of course, not all poachers are so poorly trained or ill-equipped, which means that numerical superiority and good equipment and logistics is required to overcome the threats that poachers pose in a way that minimizes the risk of the anti-poaching rangers.

How Products Get Into the Hands of Tourists: Stolen Goods, Labor Exploitation, and Poaching

This is Part 2 of a series on How Products Get Into the Hands of Tourists and includes an analysis of tourist souvenirs and things I learned and observed as a low-impact tourist in southern Africa.

You can read Part 1 here: How Products Get Into the Hands of Tourists: Sustainable Tourism and Smart Tourism.

Tourists like to get a memento or souvenir that reflects the culture or place that they’ve visited and many people treat it as an opportunity to get themselves something special while also putting money into the host country’s economy. For local and regional economies dependence on tourism can be very strong so any income gained from tourists is reflected significantly in the country’s Gross Domestic Product through selling goods (souvenirs) and services (safaris). But whether or not this money makes it back into the economy in a healthy way depends on who the tourists buy from and what the seller does with the money afterwards. The origin of these goods has a direct impact on the economy’s long-term resources, which equates to economic health, and also impacts the environment that these resources are taken from or were produced in.

Normally reinvesting the revenue from sales would be a priority for a business to ensure future growth. And with the extremely high prices that tourist shops charge, sometimes more than 10 times what they paid for the items themselves, it should be relatively easy to create a viable business that benefits the local or even national economy. But illegitimate businesses, sidewalk sellers, and people that sell goods and don’t pay taxes aren’t interested in building up a strong long-term financial plan. They take money in and spend it just as quickly, then want bargain prices from the people that actually make the goods so that the illegitimate business can make a nice profit. And the cycle continues, keeping wages of craftsmen down and the value of resources very low. Often this has a detrimental impact on the local environment, where resources like wood or stone will be taken directly without thought to its sustainability either for the environment or for businesses. With an unquantified dependence on natural resources and an unclear economic future, this spells uncertainty for the rest of the industry’s growth and development.

Getting to the Source

It’s critical to remember that supporting the local economy only works if you support legitimate, long-term businesses. And you don’t need to see a PowerPoint with a 10-year business strategy to see whether a business is legitimate and has some plan for the future.

Many of the tourist shops that I found in Zimbabwe sold “hand carved” wooden and stone figures as well as wooden bowls and statues. Going from one shop to another it became obvious that many of the bowls were the same and had simply been painted in different styles. They had probably been manufactured in the same place and the same way, then sold to different shops that were looking for specific patterns or colors that they would say was authentic to the region. But what stood out most was that the shops had obvious long-term potential as souvenir shops by offering a clear place for tourists to shop and in some cases had craftsmen to supply their shops nearby. The people loitering on the sides of the roads hoping to sell a souvenir to tourists had no long-term prospects and were simply trying to make a wage. However by choosing the path that was least likely to be successful, and required the least amount of effort, the sidewalk salesmen put themselves at a longterm disadvantage and lied to their prospective customers about the source of their “hand carved” products.

Calling the products “hand carved” wasn’t entirely deceitful: the products were hand carved, and it’s no stretch of the imagination that they were made in one of Zimbabwe’s industrial centers. However from what I discerned the “I made this myself” line is almost always an appeal to the customer’s emotions and not factually accurate at all. But in general the claim that the items were hand carved was mostly true. Overall the vastly different pricing from illegitimate street vendors and over-priced shops as well as competition between unemployed, local craftsmen and distant employees of a workshop made determining the value and origin of a product a bit tricky.

A photo of semi-legitimate souvenir shops, though far less official than the shopping center found in the town center of Zimbabwe’s tourist hot-spot Victoria Falls. (“Falls souvenir market” photo from www.hnlc.org.au/reedbuck/ – 2007)

While in Zimbabwe I was offered many products by street vendors and other locals that roamed the streets preying on tourists. Among them were the currency of the country which due to dire economic situations that had caused hyperinflation were completely worthless. I stayed away from buying any of the currency because it doesn’t do the country any good and buying bank notes from unemployed people contributes to their unwillingness to make a positive impact. I was also offered lion claws which can’t be collected without killing the lion and aren’t removed from lions hunted on private reserves because trophy hunters want the animal as intact as possible. Being offered these sorts of items is always a red flag that the vendor is receiving goods and animal parts from illegal sources. However I was curious about where all the crafted items came from. Having so many variations on the same designs suggested that there was either a centralized manufacturing center producing all of these (perhaps one of Zimbabwe’s industrial towns or maybe even China) or whether everyone was crafting the same items because that’s what tourists liked best.

There were also a few tourist items that I saw which were not authentic to the region. Traditional wooden masks are not used by the peoples of southern Africa and are more common in western African countries among the people that live in traditional villages. Similarly there were some dolls and related craft items which looked to be made by local seamstresses but when I asked about their origin I was told that they were not traditional items from that region.

Bulawayo is the industrial capital of Zimbabwe and before the economic collapse of the country was an important hub of southern Africa, providing transportation of people and industrial supplies. But much of the stone carvings, most popular were individual carvings of Africa’s most famous dangerous game, were said to be produced locally. Some of the craftsmen using power tools to cut and carve the pieces were working not far from one tourist section in Victoria Falls. I wasn’t allowed into the room, but I was shown the origin of the carvings. A couple of guys were carving all the stones which had been picked up as suitable for turning into a tourist souvenir. It was loud and dusty work to cut and smooth raw stone and it made me think of miners who have to deal with long hours and poor labor conditions. On top of that these guys didn’t seem to make much from their efforts.

The harder I bargained with the guys selling the finished product the lower the price got from what they had initially offered — and the angrier they got that I wasn’t giving into their demands. Of four of the sellers of stone carvings I was able to bargain three of them down to under a third of their $15 asking price. And one of those sellers next-door to a stone figure seller offered me a small wooden box for $150 that I bargained him down to $30. But of course I didn’t buy it.

But if the souvenir sellers were asking $4-5 as a minimum for the stone carvings then they were still making a profit. And the people that had actually done the carving and had to pay for maintenance on the equipment would have gotten even less for each piece. Even in poor nations $2 doesn’t stretch very far. The average income in Zimbabwe is said to be around $300 a month, of course with unemployment officially listed at around 80% according to state media, that figure is comparatively high for the rest of the country. As a tourist it’s important to contribute to the local economy and the overall economy of countries that depend on tourism, but paying the incredibly inflated rates that souvenir sellers and shop owners ask isn’t trickling down to the people that actually make the products. And with pay so low it provides incentive to take resources as cheaply as possible, which equates to illegally and unsustainably.

Stolen Goods, Poached Resources

When it came to items crafted from wood I couldn’t be sure that what I saw had been sourced locally and sold by locals in Victoria Falls was acquired legally. This stems from a number of things: economic desperation on the part of the locals; extremely high unemployment; ease of acquiring things from other people’s property; and historical grievances and dissatisfaction with land ownership. Larger pieces of wood, particularly from slow-growing trees, are more likely to be cut down from a living tree and be taken illegally from a private reserve or national park. As larger pieces are more valuable and increasingly harder to find the scope of wood poaching is spreading.

While wood poaching seems inconsequential to most people the acts of cutting down live trees, trespassing, and exploiting someone else’s property does have a tangible effect on the market, environment, and on the way that private reserves view the local people that may live just on the other side of the fence.Wood poaching and illegal logging doesn’t only happen on a small scale. It plagues Madagascar and other countries that have large tropical and sub-tropical forests while supplying other nations with cheap hardwood. It also undermines the prices of wood throughout the rest  of the world.

A traditional bowl from Zimbabwe made of Mopane.  US and UK coins for scale.
A traditional bowl from Zimbabwe made of Mopane. US and UK coins for scale.

Many of the bowls I saw were crafted from the wood of a Mopane tree (Colophospermum mopane), a very durable and reasonably heavy wood. Many animals depend on the shelter and resources that trees provide and Mopane is particularly important to the people and wildlife of southern Africa. Some organisms like the Mopane worm (actually a sort of caterpillar) eat Mopane leaves and wood almost exclusively (and the Mopane worm is a traditional food for humans and a novelty for tourists). Elephants favor Mopane trees as well, and they will physically destroy other trees so that a forest of Mopane can grow.

This underscores the importance of knowing where a resource is being taken from. If Mopane trees all get cut down in a region it’ll have a lasting impact on the local economy’s ability to produce tourist goods. It will also impact where the elephant live and, as a major tourist attraction, the local economy will suffer without enough resources for the elephants.

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The above rhino is carved from the hearty Wild Olive tree or African olive (Olea europaea africana) which has no trouble growing in various terrain types in southern Africa. These trees grow to be very large and have thick trunks, however it is a very slow growing tree and some specimens of similar subspecies are hundreds of years old. Besides the olive fruit that these trees bear, the traditional uses have been for harvesting leaves and bark to make medicines to treat sore throat, diarrhea, and other illnesses. Some wildlife and livestock will eat from the tree and humans can use the roots and timber.

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This rhino made of African Black Ironwood (Olea capensis), which is part of the olive family and unrelated to the Black Ironwood (Krugiodendron ferreum) found in the Caribbean and Central America, gets its name because of how heavy it is and how dark the wood can be. Carvings like this can command a price similar to that of the rhino made of Wild Olive wood despite being many times smaller. Large carvings made of Ironwood that are similar in size to the olive wood rhino can retail for hundreds of dollars. That’s because the tree this wood comes from is slower growing and after decades of deforestation and poaching, people have to go farther to find suitable ironwood trees — at times even into local reserves and national parks. Like Mopane (shown below), Ironwood is a very dense wood and a favorite for use as firewood because of how long it will burn.

A rhino cut from Wild Olive, a piece of natural Mopane, a small rhino cut from Ironwood, and UK and US coins for scale.
A large rhino cut from Wild Olive, a piece of natural Mopane, a small rhino cut from Ironwood, and UK and US coins for scale.

Other exotic woods such as Ebony and Teak are highly prized by craftsmen both in Africa and in the West for their beauty and durability. When furnishing our cars or homes with beautiful hardwood floors we rarely consider the origin of the wood and whether it comes from a legitimate company much less sustainable source. Ultimately this plays an important roll in large-scale illegal logging, but small-scale poaching can be just as damaging to the environment and is even more dangerous for the rangers, conservationists, and civilians that encounter wood poachers.

Animal parts gained from low-level poaching, such as porcupine quills and lion claws are also problematic and put the community’s economy at a disadvantage by relying on unsustainable which perpetuates the poor choices of the illegitimate businesses that sell those products. And these industries directly support wildlife poaching and wildlife trafficking in their region and indirectly provide incentive for poachers to continue to supply Asia, the United states, and the Middle East with exotic animals, ivory, and rhino horn.

But tourists do have a choice when offered products of unknown origin and disrepute. Making that choice and being an informed consumer, whether at home or abroad, is not so difficult. Furthermore, low-impact and sustainable tourism is still possible despite the issues outlined above and tourists simply need to keep in mind the source and provenance of the goods and services that are being offered to them and be firm in their morals (and safety) when deciding whether to purchase a product or service.

How Products Get Into the Hands of Tourists: Sustainable Tourism and Smart Tourism

This is Part 1 of a series on How Products Get Into the Hands of Tourists and includes things I learned and observed as a low-impact tourist in southern Africa. You can read Part 2: Stolen Goods and Labor Exploitation here.

Sustainable Tourism

The benefits of sustainable tourism are numerous for the host country and the tourist. A well-informed tourist can make decisions that keep them safe while traveling and respect the host country’s politics, culture, and communities. Conserving resources helps the environment over the short-term but has a long-term impact on positive foreign relations and helps foster growth of the tourism industry. This is particularly important in countries that view foreigners as undesirable. And for the truly adventurous that choose an environmentally conscious, low-impact means of both travel and accommodation opens an entirely different way of accessing and interacting with the people, culture, and wildlife of the host country.

There are an increasing number of opportunities for people that enjoy adventures or rustic, low-impact tourism. Sites like SustainableTourism.net offer information and resources on traveling in an environmentally conscious way and ways to be a responsible tourist. Additionally, DiscoverAdventure.com simultaneously offers ways of raising money for a charity, low-impact travel, and opportunities to tour distant lands in a sustainable way. And there are more options out there if you’re willing to do a bit of exploration and research into sustainable tourism opportunities that suit your interests and level of adventure.

Being a smart, low-impact tourist is more than just how you get there and what you use. It’s also important to take into consideration what you buy and where the goods come from so that you can avoid supporting unsustainable industries. In particular many southern African countries have opportunities to buy locally-grown foods from farms using conservation agriculture techniques, but this isn’t always the safest or highest-grade food that we’re used to in the west. For many tourists staying at hotels fresh produce is imported from countries that do provide higher quality food and which is likely treated with various pesticides to keep it in such good condition. This creates a price premium on food for tourists, but may make local, sustainable alternatives more appealing.

Another aspect of sustainable tourism is avoiding purchasing souvenirs that contribute to deforestation and other negative ecological impacts, hurt legitimate businesses, and contribute to wildlife poaching. Unfortunately countries with damaged economies will have more products for sale that are unsustainable and sold by people who only have their own best interest in mind. Tourists will have to travel smart and use their best instincts when being approached or approaching a souvenir seller and get answers that satisfy your moral values.

While in Zimbabwe I spent a lot of my time off window shopping and asking about where various products were made, what they were made of, and unraveling the true origin of the resource it was taken from. If it was wood I wanted to know what type of wood it came from, whether it was a fast-growing or slow-growing tree, and how the timber industry affected the local or regional environment. Many of the answers came from the conservationists I got to work with, but sometimes shop keepers supplied realistic information as well.

However I was also aware that one of our roles as volunteers of an anti-poaching organization was to stop illegal logging or wood poaching: the harvesting of trees for their fruits or wood. In that part of the world it mainly consists of people cutting down trees for use as firewood or to sell the wood to craftsmen who then create furniture or items for the tourist industry. Even people that take dead trees out of a private reserve are adversely affecting the ecology of the area by taking away vital nutrients and shelter that many animals and insects can use. Over time wood poaching can cause deforestation, but it also puts those locals in danger of being attacked by wild animals or having the wildlife directly injured by the poacher. When wood poachers come onto the property of a private reserve or national park it creates a security risk and a huge liability. These people are tasked with protecting wildlife and also conserving the natural ecology of the region and having trespassers wandering around is bad for business and the wildlife.

Due to tourism being such an important economic factor for the economies in this region of Africa it’s easy for people to over-exploit their resources by taking the wilderness for granted. This shows a lack of respect for their surroundings, for their children that will one day inherit the country, and poor business sense. And it provides more reasons that all forms of poaching must be stopped. By being an informed traveler, even if not participating in every aspect of sustainability, any individual is able to avoid supporting these exploitative industries.

Buying Souvenirs, Staying Informed

Learn where different products come from and how it relates to regional customs and local resources. Legitimate artisans and crafts makers love to talk about all the work they put into their products, but resellers of tourist items bought from the other side of the country will be hesitant to mention where the product was made. Also, understanding what items are traditional to a region goes a long way to informing you of whether the product was made locally and from a sustainable resource. For instance, wooden masks are not native to all regions of Africa. Buying one outside of the region they’re made and used means you’re either paying extra for an imported product or getting a fake.

Know what you’re buying and where it comes from. If the seller doesn’t seem willing to be honest with you then you probably don’t want to buy their merchandise because it could be stolen or a product of labor exploitation. Or they might be trying to rip you off. If there are other shops nearby check out what their prices are like and figure out what truly reasonable prices are.

Understand the local customs of buying, selling, and bartering. In many places the first price offered is much more than what the seller will take. Asking whether the seller will take a lower price will rarely offend the seller and most people will be pleased that they could offer you a great deal once you have haggled them down to a reasonable price.

Traveling Informed

Do your research on the health of your destination’s economy and tourism industry before visiting. If you’re unaware of the currency exchange rates and value of certain basic commodities and services (beer, Coca Cola, and taxies are common base lines) then you put yourself at risk of getting ripped off and being short on cash.

Buy a map. Part of knowing your surroundings is being able to find where you are on a map. This also helps with determining a reasonable taxi fare for a given distance. Taxi drivers that let you barter with them will usually have started with a very high price assuming you’re an ignorant tourist. But if you can prove that the distance you’re traveling isn’t worth that much you can more easily reason them down to a good price.

Pack your luggage appropriately. Many airports throughout the world have poor luggage security. Some airlines and bus services use metal shipping crates for storing passenger luggage whether on or off the plane, but this is no guarantee against theft. It’s a good idea to buy travel insurance that covers loss or theft of luggage, but an even better idea to pack only items you can accept losing in your checked baggage. Bring as many of your important, irreplaceable items with you in your carry-on bag(s) and check with your travel service ahead of time to determine how many bags can be carried on for each part of your journey.