Wildlife Protection Gets a Tough Probe

WHEN an investigative reporter like Raymond Bonner runs up against attempts by an organization or government to be secretive, the result is predictable.

A former New York Times correspondent, Bonner digs and digs until he has penetrated the facade of press releases and public statements to reveal what the organization intended to hide. He did that in a book on the United States and El Salvador, and in another on the Philippines. His current offering examines the methods of several wildlife conservation groups in Africa.

In "At the Hand of Man," Bonner asserts that most wildlife groups working in Africa have hired few African experts and that these same groups, as well as independent conservation experts, pay a lot of attention to the needs of animals and too little attention to the needs of Africans. An excess of elephants in a concentrated area, for example, not only destroys trees in a game park but also tramples crops on surrounding farms.

Bonner also alleges that two groups, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the African Wildlife Fund, used the issue of a total ban on ivory trade and the killing of elephants to increase their membership and to raise donations, despite strong arguments against such a ban from knowledgeable experts, including some within wildlife organizations.

WWF efforts to be secretive about their links to a South African tobacco baron, about their anonymous major-donor lists, and about internal debates over the ban provided ripe targets for Bonner's probing.

While Bonner is strongly critical of WWF methods, he does not spend much time looking at any WWF successes. Neither does he examine other wildlife groups to see whether they, too, rode the ivory ban issue to raise money while doing little on the ground to help save elephants.

Bonner does describe some programs that appear to be saving wildlife, including ones that share tourism revenue with area villages and hire them to help spot poachers. He cites as examples the Kaokoveld in northwestern Namibia and the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) in Nyaminyami, Zimbabwe. But one wonders what Bonner might have found if he had probed these so-called successes as hard as he did the so-called failures.

Further inclusions, however, might have made a book that is probably already too long (except for students of wildlife and wildlife organizations) even longer. Yet the writing is lively, the quotes succinct, and the editing good.

Ironically, while calling for more attention to Africans and their needs, the book is primarily a white man's view of the alleged folly of white-led African wildlife conservation efforts. One wishes he had dwelt more on the efforts by Africans and others to sensibly preserve wildlife.

Yet if "At the Hand of Man" encourages greater support for conservation methods that help both animals and people, if it prompts the hiring of more African experts, if it forces wildlife groups to examine their ways and encourages donors to demand more open information on what such groups accomplish - and how they do it - then Bonner will have helped the cause of wildlife conservation in Africa.

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