Podcast interview with Glen Martin, author of Game Changer
Never an Eden
For anyone who has traveled the developing world, Nairobi is instantly recognizable. It is the doppelganger of Manila, Mexico City, Lagos, Bangkok-a dynamic conurbation of immense size, swelling almost visibly, with a core of decayed high rises surrounded by concentric rings of slums and gridlocked roadways. The only clues that this is the capital of Kenya, the heart of East Africa, are the marabou storks perched disconsolately on the fever trees along Uhuru Highway, the city's primary thoroughfare. Somehow, they still evoke the veldt and the bush, the teeming game.
Fifty years ago, lions hunted and black rhinos browsed in the acacia scrub on the very outskirts of town. Today, the only sizable expanse of open land near the city is Nairobi National Park, a partly fenced thirty-thousand-acre reserve that is adjacent to Kenyatta International Airport and still contains fairly robust populations of plains game. It is not unusual to see the bloated carcass of a zebra or impala that somehow broke through the wire next to the airport's service road, only to be struck by a cab shuttling passengers to and from the city.
The park, however, is a mere remnant of what was. More (or less) than that, it is hardly representative of an intact and functioning East African ecosystem. Rather, it is a de facto landscape-scale zoo that exists because of the fences. Nor is it inviolate. Poaching, poisoning, and encroachment by livestock herders and squatters all go on here, reflecting in microcosm the processes that are degrading game populations and habitat throughout the region.
Not far from the park is the bosky suburb of Langata. This exceedingly pleasant purlieu is characterized by large tree-covered lots, well-appointed homes, and a pervasive tranquility that contrasts markedly with the chaos of central Nairobi just to the north. Songbirds throng the trees, and leopards still occasionally drift through, subsisting on rats, cats-and especially dogs, a highly favored prey item. Leopards remain the one charismatic predator in Africa that has held its own. Like coyotes in North America, they are fecund and flexible, able to adapt to a variety of habitats, including suburbs and slums. They are as happy to den in a culvert or abandoned building as in a cave in an inselberg or a baobab trunk cavity. In Langata, as throughout all of Kenya save the very heart of Nairobi and Mombasa, dog-lovers still secure their pets at night.
Kenyans in the professions or government service live in Langata. Among them is a smattering of white citizens, mostly elderly and retired from government, farming, or both. Their status is ambiguous, their very existence a reminder of the colonial period, a time fraught with strife and blood. Still, they are Kenyans, and their love of country typically is profound. They have endured many vicissitudes, and both age and experience have made them philosophical. Ian Parker belongs to this cohort.
I came here one morning to interview him as part of an investigative project on East African conservation issues. Many of the people I had talked to earlier had emphasized the necessity of meeting with him: Parker, they said, had perspective. He understood the history of game management-more to the point, he had contributed to that history; he was part of it. He was unsentimental and science oriented. He could see and explain the Big Picture. After some effort, my cabbie found his home-a small house set well back from the road in a grove of large trees. Parker answered the door at my knock. We sat down, drank hot beverages-tea for him, coffee for me-and talked into the afternoon.
Now in his seventies, Parker is spare and fit, his erect posture a testament to his military background. His movements are precise, his demeanor reserved, his eyes cool and calculating. But he is no martinet. Humor is integral to his personality, as dry as the Laikipia bushlands north of Nanyuki. His long face, seamed and florid from a lifetime of brutal sun, is often illuminated by a wintry smile as he relates self-deprecating and mordant anecdotes that typically involve unexpected or inexplicable violence-hallmarks of many conversations in Africa.
As a commander of a platoon of the Kikuyu Tribal Police, Parker fought the Mau-Mau on the slopes of Mount Kenya and the Aberdares. Later, he spent decades as a game ranger and warden, ultimately responsible for wildlife management in a district that covered thousands of square kilometers. He shot hundreds of elephants in culling operations aimed at protecting the rangelands and killed a comparable number of Cape buffalo that threatened tribal and colonial cattle with bovine diseases. He battled Somali shifta (bandits) who were terrorizing pastoral herders, and he implacably persecuted poachers. He consulted on game management and traded in ivory. He is one of a remaining handful of professional hunters and wardens who experienced East Africa at a time when it was a wilderness surrounding a few islands of human habitation, unlike the current obverse.
Parker has published a couple of memoirs, in which his life seems Brobdingnagian, heroic in scope. Hemingway and Robert Ruark wrote about men like Parker and desperately wished they were like him. Since Parker's early years as a "settler boy" on a Kenyan farm, his life has been defined by the wild creatures of East Africa, from the Daddy Christmas swallowtails he netted as a toddler to the elephants he both hunted and protected as a man.
Nor is his life one of contemplative rustication today. A couple of years ago, he and his wife circumnavigated the shoreline of Lake Turkana by canoe. This huge Rift Valley lake is located in the no-man's-land of Kenya's Northern Frontier District, hard on the Ethiopian border. It is situated in one of the hottest, driest places on earth. Its alkaline waters teem with crocodiles, and shifta haunt the sere shores. It is wild in every sense and dangerous in the extreme; roads are both rough and rare, and civil authority and medical care are wholly absent. Get in trouble around Lake Turkana, and no help will be forthcoming. Yet Parker recalls the trip as a pleasant idyll, a sojourn marked by incomparable vistas, pleasant days of fishing for huge Nile perch, nights spent under skies gaudy with stars.
"It was marvelous," he recalls. "If you've lived an active life, you really can't spend your later years sitting around doing nothing. Inaction is a depressing prospect." Lately, Parker has taken up sailboat racing. "I'd never done it before, and I'm enjoying it tremendously," he says. "It's a thrilling pastime."
But as Parker looks back on his life, he has no illusions of overarching accomplishment. All the years he spent as a game warden, diligently enforcing regulations and apprehending malefactors, now seem to him, in large degree, wasted effort. Kenya's megafauna continue to decline despite the best efforts of game wardens, wildlife biologists, animal enthusiasts, and a 1977 hunting ban that was originally hailed as a template for the salvation of the continent's wildlife.
"The one thing I had a real chance to do in my career was stop the spread of the Indian crow," Parker muses, "and we didn't pursue it." Corvids from the Indian subcontinent, Indian house crows are large, slim birds that first showed up on the Kenyan coast in the 1970s. "I was working the coast at that time, and there was only one small colony of them. If we had put some effort into it, we could have eliminated them," Parker says. "But the powers-that-be had other ideas about where our energy should be expended."
The house crows quickly spread from their small redoubt and now are wreaking havoc on native birds throughout coastal Kenya and Tanzania. Like English house sparrows, they thrive in disturbed habitats, including suburbs and farmlands-areas that are spreading rapidly throughout East Africa at the expense of pristine woodland and savanna. And like house sparrows, house crows use roads and railways as convenient paths from one potential habitat to another. "They represented my one real opportunity for effecting beneficial change," Parker says with a wry smile. "And I wasn't able to take it."
Parker is thus less than optimistic about the future for Africa's wildlife. He acknowledges that many well-meaning and well-funded efforts by people of good conscience are under way to stem and reverse the decline of the game. But, he says, it probably won't be enough. It's not just the poaching, the government corruption, the ongoing implacable conversion of habitat to cropland and grazing commons; those trends, he says, are mere symptoms. The real problem, the only problem in his eyes, is shifting trends in biomass.
"In the past decade, Africa's human population has grown by, oh, something like one hundred million people," Parker says from a chair in the cool, shadowed interior of his Langata cottage. He sips tea between sentences. Two small terriers lie at his feet, occasionally jumping up to patrol the room, gnaw at skin irritations, or beg for a caress. "So with a little basic math, you arrive at something like fifty billion kilos of biomass added to the continent. And that's vertebrate, omnivorous biomass, mind you-human beings. More than that, modern humans consume disproportionately more resources than other vertebrates, including earlier humans who had simpler lifestyles. They require not just a subsistence diet; if possible, they'll secure a surfeit of food, of many varieties. And things like cars, air-conditioning, televisions [consume even more resources]. So they-we-represent a tremendous demand on any resource base."
To the newcomer, East Africa is vast, seemingly endless. The Serengeti stretches to the horizon, speckled with plains game. The hills and gorges of Laikipia and the Northern Frontier in Kenya, bordered by the eastern Rift Valley, form a gigantic fractal landscape that defies normal conventions of space and boundary. But Parker has patrolled this land for fifty years, from Uganda through Tanzania. To him, it is familiar, discrete, comprehensible-and finite. And it is not large enough, rich enough, to respond to the demands now made on it. Something has to get the short end of the stick. And that, says Parker, is the megafauna-and the people who historically depended on the megafauna, such as the Wata, a near-extinct Kenyan tribe whose members specialized in hunting elephants with powerful longbows and poisoned arrows. All have been supplanted, he says, with the "strange form" of human being: modern, technologically savvy, urbanized primates whose social status depends on the accumulation of wealth, namely, the conversion of natural resources into goods and money.
As is the case with many people, elephants in particular engage Parker. But unlike most pachyderm fans, he does not romanticize them. He acknowledges their deep intelligence and complex social order. But for him, they are, more than anything else, the emblem of wild Africa-more accurately, the wild Africa that was but now exists merely in tourist brochures. Wild Africa was largely doomed, Parker says, when it started getting chopped up into nation-states. "The large fauna, particularly elephants, had evolved with few geographic constraints," he says. "They literally had the continent at their disposal, and they ultimately came to require resources on a continental scale to survive."
Parker explains that East Africa's great elephant herds originally traversed thousands of miles in their migrations, traveling from Ethiopia to Zambia and back in stately, seasonal rounds as they sought forage and water. And wherever they went, they shaped ecosystems. "They were one of the great evolutionary engines on the continent. An area that contained too many elephants was ultimately stripped of forest. Then the elephants declined in number or moved on and plains game moved in, until the forest came back. Then the elephants returned, and on and on." This dynamic resulted in a rich tapestry of habitats, with many "edges": mature and secondary forest, brushlands, savanna, transition zones of every permutation. This varied habitat in turn supported a tremendous diversity of wildlife.
"The problems start when an area has too many elephants that can't go anywhere," Parker says. "And elephants started running into real obstacles when Africa began the transition from a series of tribal homelands to nation-states that supported greater numbers of people with accompanying infrastructure-more and larger farms, cities, roadways. Elephants had evolved to need a continent, and then the continent was denied them."
East Africa's national parks were conceived to provide elephants and other megafauna with an option to extinction, but in Parker's view, they have merely delayed an inevitable collapse. "Within ten years of creation, virtually every national park had elephant problems," Parker recalls of the early days of his career. "They flattened landscapes, utterly disrupted local ecosystems, drove the decline of many species. They could not be allowed open-ended population growth in circumscribed areas. Ultimately their populations would grow beyond the means of the available habitat and finally collapse-but not before they had destroyed everything."
That led to culling-a practice that Parker and a handful of other wardens refined to a science. It was not a business for the faint-hearted, he acknowledges. Given the complexity of elephant society, tremendous stress can be generated on a herd if certain members are selectively killed, particularly older female members, who act as askaris (guards) and instructors of younger elephants. "It is much more humane and much less disruptive to the larger population if entire family groups are killed quickly," Parker says. "If you shoot the matriarch, the remaining elephants cluster around her, and you are able to take them down in very short order. Ultimately, we got it down to where a few of us could kill an entire herd in fifty seconds." Culling also had other benefits, in Parker's view. Local villages were given the meat, highly esteemed food on a continent where protein shortages are endemic. That created a certain tolerance for elephants among farmers who cultivated lands on the margins of the parks, where the animals sometimes foraged: "They felt there was something in it for them."
Too, ivory from the culled elephants both contributed to communal tribal wealth and supported the conservation efforts of Kenya's early wildlife services. Ultimately, of course, the ivory trade generated its own dynamic, one that led to the cessation of legalized hunting in Kenya. Parker acknowledges that poaching for ivory played a significant role in the reduction and even the elimination of local elephant populations, but he insists the African elephant was doomed as a populous, free-ranging species long before the Ivory Wars of the late twentieth century.
"Human beings evolved with elephants," he says, "and we were adapted to them. We shared this continent with them for millions of years and were able to exploit the same habitats." But then, says Parker, the "strange form" of humans returned to the continent after hundreds of thousands of years of global peregrination and evolution. They brought with them technologies and cultural imperatives that allowed them to reshape the land-demanded it of them. Since this strange form invaded, wildlife habitat in Africa has steadily diminished.
"As a game warden, I was brought up with the idea that conservation is a growing thing, an idea that would only gain power with time," says Parker. To a certain extent, he says, the decades have borne out that intimation: conservation and its later permutation, environmentalism, have never been more voguish. But the reality shows that where it counts, real conservation is declining. As a percentage of government expenditures, the greatest amount of money put into Kenyan conservation was around 1900. Also, in 1900, 23 percent of Kenya's land was game reserve-absolutely inviolate sanctuary where hunting was proscribed. Today, only 4 percent of Kenya's land has reserve status." Driving the land conversion, Parker observes, is population growth; Kenya's human numbers have shot up from eight million people at the declaration of the country's independence in 1963 to thirty million today. Since 1977, the year the hunting ban was introduced, wildlife populations have fallen by 70 percent.
Still, a fraction-even a significant portion-of the game could be preserved, says Parker, if it had real value for the people who live with and around it. But public policy in Kenya, he claims, has reduced its value. The hunting ban ultimately has come to mean that wildlife cannot be utilized in any way and hence has no value to rural residents. Ecotourism benefits the wealthy lodge owner and the tour company operator but not the pastoral herdsman caring for a herd of goats or the freehold farmer scratching a subsistence living from a hectare of maize and pumpkins. For them, wildlife is at best a neutral entity, although seldom even that: elephants raid the maize, lions and hyenas eat the goats. Tribal people can't, legally, take an elephant or eland for food or sell a permit to a wealthy trophy hunter for a lion. So it makes more sense to poach the elephant, poison the lion, and subsequently raise the goats and maize in peace.
Simultaneous with the surge in Kenya's human population was the emergence of modern environmentalism. This has not necessarily benefited African wildlife, says Parker. "It was most unfortunate when conservation transformed into environmentalism. The -ism is the problem. When you start creating -isms, you're creating systems of belief and faith rather than pursuing science-based courses of action." In East Africa, Parker says, conservation started off as something that was "as emotionless as agriculture. It was obviously in the public interest to pursue it, so we looked at the most effective ways to implement it. Then, over the course of the past fifty years, it has become a cause, a platform for charismatic personalities and heated philosophy."
The upshot, he says, is that scientists and game managers can no longer implement effective conservation policies, because that can produce images repulsive to African wildlife's largest fan base-tourists and animal lovers from the developed world. For these people, megafauna is a highly valued commodity-but also a highly romanticized one, a commodity that can be appreciated only while alive. If a lion is killed for a trophy or an elephant culled to preserve habitat, it is transformed from an object that inspires near religious reverence to an object whose death inspires utter disgust. Never mind, says Parker, that regular rations of meat from the regulated culling of elephants and buffalo would provide subsistence farmers with real incentives for keeping game around or that pastoral tribes would tolerate predators more readily if they were to derive some income from trophy hunting concessions. The mere prospect of the sanctioned killing of wild animals is too horrific for many environmentalists to contemplate, even though it could actually work to preserve wildlife on a large scale. To a significant degree, Parker says, the lives of individual animals have come to mean more to many environmentalists-cum-animal-lovers than wild ecosystems and the complex assemblages of species they support.
Part of the problem is simple emotional accessibility, Parker acknowledges: a dewy-eyed Thomson's gazelle, lolling lion, or cute-as-a-button elephant calf is more immediately comprehensible to the layperson than a long treatise on predator-prey relationships in acacia parklands. Still, he says, "the 'environmental ethic' in Kenya is pernicious, because it has become heavily invested with dogma. It is a doctrine now, a belief system, having nothing to do with the reality of ecosystems, real wildlife in real situations, the preservation of habitat. The idea of trade-offs or compromises that could result in some real progress on the ground-forget it. Ideological purity is what counts."
Parker is particularly incensed by what he terms a faulty sense of history about Kenya-the idea that it was a stable and pristine wilderness burgeoning with wildlife until white settlement began in the late nineteenth century. He notes the evidence is solid that game populations in Kenya have always been in flux and generally pegged to shifts in human population. "When human populations were high, game was scarce. The opposite was true when situations reversed. Yes, Kenya was teeming with game at the end of the 1890s, when the central highlands started seeing significant [European] settlement. But that situation followed severe declines in tribal populations."
In the 1880s, Kenya's cattle herds were almost extirpated by successive waves of rinderpest and bovine pleuropneumonia; that catastrophe culminated in the great famine of 1897-98, which depopulated vast regions of countryside. The absence of cattle resulted in abundant forage for grazing and browsing wildlife, increasing the prey base for predators. Encounters with human beings were minimal. "Basically, the wildlife had a great deal of scope for expansion simply because the number of human beings was low," Parker says.
In earlier decades and centuries, the reverse was true: human populations were relatively high in what is now Kenya, much of the land was used for grazing and farming, and wildlife conflicts with herders and cultivators were common. More people, in short, meant reduced options for wild animals. "Basically, it's the situation we're seeing these days," Parker says, "though obviously the scale [of the pressures on game] is now on a much larger order."
Misconceptions by the lay public about Africa and its wildlife are thus driving unrealistic policies, particularly in Kenya, says Parker-policies that seem high-flown and virtuous but are utterly unrealistic and unworkable, inflicting harm rather than ameliorating it. "There's this message going out that East Africa used to be a Garden of Eden," Parker says. "Nonsense. It's never been a bloody Eden; it has always been a very, very rough place. Man evolved here, and so did a multitude of microorganisms that controlled human numbers-think malaria, sleeping sickness. People were just part of the shifting mix of fauna. It was always easy for people to succumb to disease, to get eaten, gored, or stomped here, to die in any number of unpleasant ways. When wildlife thrived it was at the expense of human beings and the other way around. Elephants inhibited agriculture until enough people picked up enough sticks to inhibit the elephants. That's still how it works in the bush. So if you want people to change-out where it counts, where the animals still live-you have to give them a palpable reason, one based on self-interest, not to pick up the stick. Simply passing a hunting ban and issuing pious statements from Nairobi about the sanctity of wildlife isn't going to cut it."
Parker thinks often of the Wata, an elephant-hunting tribe of eastern Kenya that has now been reduced to a remnant population. He is deeply familiar with many of Kenya's forty-plus tribes, but he particularly admires the Wata for their honesty, gentleness, great hunting prowess, and encyclopedic knowledge of wildlife. In 1960, Parker originated the Galana Scheme, the goal of which was to provide an exclusive province for the Wata-a reserve of three thousand square miles along the eastern border of Tsavo National Park, which allowed them to practice their traditional elephant-hunting culture in a sustainable fashion. Under the plan, ivory taken by the Wata was sold by the government through legal channels. The Galana Scheme was implemented with great hope and was managed first by the colonial government, later through a private enterprise. But administrative problems plagued the program until it was finally curtailed in 1976. Ultimately, the Galana Scheme was an attempt to fuse conservation with programs designed to meet the exigent needs of local people, and though it didn't work, Parker still feels it was on the right track.
Like the Wata, Parker knows the megafauna on their own terms; he respects Africa's large wild animals; he hunted them, fought fiercely to maintain the habitats they require for survival. He can still remember a time when the great beasts dominated the landscape. Parker once roamed the East African bush as freely as both the elephants on their endless migrations and the Wata who trailed along their spoor, poisoned arrows nocked to their bowstrings. Like them, his movements have been circumscribed by the modern world. Langata is by no means an unpleasant place, but seeing Parker at his repose, you get the sense of an old, tough bull elephant at Aberdare National Park in central Kenya, a fenced reserve of montane forest surrounded by agricultural land, safe from rapine and ruin only because of the barriers. Parker is backed up against the wire, facing into the forest, looking at an Africa that exists only in his mind, in the memories of a few peers, and in some shrinking islands of functional habitat.
But he is hardly morose. He has a profound talent for inhabiting and enjoying the moment, and comparisons of the past to the present don't vitiate his pleasure in contemplating both. "I've enjoyed all of it, enjoyed it tremendously," Parker says, recalling his years as a soldier, warden, game cropper, and man of letters. "But I was never emotionally invested in it. Most people who know me say that was probably my weakness, but it was really my greatest strength. I never felt that things had to be a certain way, that I could or should fight trends that were beyond the power of anyone to reasonably affect. I certainly didn't enjoy all the developments I've witnessed, but I didn't let them depress me. I only had one life to live, and depression wouldn't have made me more effective in my work in any event."
As to the future, Parker admits to deep pessimism: "There is already famine in the Northern Frontier District. People are foraging in the bush for whatever they can eat, some are dying. And that's with fewer than forty million people in the country. Twenty years from now, it will be seventy million people. Again, that growth will come at the expense of wildlife and wildlife habitat."
Nor does Parker think effective policies will be implemented to sustain the wildlife that remains. The trend in conservationist thinking continues to emphasize the warm, cuddly fuzziness of individual animals over habitat management. "As an example, take my specialty, elephants," Parker observes. "Anyone who knows anything at all about these issues knows that for maximum biodiversity in forest ecosystems, you have to control elephant numbers. There is no alternative, given that migration options for elephants have now been eliminated. But the chances for a sustained rational program [of elephant culling] in this country are nil."
The current zeitgeist, in short, supports anthropomorphism. Africa once seemed isolated from this trend, but no longer. Indeed, the modern apotheosis of the individual wild animal actually began in Kenya about sixty years ago, and the man who started it all-George Adamson-was one of Parker's contemporaries and colleagues.
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