Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Paramilitary Conservation

Last week's New Yorker has an exhaustively researched report on Mark and Delia Owens, two conservationists who worked for much of their life running a well-funded conservation foundation in eastern Zambia's North Luangwa National Park.

The Owenses have long been minor celebrities of conservation, having written two successful books about their projects in Africa. One of the most interesting aspects of Jeffrey Goldberg's report is how it collects quotes and details from other public publications and broadcasts, from National Geographic to Sports Illustrated, in previous coverage of the Owens's work in Zambia. Much of the past coverage more or less portrays the Owenses as white saviors for the dark continent - a sort of Kipling fable where environmentalism has replaced the Anglican church. The Sports Illustrated story was even headlined "A Light in the Darkness" (as far as I can tell, Joseph Conrad didn't get any credit).

And just like a Kipling fable, it took the audience a little while to realize just how fucked up this seemingly-innocent story about wild animals in Africa really is.

When they first arrived in Zambia, there was a massive trade in ivory that was decimating elephant populations, and poaching inside the park became an early bête noir for the couple. At first, they focused on offering more productive and sustainable alternatives to local residents, with small agricultural industries that simultaneously provided jobs and alternative sources of protein to local residents. To their credit, the Owenses kept up this local economic aid throughout the duration of their work in Zambia, and supplemented it with medical care, schools, and other social programs.

But when these measures didn't produce the results they wanted, the couple turned to the small force of "scouts" that were charged with protecting park wildlife. Under their authority, and with funding from American conservation funders, these "scouts" evolved from a bedraggled and non-confrontational band of government employees into an intimidating paramilitary force. Goldberg makes a compelling case, based on dozens of personal accounts and writings from the Owenses themselves, that this force regularly operated outside the rule of law, with deadly results.

The central episode of the story is a literal hour-long episode of a 1996 ABC News documentary, broadcast on national television, about the Owenses and their work in Zambia. The program included a snuff film: footage of an alleged poacher getting shot and killed in the woods. The off-camera murderer was not identified in the program, and ABC's crew never notified Zambian authorities. It's hard to believe, but the televised killing seemed to have little effect on the Owens Foundation and their aggressive way of operating in Zambia.

These crimes, and the American media's permissive, even reverent attitude towards them, illustrate some uncomfortable truths about traditional environmentalism. First, it illustrates the arrogance of the myths we keep about an Edenic, pre-civilized nature, or of Nature as a place where there are no people. The truth is that people have lived in the wild for a million years, and they have important roles in natural ecosystems - we're part of nature, not above it.

Many of the alleged "poachers" in Zambia were recent descendants of natives who had hunted in North Luangwa for generations before British colonialists expelled them to create an artificially human-free "park" in the 19th century. Americans did the same thing to Blackfoot tribes in Glacier National Park and to the Nez Perce who lived in Yellowstone. The idea of a wild frontier without human neighbors is closely bound to the history of atrocities from American and European colonial ambitions.

Second, the Owens story reveals how, as with any important cause, environmentalism can sometimes grow to seem so important to its adherents that it supersedes their own sense of humanity. Mark Owens claimed to be sickened at the gunfire exchanged between his patrols and the poachers. But nevertheless he went out every night in his plane to do battle with them. For him, protecting (and perhaps avenging) the lives of the park's elephants was more important than human life - even if it ended up being his own.

I won't spoil it for you, but there's a substantial Maine connection to the story as well. Goldberg's report takes a taut 17,000 words to cover all the angles, and for such a complicated story - one that spans several decades and involves dozens of characters - the article maintains a tight sense of suspense throughout. I won't even bother linking to the online version - find or borrow a copy of the magazine and enjoy it over the course of a long evening.


Rachel (Hounds in the Kitchen) said...

I just finished reading the Watchula Woods Accord by Charles Siebert, an introspective look at retirement facilities for chimpanzee actors and test subjects in the US. His profiling of facilities and chimps reveals everything from the flat out depressing realities of laboratory practices to unsuccessful wild releases to the most modern facilities that blend human interaction and nature. It's a good read in the same topic as the Owens profile in the New Yorker.

C Neal said...

That reminds me, I recently heard a Fresh Air interview with a biologist who spent years of her life trying (unsuccessfully) to re-habituate a "civilized" chimp into the wild. This woman, a grad student of the man who had tried to incorporate the chimp into his family, spent years living what was essentially a feral lifestyle, trying to get this socialized chimp to follow her example. I need to uncover the story and blog about it here - it was fairly heartbreaking all around.

Night Owl City said...

The story about Lucy the Ape was from a recent episode of Radiolab:

C Neal said...

Thanks, NOC, that is precisely the one.