Book Review: The Last Elephants


Acknowledged African wildlife experts John Hanks and John Ledger take a critical look at Don Pinnock and Colin Bell’s The Last Elephants. Hanks concludes with “enjoy the book for its great photographs, but please read the text critically and with an open mind for alternative options”; Ledger writes “it is time for a different approach, and hiding one of Africa’s conservation success stories is not a very convincing way to win a spitting contest.”

The Last Elephants. Don Pinnock & Colin Bell (Compilers). Struik Nature, Cape Town, an imprint of Penguin Random House South Africa (Pty) Ltd, 2019. Illustrated with many photographs. Soft cover, flexibound, 21×25 cm, 488 pages, illustrated in color throughout with photographs, maps and sketches. ZAR 490.00 (Smithsonian Books, US$39.95). ISBN 978-1-77584-684-0

Editor’s Note: This book has been reviewed by two respected African conservationists: Dr. John Hanks, a zoologist with a PhD from Cambridge on elephant population dynamics, 45 years’ experience in a wide variety of applied conservatson management and research projects in several African countries, and a former director of the Africa Program for WWF International; and Dr. John Ledger, currently visiting associate professor at Wits University, consulting editor of African Wildlife and Environment magazine and former head of the Endangered Wildlife Trust.

Review by Dr. John Hanks: Colin Bell and Don Pinnock have come together to compile a very big book of 448 pages and 42 Chapters written by 40 contributors with outstanding photographs of African elephants and their landscapes, some of the best I have ever seen. The main reason this book was produced is clearly stated at the front. “We hope this book will fulfil three wishes: Firstly, that readers from around the world will enjoy these compelling elephant accounts and beautiful photographs. Secondly that the delegates to CITES CoP 18 in Sri Lanka, use it to make wise and informed decisions to close all loopholes in the ivory trade. And thirdly, that countries receiving and using both legal and poached ivory – primarily China, Vietnam, Laos and Japan – ban and strenuously police its trade and use within their borders, actively pursuing and arresting syndicates who drive the cruel poaching tsunami.”

What a pity that it has the most unfortunate title of The Last Elephants, and a whole page devoted to one quote from HRH Prince William which says: “I fear that the African elephant will have disappeared from the wild by the time Princess Charlotte turns 25”.  The Princess will be 25 in 2040, just 21 years from now.

For Bell and Pinnock to spread such irresponsible nonsense to support their efforts to influence the forthcoming CITES meeting and to close down the legal and illegal ivory trade does not help the promotion of realistic strategies to conserve African elephants. The whole of Africa has at least 400,000 elephants, with 130,000 in Botswana, 82,000 in Zimbabwe, 43,000 in Tanzania, 26,000 in Kenya and at least 19,000 in South Africa.  I am not denying the poaching for ivory is a serious problem, but I am sure that if responsible and knowledgeable conservation staff in any of the five countries mentioned were told that a new book on elephants has predicted that all of their elephants will have been killed by 2040, I guarantee they will shake their heads in disbelief.  They will also point out that the percentage of tuskless females is increasing in many places (as noted in the Chapter by James Currie), to well over 50% in some of the protected areas, and surely these animals will never be a target for an ivory poacher.

I do not for one moment doubt the sincerity and the concern of the contributors about declining elephant numbers, but with few exceptions (Michelle Henley being one) far too little attention in this book has been given to one of the main additional causes of this decline, namely human population growth. This year the population of Africa will reach 1,3 billion, and according to the latest UN projections, grow to 4,5 billion by the end of this century.  With this growth comes a host of environmental and social impacts, unprecedented levels of land transformation and deforestation, linked to increasing poverty, declining food security, and unemployment.  A very recent study from the University of Groningen highlighted the changing face of Africa. From an analysis of 40 years of data, the study concluded that wildlife in the world-renowned Serengeti-Mara is being squeezed to the core by increasing human activity, and in just one decade a 400% increase in the human population resulted in a 75% decrease in the wildlife population, accompanied by a dramatic increase in human-wildlife conflict.

In most countries in the continent, this high rate of population growth in the poorest countries will make it harder for those governments to eradicate poverty, provide housing, hospitals and schools, and maintain even the most basic infrastructure, and virtually impossible to allocate funds for environmental conservation activities. There are already major shortfalls in financial support for virtually every national park and game reserve in Africa, impacting on the number and quality of staff, and their ability to maintain the security and integrity of areas under their charge.

I am equally concerned by the seriously incorrect statements by Pinnock and Bell some of which are given prominence in bold type. For example, on page 182, they state: “Despite the misinformation put out by those who stand to profit from the trade in wildlife, CITES trade bans can and do work. Rhino poaching was halted in just one year when all the rhino horn consumer counties implemented the full CITES trade ban regulations. With no market and no trade, poaching dried up.”  The reality of course is totally different.  Since the CITES trade ban of rhino horn in 1977, when all rhinos were placed on Appendix 1, it is estimated that more than 100,000 rhinos have been lost to poaching, and 23 of the 33 range states have lost all their rhinos. Trade bans have never worked in the past and there is no reason to think now that they will stop ivory or rhino poaching. The worst approach in soliciting support for any appeal is to exaggerate or make false claims.  In referring to escalating elephant poaching, Colin Bell states that many campers have had their tents trashed and vehicles smashed by angry elephants. Many?  Really?

I am also concerned by the continued praise for the burning of ivory stockpiles.  Dr John Ledger, who was  Associate Professor of Energy Studies at the University of Johannesburg, and a former Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, summarized the folly of this when he wrote: “By burning all that ivory, Kenya and the animal rightists who persuaded that country to perpetrate such a terrible deed, have condemned many thousands of living elephants to be slaughtered by poachers to supply the callous traders who live in the sewers of the underworld, and do not care about elephants, or Africans, for that matter. Much has been made of China’s undertaking to stop internal trade in ivory, raising more infantile comment from animal rightists, ignorant politicians, and armchair economists, that the demise of the ivory trade is about to happen. Experienced China-watchers know that there is a very big difference between what China says and what China does.”

Most of the contributions in the book ignore the excellent record of elephant conservation by those countries supporting sustainable use where real benefits accrue to local communities living close to or with elephants.  Namibia for example has an outstanding record of community based natural resource management (CBNRM) where elephant numbers have increased from 7,600 in 1995 to 22,700 in 2015.  Elephant populations are also increasing in South Africa and there are today too many elephants in some of the smaller reserves. Far from being the last elephants and about to disappear, these populations have to be managed to stop them destroying their favored food types. Richard Fynn and Timothy O’Connor in their Chapter have recognized this and refer to the need to manage these populations through contraception, translocation or culling.   It is one of the very few references in the whole book to the need to manage elephants, and the option of sustainable use of any elephants is conspicuous by its absence, although Clive Stockill does refer to the benefits of Zimbabwe’s Communal Area Management Program for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) coming from consumptive and non-consumptive tourism.

Some of the authors have at least recognized the importance of the survival of elephants through benefits accruing to local communities, but how these benefits are generated and the options for sustainable use are largely ignored. The compilers should take note of the words of the new President of Botswana Dr Mokgweetse Masisi who was commenting on the criticism his country has recently received when it moved to reintroduce elephant hunting and management of its very large elephant population in response to urgent requests by rural communities who had been adversely impacted by the hunting ban introduce by his predecessor and by escalating human elephant conflicts.  He said: “It bamboozles me when people who sit in the comfort of where they come from, lecture us about the management of species they do not have”.  The compilers of The Last Elephants should have heeded similar advice before selecting the contributors to this book – 38 of them are white and there are only two black people, and not one of them is living in a rural community having to deal with large and dangerous elephants on a day-to-day basis.

Enjoy the book for its great photographs, but please read the text critically and with an open mind of alternative options for making sure that these are not the last elephants.

John Hanks wrote this book review for ‘Fine Music Radio Book Choice’. Republished with permission.

Review by Dr. John Ledger: This is indeed a ‘blockbuster’, as its large dimensions and many pages imply. It has spectacular photographs of African Elephants and African landscapes, and for this alone it is a book to be enjoyed. It also provides a fascinating insight into elephants and conservation in some little-documented African countries, such as Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Central African Republic, Republic of Togo, Chad and Mali. In several of these countries, private/public partnerships between the NGO African Parks and host governments have achieved much conservation success. With a requirement of a 25-year lease from each government, African Parks has turned around many neglected African parks, and shown what can be done with the right attitude and expertise. This is a counter to the gloomy future portrayed for African elephants by this book.

In my view, The Last Elephants is a powerful piece of propaganda for the protectionist, animal-rightist and anti-hunting movement—people who by and large do not live permanently in rural Africa alongside large and dangerous animals. Many only visit rural Africa to conduct their ecotourism businesses, or to do exciting and career-enhancing research in wild and remote places, and then return to their comfortable homes in Europe, the USA or Cape Town.

Here is the motivation for this book: “We hope this book will fulfil three wishes: Firstly, that readers from around the world will enjoy these compelling elephant accounts and beautiful photographs. Secondly that the delegates to CITES CoP 18 in Sri Lanka, May 2019, use it to make wise and informed decisions to close all loopholes in the ivory trade. And thirdly, that countries receiving and using both legal and poached ivory – primarily China, Vietnam, Laos and Japan—ban and strenuously police its trade and use within their borders, actively pursuing and arresting syndicates who drive the cruel poaching tsunami.”

So, here we go again, another call for CITES to repeat the failed bans on trade that have seen how rhino horn and elephant ivory continue to be in demand in certain parts of the world, and how the futile and obtuse efforts to ban the trade in rhino horn for 40 years has not done anything whatsoever to conserve these animals. When will CITES, and the prohibitionists who influence its decisions, ever learn that continuing to do more of the same thing and expect a different outcome is a sure sign of lunacy?

I thus urge readers to enjoy the wonderful photographs, but be cautious about much of the content, because it is biased, selective and mainly addresses only one side of the African Elephant management conundrum. When one reads about things where you have personal experience, this can be an indication of the quality of the content of the whole book.

I know something about Namibia, and I found the information provided about this country to be appalling. There is only one article under the country heading ‘Namibia’. This is an academic article about ‘Desert-dwelling elephants of north-west Namibia’, starting on page 273. We read about ‘social structure’, ‘male and female society’, ‘genetic links’, ‘feeding activities and defecation rates’, ‘water’, ‘resting’, ‘coprophagy’ (for goodness’ sake!) and ‘thermoregulatory behavior’.

But nowhere, folks, nowhere is there any mention of Namibia’s success in community-based conservation, of its massive community conservation areas, of its government’s unwavering support for both trophy hunting and subsistence hunting, of the benefits that have flowed to rural communities through a balanced approach towards sustainable consumptive wildlife utilization, alongside ecotourism opportunities. How does Namibia manage conflicts between rural communities, elephants and lions, for example? Why does this book choose to ignore the success story of conservation in Namibia, and makes no mention of one of the most significant books on the region, An Arid Eden: A Personal Account of Conservation in the Kaokoveld, by Garth Owen-Smith?

Much too is made about the CITES-approved limited sales of ivory stockpiles held by southern African countries in 1999 and 2008. This is blamed for the resumption of elephant poaching that had allegedly been halted by the ban previously in place. My conversations with TRAFFIC over the years indicate that this conclusion is not borne out by the facts. One author goes so far as to say that South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and the European Union and others “have much on their collective conscience. Assuming they have one.” Gosh!

And another of the chapter authors says this about the above ivory sales: “The result is today’s ivory crisis, where around 30,000 elephants are poached annually throughout Africa—an elephant dies every 15 to 20 minutes. To make matters worse, not one cent of the proceeds from the ivory sale was ploughed back directly into conservation.”

This statement is blatantly untrue; Namibia ring-fenced all its proceeds from the ivory sale for conservation expenditure. I have visited community-owned and managed tourist lodges in the Caprivi that were built with the funds from the much-maligned ivory sales.

No review can do justice to this book, nor go into a detailed argument about a re-think of the ‘ivory crisis’. I do know one thing—trade bans have never worked in the past and there is no reason to think they will solve this ‘crisis’. It is time for a different approach, and hiding one of Africa’s conservation success stories is not a very convincing way to win a spitting contest.

First published in African Wildlife & Environment # 72 (2019): p 5. Republished with permission.