Wildlife Politics

LET’S FACE IT. Big, international, non-governmental organizations are dominating wildlife issues today.

Individual activists, conservationists, even governments and international organizations, now take a secondary position in wildlife matters to the preeminence assumed by the wealthy, self-governing, privately controlled NGOs.

While many observers believe that this commanding dominance can be traced to the huge sums of money that these organizations have generated year after year and subsequently spread to politicians, wildlife interests and habitat needs, the truth is that the BINGOs (Big International Non-Government Organizations) have worked wildlife politics more adroitly than the smaller nations of Africa and Asia or their supporting groups in and out of the Sustainable Use Coalition.

The difference is startling when outsiders look closely. BINGOs stride onto the world’s wildlife stages with themes, issues, plans, banners, organized forces and resources ready to present, promote and persuade anyone with a modicum of influence or an active vote. The small African and Asian governments — and the various SUC groups — arrive at these same meetings looking like a new graduate student dealing with a dissertation advisor for the first time: quietly diffident, unfailingly polite, and eternally hopeful that his or her interests will at least get a hearing.

If the Sustainability crowd is to regain needed political clout, this pattern of respectful timidity must change. It starts by being imaginative and clever. Look at these examples of how David beat Goliath in political battle:

Tom Hayden was one of the principal activists opposed to the Viet Nam War in the 1960s and the former husband of Jane Fonda. When he became appalled at how easily big real estate interests were winning zoning changes for high density developments in and around crowded cities, he recruited political activists to run for office in many of California’s 122 water districts. These folks required only a small amount of money to print election material to give away door to door. Since no one else had ever seriously campaigned for these sleepy offices with meaningful goals, most got elected.

Soon these new office holders were voting against the water resources required by each subdivision to fill the needs of homes, pools, spas and landscaping. Without a consistent and guaranteed flow of water, the houses wouldn’t sell; without buyers, the developments wouldn’t materialize. Chalk up a major win for the use of smart politics to lower urban densities.

PETA — the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — used smart politics to win better treatment of captive wild animals.

It aimed its attention on Ringling Bros., Barnum & Baily Circus — the 147-year-old icon of popular culture in the United States. When this circus and others travelled to every major American city, the elephants and horses raised the big tops and joined the lions and tigers in performing multiple times a day; in between, PETA said the animals were cruelly confined, often mistreated and in various stages of physical distress.

But the circus considered itself virtually unassailable, a fundamental part of America. PETA, in the meantime, quietly showed photos and videos to the media and politicians to make its point of ill-treated animals, had articles written quoting animal handlers describing their training techniques and provided papers from “experts” on the strange behavior of sentient beings in captivity. For the media and elected City Council members with pet-adoring readers and constituents, the “evidence” was eye-opening.

PETA’s representatives also promised large campaign contributions and support for those Council members who would vote to authorize a license only if the participation of wild animals was eliminated. When PETA had the votes, it pounced. City after city withheld licenses to operate if wild animals were involved. Ringling Bros. said it was the wild animals that brought the audiences. Soon, however, it found that it did not have enough venues to operate efficiently. It closed in 2017 and declared bankruptcy. It says it will try in 2023 to offer a circus without live animals, but no one knows if anyone will come.

The Hayden and PETA stories suggest that smart politics work. But many associated with the SUC seem trapped in the belief that the good must be sacrificed for the perfect. The result is a failure to advance SUC goals against the policies of total wildlife abstinence preached by most animal welfare groups.

To reverse this trend takes strong public leadership. Somewhere out there is a media savvy, attractive, articulate individual from a supportive African or Asian nation who can serve as the spokesperson for the indigenous peoples living among the wild animals and needing them for their livelihood. We hope that leader will emerge soon.

Secondly, the SUC organizations ought to ally itself with stronger trade groups and bigger industries that have parallel interests. Of late, the effort to have animals granted legal rights equal to those of human beings has gained momentum in the media. The sponsors of the resultant court cases do not seem interested in improving the treatment of animals in chicken houses or on cattle feedlots; they really want to end the keeping and killing of any animal for human experiments or consumption.

Such organizations as the US Cattleman’s Association and the (U.S.) National Pork Producers Council ought to be approached as a source of support by SUC groups. But these major food industry organizations aren’t likely to drop funds into an empty bucket; they much prefer to endorse specific projects with known objectives. Rather than list those projects here, consider the arrows already in our quiver:

BINGOs unabashedly favor iconic land animals to protect because their young are cute, identifiable, and surefire magnets for fund raising. By the same token, BINGOs tend to ignore creatures that are confined to the sea, live below the earth’s surface or buzz around above it. Where has CITES been in the matter of bees or butterflies? Shouldn’t the public be made aware of why the BINGOs ignore such important ecological topics?

Plant and animal species in many locations are threatened by non-native species. For instance, carp were introduced to the Mississippi River and Great Lakes to control algae. But these fish also lay thousands of eggs in their new habitats that grow into adults that are beating out native salmon, trout, and pike for the available food supply. What do the BINGOs and their vaunted reliance on the “experts” who got the carp concept so terribly wrong have to say about these developments? Why are the BINGOs so concerned about elephants and rhinos, thousands of miles away in Africa, instead of being involved in crucial environmental issues that are on their doorstep?

Survival of saltwater sea creatures — from corals to sponges, from sea urchins to eels — is another issue pretty much ignored by the BINGOs. Yet fish stocks play a vital role in food security for the world’s population. Some 3 billion people get their primary source of protein from fish and close to a billion are dependent on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods.
Because BINGOs seemingly can’t be bothered with the details of marine life, they are planning simply to have 30 percent of the earth’s oceans declared out-of-bounds to human activity by 2030. Since the people who will live under this draconian policy dictate probably don’t look much like the BINGO’s donors, there isn’t much to worry about here, is there?

The world needs to be concerned by the shallow, feckless, self-absorbed quality of the programs undertaken by the BINGOs — as well as the damage they are doing to the world’s wild species with their outdated and overly broad concern for whole species rather than specific populations and carefully designated areas. The member groups of the SUC need to get on this case now.

By Godfrey Harris,
Managing Director of the Ivory Education Institute

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