, NAIROBI, Kenya, Apr 27 – Dr Max Graham is a practical man. And not just because of his sturdy boots, given he operates in the wild and you’re never entirely certain what you might step into, but because his optimism is or appears to me at least, to be grounded in reality.
‘Kenyan-Mexican’ award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o has become synonymous, in Kenya at least, with the phrase, “your dreams are valid.” A phrase she used in her Oscar award acceptance speech back in 2014.
Between April 28 and 30, at least one of Dr Graham’s dreams – as founder and CEO of elephant protection organisation Space for Giants – will become a reality when three heads of state and more than a hundred policy makers and influencer from the world over convene in Kenya to hammer out commitments that he hopes will see at least 200 of Africa’s 400 thousand elephants keep their ivory on their heads for the next five years, in the first ever Giants Club Summit.
- In recognition of which, he says, it’s critical human-wildlife conflict is guarded against and that the communities that live in and around wildlife protected areas dare not be overlooked.
- “Confronting people who’ve had their crops damaged is possibly the most difficult reality I have had to confront as a conservationist. The reality that wildlife isn’t just out of the Lion King but actually causes people real suffering and unless those people are protected from wildlife and unless they’re receiving benefits from wildlife, wildlife has no future.”
- And so while the Giants Club Summit is definitely a step in the right direction and the torching of 105 tonnes of ivory by President Kenyatta a grand gesture, it’s but a first step. The true test of success, a practical Dr Graham is unequivocal, begins after the big names have boarded their flights for home.
You may ask, as I did, why the aim is not to keep all 400,000 of Africa’s remaining giants alive and that’s where that practicality I spoke about earlier comes in.
Space for Giants through the Giants Club can only realistically commit to working to keep alive the elephants who roam the savannahs and inhabit the forests of the four countries – Kenya, Uganda, Gabon and Botswana – whose heads of state have shown sufficient enough political goodwill to sign on as members of the Giants Club.
“If you focus on the winners then you’ll win. There are some places (where) it doesn’t matter how much money you’ve got or how many good ideas you have, if there isn’t that political leadership at the very top, it’s a losing battle. So I think that’s really why we have to keep real and a bit more pragmatic than just saying we’re going to solve all of Africa’s elephants’ problems. We’re not. Many elephants will keep dying particularly in Central Africa (and) parts of East Africa because in reality it just isn’t a priority to the guys on top,” Dr Graham explains.
The real dream, he says, would be to see the summit turn out to be more than a “talk shop” and to see, for example, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta commit to helping the Kenya Wildlife Service set-up an internal prosecution unit, commit to the construction of fences between elephant habitats and populated areas, “Making sure that elephants aren’t ruining people’s crops. There’s a 163kms of fence in Central Kenya that would have a massive impact on people’s livelihoods if it was put up,” and commit to better equipping the rangers who have to face the well-armed agents of the criminal syndicates behind poaching, “managing that requires special intelligence, requires very well trained units we’d like to see a special operations unit committed by the President of this country to help deal with this threat.”
And for all his cautious optimism, the good doctor has seen it work and has a case study to show for it.
“In 2010 the elephants that we had collars on (in Laikipia) started turning up dead and they’d been shot with AK-47s by poachers and it wasn’t just one elephant that was wearing a GPS collar; it was three, four and suddenly we were fire fighting everywhere and no one really had the capacity to deal with this issue up there so I managed to convince the Ol Pejeta conservancy who had a very good rhino protection unit if we could invest some resources in training them to a higher standard, the highest standard possible, and then getting access to aeroplane resources and then working very closely with the judiciary to look at how people who were arrested in wildlife crime were being prosecuted and sentenced and through that intervention we had a 74 percent reduction in killing of elephants in one year and as of last year it’s a 94 percent reduction.”
The biggest challenge to replicating that success on a grander scale and making good on their goal would be that which makes the world go round and what has been identified as the number one cause for divorce: money.
And that’s why the creation of the Giants Club with the coming onboard of philanthropist Evgeny Lebedev and the summit by extension, Dr Graham says, are pivotal as they bring together policy makers, financial muscle, influencers and technocrats.
“One of the biggest challenges that not just Kenya but other African governments are facing is that the cost of maintaining Africa’s protected area network is high. So while the objective of the Giants Club in the short term is to ensure there are sufficient resources to deal with the poaching crisis which we should get through in the next five year, we just need a holding position, it requires a very different mindset. It requires us to think beyond tourism. It requires us to think endowment funds that we could raise through public-private partnership.”
And even then he says, striking a balance between development and conservation will need careful negotiating. “That means in reality that the dry lands of Africa are going to continue being a wonderful place for wildlife and conservation and it means that where you’ve got mountains or places that are highly arable you’re going to have to work really hard to make sure those places stay wild.”
In recognition of which, he says, it’s critical human-wildlife conflict is guarded against and that the communities that live in and around wildlife protected areas dare not be overlooked.
“Confronting people who’ve had their crops damaged is possibly the most difficult reality I have had to confront as a conservationist. The reality that wildlife isn’t just out of the Lion King but actually causes people real suffering and unless those people are protected from wildlife and unless they’re receiving benefits from wildlife, wildlife has no future.”
And so while the Giants Club Summit is definitely a step in the right direction and the torching of 105 tonnes of ivory by President Kenyatta a grand gesture, it’s but a first step. The true test of success, a practical Dr Graham is unequivocal, begins after the big names have boarded their flights for home.
Even so, Dr Graham, it’s not every day that you receive a pat on the back from President Barack Obama, win over some of the richest men in the world and get Hollywood A-listers to back your cause, well in!