“Why do you shoot the animals?” I asked through an interpreter.
The Murle hunter, a semi-automatic weapon slung over his shoulder, definitely didn’t appreciate my question.
We were in Boma in South Sudan, close to the border of Ethiopia, some of the most remote wilderness on the continent.
During the brutal war with the North, running from the early 1980s until 2005, both sides had wiped out much of the wildlife to supply their fighters and raise cash. That war was now over, but the wildlife massacre continued.
Zebra, Giraffe, Elephants, White-Eared Kob (a type of antelope) – were all considered fair game.
“Look,” he said, clearly annoyed, pointing to my stomach and then to his, “you are fat. But I am thin. If you were thin like me, then you would shoot and eat the animals too.”
I think about that conversation often.
This week, representatives across the globe gathered in Geneva for the CITES convention.
CITES is the treaty that governs the international trade of endangered wildlife products – a trade worth billions.
The most contentious issue up for debate is the possible trade of elephant ivory.
Currently, there is a ban on international trade of ivory; the last “one-time” sale was authorized in 2007.
And there is a stark and increasingly acrimonious split on the issue among African countries.
Eastern and North African states wanted to continue the ban and further protect Elephant populations on the continent – they are backed up by many Western countries and environmental groups.
Southern African states are pushing for the sale of the valuable ivory stockpiles they sit on.
“Tell me, why would you have an asset that has no value? That is the fundamental question. If people are to look after our wildlife, there must be a value attached to it. Otherwise, we are sitting on a ticking time-bomb,” said Kitso Mokaila, Environment, Wildlife and Tourism minister of Botswana.
We were there to report on the resumption of elephant hunts in Botswana – a move criticized heavily in the West. Mokaila didn’t have much time for environmental groups overseas.
“It’s ok to be a critic from the comfort of your home,” he said.
The point he was trying to make – like the Murle hunter – is that perspective is important in the conservation debate.
A tourist photographing a herd of elephants from their Land Rover to share on Instagram has a very different experience from a farmer getting their crop trampled on by a grouchy bull elephant the size of a truck.
Southern African governments point to their relatively stable elephant populations and say that ivory sales will benefit the people and conservation with profits.
Others say it isn’t so simple.
“I don’t accept the argument that Botswana and others are making. Selling ivory never benefited local communities in the past. It won’t benefit them in the future. It is just a big lie,” said Paula Kahumbu, a noted Kenyan conservationist.
She also maintains that the continent-wide snapshot of elephant numbers is even worse.
Since that one-off ivory sale, there has been a stark increase in poaching across range state, say elephant ecologists. In the years between 2007 and 2014 alone, savannah elephant numbers dropped by at least 30%, according to the landmark Great Elephant Census released in 2016.
Poaching levels seemed to have peaked in 2011, but they are still at unacceptable levels says Richard Thomas of Traffic, the group that monitors poaching for CITES.
Most surprisingly, perhaps, the ivory ban that China installed in early 2018 hasn’t appeared to have an effect. Chinese nationals are still one of the biggest consumers of ivory products.
“Now travelers from China just buy their ivory outside of China,” said Thomas.
In the end, based on votes in Geneva, CITES will keep the status quo on elephants and ivory. Both Eastern and Southern African governments are dissatisfied with that result.
They might disagree on the way to do it, but conservationists all seem to agree that, without community buy-in, elephants and other species are probably doomed to be confined into heavily fortified and fenced-off parks.
“Where you have situations where wildlife is not beneficial and is, in fact, competitive with people, then I think the prognosis is pretty poor,” said John Scanlon, the former Secretary General of CITES, who now is an envoy for African Parks.
He said that poaching needs to be tackled, but human-animal conflict and competition over land is the bigger long-term threat.
Conservatively, the population in Africa will be more than two billion in the next thirty years. And if it comes to people or animals first – the choice for government’s is simple.
But responsible governments don’t want to make that choice.
“There is a perception that a lot of money comes into tourism. But for the Batswana living next to this Eden, they are still in abject poverty. We need to ensure that communities get those benefits,” says Makaila, the Minister in Botswana.
Kahumbu, from Kenya, agrees. She says there is a movement in Kenya building to give communities shares and other forms of ownership in the luxury concessions.
“It’s going to be a rocky path, but it can be done,” she said, adding that more African conservationists need to be recognized because of the perspective they bring from their communities.
Which reminds me of another conversation that I had in Kenya a few years back.
I asked a Maasai herdsman what he thought about westerners telling their communities not to hunt lions as part of the traditional rite of passage to adulthood.
“There used to be lions in Europe?” he asked.
“Yes, there were,” I said.
“Where are they now?” he replied.