David Western has spent 40 years negotiating ways that livestock owners, tourism businesses and national park managers can co-exist and resolve wildlife issues. “If elephants used as much energy as we humans do, they would have de-vegetated the planet,” Western said during a visit to Missoula from Kenya.
Article by Bob Chaney | Photo by Tommy Martino | November 2, 2018
When David Western looks at the American Great Plains, he sees one thing missing: elephants.
That’s not just because he has spent a career restoring elephants and other wildlife to the savannas of Africa. On a visit to Montana this week, the founder of the African Conservation Centre explained how big landscapes historically depended on big mammals, like elephants and American bison, to function.
His task for the past 40 years has been negotiating ways for livestock owners, tourism businesses and national park managers can co-exist and resolve wildlife issues. Elephants are one of his biggest issues, figuratively and literally.
The average human body produces about as much energy as a light bulb, yet it consumes enough to feed 11 elephants (when you add in the car gas, home heating, processed food and other services the average American uses daily). If elephants ran the world, they’d probably destroy humans. Humans do run the world, yet we’re working hard to conserve elephants.
“If elephants used as much energy as we humans do, they would have de-vegetated the planet,” Western said during a visit to Missoula. “What is it about us that we can turn around and suddenly start conserving forests and elephants if we decide to? It’s bizarre for any species to do that.”
Western concentrates on that ability to make a choice — to regulate what we do in altruistic ways that don’t benefit us directly, but pay off in less obvious fashion. In places like Kenya and Tanzania where he works, he’s found that improving conditions for elephants and lions around big national parks actually helps local cattle herders. That’s important in East Africa where there are 16 million domestic cattle and just 600,000 wild herbivores.
One big way Western does that is by finding ways to turn wildlife liabilities into assets. It’s a method he’s found valuable convincing both African cattle drovers and American cattle ranchers to share their landscapes with dangerous wildlife and profit in the process.
In North America, prehistoric woolly mammoths and massive bison herds grazed and churned the continent’s central grasslands into a remarkably fertile ecosystem. Western suggested that process could be partially restored by borrowing elephants from the nation’s zoos and letting them do their landscape-transforming thing for a few weeks a year.
While that idea seems far-fetched, more conventional efforts are already underway to restore natural processes where they’re beneficial.
“It’s called community-based conservation,” Western said. “In Africa, we’re doing borderlands conservation where you have large landscapes and you’re trying to preserve them. In North America, the landscape is more fragmented and we’re trying to bring it back together. In both cases, you have to start local and find the benefits or threats to the people on the ground.”
Wild animals, whether elephants and lions or bison and grizzly bears, need two things. One is space on the land they share with domestic livestock, schools and people’s homes. Another is space in those people’s lives: a level of tolerance and value that offsets the fear and damage the animals cause.
In Africa, Western has spent a career helping small communities around some of the continent’s most popular wildlife preserves hold onto their traditional cattle culture while profiting from the tourists who come to see the lions. Montana’s Blackfoot Challenge, Western said, has used similar methods to compensate ranchers when bears or wolves kill cattle in order to increase tolerance for predators.
Western spoke to the Montana World Affairs Council on Tuesday evening and toured schools in Ravalli County on Wednesday on a brief visit to the United States for a meeting of the Liz Claiborne Art Ortenberg Foundation. MWA Director Janet Rose had worked with him in the past and arranged his Montana tour.
“He’s really one of the icons on the front lines of major conservation initiatives around the world,” Rose said of Western. “And we’re expanding the issues addressed at the World Affairs Council, such as the need for international field biologists.”