Peter Pringle's America: Straining at a gnatcatcher

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A TINY songbird called the gnatcatcher that meows like a kitten and is all of 4in long made the front pages recently. The bird is losing a battle for its California habitat with land developers and has become a symbol at the small end, so to say, of the new American debate about endangered species.

At the big end is the African elephant, which is the subject of a new book that dares to join the few who depart from mainstream opinion on elephant preservation and suggest that some should be killed for their ivory. By bringing the elephants and the gnatcatcher together you get a good idea of where American creature conservation efforts are going these days.

The blue-gray gnatcatcher - Polioptila californica californica - has become the symbol of the Clinton administration's effort to save threatened species and serve economic interests at the same time. The doctrine is known as 'sustainable use' of resources.

One of America's great resources is land where people want to live - especially balmy California. Rather than ban development through the gnatcatcher's entire habitat, which the US Endangered Species Act would require were it classified as 'endangered', the idea is to allow bird and developer to live side by side. Not surprisingly, the conservationists and developers cannot agree on the size of the plots for each, but California is an enormous state and a hint of compromise is in the air.

Not so at the elephant end of the debate. In a book called At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for African Wildlife, Raymond Bonner, who used to write for the New Yorker and has spent the past four years in Africa, proposes lifting the American-led international ban on ivory trading to allow sustainable use of the African elephant, which means hunting it again for its ivory. He is being pounced on by conservationists with all the fury they can muster.

But Bonner is a fighter, a veteran of confrontations with US foreign policy in Central America and the Philippines. He comes from the wash-it-out-and-hang-it-up school of American journalism, and he has unearthed some things embarrassing to the conservation groups.

When it comes to raising money for endangered species, elephants come out top. They make people dip deeper than dolphins or pandas and are quite as alluring as whales. During the 'Don't Buy Ivory' campaign in the late Eighties the US- based African Wildlife Foundation bought a full-page ad in the New York Times for dollars 40,000. 'Today in Africa someone will slaughter an elephant for a bracelet,' said the advertisement, over a picture of an elephant carcass. It is rare for such ads to pay for themselves, but 1,200 people responded to this one and the foundation received dollars 42,526.

The campaign helped lead to the 1989 ban on ivory trading. The ivory hunters found they could not sell their tusks, at least on the open market. In what seemed like a total success story, poaching fell off dramatically and the elephant herds started to grow again in the most affected country - Kenya.

However, Bonner's evidence indicates that the conservation groups were driven into the ban against the better judgement of some important expert opinion, which questioned the basic assumption: that the African elephant was an endangered species. He also suggests that advertising agencies prodded the groups into running exaggerated ads. This caused the public to become so alarmed about the possible extinction of the African elephant that pressure for a ban became too great for any conservation group to oppose without risking its membership roll. They all approved it.

In place of the ban, Bonner advocates using a country's resources in a way that does not wipe them out. One of Africa's great resources is its wildlife: it can make money showing off beasts to tourists, and it can kill them. 'Killing crocodiles for their skins, impala for their meat and lions for hunting trophies,' says Bonner, 'is a more directly profitable sustainable utilisation of resources; so is killing elephants for their ivory.'

If Africans were allowed to kill 1-2 per cent of the elephant population, he suggests, it could generate substantial revenues to help relieve human suffering in the continent. Also, allowing rural Africans to make money from elephants would give them an incentive to protect the species from poachers.

The conservationists are in a state of high dudgeon about Bonner. They say the sustainable use doctrine requires levels of management available only in southern Africa; it is not yet practical in central Africa where half the elephants live and where much of the ivory has been coming from. In California, however, sustainable use is clearly possible for the gnatcatcher.

Once the two sides have agreed on the land required to be set aside for the gnatcatcher, the hope is that not only the bird but also associated plants and animals will be protected before they become threatened and the subject of legal battles. Such a compromise is no mean task: the gnatcatcher makes its home in about 250,000 acres of valuable real estate.

If the multiple protection scheme works in California, where two-thirds of the 2,350 American species that are candidates for an endangered listing live, then it may be applied to the Midwest prairie ecosystem and maybe, one day, to the African elephant. But 'sustainable use' is a hifalutin phrase for a hifalutin objective, and the one thing the gnatcatcher and the elephant stories tell us is that the conservationists, for all their fancy visions, are open to the same temptations as developers and ivory hunters. It is called greed.

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