Even before last month’s murder by unknown gunmen of leading elephant conservationist Wayne Lotter in Dar es Salaam. Tanzania — which ironically enough translates from the Swahili as “Place of Peace” — the world has become a more dangerous place for nature and the people trying to protect it.
In just the past year, according to the non-governmental organization Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers, or ALERT, more than 200 conservations and wildlife workers from some 24 countries were killed while confronting environmentally destructive development projects. Mining, logging, illegal farming and wildlife poaching are mainly to blame, though old-fashioned human greed is never too far away.
In Lotter’s case, his lifelong campaign to protect wild elephants and expose the illegal ivory trade, made him a target. Unlike some of the more prominent wildlife campaigners, he preferred to stay in the shadows, away from the media spotlight — a silent hero. He earned a hard-won reputation as a pragmatist eager to work with local communities in alleviating poverty and show through example the wisdom of conservation over making a fast buck from ivory poaching. He was never going to become a household name. Until now, that is.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that Wayne’s anti-poaching efforts made a big difference in the fight to save Tanzania’s elephants from the illegal ivory trade,” Jane Goodall said, in a public tribute. “His courage in the face of personal threats and his determination to keep on fighting has inspired many, and encouraged them to keep on fighting for wildlife. If this cowardly act was an effort to bring his work to an end, it will fail.”
Famed elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who played a prominent role in writer Peter Matthiessen’s 1960’s classic The Tree Where Man Was Born, credited Lotter with exposing corruption in the highest levels of power in Tanzania.
Lotter made enemies in high places, wealthy people who benefitted for decades from the poaching of illegal ivory in Tanzania. The East African country is home along with Botswana to Africa’s largest surviving population of wild elephants.
“He pursued justice for wildlife with little apparent concern for his own life,” Douglas-Hamilton said. “His loss is a grave blow to the defence of the living planet.”
Lotter, the South African-born co-founder and director of the Tanzania-based, somewhat prosaically named Protected Area Management Solutions (PAMS) Foundation, was one of the subjects of the just-released Netflix documentary The Ivory Game, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. He was 51. He leaves behind a wife and two young daughters.
East Africa is not the only region in the world beset by violence against conservationists and wildlife workers, despite ongoing armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home of one of the last remaining strongholds of the critically endangered mountain gorilla.
Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is the most dangerous place to be a conservationist, with 49 deaths in 2016 alone, according to ALERT. Land theft by wealthy cattle ranchers and speculators is driving the violence there, as evidenced by the 2005 murder of Dorothy Stang, an American-born Catholic nun and active campaigner for indigenous rights. The Amazon is currently under siege from government efforts in Brazil to weaken environmental laws and reduce the size of protected areas, while at the same time looking away from illegal land-grabs.
Despite the murder of Lotter and other, less well-known wildlife campaigners, all is not lost.
In an impassioned call to action, ALERT director William Laurance urged followers not to lose hope, and cites several “win-wins” that suggest the battle to save the planet is far from over.
Campaigns to slow down and in some cases stop altogether the building of dams, roads and highways through ecologically sensitive hot spots in Sumatra, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and even Tanzania’s own Serengeti National Park have proven surprisingly effective.
The fight is hard, but the battle is not over yet.