Elephants, Big Five: To export or not to export
Opinion & Columnist

Elephants, Big Five: To export or not to export

by Ken Yamamoto

“While Mr. Mugabe masquerades as a champion and vanguard of African resources, he seems to be selling the big-five to future sources of tourist for a few millions, perhaps for paying civil servants today at the expense of tomorrow.

“This is akin to Esau sacrificing his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.

“The key question for those responsible for this act is – if you dish out your strategic assets, or tourism jewels to your potential /future tourists, why then would they come to your country ten to fifteen years from now?”

THIS weekend, my friends and I travelled to Kyushu Island in the south-west of Japan. Because its winter time, and very cold, we went for onsen (hot spring) public bath in the city of Beppu. The city of Beppu receives hundreds of thousands of tourist visitors each year from across Japan, South Korea and China who come for these public baths in hot spring water. Near the hot springs in Tsukahara Kogen, between Beppu and Yufuin, is an animal park called African Safari. Yes – African safari in Japan! It’s actual name is Kyushu Natural Zoological Park. But it’s marketed and better known as African Safari. This place has African lions, elephants, cheetahs, zebras and other wild animals. Many of these animals are not native to Japan. I am just not sure how and when they were shipped from Africa to Japan.

My colleague, Komatsu-san, an environmental scientist started the subject of elephants that are on course to be shipped from Zimbabwe to some Asian countries. Here is my opinion on this issue.

Extreme position either side

According to reports, Zimbabwe is capturing dozens of baby elephants, lions, sables and other wild animals for export to the United Arab Emirates, China and other Asian nations. It seems some of these animals are destined for Shanghai Wild Animal Park in China, though others speculate that the final endpoint could be wealthy private collectors.

Former James Bond actor internationalized the controversy by saying the following to his multitude of fans via social media,

“We need your help and voices to protect these babies [animals] and to stop this shipment of wildlife cargo… Please contact the Zimbabwe Minister of the Environment, Saviour Kasukuwere and ask that he release these majestic endangered animals at once.”


The Zimbabwe Conservations Taskforce led by Johnny Rodrigues, also protested the export of the animals, with a petition signed by thousands of supporters. A group representing tens of international tour operators engaging in photographic safaris across Africa threatened negative consequences to Zimbabwe’s tourism if the government went ahead with the animal export.

The Zimbabwean government has hushed the protestors, though it has not been transparent about how it stands to benefit from the exports, or how much it plans to raise. One Mr Mupazviriho, a government of Zimbabwe official argued:

“Our business is conservation and as we do conservation we might find the need to relocate some animals to a certain area to protect them from poachers, relocate them from a dry area that is running out of food or relocate them from an area of high concentration to one of low concentration area.”

Those protesting the export of these elephants are arguing from a conservation point of view as well as against cruelty to animals. Whoever is pushing to export the wild animals in Zimbabwe is powerful and has his/her own selfish interests to pursue. On the other hand, whoever is importing the elephants in the receiving countries is a strategic genius – the flip side is that whoever is exporting them is a non-strategic and not very smart. And here is my reasoning. Kindly excuse the fact that my opinion will go in some sort of roundabout way to drive the point home.

Thinking in the long term – a cultural issue

In my last opinion, I mentioned a key issue of systems thinking in planning to reduce unintended consequences. This opinion touches on long term thinking, or if you want, strategic thinking. Gerard Hendrik Hofstede is a well-known social psychologist who, while working for IBM, pioneered research of cross-cultural groups and organizations, notably the cultural dimensions theory. Hofstede used factor analysis to describe the effects of a society’s culture on the values of its members, and how these values link with behavior. One of these factors arising from Hofstede’s theory is Long-term orientation versus short term orientation – sometimes referred to as Confucian dynamism – which describes societies’ time horizon.

Research has shown that Asian nations such as Japan, China, and Hong Kong have a very long term orientation, and often think in the very long term. It’s common for Japanese companies, for example, to have a planning time span of between 5-20 years. For example, JR Tokai, a railway company is working on plans to operate the world’s fastest maglev train which will cut the distance between Tokyo and Nagoya to 40 minutes, effectively making the distant town a suburb of Tokyo. The train will start operating in 2027 and will run at speeds of over 500km/hour.  Some Anglo nations have moderate long term orientation. It is for this reason (in my opinion) that many Japanese multi-national corporations would not generally hire an American CEO because an American CEO would focus on short term cost-cutting at the expense of the long term potential of the business (no stereotyping intended).

On the other hand, short term orientation in line with Hofstede’s study is common in societies which promotes values related to the past and the present, encourage respect for tradition, and fulfilling social obligations. My own observation in Africa is that many African societies fall into this bracket. Ten to twenty year planning time span is extremely rare. Often, people think about the past, plan on a daily basis, at best on a monthly to annual basis, and five-year planning happens here and there, perhaps in government circles, but is rarely followed to implementation.

Strategic thinking and planning

I will digress to an unrelated example to put across the idea. Toyota is the largest car-maker globally. It certainly wasn’t the first to make cars. Toyota has led the world in making hybrid vehicles with its leading best-selling Toyota Prius. In December, Toyota started selling commercially one of the world’s first hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles – the Toyota Mirai. Mirai is a Japanese word which means the future. Getting to make hydrogen fuel mainstream is a key success factor for this kind of vehicle which does not use gasoline.

A few weeks ago, Toyota announced that it is offering over 5,680 patents relating to hydrogen and fuel cell technology royalty-free – effectively availing them for open source public use. This move must be located in the rivalry between hydrogen fuel –cells and electric vehicles (EVs) and Toyota and Tesla Motors. This can be understood by exploring the dominant design wars between Sony’s Betamax and Panasonic/JVC VHS video format wars of decades ago. So what’s the point here – you might ask? The point is – Toyota is thinking ten to thirty years from now, not about yesterday, today, next week, next month or next year. And this has nothing to do with whether you are a first world country or not – it has a lot to do with a cultural value, and being strategic.

The Big Five and Its Importance

Now back to elephants! Tourism is a strategic economic sector for many nations. For Africa, it’s even more important because of lack of industrialisation and reliance on primary industries extracting raw materials. For this reason, many African countries have a stand-alone ministry of tourism, including Zimbabwe.

In fact, for countries like Zimbabwe that have their economy in the woods, tourism is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ which can be of great use to revive the economy. It can, easily, with the right visionary leadership, generate $7 billion per year, and employ at least a hundred thousand Zimbabweans in national parks, hotels, and related industries. It can be a major export which would not be subjected to the ups and down of commodity prices the same way oil has swung downwards in the last several months.

Many tourists that visit Africa for leisure do not come to see African cities or for that matter rural villages. They come to see flora and fauna. Besides the Victoria Falls, a large percentage of leisure visitors come to Zimbabwe to see the Big Five. Some come to hunt these animals in the African savanna, while others just view them during game drives.

A strategic Asset

The big five in Africa refers to the African elephant African lion, the buffalo, African leopard, and rhino. It’s a rare African gift from nature to have all these animals in one place, a real natural endowment.  It’s not just a gift, but actually a strategic asset, which must be managed strategically. All strategic assets must therefore be managed strategically with a long term thinking mindset.

Zimbabwe plans or is in the process of shipping young Big Five animals to Asia and the Middle East. So the key question for those responsible for this act is – if you dish out your strategic assets, or tourism jewels to your potential /future tourists, why then would they come to your country ten to fifteen years from now? If China gets elephants and other African Big Five animals, and is able to rear them in China, or even breed them one way or the other into a large population, why would Asians go to Africa to see the same animals they now have in their backyard? Why would I visit you to see African elephants that I can also see in the African Safari in Kyushu? What will happen to Zimbabwe’s wildlife tourism twenty to thirty years from now if you give away your lions and elephants to wealthy Chinese and sheiks from the UAE?

Komatsu’s biblical story

As we sat in the onsen, Komatsu san, who is Christian, related a story he read from the bible. It’s about two Jewish brothers. The older, Esau, was a skilled hunter. The younger, Jacob was a mild but clever thinker who liked staying at home. Jacob would grow lentils and other things at home. Esau on the other hand, was a hunter. He killed his food first in order to eat. One day, his hunting was not successful, and he came back home famished. He found Jacob relaxed at home and said to him,

‘Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!’ he pleaded.
‘First sell me your birthright,” demanded Jacob.
‘Look, I am about to die,’ said Esau. ‘What good is the birthright to me?’ he added.
‘Swear to me first,’ demanded Jacob.  So Esau swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left.
This is how Esau despised his birthright!

My Take

If the animals have become so many that they are becoming a conservation problem, by any means, invite those rich Americans, wealthy Chinese and oil barons from the Middle East to come and hunt them for millions of dollars. They pretty much shoot them for fun anyway. That’s a pastime for the rich and famous and they are willing to pay for it. It’s a form of culling anyway. In the process, it creates jobs and raises millions of dollars to the economy in perpetuity. If the animals are still too many – go ahead and cull them. It’s certainly more strategic than giving away your tourism jewels for a few millions of dollars through exporting the very incentive that bringS leisure tourists to your country.

The Chinese, and indeed the Japanese would never sell their strategic technology to Zimbabwe. So why should Zimbabwe sell its tourism jewels to China and the Emirates? Its destruction of value steeped in short term orientation. While Mr Mugabe masquerades as a champion and vanguard of African resources, he seems to be selling the big-five to future sources of tourist for a few millions, perhaps for paying civil servants today. This is akin to Esau sacrificing his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. This move has a long terms effect of affecting wildlife tourism in Zimbabwe, Kenya, South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania and other countries with communities that rely on wildlife tourism.

In summary: should you export your gold if you don’t know what to do with it? By all means yes. But should you export your live elephants to Asia? For what it’s worth, don’t. Think long term!

Those who have ears have heard. Sayonara!

Ken Yamamoto is a research fellow on Africa at an institute in Tokyo. He researches and travels frequently in Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda and Zimbabwe. You can contact Ken on yamamotokensan@gmail.com. This article was written with contribution from Takahiro Komatsu.

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