June 06, 2019

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NEED TO KNOW

BOTSWANA

Politics & Pachyderms

Approximately 450,000 elephants roam Africa. Poachers kill around 30,000 annually.

Do the math.

At that rate of illegal hunting, the days of the world’s largest land animal are numbered.

So one might question the optics of Botswanan President Mokgweetsi Masisi giving footstools made from elephant feet to his counterparts from Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe early last month at a meeting to discuss how to save the animals, the BBC reported.

The presidents’ plans might also surprise many. Along with South African leaders, they want to lift their countries’ bans on hunting elephants so they might sell ivory to raise money for conservation projects while giving local communities leeway to deal with animals that sometimes ruin crops and pose dangers to families.

Last month, Masisi lifted Botswana’s five-year ban on hunting the pachyderms. The move shocked animal rights advocates because they have long considered Botswana, where one-third of Africa’s elephants live, a conservation success story. “The whole world is turning away from hunting,” Kenyan ecologist Paula Kahumbu said in an interview with the Guardian. “It is increasingly seen as an archaic practice.”

Defenders of the policy portrayed those critics as naïve.

“By sacrificing 700 elephants per year we’re likely going to save more,” Botswana-based wildlife veterinarian Erik Verreynne told the New York Times.

Verreynne might have a point. Poaching is closely correlated to poverty and corruption, according to National Geographic. Crafting policies that help officials exert control over elephant hunting might help address some of the social ills that give rise to it in the first place.

But the same studies cited in National Geographic also suggested that law enforcement was usually not a deterrent to poaching. In other words, rangers either didn’t stop poaching or they were complicit in it. If authorities can’t tackle illegal hunting now, will they be able to enforce regulations on legal hunting?

That said, elephant poaching in general is in decline, according to independent analysts, reported the Press Association, a British news agency.

Politics might be a better lens for considering this issue.

Botswana holds a general election in October. Lawmakers then elect a new president. Given how lifting the ban is based on a plethora of myths about elephant numbers, Masisi’s decision was likely designed to curry favor with rural voters, argued economist Ross Harvey in the Daily Maverick, a South African online newspaper.

If elephants could vote, would Masisi change his mind? He just might if he visited the elephant (and rhino) orphanage operated by the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust near Nairobi, Kenya. Here, most visitors are visibly moved by the gentle young elephants that still mourn their parents – killed by poachers.

WANT TO KNOW

ITALY

Breaking the Rules

The European Commission accused Italy of breaking European Union rules regarding public debt on Wednesday, reopening the possibility that the EU could impose disciplinary procedures that might eventually result in fines.

For now, it’s a fairly toothless warning, Reuters reported. But a similar one was enough to convince Rome to slash its budget target at the last minute in December, partly because spats with Europe increase Italy’s borrowing costs.

“To be clear, today we are not opening a procedure,” the EU commissioner for the euro, Valdis Dombrovskis, told a news conference.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte – though he favors compromise over antagonizing Brussels – said the country is making progress. The latest figures indicate the budget deficit will be around 2.1 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year, he said. That’s below the government’s own target of 2.4 percent and the Commission’s projection of 2.5 percent.

Nevertheless, Italy’s total public debt amounted to 132.2 percent of GDP in 2018 and both Rome and the EU expect it to rise again this year. That’s a major threat to the Eurozone, according to the International Monetary Fund.

THAILAND

Rubber Stamp

Thailand’s Parliament elected the leader of the 2014 coup to the post of prime minister on Wednesday, confirming the military’s dominance of the political system since the ouster of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in 2006 and the subsequent sidelining of his party.

In an appropriate illustration of the situation, the military-backed party of newly elected Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha came second in the March general election, the Associated Press reported. Yet Prayuth’s selection was virtually assured because the prime minister is selected by a joint vote of the 500-seat House and 250-seat Senate – and senators are appointed by the military junta. Prayuth won that vote 500-244.

The general election, too, was designed to stack the deck against the Pheu Thai party, which is still associated with the populist Thaksin and his family, the agency noted.

Prayuth’s opponent, Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit of the Future Forward party, said his 244 votes were an indicator of the political temperature in the constitutional monarchy. “The people are still calling for liberties. The people are still calling for justice,” Thanathorn said. “I want to thank all 244 people who love democracy for voting for me.”

SUDAN

A Bloody Hundred

The death toll from the military crackdown on the protest movement in Sudan over the past few days reached more than 100 people on Wednesday.

“To this moment, the total number of deaths that have been accounted by doctors is 101,” the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors said, citing the retrieval of 40 bodies from the Nile River by the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, Al Jazeera reported. Later, Reuters reported that the government health ministry pegged the death toll at 46.

In the wake of the carnage, military council head General Abdel-Fattah Burhan offered to re-open negotiations without preconditions. But a spokesman for one of the groups leading the demonstrations said the protesters “totally reject” that proposal and accused the military council of offering negotiations while terror still reigns in the streets.

“This call is not serious,” Mohammed Yousef al-Mustafa, spokesman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, told the Associated Press. “Burhan and those under him have killed the Sudanese and are still doing it. Their vehicles patrol the streets, firing at people.”

DISCOVERIES

Speaking Bird

Centuries ago, inhabitants of the Pontic Mountains in Turkey had to develop a special language to communicate with each other across vast distances.

The locals used kuş dili, or “bird language,” an intricate language that changes Turkish vocabulary into whistles and melodic lines, the New York Times reported.

The language has helped farming communities to have complex conversations over long distances and facilitate animal herding, but it’s slowly dying out thanks to cellphones.

Today, there are about 10,000 speakers in the region, and many locals are trying to preserve the language and attract visitors through festivals and competitions.

While technology remains a threat to the language, it has – ironically – become its savior, too.

Speakers of bird language are now using a mobile app called “Islık Dili Sözlüğü,” or whistle language dictionary, as a way to preserve the tongue and spread it among younger generations.

“This is our heritage,” said Muazzez Kocek, 46, who learned the language at age six and is considered one of the best whistlers in the region. “We have to protect it and continue using it.”