Dead Elephants and Democracy

For a man who didn’t live in one, Shakespeare had a pretty cynical view of democracy. Don’t give the people power, they have no idea what to do with it. In Coriolanus, as with all history plays, ‘the people’ are a silly lot, who are there to be manipulated by the ruling class, but in this play, Shakespeare makes them particularly disgusting. They are sweaty, greedy, and stupid. The basic plot is about a war hero, named Coriolanus because he supposedly defeated the city of Corioles single handed. After his victory he decides to run for political office, and though he finds the people revolting, because he sees them as cowards who did not fight, he says the necessary things to woo from them their votes. In pursuit of their own personal power, two other politicians decide to persuade the people that they hate Coriolanus. They whip them up into a frenzy and he is soon expelled from the city of Rome. The people go from adoring him to making him their enemy. Remember that Coriolanus is a formidable enemy! Once rejected by Rome, he joins forces with the Volsci (Rome’s chief enemy), and the people who rejected him are placed in mortal danger. While Coriolanus is not an unambiguous character, he is presented by Shakespeare as noble. Perhaps too noble and principled to exist within the corrupt politicking of Rome. The people, though, have no redeeming features. They are presented as foolish  and easily lead. They, and the small-minded politicians goading them on in the interests of short term personal gain, almost bring about their own absolute destruction. When I first read Coriolanus I was appalled by Shakespeare’s scornful portrait of democracy, but in light of recent political events, the play has been often on my mind. Could it be true that ‘we, the people’ have no idea what’s good for us?

Everyday the news brings us countless stories of people acting profoundly against their own best interests. I'm not even going to mention the T word. I could be talking about Republican elephants here, but I'm not going to. I could give you an almost unlimited number of examples. The one that struck the loudest chord for me this morning is our collectively negligent attitude to the environment. Amongst the selfies, memes of Winona Ryder, and Best Dressed lists that generally populate my Facebook newsfeed there was also a picture of a dead, mutilated zebra, half its skin peeled off, its head smothered in the mud. The picture lead m down a rabbit hole of shocking articles about land invasions in the Laikipia region of Kenya. I learnt that all across Laikipia armed pastoralists are driving their cattle, in huge numbers, into private ranches and wildlife conservancies. The articles were accompanied by harrowing images of burnt homes, deserted schools, dead lions, giraffes, and buffalo. If I could pick any one of these as the most disturbing, for me it might have been the slaughtered elephants, with tusks and tips of trunks removed, or those with their whole faces ripped off, as poachers capitalise on the chaos in their hunt for ivory, but then I saw an image of a pregnant giraffe shot by invaders, its unborn and undeveloped calf half pulled from its womb. I won’t provide the photo, if you want to see it, put Laikipia land invasion into a Google image search. On the face of things, the pastoralists could be desperately searching for land to graze their cattle, but their numbers, their weaponry, and the lack of any effective government response tells a different story. Ranchers who have always maintained good relationships and made grazing deals with their neighbours fear that the invasions must be more motivated by politics than by drought. From the smattering of articles I have read, many people have begun to suspect that the government has no wish to prevent the destruction of these ranches and conservancies, nor any desire to protect the rare and beautiful animals for which they provide a home. Some reluctantly conjecture that figures in the government may be behind the invasions, manipulating the pastoralists in a bid to grab the land for themselves. Whatever the truth, the fact remains that little is being done by the government to improve the situation in Laikipia. While the pastoralists may see invasion as their only option, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association suggests that the destruction of the conservancies will be bad for pastoralists themselves. Without the conservancies cattle herders will be more vulnerable to poachers and cattle rustlers as the security networks created to protect Kenya’s wildlife has also benefited local communities. “Security through the conservancies has given people in Isiolo and northern Kenya the peace to engage in other economic activities. Without this they cannot build their lives,” said Dickson Kaelo, head of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association.

It seems that the pastoralists, like the people so scathingly depicted in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, either because they are blinded by short-term gain or because they are being manipulated, are sabotaging themselves in the long term.  What, then, of the Kenyan government, and the international community, and their lacklustre response to this crisis in Laikipia? Where does it end? Enormous unrest in Kenya could be a result, the potential for yet more internally displaced peoples and international refugees. Those in the USA, the UK, and Europe who have already made it clear that they don’t want to help refugees, might worry about the creation of more. Another very possible outcome is the extinction of the rare animals that the conservancies exist to protect. Why should we care if elephants, lions, buffalo, rhino, and the rest die out? In the short term the tourist industry would take a hit, but the long term damage goes far beyond missing out on your safari. The short answer is, we need them to survive. Not because they’re awe inspiring, but because they form part of an ecosystem that we rely on. You can learn more about how that works on BBC Earth. Like Shakespeare's stupid, sweaty Romans, we are neglecting our own good in failing to respond to this crisis. When I ask the nine-year-old I childmind to tidy up, he always shouts “but it’s not my mess”, hoping to get off on a technicality. As people belonging to states that use non-renewable energy sources and produce meat on an industrial scale, we have to acknowledge that drought caused by climate change, and the resulting conflict, is very much our mess.

At the moment, it’s looking as if Shakespeare was right about democracy. It doesn’t work because we don’t know what’s good for us. We ignore our long term good as we cater to our ill-informed fears and prejudices and to short term gains. I’d like to prove Shakespeare wrong. If our UK government seems only to be looking one election ahead, it’s because they’re pandering to our wishes. It is our responsibility to make them look further both chronologically and geographically. If we want a government that’s interested in the big picture, in terms of climate change, the international community, and ethical living, we need to be interested in it ourselves.

Dead elephant calf. Source: 


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