How saving, not slaying, the world’s giants could secure our children’s futures

An elephant, gorilla and whale eye pictured next to each other
Tracy Keeling

If 2020 has taught people anything, it’s that our relationship with the rest of the natural world needs to change. We’ve faced a devastating pandemic, most likely thanks to our trading in wildlife. Communities and landscapes have been upended by disastrous fires, floods, droughts, and extreme weather events – environmental occurences that experts are increasingly linking to human-caused climate change.

In short, the world today’s children will inherit does not currently look bright. So for people to have any hope of convincing their children that they have their best interests at heart, we need to transform how we view and interact with our fellow earthly beings and, indeed, the Earth itself.

A new initiative is trying to bring about such a paradigm shift. This transformation would require people to see the world’s giants as friends not foes; as the key to our salvation, not scary beings we should slay.

A giant tale

In literature, giants – whether human or other animals – are often presented as threatening entities. But, in reality, they are a major asset to the world. Whales, elephants, and great apes, for example, are such giants. They are known as keystone species. As conservationist Ian Redmond explained recently, this term:

comes from architecture. If you build an arch, you make a wooden structure, you stack the stones up on the wooden structure – when you put the keystone in, you can take the wooden structure away and it stays up.

Keystone species have the same impact on the ecosystems they exist in. When present, they support the ecosystem. If absent, the ecological system collapses because so many other species are dependent on them. Those ecosystems, in turn, prop up the wider climatic stability of the Earth. Tropical forests, for example, “soak up huge amounts” of carbon from the atmosphere.

Keystone species, along with most species on the planet – including humans – can, of course, be dangerous. This is especially true when people force them into unnatural and abusive situations, or when the conditions and space for peaceful coexistence are lacking. But, overwhelmingly, keystone species are beneficial – and essential – to the planet’s health.

In big trouble

Many of these keystone species are, however, in big trouble. The mass killing of whales, particularly in the 20th Century, devastated their populations. An international ban on whaling – observed by most countries other than Norway, Iceland, the US, the Faroe Islands, and Japan – has allowed some recovery for certain species. But there’s still a long way to go. All great apes other than humans – that is gorillas, orangutans, bonobos, and chimpanzees – are endangered or critically endangered. They face numerous threats, namely from the destruction of their homes, the wildlife trade, and diseases.

Elephant populations, too, are a shadow of their former strength. They also face widespread loss of their homes, fall victim to the wildlife trade, and people – both poachers and trophy hunters – target them for their tusks. Meanwhile, all these species are threatened by the climate crisis.

But a new initiative is trying to turn their fortunes around.

Rebalance Earth

IMF deputy director Ralph Chami, conservationist Ian Redmond, and blockchain specialist Walid Al Saqqaf are working together on the conservation scheme. They’re calling it Rebalance Earth. As already mentioned, it has the well-being of keystone species at heart. But it also focuses on the benefit such species can provide to humans, particularly those who co-exist with these species and in relation to carbon emissions.

Chami has calculated the value of carbon sequestration that keystone species, particularly whales and forest elephants, provide through their existence and activities. Carbon sequestration is the capturing and storing of carbon from the atmosphere.

Mega-gardeners of the forest

As Redmond has pointed out, an adult forest elephant produces around one tonne of nutrient-rich, seed-filled dung per week. Elephants also travel great distances. So they spread these seeds and “first-class organic manure” far and wide, “enriching the soils of the forests and savannahs in 50 countries” while going about their daily business. Furthermore, elephants thin out the forests, through consuming and trampling on lots of vegetation. As Chami explained:

The trees that are left behind unbroken and unconsumed, however, have a huge advantage over other trees in the forest. They have much better access to water and light, thanks to the elephants’ thinning of the surrounding vegetation, which means that they grow taller and larger than other trees in the rainforest. Wherever forest elephants roam, therefore, they promote the growth of larger, taller trees.

That’s why elephants are called the “mega-gardeners of the forest”.

Forests sequester carbon, as do elephants’ bodies (all living things are made of carbon). So Chami has worked out what each elephant is worth, in carbon sequestration, if they’re alive. Companies who want to offset their carbon emissions will be able to pay towards the protection of the elephant providing that sequestration. Then, using blockchain technology, the initiative will deliver that finance to people and communities who are protecting them on the ground.

Protection for forest elephants can’t come a moment too soon either. As the Revelator reported:

Today fewer than 100,000 forest elephants occupy their dwindling habitat. Conservationists worry they could soon head toward extinction if nothing is done.

So Rebalance Earth’s pilot project will focus on the conservation of Africa’s forest elephants.

Paradigm shift

As Chami noted in a recent discussion on the initiative, this could mark a paradigm shift in how humans financially value the rest of the natural world. He said that the current paradigm is based on a number of assumptions, such as that “we are endowed with nature of which we are the masters” and that “nature is infinite”. Under these assumptions, he says, we’ve developed a paradigm that is “human-centric”, where we ‘take from nature but don’t give back’. Essentially, we only place a monetary value the rest of the natural world when we take something from it, be that sucking out oil or killing an elephant. But the initiative’s creators want to change that paradigm. They want people – and markets – to view keystone species as valuable when they’re alive and their autonomy is intact.

Currently, for example, an elephant’s tusks are worth up to $40,000 in the illegal ivory trade. Chami prices the value of a forest elephant, in terms of carbon sequestration, at $1.75m over the course of their lifetime. In the discussion, Al Saqqaf clarified that the initiative is not attempting to “privatise animals”. Rather, it’s an attempt to “pay for their services”.

A timely solution

The payers would be the companies that buy the “carbon dollars”, while the payees would be wildlife rangers and the communities who protect the elephants. These payees would receive payment in “asset backed tokens”, which is a secure method of payment. Rangers could use these tokens as a cash alternative to pay, for example, merchants and utility companies. Meanwhile, communities could use the tokens for micro investments, such as building schools. At the end of each month, the initiative will then pay the merchants and suppliers in cash terms for the value of the tokens they’ve received.

As Al Saqqaf told The Canary, Rebalance Earth is devising a system, such as using camera traps and satellites, to monitor the elephants on a daily basis. He explained:

For every confirmed day that the elephant is alive and within the forest the community receives $80 a day per elephant for paying forest rangers and micro investments in the community. If you take an elephant tribe of 5 elephants that’s $400 a day.

The initiative is particularly timely. Tourism is a major source of funding for conservation and it has, of course, ground to a halt during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. That’s left many conservation projects, and the communities that depend on them for income, eager to build more resilient income streams.

Learning from history

The idea of paying communities for protecting the ecological services their environments provide isn’t entirely new, however. The UN has, for example, been running Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) schemes which work on a similar principle. But these schemes have faced much criticism.

One of the major criticisms of REDD+ schemes, whereby polluters buy carbon credits and financing is used to incentivise communities to protect forests, is that they don’t substantially reduce overall carbon emissions. Because the carbon credit, or offset, effectively allows the companies who purchase it to continue polluting elsewhere. Al Saqqaf says the Rebalance Earth initiative has an ethics working group that is building an “Ethic [sic] Decision Making Framework” regarding issues like this. He told The Canary:

One of the outputs of that framework is that we will only work with firms that have made a clear and public statement by when they aim to become carbon neutral. We made this decision to ensure that we are not facilitating firms to do “impact washing” and removing themselves from making the hard changes in their operations to becoming carbon neutral.

Paramount to success

Another criticism of REDD+ schemes is that while corporations get to continue destructive practices, the forest protection schemes severely reduce the autonomy and sovereignty of local, forest-dependent peoples over their land. But Al Saqqaf insists that “local people are paramount to the success” of the Rebalance Earth project. He says the initiative has a local working group that aims to ensure local communities are central to the project in numerous ways. The project will, for example, employ local people in the offices it sets up in the regions where it’s operating. Local merchants will benefit through signing up to the token payment system.

Al Saqqaf says the initiative will also develop “the necessary incentivisation mechanism for micro-investments using the tokens” that appreciate “the local culture’s nuances”. These incentivisation mechanisms will likely attempt to encourage “responsible spending” of the tokens but will be “be designed in conjunction with the local community”. Al Saqqaf says the initiative is “very conscious of the risk of having a “North dictating what the South should do” scenario” and is building an approach that will value and learn from the “expertise and deep knowledge” communities have.

A game-changer

The initiative is a massive undertaking, with numerous complexities. As Al Saqqaf says, for example, it will have to “leverage international treaties such as the Convention of Migratory Species” so that “the money follows where the elephant goes” due to the distances they typically travel. To avoid another major pitfall of similar schemes, where carbon financing ends up enriching go-betweens and the already wealthy rather than communities, Rebalance Earth has to build an intricate technical system for monitoring and payments, based on the principles of “Traceability, Transparency and Trust”.

But Rebalance Earth believes it “can play a very important role within a coalition of initiatives to fight climate change” with its “delivery mechanisms” centred on science, technology and ethics. Redmond, meanwhile, has described it as a “gamechanger” for the potential it offers for “ecological benefits”, “poverty reduction”, and transforming how people value other beings on this Earth – where we see the value in their lives, not their deaths.

Featured image via Tasha Carl / Wikimedia, H. Zell / Wikimedia and Nature Picture Library / YouTube

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