Great White Hunter

There are many problems with Allan Savory’s TED presentation this month which he calls How to green the desert and reverse climate change. As the Wildlife News and other websites have pointed out, the very concept of “greening the desert” is problematic. But even people with no experience of grasslands and deserts should see a problem with the ideas Savory expresses in the following excerpt from his presentation:

When I was a young man, a young biologist in Africa, I was involved in setting aside marvelous areas as future national parks. Now no sooner — this was in the 1950s — no sooner did we remove the hunting, drum-beating people to protect the animals, then the land began to deteriorate, as you see in this park that we formed. Now, no livestock were involved, but suspecting that we had too many elephants now, I did the research and I proved we had too many, and I recommended that we would have to reduce their numbers and bring them down to a level that the land could sustain. Now, that was a terrible decision for me to have to make, and it was political dynamite, frankly. So our government formed a team of experts to evaluate my research. They did. They agreed with me, and over the following years, we shot 40,000 elephants to try to stop the damage. And it got worse, not better. Loving elephants as I do, that was the saddest and greatest blunder of my life, and I will carry that to my grave.


To dismiss the killing of 40,000 elephants as a mere “blunder” hardly sounds like a person who loves elephants, as Savory claims to. It is, however the attitude one would expect of a person in Savory’s position at the time, a game ranch biologist working for the white colonial government of what was then known as Rhodesia, now the independent nations of Zambia (where Savory worked at the time) and Zimbabwe (where Savory was born). In order to set up areas, misleadingly called national parks, for the benefit of great white hunters, Savory and his colleagues saw the need to “remove the hunting, drum-beating people to protect the animals.” This was apparently noncontroversial, but Savory’s hunting colleagues were understandably skeptical of the need for “our government,” i.e., the white colonial authorities, to kill 40,000 “unsustainable” elephants instead of leaving them for hunters to kill. It seems that Savory now regrets this “blunder” as it potentially diminishes his authority as an expert on “sustainability.” There is no reason to believe that he ever cared about the lives of the animals he was responsible for killing.

Later, Savory came to prefer the term “holistic” to “sustainable.” Savory acknowledges his debt to South African General Jan Smuts for coining the term “holism.” It is easy to see why Savory, who studied at the segregated University of Natal in South Africa, would appreciate Smuts. Although he dabbled in science and philosophy, Smuts was primarily a military officer and politician. As a politician, Smuts attempted to save white minority rule in South Africa by allowing limited rights to the black majority, but he was unable to convince the white power structure to accept his proposed compromise.

Savory’s career in his native Zimbabwe followed a similar path to Smuts in South Africa. Savory used his wildlife tracking experience to track independence fighters viewed by the white minority Rhodesian government as “terrorists.” The mercenary magazine Soldier of Fortune recounted with admiration Savory’s role in establishing the Tracker Combat Unit (TCU) of the Rhodesian Special Air Service:

Fighting terrorists —when they could be forced to fight — was easy. Finding them is another story and the genesis of the TCU. In 1965, foreseeing the fundamental problem of covering large areas with limited troops in heat that often exceeded 110 degrees, the Rhodesian Army adopted a solution suggested by ex-game ranger turned ecologist, Allen Savory. … the Rhodesians developed the basic fieldcraft into a tactical science that later accounted for the deaths of many terrorists who mistakenly thought there was no danger in leaving a track of communist-supplied boots across the African veldt. Savory’s concept took native tracking and turned it into a military discipline.

Like Smuts, Savory then went into politics. As a member of parliament in Rhodesia, he tried to save white minority rule by granting minor concessions to the black majority, but had no more success than Smuts had had decades before in South Africa. Savory described his political views in a 1972 ITN interview: “We are not extremists in any form, right or left. We regard ourselves as moderate, average Rhodesians who are determined to do something about the current drift in the country towards more and more petty and unnecessary racialism which we do not believe is characteristic of Rhodesia or has ever characterised Rhodesia.”

Savory’s self-serving rejection of extremism (which he claims got him kicked out of Rhodesia) is now mimicked by the Quivira Coalition’s claim to represent what they call the radical center:

The two groups that we consciously neglect are the extremes on both sides of the grazing “debate.” We work in what is being called “the radical center” with the idea that the extremes are too entrenched in their positions to move. …We don’t facilitate, mediate, or try to achieve “consensus” on thorny issues. Instead, we grab progressive ideas and plow ahead in trying to implement them and spread the news.

“Spreading the news” is, of course, the literal meaning of evangelism, which seems to be Savory’s true career. Savory’s evangelism may be new to most of TED’s YouTube viewers, as well as to the elite few granted the privilege to spend thousands of dollars to attend the TED conference in person. But in New Mexico we are well familiar with Savory’s wild claims, not just from his presentation to last fall’s conference of the Quivira Coalition, one of his major supporters, but also from his long presence in Albuquerque.

Savory started Holistic Range Management (HRM), later known as Holistic Resource Management, and now known as Holistic Management International (HMI), in Albuquerque in 1984. Lynn Jacobs described HRM in the Waste of the West:

What exactly is HRM? Savory calls it “a method of managing resources, involving planning and monitoring and replanning until desired goals are achieved.” More fully, HRM is Allan Savory’s malleable, theoretical concept of land management designed to lure and seduce every special interest group. With it, ecological interrelationships are carefully analyzed and manipulated; the results are then monitored and the management practices refined until the desired effect is achieved (or until the test fails).

If you think this sounds like a lot of mumbo-jumbo, you are right. Holistic Resource Management is a nebulous term and purposefully so; a malleable non-entity cannot be refuted and remains the property of its creator. What HRM really amounts to is studying ecosystems to more effectively and profitably manipulate them — with Allan Savory as paid interpreter and advisor.