“When a ferret is cornered it emits a powerful stench like a skunk. Employees, when facing closure of the company, may come up with some of their most creative ideas.”
“[The idea] was developed by Taiichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Production System and an inspiration to many Systems Thinkers. In an interview with an Economist journalist (and which I have never been able to trace), he reportedly likened creativity in a survival culture to the last fart of the ferret.” (Reference: Amabile, Hadley and Kramer: Creativity Under the Gun; Andrew Carey: Inside Project Red Stripe;Taiichi Ohno)
I came across this quote after attending a conference in the Kruger National Park in South Africa, where I was exposed to some dramatic and game-changing ideas. The conference was not specifically about change management but about innovative ways and means of conserving white rhinos and also from preventing their wholesale slaughter by poachers intent on obtaining their horns, which sell for huge amounts of money in Asia. In my mind, the concepts and ideas expressed at this conference, and the project that will develop as a result, all fall into the category of change management. What got me started down this line of thinking was a paper by Jack Ruitenbeek and Cynthia Cartier, who both attended the rhino conference, where core concepts from their paper “The Invisible Wand: Adaptive co-management as an emergent strategy in Complex Bio-economic Systems”(Ref: Occasional paper No. 34: Centre for International Forestry Research: October 2001) had a subtle but profound influence on the proceedings of the workshop.
Some central concepts of this paper are what you might call cross-over concepts: they have application in a number of disciplines, in this case, economics, ecology and management. The context for the discussion is a generalised framework of complex systems. Einstein once said that if you cannot explain something to your grandmother then you don’t understand it. So what is a ‘complex system’? I would describe it as a set of dynamic relationships between the component parts of a larger whole, and how those sub-relationships influence and give rise to the collective behaviour of the whole. I will come back to this idea.
A second theme that I found very interesting is the ‘invisible wand’. This is a derivation of Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, the powerful notion that self-interest is a forcing factor that brings stability to the market place. The ‘invisible wand’ is Ruitenbeek’s and Cartier’s adaptation of this idea that has influenced economic theory for two centuries. It turns the ‘invisible hand’ on its head, from self-interest to ‘altruistic common interest’, which, according to their postulation, can lead to strategies that promote sustainability and human well-being. One such strategy is adaptive co-management, or ACM. The key question that Ruitenbeek/Cartier pose is this: does ACM evolve from within a complex system, or is it a legitimate policy intervention that can be imposed from outside?
Their answer is intriguing. They suggest that ACM frequently emerges naturally, and that policy should take a back seat: moreover, they argue that trying to introduce ACM by means of policy may actually impede its emergence. The more appropriate policy goal is to protect the conditions that will allow ACM to emerge, and that the protection of social capital in a particular context must be the over-riding consideration. This is a beautiful idea, in my view. The paper goes on to explore a number of other avenues such as consciousness-raising and the possibilities for change within a system.
This brings me to the ferret’s last fart. This notion was originally posed within the context of a corporate structure, but I have transposed it into the rhino conservation arena in South Africa, where roughly twenty thousand white rhino, live, move and have their being. South Africa possesses nearly 80% of the world’s rhino, and they are currently losing two rhinos every day to poaching syndicates, who can earn up to US$65 000.00 a kilogram for powdered horn. This situation is unprecedented, and has risen to this level within the last 5 years. It is well beyond the protection efforts of South Africa’s national conservation agency, Sanparks. Indeed, it is doubtful that any country could resist such an onslaught. Many strategies have been tried. Military-scale protection operations are in force, national and even global awareness-raising programmes are in operation. CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, banned international trade in rhino horn in 1977. South Africa imposed an internal moratorium on trade in 2009. Hundreds of poachers and middle-men have been caught and prosecuted in recent years.
Nothing has stopped the slaughter. The protection, and indeed, the survival of white rhinos in the wild, hangs in the balance. They have been under this threat for many decades, and South Africa was responsible for dragging them back from the precipice of extinction back in the 1960’s, through the efforts of the then Natal Parks Board, now Ezemvelo KZN. Ten years ago their status was stable, if not healthy. Twelve thousand white rhino lived in the Kruger National Park, and the total number of animals in the wild was around twenty thousand. Poaching was under control. This relatively happy situation began to change about five years ago, with a sudden increase in poaching, which has increased steadily since then. www.Stoprhinopoaching.com statistics report that 668 white rhinos were killed in 2012, and by 5 September 2013, the number stood at 618. At this rate, and despite all the anti-poaching efforts of the South African government, white rhino are now approaching the limits of species survival. Although it is not widely recognized, this constitutes a dramatic and irrevocable threat to the world’s biodiversity. A species that has existed for 50 million years is about to go extinct on our watch.
The story of the ferret’s last fart tells us that, when facing a watershed moment such as death, or perhaps species extinction, the solution may lie in an unexpected direction. And this is what the rhino workshop has proposed: that the solution for rhino survival lies in organised, regulated and sustainable trade in rhino horn, where the horn is cropped, and the rhino, which is able to re-grow its horn, can continue to live in a protected area. This brings me back to the notion of complex systems. The complexity lies in the context of rhino protection, and the demand for rhino horn. The system as a whole comprises a number of discrete elements. First of all, rhinos live on state land (national and provincial protected areas) and privately-owned land. In South Africa, and in all its adjoining neighbours, land that is communally owned once was home to rhinos and many other wild species, but is today a dormitory for migrant workers and a repository for a partially-employed underclass that relies on state subsidies for daily existence. This communal land stands in many cases cheek-by-jowl with protected areas, and in South Africa, the land reform programme has allowed communities to lodge successful land claims against these extant protected areas. The situation that has emerged is that communities living on communal land now technically own portions of land within protected areas such as the Kruger National Park. The South African government is loath to break up its world-famous protected areas and hand bits and pieces over to communities whose social capital has suffered badly from the apartheid era.
At the other end of this complex system is a millennia-old tradition of medicinal use of rhino horn in Asia, one which has now escalated into an insatiable demand, and a criminal supply chain, for the horn. The solution proposed by the workshop is that this demand should be serviced by a legal and sustainable supply of horn, which will undercut the existing illegal and criminal supply chain, and thereby bring an end to the slaughter of rhinos. How to get it done? That is the big issue. Watch this space.