The story of a suspected rhino poacher who was eaten by lions after being trampled by elephants in the Kruger National Park brought global attention to the potential for conflict and even death as a result of contact between humans and wildlife. Other recent wildlife news headlines have revealed public outrage over the potential resumption of elephant hunting in Botswana, and warnings of the imminent extinction of one of the world’s rarest animals, the red wolf in North Carolina.
The actions needed to fix these issues may seem straightforward, but reaching a resolution that protects both the wildlife and people who live nearby requires a more inclusive conversation strategy.
The reality is that the fate of wildlife lies mainly in the hands of those who live with it daily.
These people must have incentives if they are to live with dangerous animals. Conservation efforts that fail to acknowledge the rights of such people and help them to live safely alongside dangerous animals and become wildlife defenders force them and wildlife into a battle from which both emerge as losers.
This holds true in rural Botswana, where an increase in poaching has ostensibly resulted from the removal of people’s rights to manage and benefit from wildlife. In the United States the red wolf has been pushed to the brink of extinction because they are shot in unsustainable numbers by farmers fearing the threat to their livelihoods.
The insight that local people’s rights must be respected is not new. It was the recognition of the rights of rural people and the enabling of their stewardship of wildlife resources that ensured Southern African countries developed the healthiest wildlife populations and habitats on the continent during the latter half of the 20th century.
More than 90% of Namibia’s wildlife lives outside of protected areas and only thrives because local people have rights to benefit from it.
Botswana, Zimbabwe and Namibia together host two-thirds of Africa’s elephants and, along with South Africa, are home to more than 90% of the world’s rhinos. These live outside of and in protected areas.
But despite decades of experience and rigorous scientific analysis pointing in the direction that conservation must take, these lessons often go unheeded.
People’s rights to manage and benefit from wildlife were taken away by colonial governments. Whereas governments in some relatively recently independent states, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania and initially, Botswana, restored these rights, others in West and Central African countries have not. Some countries deploy the military ostensibly to protect wildlife and quell poachers — but, in effect, this proves counterproductive to more local community engagement.
Why does this happen?
One reason is that, increasingly, and despite the fact that rural people bear the costs of living with wildlife, it is regarded as a global resource, and some argue that its fate must be in the hands of many people, even those who do not live with it.
But the major reason is that farmers who live with wildlife don’t shout loudly, while others, especially armchair conservationists, do. These are people whose experience of wildlife is confined to watching it on TV or social media.
The extent of the threat to humans is rarely appreciated by those not directly affected. In Botswana over the past two years, 36 people have been killed by elephants; in India, elephants kill more than 100 people every year, and in Kenya more than 200 people have been killed in the last seven years.
Seldom heard in this ideological battle are the voices of the rural people of Botswana or the farmers of North Carolina. Theirs is a more complex story, difficult to reduce to slogans and capture pictorially. But theirs is a voice that needs to be heard, for it is in their hands that the future of wildlife lies.
As a Namibian farmer said recently: “Wildlife are our cattle. An elephant that is hunted is worth $40 000 to my village. It’s a foolish poacher who tries to steal one from us.”
Successful conservation attempts must start by recognising the rights of people coexisting with wildlife. If the elephants of Botswana, the wolves of North Carolina and many other species are to survive, it’s these people we must start listening to.
Liz Rihoy is a political scientist and director of Resource Africa UK. Maxwell Gomera is a director of the biodiversity and ecosystem services branch at UN Environment and a 2018 Aspen New Voices fellow