Which Comes First: The Needs of Endangered Animals or the People Who Live with Them?

Candice Gaukel Andrews by Candice Gaukel Andrews | April 14th, 2014 | 2 Comments
topic: Green Living

Mountain gorilla

Wildlife conservation campaigns often focus on the needs of endangered species, asking you to donate money in order to save their habitats, fight poaching of them, stop illegal trade in them or build refuges for them.

But at a recent seminar at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London, Professor Catherine Hill of the city’s Oxford Brookes University suggested that such campaigns may be doomed to fail unless an added, important issue is addressed: the attitudes and feelings of the people who live in the threatened species’ ranges.

According to the results of a recent study conducted by Dr. Hill, residents of communities in Uganda felt that they were being treated as though their lives were worth less than those of the animals that surrounded them.

Can conservation efforts, then, no matter how well intended, ever succeed if the local populace feels that their needs come second?

Perpetuating problems

African Rhinocerous

Although international trade in rhino horn has been banned since 1977, demand remains high and fuels poaching in Africa and Asia. ©Toby Sinclair

While conducting her study, Dr. Hill found that the people she talked to in rural Uganda communities — ones where human-wildlife conflict is a serious problem because many people live close to large wildlife populations — felt that they were in competition with wildlife and that restrictions on hunting to protect their crops and livelihoods put them at a disadvantage. Moreover, residents believed that the national and international agencies involved in looking after the interests of protected species were perpetuating their economic problems.

For a similar sentiment, we only need look closer to home. It’s been nearly 20 years since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone National Park and parts of Idaho and placed on the endangered species list. At that time, ranchers who were worried about the effect of wolves on their livelihoods and hunters concerned about the predators’ impact on game populations protested the reintroduction; some even filed lawsuits. The discussion became heated to the point of threatened violence. Two decades later, hunters and ranchers — some of whom have suffered significant losses to wolves — are still fighting those trying to protect and conserve wolf populations. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have already delisted wolves and implemented hunting seasons. Some feel that legal hunts wouldn’t have been instituted if 20 years ago care had been taken to get the buy-in of most of the local residents, including ranchers and hunters.

In other cases, such as when a species is in imminent danger of going extinct, there just isn’t enough time to address the needs of those living in such species’ ranges. Unfortunately, the Endangered Species Act approach is often described as an “emergency room.” Too many times, species are not given protection until their numbers are reduced to the extent that they are already on their way to extinction. The number of individuals left at the time of listing has averaged about 1,000 for animals and 100 for plants. When they have gone this far, recovery is very difficult, not guaranteed and very expensive. Having the time to address the needs of a human community versus the needs of a fast-departing wildlife species isn’t always possible if the animals are to be saved.

Seeing solutions

Historically, biologists and ecologists have dominated the field of conservation, but it is becoming increasingly recognized as a multidisciplinary area of study, where contributions from all sciences are valuable. Dr. Hill’s seminar, titled “People-Wildlife Interactions and the Human Dimensions of Conservation,” successfully showed that a social science approach can shed light on challenges faced by local communities that find they are in opposition to proposed conservation measures. Rather than seeing such issues as human-wildlife conflicts, it may be more helpful to view them as human-human clashes: solving conservation dilemmas should involve a negotiation and resolution between people with conflicting agendas.

Whooping Crane

From a low of only 22 birds in the wild in the 1940s to around 600 birds today (captive and wild), the whooping crane’s recovery is an inspiring success story. ©John T. Andrews

One conservation organization that has made progress addressing the needs of local people first is the International Crane Foundation (ICF), located in Baraboo, Wisconsin. In a partnership with the New York-based Trickle Up Program, a poverty alleviation organization, the ICF implemented an initiative at the Cao Hai Nature Reserve in the Guizhou Province in China that offers $100 grants to groups of three to five local villagers that they may use to start or expand small businesses compatible with the conservation goals of the reserve. Since 1993, villagers within or near the reserve have started more than 550 small businesses, including vending enterprises, bicycle repair shops, and paddleboat rides for tourists to view the area’s waterfowl.

Do you think that international wildlife conservation campaigns sometimes fail because of local resentment? Should time always be taken to first address the needs of the humans who live with the last few remaining individuals of an endangered wildlife species?

Happy trails,


Feature photo: More than half of the world’s endangered mountain gorillas live in Virunga National Park, which borders the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. In 2004, illegal settlers in the park cleared 3,700 acres of gorilla habitat. ©Eric Rock


  1. Jane Goodall has a wonderful approach for working with local peoples. Her group enlists local representatives to talk to the community, see what that community needs most (i.e. a well for drinking water, etc.) and helps improve the situation for the community. Then they begin talking about environmental issues after they have helped people and gained their trust.

    Janine spencer | April 17th, 2014 | Comment Permalink
  2. Would you like to participate on a project that involves local people in nature conservation? See what it is really like! Join me on a Life Net Nature wildlife conservation project in Kenya or Ecuador. The focal animals are typically endangered birds and mammals.

    I agree, that it is sometimes true that campaigns to save wildlife may fail because they don’t take into consideration local people. However, there is certainly little shortage of local people these days, so balance favors a stronger emphasis on protecting nature and species, but involving local people in lucrative ways. Many local people LIKE living near protected areas, and many even move near national parks and reserves on purpose to gain employment and provide services. In some cases these “local people” are new arrivals that are attracted to protected areas hoping to be the direct beneficiaries of the social science movement that focuses on integrating conservation and “development”.

    To a growing numbers of people in the world who are sensitive to needs of “local people”, but who want to see a real elephant, or experience a real cloud forest, or to feel the peace of being away from the billions and billions of our species…. these sensitive consumers of time in nature want to enjoy wild nature while seeing that local people are benefiting as part of the conservation solution. In the best cases of involvement, local people are making a better living because of the ecosystem services provided by nature preservation, or making a direct living off of nature conservation. The most sustainable cases are when local people self-organize to protect nature out of spiritual respect for nature, or to secure ecosystem services provided by nature, like purification of water, access to areas for subsistence hunting and gathering, and more recently as a way to earn money from nature-oriented visitors, like wildlife photographers and birders. The worse case scenarios are the big companies that come to a wild area and develop big game hunting, fancy wildlife tours, or monster resorts claiming they will employ local people, but then only employ local people at the most menial of jobs if at all.

    As for the commentary about wolves and local people, I beg to differ. There are plenty of local Montanans, Idahoans, and Wyomingites, who would like to see a zone where hunting and trapping of wolves is NOT allowed around Yellowstone National Park on public lands. These are local people who guide visitors to see the wolf families and share the thrill of seeing their wild canine sagas unfold. These are people who know that visitation at Yellowstone in the winter is driven almost exclusively by wolf watching. Local ranchers are not the strongest voice against the wolves as author Andrews suggests. No, it is the elk-hunting lobby that is most vocal. They are convinced that wolves have ruined the quality of their blood sport and the State game agencies are servants to them.

    Anyway…so around Yellowstone NP (a place where wildlife are supposed to be as wild and free as humanly possible) we have a handful of guys (like 7) killing and trapping park wolves right along the edge of the national park. They have killed alpha females and males with radio collars, wolves that thousands of people want to see in Yellowstone each year, wolves with years of research down the drain, wolves that are our national heritage and are supposed to be protected. This kind of “sympathy for local people” is trumped up and way over-played. Yes, wolves need to be controlled near private ranches and when they roam too close to towns or homes, but NOT right next to Yellowstone, within howling distance of the park, on National Forest lands and wilderness areas! The park wolves are already semihabitutated to people and they don’t understand a park boundary. They understand that people are benign in the park, so they don’t expect to run into old-blooded killers when they roam a few miles outside of the park. Bottom-line is there needs to be a NO-TAKE zone just next to the park, and science needs to guide what that distance is. It should be based on the roaming distance of park wolves with their pupping dens in the park. Fair and balanced! Fair and balanced!

    As for the question: Should time always be taken to first address the needs of the humans who live with the last few remaining individuals of an endangered wildlife species? Yes, especially when local people have been living in the area for a long long time, as they will have some good adaptive ideas. A very special look at those parasitic people who move purposely near to protected areas to get in on the loaded concern for “local people” would also be worth looking at in more depth.

    The BIGGGGGG TRUTH that we need to face is that there are too many people on the planet and we are not working to reduce our numbers effectively. We are destroying too much habitat. We are no longer in balance with nature. Given that stark reality, it is vital to convince more and more people to sacrifice for nature, and the best place to start is with the rich around the world who can afford to save nature – and afford to help the local poor who may be harmed by habitat preservation for threatened species.

    Dusti Becker | May 25th, 2014 | Comment Permalink

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