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?
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.
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.
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?
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