Conserving romance in conservation

Most people won’t have realised this, or even experienced it, but it is incredibly difficult to live in the bush conserving shit while simultaneously having a healthy relationship.  This is mostly because we work in remote areas with limited communications or because we simply cannot find someone willing to live with us in those remote areas, enjoying the same things we do.

Of course, you may have heard of ‘khaki fever’ which keeps some of us going.  This is, essentially, the newcomers (usually tourists) loving the rugged, toughness of our exterior and us taking advantage of that attention (because, let’s be honest, it’s been a long while since we’ve seen some decent tail besides the bushbuck running away from the car earlier).  But khaki fever doesn’t hold you when you have nightmares and it doesn’t help you with your day-to-day struggles in the office; it doesn’t love you.  It loves who you appear to be.  For a night, maybe two if you’re lucky, more if you’re a leprechaun.

So, when you find someone who is willing to either put up with the lack of communication our life affords or someone who fits into that life, you generally hold on to them with an iron fist and try your to never let go or let feel like they should let go.  Some, of course, refuse to change and this doesn’t end too well (google anything about people not listening to understand or how relationships interfere with independence and you will understand what I mean, roughly).

This means that, for the majority of us, we continue with our work, our crucial, vital work, while sacrificing the one essential element to the human life: to love and be loved in return (yes, that was a Moulin Rouge reference and what a beautiful film/song it is indeed (some of us are a tad educated in that department, others live under a larger rock than Fred Flintstone)).

Some of us are lucky enough to find someone who fits into our life scheme, plan, or lack thereof.  We are very few and this comes with its own challenges because, more often than not, we work together or for each other or some other scenario involving work colleagues, office hierarchy, etc.  Working with/for the one you love is incredibly difficult (take it from me, I deal with it on a daily basis).  It is even worse when you are expected to change to fit their model and they expect not to be expected to compromise to be parallel to your model or even to make you feel comfortable in just your professional role never mind the after-hours business (again, take it from me).

So, in essence, what I’m trying to say is: people working in conservation sacrifice a hell of a lot more than you might actually think we do.  We sacrifice hot water most of the time. And running water a lot of the time. And ‘normal’ social lives. And a lot more.  We sacrifice love. Being loved.  We sacrifice a fuck tonne because, somehow, we love what we do (bordering on masochism in some cases. No, not 50 Shades of Grey stuff, more like no children ever but you really want them kind of stuff).  I suppose I’m trying to say please give us a bit more credit than we currently get?  We give up a lot, willingly and mostly without argument (because we believe wholeheartedly in our fight) while most ‘conservationists’ sit behind computers as ‘keyboard warriors’ (see the article I wrote on these folks here) and rarely give up more than $10 a year for conservation.

We’re trying our very best.

 

Sincerely,

Almost everyone that chose to work/live/both in the bush in Africa.

xoxox

 

P.S. We don’t regret it, but we’d appreciate some sort of recognition for it.

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Keyboard Warriors

You may be familiar with the surge of “keyboard warriors” – badly informed, highly emotional, rabid “activists” who would claim they have superior morals and incorporate rationality and compassion into their arguments.  They also tend to believe their opinions are a) correct to the highest degree, b) the most important opinions, and therefore c) we should all do what they deem to be correct.

Conservation should NOT be about what the foreign public thinks.

It SHOULD be about what the local public want carried out in a way that will work in that area with those people.

These “keyboard warriors” of social media and, to a certain extent, various publishing companies (e.g. Africa Geographic) make conservation incredibly difficult for the people on the ground.  The “real warriors” if you like.

 

How?

  1. By not immersing themselves in the available literature in order to fully understand a scenario before bearing arms. This sort of uneducated, ill-informed argument is what one would expect of a child – not an adult who has had access to good education and who very obviously has access to the internet, therefore a huge amount of solid, verified information.  This leads to two extreme views of the current conservation situation: “unless there is a shoot-to-kill policy for poachers and encroachers we will lose the war” and “by saving one individual elephant we have made a huge contribution to the elephant population”.  Just as outrageous as the other, these are dangerous opinions to hold and spread as they are UTTER BOLLOCKS.

 

  1. These “keyboard warriors” are, for the most part, not from the conservation places they are so rabid about (e.g. Africa, Asia, South America), or have had very little real-life experience in the conservation sector (tourism is NOT conservation) or researching conservation/wildlife/natural world topics.

 

  1. They tend to base their arguments on what is “morally right” instead of what is practical, ethical and what works in different parts of the world. Besides, Westerners have different morals and ethics when compared to the peoples of the third world (and quite frankly, this is good sometimes).

 

  1. Anthropomorphising animals, even plants, is never a good thing outside of a children’s book or film. “Keyboard warriors” are particularly good at this.  Any researcher knows you cannot get so attached to a study subject to project human qualities onto it.  I guess the point here is none of the “keyboard warriors” seem to be as intellectually successful as researchers.

 

  1. Very rarely do “keyboard warriors” see the BIG PICTURE of conservation, they focus more on individuals (e.g. Cecil the lion and his son Xanda, or Satao the giant elephant, etc.) which is rather detrimental when you’re trying to conserve a whole ecosystem for not just one lion but several prides of lion, for example. This is particularly true when considering how hunting is an important tool for habitat and species conservation with the increasing human population putting immense pressure on the natural world (this will be discussed in another article once I find the right words for it).

 

  1. They often choose animal lives over human ones while claiming to be compassionate and morally upright; such as when it comes to human-wildlife conflict. Local communities cannot be expected to live peacefully with, and protect, wildlife if their lives and livelihoods are threatened by that wildlife.  Conservation is a human construct in any case.

 

I’m sure there are other examples experienced by other people in conservation, these are just the ones I’ve dealt with.

 

The biggest problem the “keyboard warriors” create is their influence over the donors, upon whose money most conservation organisations rely.  People won’t give money to a cause they don’t believe in but that means instead of doing our jobs in the field protecting nature we’re constantly trying to sell our projects and our opinions to the general public.

 

If the conservation community were allowed to do their jobs the way they deem best without worrying about the reaction of the donor communities and their supporters, they would be a lot more effective at conserving wilderness and wildlife.

 

Always look on the bright side of life

I submitted an article to Africa Geographic earlier this year and received a fantastically positive response.  The one problem, however, was that the content wasn’t positive enough about how conservation actually works so I was asked to edit it a bit – add some sunshine and glitter – and resubmit.  I have yet to do so because, quite frankly, I disagree with focusing solely on the success stories or on the positive side of absolutely everything.

Here is an article on Biodiversity Science by the founder of Animus Conservation stating why he thinks we should focus on the success stories, raising some relevant points.  I agree that, in an effort to highlight the importance of conservation and show it’s not a total waste of money as well as inspire the younger generation to be more environmentally conscious, it is very important to talk about and share stories of success.

But how do you learn not to do something if no one has made that mistake before?

That is why I think it is crucial to put equal emphasis on both the failures and successes in conservation.  Not only do we learn from our own mistakes but sharing the word about what didn’t work will help let others in a similar situation know they’re not alone (which is quite nice when you think you’ve just gone and wasted a bunch of donor funding) as well as inform those about to embark on a similar project.  Sharing of failures could also elicit advice from people/projects who have done something similar and have had success.

A big problem is that many conservation organisations are terrified of losing funding if they fail to implement what they said they would (because the donors are actually the ones in charge).  This affects the PR and marketing of the conservation organisations who try to always share positive stories (unless something or someone dies, or if a terrible story will raise funding).  The people furthest removed from actual conservation are the ones that are determining what information we share within our own community; not all conservationists know each other so media is an important information-gathering tool.

Why are we trying to portray a perfect picture when all conservationists know that things rarely go to plan or work first time?  Why does the media get to decide what story is more important than another?

It is dynamic field and none of us can preempt what will be the best strategy except Trial and Error.  What if we had access to sufficient Trial and Error stories so that we could reduce the amount of error we have to go through?  Now that sounds like sensible conservation to me.

 

Here are some links for further, interesting reads around this subject:

An article about the book “Nature Crime: How We’re Getting Conservation Wrong” by Rosaleen Duffy

A PLOSONE article about conservation successes, failures and opportunities in Cambodia

An article by Science Daily about why conservation efforts often fail

This FAO document uses failures, and successes, to highlight things that should be considered in future.

Lion Aid: bull’s eye or bullshit?

I troll this Facebook page, admittedly, on an ocassional basis.  Well, really only since they blocked me from interacting in the page (liking or commenting on posts or reviewing on the organisation).

 

This post takes the cream: “gaining 100 or even 1000 time a more money than trophy hunting operators from the same wildlife resources”…speaking about photographic safari operators.

This is where I call bullshit.  Read it and see for yourself.

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10154717077378310&substory_index=0&id=172885283309

The picture of maturity

Despite the public image(s) that conservation NGO’s like to perpetuate and develop, inter-organisational cooperation between such NGO’s is rather strained.  More often there will be cooperation, not because the NGO’s agree with, or have professional respect for, one another but because one needs something from the other.  It is imperative that readers note that conservation is a team effort and without such cooperation, however strained or difficult, it would be impossible to conserve and research wild places and animals.

I recently heard a rather disturbing story that spotlights the strain and competition between conservation NGO’s and how one person’s actions can have an impact on conservation in a whole COUNTRY – Zambia.

Some of you may know the people involved and the whole story, I ask that you do not mention any names in the comments and in posts if you share this on social media, as that would not help the current situation.  Let’s keep it civil and keep it as a lesson we can all learn from.  In addition, if the details are incorrect or something has been left out that is important to the story, please comment with the suggested amendment(s); remember not to use real names of people, places or organisations.

The story is as follows:

A conservation NGO in Zambia had a project managed by a very well respected person in the conservation sector, nationally, regionally and internationally, and has good donor backing.  In this narrative, this person will be referred to as “Santa”.  Santa decided, for whatever reason(s), to separate from the overarching NGO and take their project “private”.  This did not sit well with the boss of the NGO, naturally.  The CEO will be referred to as “Tinky winky” in this narrative.  Tinky winky then proceeded to fire not only Santa but a large component of Santa’s staff from the parent NGO.  In and of itself this was big news in the country and many people were shocked and appalled by Tinky winky’s behaviour.  Grumpy then decided to write emails to a large number of international donors in the UK and USA, many of which support more than one project in Zambia; I do not know what these emails said but essentially it was to “burn” Santa and remove any future support for them.  This email reached quite a lot of people in other conservation NGO’s in the county as well, many of whom know and respect Santa and knew their side of the story.  To add insult to injury, employees within the NGO told several outsiders (myself included) that Tinky winky took Santa to court over equipment, vehicles, etc. that had been purchased with funding granted to the project while under the parent organisation.

I was then put straight by Santa who said no such court case happened – merely a legal settlement was put forward and agreed upon by both parties.  Or, at least, agreed by one party and accepted by the other because no other choice existed.

So, what can we learn from this?  One person – one very egotistical, manipulative person – damaged the reputation of ALL conservation NGO’s in Zambia, potentially reducing the likelihood of repeat funding.  Why?  Because rejection was too much to handle for them; or failure.   What form of reprimand/discipline/backlash did that egotistical, manipulative person get?  Fuck all.  Why did they get fuck all?  Because “it’s good to be the boss”, and perhaps baby animals and the ridiculously high rates of internal conflict of interest at the NGO.

When working in remote areas with limited funding and expertise it is always wise to keep any potential help as close as possible, and making sure you maintain decorum in all situations.  I would not be surprised if, in this particular case, revenge was served cold and frostbite was suffered by more than just one man.

How does a monkey eat cheese?

Cultural sensitivity is a big thing when working in conservation – knowing when to cover your shoulders, who to speak to first, how to behave in various situations, what to expect from certain people, knowing when you’ve just been insulted – however it doesn’t seem to be at the forefront of some NGO’s who allegedly have the utmost respect for local culture and identity.

 

You will notice that a lot of conservation NGO’s employ foreign, generally white, staff to fill the higher ranks.  They also tend to prefer foreign whites over local, ‘home grown’ whites, and have no qualms about literally interpreting “keep it in the family” with regard to employment.

This leads to problems.  Lack of local support.  Lack of respect from staff.  Low work motivation.  Increased workplace politics.  Problems with government.  Reduced likelihood of work permit issuance.  Legal ramifications.

Take this amusing example:

A conservation project manager (would it excuse them if I said they were Dutch?), apparently approached a very senior police officer conducting speed trapping in a National Park in Zambia.  Bwana Senior Police Officer happened to be eating a hunk cheese like an apple; Dutchie observed this and allegedly blurted out:

“Why are you eating cheese like a monkey?”

Naturally, being African and high ranking, the insult was taken to heart and I believe the District Commissioner was called about the monkey-business, along with others of similar persuasion/position.  Anyway, this person (and their significant other who also happens to work for the same project) have had their contracts cut short due to “lack of funding”, which is what this particular organisation blames for just about everything, probably would try to blame Trump’s presidency on “lack of funding” if they weren’t pro-Trump.  I digress.

I don’t have any evidence, or gossip, that suggests that the two incidents are connected but it seems a bit too odd to be a coincidence.

This person had, until taking this job, been to Zambia once before (for the job interview) and South Africa once (I think, maybe somewhere else too) and no experience in conservation whatsoever; they did however have a Dutch police force background.  Had they gained some experience in Africa to see that, sure we have a sense of humour but never say anything that could be taken the wrong way to someone senior to you, this would not have happened.  Had they spent some time at lower levels of management to become accustomed to the people and the way things are done here, this would not have happened.  Had a Zambian been employed for this job, or even 2 Zambians together, this would not have happened.  Had someone from another African nation been hired, this would not have happened.  But, as is increasingly obvious, this particular organisation has not had a chance to accept this yet and is once again a bit of a laughing stock within the conservation community because of the incredulity of this situation (and previous ones of course).

Another, slightly less important but epidemic, culturally ignorant mistake of conservation folk is disregard for appropriate attire.  The “booty short” in rural Africa is anything above the knee; the revealing top is uncovered shoulders.  It’s annoying but necessary to understand.

Without some grounding in how to deal with indigenous peoples, some experience of how things really work in Africa and various amounts of patience, tolerance and resilience, one will likely not make it very far in conservation in Africa.  This certainly does not mean the people who do make it are polite, genuine, gentile, etc. (quite a lot are prejudice towards almost everything), it just means that we know what the system expects of us – and what we can expect from the system.

Of course, there are the bad-apple-Africans in the mix too!  Some will be “When-We’s” wishing for the days of white dominance and lawlessness to return, others will be the offspring of such people; you may be subjected to arrogant Rhodesians (because they still call themselves that) or those who are completely useless city-slickers from the likes of Jozi and CT.

Perhaps you will find yourself meeting a gentleman that manages a very nice conservation base camp, who seems to be respected not only by the staff he manages but also by colleagues and local community members.  Then you might hear stories about tempers being lost, something about fists or pushing (the details were sketchy), maybe something about the Chief demanding he removed from the chiefdom because he will not tolerate that kind of behaviour.  When you subsequently learn that this potential situation happened, not only months ago, but more than once, you wonder why such a person has not been sacked.  Naturally, this resulted in a lot of lost respect and tolerance for the project by the local communities.

If in doubt though, refrain from insinuating anyone is stupid or unintelligent, do not ever compare anyone to an ape – great or otherwise – unless you too wish to solicit an audience with your local District Commissioner (conveniently right before the money runs out), and do try your best not to play at fisticuffs with your colleagues/staff.

 

Disclaimer: I have used words such as “apparently”, “might”, “perhaps” and “allegedly”, and phrases such as “I believe”, “potential situation” and “I don’t have any evidence to suggest…”; I do not mention names of people, places or organisations involved in this story.  This means accusing me of defamation is not a possibility: you’d have to prove this is all false and being upset would only prove it’s all true.

 

The problem with chiefs

Community projects in rural Africa almost always have to receive the blessing of traditional leaders –  the local chief or chieftainess – before anything can really be done.  This blessing often, however, involves hefty back-handers in order to secure such a deal, otherwise the chief vetoes your whole plan.  Chiefs were given more authority under colonial rule, especially in British colonies, than they had enjoyed before and were essentially an extension of the governing systems in towns and cities.

If you don’t have a good relationship with your local chief you might have land disputes, court cases, even death threats.  If you do have a good relationship with your chief, chances are you dread seeing them or hearing from them because they always ask for something, more money, a new car, new TV, battery for tractor, etc.

So why is this such a big deal for conservation?  Well, in Zambia for example, areas outside of designated towns and cities are part of various chiefdoms – including National Parks, Private Game Reserves, National Forest Reserves, Game Management Areas, etc.  You will probably end up paying your chief a monthly stipend, helping to build their house and other odd jobs – taking money away from being put to use in rural health centres, schools, sinking boreholes for clean drinking water, helping agriculture, etc.  You will also know that the land rent that is supposed to go to the community, distributed from the chief’s personal bank account no less, never gets distributed further than the outside of his compound gate except if being transferred to an offshore account.

Instead of spending this valuable money, time and other resources on your conservation effort, you are knowingly giving it to a corrupt person who does nothing for their community because there honestly isn’t anything else you can do.

If you start a community trust and make sure there are over 6 people that have to unanimously decide on what money is spent on, the chief will have to part of it and will either buy everyone’s votes or veto absolutely anything and everything that doesn’t include them getting at least 10% commission for being “the ruler of this area, it is traditional after all for me to be paid for my position as chief”.

If community trusts were set up and the local chief received, on top of their government stipend, 5% of the trust earnings, and the balance was spent on sponsoring gifted children to further their education, to build a maternity ward at a Rural Health Centre, and refurbish the broken roof of a class room, the communities would benefit a lot more than they are currently.  The chiefs, however, will never let this happen and will forever seek to skim benefits from the communities as payment for their chiefly services.

Until chiefs – or equivalent traditional leaders – are stripped of their power and sense of entitlement, conservation is not worth the hassle or money they demand.

Food for thought

Perhaps some explanation of why it’s not working in Africa, which I wholly agree with.  Holding these opinions however gets one called ‘naive’, ‘young’, ‘inexperienced’ and ‘irrational’.

 

The Western notion of wilderness does not hold in Africa, because man and animals have evolved together on the continent’s diverse ecosystems.

 

The entire modern conservation edifice rest on the ideals and vision of people other than Africans.

 

From The Myth of Wild Africa.  J. S. Adams & T. O. McShane. 1996.  University of California Press.

 

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Readings

I read a bit so thought it would be a nice idea to share some of my favourite texts from which I have, hopefully correctly, absorbed proposed ideas, historical context, philosophy, science, community related diplomacy, etc.

If you have any texts to add please share the citation(s) in the comments below.

The Myth of Wild Africa: conservation without illusion.  Jonathon S. Adams & Thomas O. McShane.  1992.  University of California Press.

Against Extinction: the story of conservation.  William M. Adams.  2013. Earthscan.

Ivory, Apes & Peacocks: animals, adventure and discovery in the wild places of Africa.  Alan Root.  2012.  Vintage Books, London.

Thank you, Madagascar.  Alison Jolly.  2015.  Zed Books, London.

An African Love Story: love, life and elephants. Daphne Sheldrick.  2012.  Penguin Books.

Sexy conservation

Some conservation initiatives focus on one species – southern white rhino, snow leopard, platapus, Iberian lynx, polar bear, condors, gorilla – or specific areas – Great Barrier Reef, fynbos region, the Mara.  This is usually justified as, when referring to a specific area, marketing conservation of a “special” area encompasses every living thing and natural process inside that area.  When referring to a specific species, they are used as ‘poster’ animals to bring in funding and resources to further conservation of that species, which sometimes helps to conserve other living things that share their habitat.

The problem with this prejudice in conservation is that it a) drags down areas or species that don’t exhibit charismatic traits or have beautiful scenery, and b) makes it incredibly difficult if you’re trying to conserve a place that excludes ‘special’ habitat or a species that is less charismatic than most (e.g. rodents, insects, fish, grass).

Let’s digress a wee bit and talk about tsetse flies.  Did you know a ridiculous amount of land in Africa has been set aside for wildlife because of the presence of tsetse flies and the livestock diseases they carry?  The second largest national park in Africa – Kafue National Park in Zambia – is one such example.  Many commercial hunting areas provide vital habitat for scores of wildlife species because of tsetse files as well.  So really, they deserve a big fat gold medal for “most insignificant thing to get Africa to conserve stuff” but they don’t, because they’re not sexy.  In fact, photographic tour operators prefer to kill them because a) some are under the impression that any tsetse flies reduce wildlife productivity and b) “the guests hate them, it’s not good for business”.

Back to “Big 5” donors – in order to eek a bit of funding for an “insignificant” species or threat, conservationists end up having a bunch of, or designing, “high profile” projects in the hope that some of the funding could maybe be used for something more important than what some person in a 22nd-floor office in New York thinks justifies a donation of $5 a year.

Which would you be more likely to fund?:

  • elephant population research in Kruger
  • fire management in the DRC
  • collaring carnivores in Tsavo
  • frog distribution expedition in Mozambique
  • an elephant orphanage
  • fish surveys of the Zambezi watershed rivers

Be aware that the first, third and fifth are those that will open you up to critique considering Kruger and Tsavo are well researched and baby animals never run out of money, whereas Mozambique, the Zambezi watershed and DRC are relatively less well documented.

Another digression – PLANTS!  No one ever thinks the grass needs love or the orchids need protecting from chikanda harvesting (usually Disa genus geophytes).  People seem to think plants will always take care of themselves regardless of what they’re subjected to (which is correct to a certain extent) and that animals need to be the centre of attention right now.  My only response to the matter is: “yes, let’s do that, let’s focus solely on the animals and, if and when there isn’t any food left I guess human babies will just have to do.”