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.

 

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.

 

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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Elephant trunks have millions of muscles…NOT!

In this day and age, with knowledge literally at our fingertips, ignorance is unacceptable. Even more unacceptable is ignorance of specialist organisations that seem to not know much about what they’re working to protect.  There are HUNDREDS, if not thousands, of resources you can use to educate yourself on African conservation and wildlife.

To clarify – this is about those who have access to information, those that received above average education (by African standards), those who currently run the conservation game in Africa.  I am not talking about the bog-standard Banda, Takudzwa, Ethel or Celtel.

Sure, you may not know what the Latin name for the Scottish rattle tree (Amblygonocarpus andongensis fyi), but please don’t run around saying, publicising, endorsing or worse, BELIEVING, utter bollocks like “elephant trunks have over 100,000 muscles“.  I received a good education in this sort of stuff so I’m fortunate enough to know the correct answer to the question “How many muscles are there in the trunk of an elephant?”:

NINE.  

Not 1, not 2, not 3, BUT NINE MUSCLES!!

 

Here are my reasons for being ticked off:

  1. Save the Elephants – an international elephant conservation organisation – believes, and even posts on social media, that there are over 100,000 muscles in the elephant trunk.  I don’t know about you but if I had an organisation focused on a couple of species, I’d make damn sure I had ALL THE FACTS and if I didn’t have ALL THE FACTS, I’d keep my mouth shut and social media quiet about those things.  But that’s just me.
  2. 17 individual conservation and elephant conservation organisations in/working in Africa endorsed a wee children’s packet (join the dots, word search, fun facts, etc.) on elephants that included this (which is cropped to preserve the identity of the packet because it’s receiving a lot of publicity and I’d hate to paint an unjust picture of them)
  3. Does make me a little sceptical about what these organisations/people do actually know…

 

Some of those 17 organisations are:

    • Game Rangers International (Zambia)
    • Lilongwe Wildlife Trust (Malawi)
    • African Parks (all over)
    • Endangered Wildlife Trust (all over)
    • Elephants alive! (S.A., Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique)
    • PAMS Foundation (Tanzania)
    • Big Life Foundation (all over)
    • Conservation South Luangwa (Zambia)
    • Save the Elephants (all over)
    • Wildlife Direct (Kenya)
    • Kasungu Elephants.org (Malawi)
    • SATIB Conservation Trust (all over)

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