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.

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.”

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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