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.

 

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.