Conservation is about people, as much as it is about wildlife

As I was reading through the excellent review in the New York Review of Books, by John Terborgh of Caroline Fraser’s “Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution”, I was gratified to find several points that resonated strongly with our experience in Mali.

During my last visit, somebody remarked that it must be wonderful to study the ecology of the elephants, but it set me thinking that while that was the focus of the first phase of the project, the work since then has been all about managing people -individuals and collections of them – and that evolutionary psychology was proving of more use than ecology!

John Terborgh provides a wonderful summary of the breakthroughs in conservation science made over the last few decades , with their main conclusion that we need large areas of wild nature connected to each other. He then broaches the big, thorny question of how we do that in an over-crowded, resource-hungry world.

His first observation is that nowadays, conservation is not so much about managing wildlife as it is about managing people.

In Mali, once we had established the science of what the elephants need and where, it was clear that the main threat was the increasing human impact that prevented their access to resources they need. There are many facets to that impact and underlying causes and so to start with we just observed. This enabled us to identify the groups of people whose actions impact elephant lives, and the key organizations with whom we could work to effect change. One very important group was the local communities.

Terborgh also points out we need to know about the psychology, aspirations and circumstances of the local residents as billions have been wasted as a result of not taking these into account.

Without this any activity is doomed to ultimately fail, and so we met with the residents in their customary ways, to exchange information. We showed them what we had discovered through analyzing the whole migration and asked them for their experiences and knowledge. We then presented the problem and asked how they thought it should be solved, and we found that much of the time we were in agreement.

The second fundamental point is the need for a combination, a balance of top-down “planning” approaches with bottom-up community engagement. Neither approach will be sufficient in itself.

This need for addressing ultimate causes from several directions is why we are involved with a range of activities, with a spectrum of stakeholders and implicated parties, as summarized by the concept diagram.

Further, and most crucially, he points out that achieving the balance “requires a sophisticated knowledge of the politics at both levels, something that is rarely achieved by short-term projects financed by foreigners”

This is why we place so much emphasis on working closely with Malian partners who understand the local political situation, even though it might appear to require more time and effort.

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