Villagers Caught In The Crossfire Of Land Use
Surrounded by a wall of fire and angry Tanzanian villagers, the elephants were forced off a cliff some 50 meters high. When the dust settled, six of the herd lay dead. The now jubilant crowd took photos of themselves among the carcasses.
It was a violent climax to a long-simmering conflict, which saw farmers regularly lose harvests as protected elephants raided their crops. But on that summer’s evening in 2009, the inhabitants of West Kilimanjaro reached breaking point, says Sayuni Mariki at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences.
Unfortunately, the incident is far from an isolated one. People regularly risk injury and prosecution to attack protected wildlife. Tigers and leopards have been beaten to death, wolves are illegally hunted and birds of prey fall victim to poison, to name just a few.
On the surface the motives seem simple: protecting people and their property. Scratch a little deeper though, says Mariki, and it becomes clear that the animals are often just convenient scapegoats. The real hatred is reserved for conservationists and government officials.
Mariki arrived in West Kilimanjaro in the aftermath of the elephant killings to find a disenfranchised and disillusioned village. Conservation policies had restricted access to ancestral lands, reducing the settlement to an island in a sea of game reserves. Locals watched powerlessly as private safari operators and government officials became rich from the booming tourist trade, while their crops were regularly destroyed.
“Local communities feel that wild animals are valued more than people by the authorities,” says Miriki. Her interviews with those involved in the slaughter, now published, reveal that killing the elephants was as much about rebelling against this state of affairs as protecting crops and livelihoods. Similar motivations appear to drive violence in Bangladeshi villages plagued by tiger attacks.
So what is the solution? Governments should stop imposing conservation rules on communities and instead involve them in discussions, giving them power over how wildlife protection is carried out on their lands, says Francine Madden of the conservation group Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration.
Offering local people a social or financial stake in conservation seems to have worked in East Africa. Here, lion-killing Masai warriors have swapped spears for radio antennas and are now among the species’ most dedicated guardians.
And in the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh a charity called Wild Team is training villagers how to deal with tiger incursions – and tiger killings are down as a result. Locals no longer feel powerless and so are less likely to take out their frustrations on an unlucky big cat, says Chloe Inskip at the University of Kent, UK, an author of the study on tiger killings in Bangladesh. “If you don’t understand these deeper levels of the conflict, it is just like putting a plaster on it without getting to the root of the problem,” she says.