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A tougher approach

For the last three months I’ve had the same argument with about three different groups of people. Everytime, I’ve failed to put my points across as clearly as I would have like. This post is an attempt to rectify that and communicate a flavour of the urgent, firm approach that I believe is needed in conservation.

Why conservation must take a tougher approach

Imagine an Artic scene: it is minus 20°C, an icy wind is howling and there is snow as far as the eye can see. A man, standing on a sleigh, is being pulled along by a team of huskies. They are racing towards a distant shelter, towards warmth and survival.

If the objective is to survive and reach the shelter, who is more important, the man or the huskies?

Without the man, the huskies will be just fine. They are adapted to these conditions, they’ve existed for millions of years without the man and they will happily run on without him. They do not need the man to survive. However, without the huskies, the man is in serious trouble. He would have to walk on foot, dragging his luggage and given the extreme conditions it is almost certain that he will die before he reaches the shelter. He depends the huskies for his life.

You would, I think, have a hard time arguing that the man is more important than the huskies in this story. The man needs them, his very life depends on it.

This metaphor is perhaps useful when thinking about nature conservation. The man on the sleigh is a symbol for humanity. Our entire existence, our human world, all our culture, history and knowledge is pulled along and supported by nature. Letting our huskies die, or even worse pulling out a gun and shooting them ourselves, would be complete madness. Akin to the human who cut down the last tree on Easter Island, it would be testament to suicide. It is a truth that not enough people understand, that without properly functioning, healthy ecosystems, our great human project would come grinding to an unedifying halt. If we want to survive, to continue our journey towards the metaphoric shelter and towards survival, we are completely dependent on the plants and animals with whom we share this planet.

I can forgive that busy people going about their lives don’t have this at the forefront of their mind. I would like them to, but I understand why they don’t. However, what I cannot forgive is when I meet people involved in nature conservation who do not grasp the urgency and importance of this priority.

Ostensibly, everyone involved in nature conservation is involved for the same reason. However, as I get to know more people in this field, for every committed nature protector I meet, I am afraid that I meet two apologists. The apologists want to protect nature, but they cannot get their head around the tough choices necessary to get the job done, nor the urgency with which these decisions need to be made. They want to save the natural world by small incremental steps, by educating people, economic development and supporting traditional cultures. What complicates the issue that these people are riding a tidal wave of western guilt over colonialism, third world poverty and human rights (all serious issues, I accept) but it means that they cannot see the wood for the trees. So, don’t get me wrong, improving the lives of local people as a means to protect nature has my 100% support, it is essential and morally just. However, we are deluding ourselves if we believe that these things alone can stop the devastation we are facing.

There is a mantra that you hear over and over in conservation circles, that “people are the solution”, that you cannot protect nature without getting local people onboard with your efforts. I agree with this, but it is simply not sufficient to meet the challenges that we face. Education and development are all very well, but this is a kind of “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic” approach. Urgent problems require firm, immediate solutions.

If a house is burning to the ground, you do not start trying to educate the homeowner about fire safety, you grab a hose and you get to work.

I am going to start sounding like a broken record, but repeating these statistics is necessary to convey how serious the situation is and how urgently we need to act:

  • In the last 40 years, we have destroyed over 50% of the wild animals and plants that populate this planet.
  • Tropical rainforests are razed to the ground at a rate of around 30 million acres per year. Keep going at this rate and there will be no rainforest left in 50 years (not to mention our destruction of countless other ecosystems.)
  • At current rates, hundreds of iconic species, such as elephants and rhinos, will be extinct and lost forever within the next 25 years.
  • This all adds up to the fact that human beings are causing one of the great mass extinction events in the history of the earth, with around 50,000 species going extinct every year.

Our house is burning down and we are talking about fire safety. Our huskies, one by one, are being shot.

I am afraid, whether we find it politically correct or not, people are the problem. It is people who cut down the trees, people who senselessly and unsustainably slaughter animals for economic gain and people who propagate incredible levels of corruption, stealing the very money that could solve their problems.

Yes, we need to improve the lives of people who live in or near wild places: we need to educate them, help them find sustainable ways of economic development and protect their cultures. Yes, in the long term this would all help change behaviours and help to solve the problem, but it doesn’t help us very much right now. I do believe that soft action can solve the problems, but it won’t work for a generation. We need action right now. We cannot not put any of this very important, well-meaning soft stuff ahead of hard solutions to immediately and urgently protect the ecosystems on which we all depend for survival.  Where there are limited resources, we need to establish priorities for how we act, we need a system of triage. The priority has to be to protect the ecosystem.

Let me give you an example of how this soft approach to conservation is failing, and what could perhaps be done about it.

Here at Dzanga-Sangha there is no hunting or collecting of plants allowed inside the National Park. In theory at least, there is no access allowed to the Park without permission from the Park authorities. So far, so straight forward. However, the Park is surrounded by a “buffer zone” where local people are freely allowed to enter the forest, collect plants and hunt animals.

This is where the problem lies. Once a human being is in the forest, what is to stop them from crossing from the buffer zone into the National Park? How would anyone know if they did? We are talking about an imaginary line in the middle of continuous dense tropical rainforest. Even if the “eco-guards”, who are meant to protect the Park, weren’t under-staffed, under-equipped and badly trained, they would find it almost impossible to stop people from crossing this porous border.

It is an unenforceable system. By allowing unrestricted access to the buffer zone, you are effectively allowing unrestricted access to the National Park.

The results are clear: almost every day gunshots are heard throughout the Park, animal numbers are in free-fall, the local market is full of bushmeat and dead elephants turn up almost every week.

It simply isn’t working.

This buffer zone exists because the apologists argue that the local BaAka pygmy cultures have lived in balance with the forest for millennia and that they must be allowed to continue to access the forest. What they do not grasp is that by creating a porous border, and allowing one ethnic group into one part of the reserve, you de facto allow everyone into all of it.

One thing which is undeniably true, is that if you remove human beings from any wild ecosystem on the planet, it will slowly reestablish to a healthy natural balance. Remove humans from the equation and trees do not get cut down, rivers do not get polluted and elephants do not get shot.

I believe in protected areas where humans are not given free access to the land. This might sound a bit obvious to some, but I’ve learnt that it is not as common to think this as I once thought.

We need to recognises that we are fighting a war. National Parks exist to protect endangered ecosystems in this war and as such they should be fortresses. We also need to recognise that right now we cannot trust people to use resources sustainably and that we must put the existence of the plants and animals ahead of the humans that depend on them. We must exclude people from ecosystems if we want them to survive. I will be writing another article where I go into more detail about the measures that might be necessary to properly protect a wild place, but in a nutshell they involves: scrapping buffer zones, erecting fences, increasing the number of guards, arming and training them properly, creating a cut-zone to aid patrols and having a zero tolerance policy to trespass (shoot-to-kill policies should be considered). In short, creating a fortress and not allowing anyone in.

If a hard solution like this could be enforced, which it could with enough determination, it would undoubtedly increase the chances of survival for wild populations. Yes, I accept the attack on this idea that it would cause huge disruption to the local human populations, of course it would. But human beings are adaptable and incredibly resourceful. Collectively, we have been surviving unimaginable levels of change for our entire existence on this planet. The truth is that if the status quo continues, then there will be no forest and no animals left, and local people will have to adapt anyway. Protecting the wild places like a fortress, rather than having a revolving door, simply forces people to face the inevitable disruption 25-50 years earlier. They are going to have to face this change eventually, we might as well do it now whilst we still have a forest and animals left.

This approach is also open to the attack of putting wild animals ahead of humans. To a point it does. I could actually advocate this unashamedly. When you have a endangered species who can only live in one habitat on the planet, with a few hundred thousands individuals remaining, I don’t think it is a hard decision to prioritise that species and habitat over one who is incredibly adaptable, can live anywhere and has a population of seven billion.

To return finally to our Artic metaphor. The situation we are now in when it comes to the natural world, is as if, for whatever reason, our man has lost his senses and is stood with a gun to the head of his final husky. We have a choice, we can try and talk him down, explain the importance of having huskies for his survival and use soft skills to try and get him back on his way. By the time we’ve done that he will have frozen to death. Or we can do what we know will work and will guarantee his survival: knock the gun out of his hand, push him back onto his sleigh and get him on his way to the shelter. It might not be the most elegant solution. It might be crude and harsh, but taking hard actions like this would work.

For nature, the problems are urgent, the crisis is happening right now. If we want future generations to even have a chance of seeing the natural world as we do, then we need to act fast. We have the knowledge, money and manpower to enact firm, immediate solutions in conservation. We just need to come to our senses and make it happen.

1 reply »

  1. Great article Nick. I totally agree that we have to act now to stop the slaughter before there is nothing left, but how do you confront and overcome the money making machines, both local and international, involved in profiting from the slaughter of wild animals for food and profit? How do you get people to understand the importance of preserving nature? In both cases it is David versus Goliath. I know you like a challenge, well here you have one. I cannot think of anybody better to take on these odds.


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