Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Conflicts and conservation

’Norsu!’, Mwadime suddenly exclaimed, pointing his finger at the middle of the burning hot road between Mwatate and Voi, where there were definitely no elephants. Actually, he was pointing at the brown pile of waste on the middle of the road, which testified that ‘norsu’ (or ndovu in Swahili) had been there that night, where it definitely should not have been.

In the Taita Hills, wildlife is close by. The drier, lowland part of Taita Hills around the town of Mwatate is surrounded by wildlife parks. This is where the elephants should be spending their time, tranquilly chewing away at trees and bushes. But drought affects everyone’s and everything’s lives. When the parks are dry, the elephants are driven by instinct out of them in order to survive. This is when they clash with humans. Lots of people have lost whole harvests of maize and papaya because of the famous beasts. In a situation where people are pushed to the edge of their livelihood, it is quite normal that efforts by wildlife associations to protect the culprits are not always well understood or appreciated. In these circumstances, the rare act of actually taking an elephant life has much more to it than being greedy poaching, as it is often portrayed. Everyone understands the natural and even economical value of having spectacular wildlife around, but this will not replace any harvests.

But even the fact that the animals leave the parks cannot be attributed only to natural factors. The first problem, I've understood, is bad surveillance. The local wildlife service has proper funds and high quality equipment, but one local noted that they still seem to be more interested in one daytime drink after another, instead of actually steering animal movements. Whether this is a slight exaggeration or not, they’re clearly generally not doing a good job.

Meanwhile, a bit to the north, both even worse drought and a raging human conflict are driving people, namely Somalis, south. Now, they’re here. All of these are not the Somalis we tend to think of in Europe, poor and disadvantaged in many ways. Some of the ones that have wandered south bring along great herds of livestock with them and should therefore be considered notably wealthy. The institutions managing the parks being what they are, that wealth means access to best grazing lands, even within the national parks. These newcomers cause insecurity and anxiousness among the elephants, adding to the pressure on them to leave the park.

So: human conflict far away causes pressures on human populations, leading to migration into new areas. Weak institutions and corruption in these areas allow the new populations to disturb the balance between human settlements and the surrounding nature. This causes a new conflict, this time between man and nature, generation pressure on and migration of animals, leading to one more human-nature conflict between animals and the original population. In short, both people and nature ‘suffer through the inevitable conflicts that occur when people scramble for scarce resources’, whether livestock or arable land. (LINK to Wangari Maathai: The Challenge for Africa)

It’s a great example of how many factors, both human and natural, mingle to form one big problem, which no-one really knows how to solve. That’s a lot of components of geography at work for you!

And of course, there are people around that act as if having all the answers and too often are listened to. Then there are people around that clearly have good answers but are seldom asked for them. These are big contemporary issues especially in lowland Mwatate, so I've come to talk about them with more than just a few people. What many people note, is that the only ones to get along with wildlife, living in balance with it and conserving it, are the ones that have been doing so for no one knows how long: the Maasai, who apparently have always been stubborn enough not to be influenced by anyone, keeping to their own, good ways. The nomadic lifestyle probably isn't something for the most of us, but still, might there be any lessons to learn there?

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