From Conflict to Coexistence

“Don’t worry”, came the calm tones of my passenger (and Institute colleague) Dr. Christine Browne-Nunez, as my foot pressed hard on the clutch. I had slammed the Land Cruiser into reverse, ready for a rapid retreat back through the weave of Acacia shrubs. However, not without unease, I returned to neutral and shut off the engine. Staring at us, having emerged from the bush onto the track in front of us, was a mature female African savanna elephant Loxodonta africana and her young calf. Despite being the most massive terrestrial mammals on the planet, elephants are surprisingly invisible in dense vegetation, and momma elephants can be very protective when surprised… Christine and I have both worked on conservation research in East Africa over the years, but our reactions to encountering elephants in the wild were miles apart. Me: “How quickly can I backup?” Christine: “Let’s be among them, and wait for them to pass.” The elephants passed peacefully, purposefully going about the business of consuming their daily requirement of 220 pounds (100 kilograms) or more of vegetation. In that moment, we realized that our differing reactions to encountering elephants underscored a much larger conservation dynamic in the region. The very dynamic that had led us to be in the car on that track in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya.

 

Christine’s prior research focused on the human aspects of elephant conservation around Amboseli National Park. When inside Amboseli’s boundaries, the elephants are well protected [thanks to the elephant researchers, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and others]. As a result they are less stressed, and do not feel as threatened in the presence of humans as do elephants in other parts of Kenya. The elephants there accept researchers, who can approach a herd and be among them. This has allowed researchers to gather the most intimate behavioral and social portraits of elephants anywhere—vital knowledge that has informed conservation. Thanks to the equally pioneering and long-term work of Save the Elephants, when inside Samburu National Reserve, elephants now have a growing sense of security. They know that while within Samburu they are safer from human threats.

 

In contrast, my previous experiences in East Africa are among elephants outside of formally protected areas. Where elephants face daily threats such as poaching, harassment, lack of access to resources, spears and bullets—a very negative environment. For instance, while working not far from Samburu, over in Laikipia, when I encountered elephants at such close range either in my vehicle or on foot, they’d immediately charge and I’d have to make a very rapid escape. Those elephants were stressed, feeling threatened, and so they would react in kind. What is interesting, however, is that these aren’t different animals we’re talking about. When the same, calm elephants in Samburu move into less-safe environments, they become aggressive in response to close human presence. It’s not just elephants that act differently when they know they’re in riskier areas, overlapping with humans. I’ve experienced similar reactions in giraffes. In well-protected areas, they are less concerned about close proximity to humans and livestock, whereas outside those areas, it is hard to get within 110 to 218 yards (100-200 meters) of them, creating quite a challenge for giraffe researchers like me.

 

This is not to vilify the people who live among elephants and other large wildlife. Living with these giants is challenging. Elephants raid crops and can destroy a family’s livelihood (often their only income for the season) in a few hours. They also damage wells and can injure and kill people and livestock. So like the elephants, people need to defend themselves, their families, and livelihoods. However, the more concerning threats are caused by the poachers who are responsible for the shocking decline in populations of elephants, rhino, giraffes, and other wildlife for trinkets and traditional medicine. They often mow down elephants and rhinos from a distance with automatic weapons or set neck snares for giraffe. It is these external drivers that cause the most conflict. They are also the reason for plummeting wildlife populations outside protected areas, and explain why wildlife are stressed and aggressive.

 

East African pastoralists, or livestock herders, historically coexisted with wildlife. In fact over the millennia, both wildlife and human systems evolved in synch. Today, pastoralism remains a primary form of livelihood in East Africa. This complementary land use is key to successful wildlife conservation. Pastoralism leaves a porous landscape where herbivores and carnivores can live, access resources, and can travel between parks in search of resources, territory, or mates. Without such spaces and corridors, populations in protected pockets will atrophy and vanish, as isolated parks are too small for large, wide-ranging species. The downside is that it is also in these vital areas where wildlife encounter their greatest threats, not only from poaching, but also from localized conflicts and ever-increasing habitat fragmentation. It is in these complex settings that innovative conservation efforts are needed. As conservationists we need to understand not only what is happening with wildlife, but with the people living alongside and interacting with wildlife. This is the reason for our visit to Kenya, to move from conflict to coexistence between wildlife, people and livestock. Christy and I spent a month travelling across Kenya at the end of 2014. We journeyed from the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro at the Tanzania border in the very south, up to northern Kenya and the Mathews Range. Our purpose was to meet with researchers and conservationists in the field who are leading the fight against extinction, battling not only poaching, but also working alongside communities to address localized conflicts and habitat fragmentation. We were inspired by their passion and innovation, and returned to San Diego to start planning several collaborative projects focusing on elephants, lions, rhinos, Grevy’s zebra, cheetah, leopard, giraffes, and other species.

 

We take a collaborative approach to conservation, which cannot ultimately be successful unless communities support, participate in, and benefit from it. As such, we were lucky to meet with some of the most inspiring communities, groups, and researchers that are working together in creative ways to bring success for people and wildlife. It is alongside these groups that San Diego Zoo Global will stand and partner with as we save species. We cannot do any of this work without your continue support—thank you so much, because together we can end extinction! Become a Hero for Wildlife and join us in this important work. Here are some of the groups we met, and are excited to be exploring conservation research partnerships with:

African Conservation Centre partners with communities on conservation initiatives, and is coordinating the Borderlands Conservation Initiative. Saving the richest wildlife populations on earth by working with communities and landowners along the Kenya-Tanzania border between the National Parks to establish viable, interconnected elephant and lion populations by strengthening community conservation capacity, generating jobs and income, and end poaching. Lewa Wildlife Conservancy:  A 55,000-acre conservancy in northern Kenya. Initially focused on protecting rhino from poaching, it has grown as a leader in wildlife conservation, and spreads the benefits of wildlife conservation through community development programs to 40,000 people regionally.

Namunyak Wildlife Conservation Trust:  Encompassing the unique and bio-diverse Mathews Range, this million-acre Samburu community conservancy is the jewel of northern Kenya. Previously home to an estimated 3,000 black rhino and numerous other species, today wildlife are returning, including elephants, reticulated giraffe, leopards, cheetah. Sarara Camp, a glorious community-owned eco-lodge that gives guests a unique intimate experience, while generating wildlife income for the community It also partners with Samburu leaders on a number of innovative conservation projects.

West Gate Community Conservancy:  Recognizing this Samburu community’s vision for conservation and co-existence, San Diego Zoo Global has supported the 100,000-acre West Gate Conservancy since its inception. Ten years later it is a leader in community-based conservation, battling land degradation, collectively managing grazing, and runs innovative community programs benefitting local people and the growing population of wildlife. West Gate is also home to two extremely effective community-based conservation organizations: Ewaso Lions and Grevy’s Zebra Trust who use innovative, multi-dimensional approaches to conserve lions and endangered Grevy’s zebras and secure wildlife corridors in West Gate and beyond.

The Safari Collection:  Through its four world-class lodges, and in full partnership with the communities, the Safari Collection is a leader and innovator in sustainable ecotourism. At each location, the lodges provide income and employment locally and work collaboratively with community members to enact conservation and capacity-building programs. These include direct conservation research on cheetahs and rhino and community initiatives such as health clinics, education and sport programs. We met with the Owner and Community and Conservation Manager in the elegant Giraffe Manor, to plan potential exciting future conservation efforts.

Save the Elephants is the pioneer group for elephant research and conservation in East Africa. Save the Elephants continues cutting-edge elephant conservation research through its collaring program, and community conservation by reducing conflict and poaching. They are also tackling ivory poaching head-on across Africa and curbing demand in China and Asia.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation:  Giraffes are the forgotten giants of Africa. They have declined by 40% since 1999, from 140,000 to less than 80,000 today. All nine types of giraffe are in decline, but some are in real trouble. The reticulated giraffe has declined by 80% over the past fifteen years from 28,000 to less than 4,700 today. Most of reticulated giraffe’s range is outside of protected areas, in addition to habitat loss, they are being relentlessly poached for meat, decoration and in response to a recent myth that giraffe bone marrow and brains cure HIV/AIDS. In close partnership with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, we are working to rapidly develop community-based conservation initiatives to stem this decline, before giraffes vanish.

David OConnor is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

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