Our relationships on this planet are tangled up in a complex web of life, where what we do affects other living beings and our physical surroundings. So why then do we seem to damage the natural resources that we depend on? And how can people-centred solutions to conservation protect wildlife and wild places?
On the one hand, many people living in towns and cities feel largely disconnected with nature, which can result in unintended or unavoidable impacts on our planet. On the other, there are different challenges faced by those living in rural communities.
In countries such as Nepal, communities are dependent on what nature provides, but are often ‘living in the now’ to meet their daily needs. Here, and in other key areas, WWF is well known for tiger conservation. But many may have a simplified view of what this involves, and so here I share the complexities and connections between social development and wildlife conservation, and why we need to take a people-centred approach.
A few months ago, I was discussing tiger and rhino conservation in Amaltari – a buffer zone of Chitwan National Park. A 15 year old boy told me that having wildlife nearby in their community forests is good for them, not only because tourists come to their community homestay to see wildlife – providing income – but also because the forests provide clean air and water which are critical to all life.
Tigers need large areas consisting of forest, grassland and freshwater habitats, which are important for other species and people. However, it’s typically people who’re portrayed as the problem – damaging the natural environment and killing animals for food or to meet consumer demands.
There are many reasons why this is happening, including greed, need (poverty) and ignorance. The complexities can be overwhelming, but understanding them is necessary and an ongoing process.
In the Terai Arc Landscape of Nepal, in the villages surrounding the National Parks, people use firewood to cook their meals, boil water for drinking, and to keep warm. They don’t have central heating and many places have no electricity or solar panels to provide light.
Getting firewood or fodder for livestock involves collecting wood and vegetation from the forests, or cutting trees down, which not only impacts on the forest, but can also create a problem for people, as entering these areas puts them at risk of being harmed by elephants, tigers, leopards, sloth bears, pythons and other animals.
Many people in the Terai Arc also rely on buffaloes or cows for milk, goats for meat, and grow vegetables, rice, wheat and fruit on their small plots of land – to sell or for themselves. This can create problems too.
In some buffer zones and even inside some National Parks, there is uncontrolled grazing of livestock, which not only affects the forest and grasslands, but can also lead to attacks on people and livestock. In these situations, the tiger is often to blame, even though it may not be the culprit.
If one of only a few cows you own is killed by a wild animal, you are unlikely to be sympathetic to conserving wild animals. If 80% of your crop has been damaged by wild boar or monkeys, you’re likely to have a negative attitude to wildlife and be unsupportive of conservation.
Some people may kill the wild animal that attacked their livestock or damaged their crops, which may also be a threat to other wildlife (that eat a poisoned livestock carcass or get caught in a snare). But it’s the wider impact of the situation that’s more worrying. If people feel hostile and antagonistic to wildlife as a result of such situations, they will not support or engage in wildlife conservation. This is why these situations need to be understood and cannot be ignored.
How we’re helping
Together with government and social development organisations, we’re helping to reduce human-wildlife conflict. In Nepal, there are progressive approaches to conservation and natural resource use which put people at the heart of conservation.
Community forests, buffer zones and community-based anti-poaching units are empowering local communities to decide how natural resources are managed, how to protect their environment, and how to improve their social and economic situations.
Buffer zones and community forests
Community forests aim to supply wood from well managed initiatives to meet local people’s needs for wood and non-timber forest products, and they’re working.
These community forests, through the managed provision of resources, are reducing the disturbance and impacts on the protected areas, as well as reducing the risk of human-wildlife conflict.
Different types of income
Communities are also benefiting from positive forms of income. Up to 50% of the fees paid by visitors to enter the National Parks go to the buffer zone communities, which can help to provide items such as biogas, fuel efficient or LPG gas stoves to help local communities reduce the impacts to protected areas, and reduce their use of wood.
In addition to this, communities are providing jungle drives to visitors in the community forests to see wildlife, and this is giving extra income to these communities.
Sometimes people, especially from developing countries, need basic help to start laying the foundations to build better lives, and to be supportive of wildlife conservation efforts. They may have little education, little opportunity and little knowledge of potential opportunities open to them. This vulnerability can result in poaching or the over-exploiting of natural resources, for income or their own needs.
Education and other support
However, livelihood opportunities and community empowerment are being supported by WWF, governments and social development organisations, through access to financial technically-based support. For example, education around and the provision of savings accounts, cooperative loans and livestock insurance schemes or compensation schemes, are further empowering community groups in managing themselves whilst benefiting wildlife and forests.
Having a diversified income, and an income which does not depend on crops that are also tasty to the local wildlife, can help increase resilience to impacts or ‘shocks’ and tolerance – creating a better coexistence with wildlife.
Improved livelihoods which have some level of connection to natural resources, and or wildlife, can lay a strong foundation for both conservation and sustainable development of communities.
Wildlife conservation, human-wildlife conflict, community resilience and improved livelihoods are very much inter-connected in Nepal and many other countries – where people are poor and live close to wildlife. Unpicking these interlinkages can help to find longer-lasting approaches that will help them and wildlife.
So, maybe wildlife conservation is more of an art than a science? I think it’s both – and not just biological science but also social science. What really motivates me is when I see wildlife thriving alongside motivated, forward-looking communities who appreciate and value natural resources and wildlife; and achieving this is a collective responsibility.
How you can help
There are a number of ways you can help indirectly, donating or becoming a member will help us continue to tackle these issues. Help Becci by uniting friends, colleagues and communities by sharing this page on your social media channels, and ask them to do the same.