As human populations expand and the tentacles of anthropogenic development spread ever further, there is increasing contact between humans and wildlife. This often leads to competition and conflicts between people and animals of conservation concern, such as elephants and lions.
Although the contact and conflict between animals and other wildlife is where conflicts originate, the deeper conflicts are usually disagreements between people as to the appropriate ways to manage and resolve these issues. Proposed solutions such as elephant-proof water points, or better enclosures and fences, often do not sufficiently address the deeper roots of these conflicts – especially the different values that people hold over which sort of management is acceptable and appropriate.
As a result, the underlying tensions and issues at the root of human-wildlife conflict are frequently left unaddressed – which leads to negative outcomes for both people and nature. A negative sentiment towards wildlife and conservation often develops, and the potential for a healthy co-existence between humans and wildlife is further undermined. In extreme cases retaliatory killings of wildlife take place. The presence of ongoing human-wildlife conflict that is not adequately managed also leads to situations where local communities turn a blind eye to, or even actively support, the illicit activities of wildlife poachers.
Elephants and lions, for example, are among the most charismatic and impressive beasts in nature. Yet when people live alongside them, the devastation these animals cause can be overwhelming – think of subsistence farmers with only limited crops and livestock. In addition, especially if there are no clear substantive benefits from these animals living near people’s homes, the fear they invoke can become overbearing. On top of this, there are some community members who feel they have not been a part of the decision for these animals to return to their farmlands, and who see themselves as farmers more than conservationists. It is not surprising that if the concerns of such rural farmers and others are not adequately heard and addressed, they may well end up opposing the conservation of the species the global conservation community cares most about.
To anticipate and mitigate the potential for such conflicts, that can be deeply damaging to both people and wildlife, we need a radical new approach. Successful conservation practice requires an understanding of complex social and ecological processes and the different meanings and values that people attach to them. I call this mental modelling.
I have been working with the Luc Hoffmann Institute to develop an initiative to address this pressing conservation need. Our project is called Navigating Conflict over Iconic Wildlife, and it aims to develop and trial a process to better navigate and manage the types of ongoing and often polarised human-human conflict that stems from conflict between humans and wildlife, by mapping stakeholders’ mental models in considering conflicts. In the development of this initiative we are consulting widely, including with Rosie Cooney and Dilys Roe from the IUCN Specialist Group on Sustainable Use and Livelihoods and with Alex Zimmerman and her colleagues from the IUCN Task Force on Human-Wildlife Conflict.
My PhD student Abigail Brown and myself recently returned to Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, from our first workshops to develop and pilot this process with partners in Namibia. The communal conservancies of Namibia are an excellent setting for the development and trialling of a process to better navigate the conflicts over iconic wildlife. As a result of a successful community conservancy initiative that started in the 1990s, wildlife numbers in the communal conservancies have been increasing. Whilst this is a laudable conservation success, it has led to increased conflict between wildlife and people. Elephant and lion are among the top species that people are concerned about in many Namibian communal conservancies.
To start our pilot initiative in Namibia we worked closely with our local implementing partner in the country, the Namibian Nature Foundation. We held three workshops, one in the capital city of Windhoek with national level stakeholders – including WWF-Namibia and a range of community, tourism, conservation and agricultural representatives – as well as those from relevant Namibian government departments. There was also strong regional and international participation, including representation by UN Environment and IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group (SULi). Luc Hoffmann Institute Director, Jon Hutton, also participated, with the institute’s Anca Damarell, my project co-leader, joining virtually.
A key outcome of the Windhoek workshop was an acknowledgment that the challenge of human-wildlife conflict is not being met and addressed with sufficient depth, and that critically there needs to be a much deeper dialogue between communities and the conservation and agricultural sectors. Our initiative was therefore welcomed as filling an important niche on human-wildlife conflict – one of Namibia’s foremost conservation challenges at present.
Following our Windhoek meeting, a smaller team travelled to the sweltering desert town of Uis, four hours north-west of the capital, for workshops with several community conservancies. These community meetings were designed to hear the voices of community members who live day to day with wildlife and explore how our process may be useful to them. Despite 40-degree desert heat, community members were very enthusiastic about the chance to engage in deeper dialogue and collaborate to find more transformative and longer-lasting solutions to the challenge of human-wildlife conflict in their conservancies.
I was excited and encouraged by the levels of enthusiasm and willingness of the Namibians to work with us and engage in the process we will develop. We look forward to returning in a few months to start with the process development and trialling in earnest – and in due course, to translating these experiences and learnings to developing global guidelines for addressing complex conflict over iconic wildlife.