There’s discontent within the community near one of the entrances to the Hluhlwe Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal once again.
Big and dangerous game – lion, buffalo and rhino – have escaped the park in recent weeks. A woman was hospitalized after being injured by one of the rhino, and the roaming lions have left the community in fear.
Ezemvelo Wildlife say they are doing what they can to help the community and make them safe, but damage to a long stretch of border fencing is exacerbating already existing antagonism between the two sides.
The community has rallied to raise funding to fix the fence themselves, which they say Ezemvelo Wildlife are taking too long to do. There are certainly two sides to this story, at the very least. But the conflict between humans and wildlife is not unique to South Africa, or even the African continent. It’s a worldwide problem about which much is written and discussed, but in only a few cases are solutions found.
Problems have been settled when all concerns are carefully considered, and when everyone affected is given a voice. Because it’s not just a choice between humans and animals. They can live in harmony, but mechanisms have to be put in place to prevent problems. The reality is that those most in danger from the proximity of wildlife are usually poor and indigenous people.
In Africa, these people are often the displaced, people from whom the land for the wildlife reserves has been forcibly taken. They are usually rural people with deep ties to the land, and strong traditions and culture that mean access to the land is culturally important, for grazing, medicinal plants and links to ancestors.
The rapid increase in the global population has seen an increasing fight for space, and the space that is taken leads to the rapidly deteriorating quality and quantity of land for animals.
They are forced into man-made areas without access to normal food sources or natural roaming corridors. So people need to live and eat, why should we worry about wildlife that doesn’t serve that purpose? It’s not just because of tourism, and the rights of the rich who live out of danger zones to come a take nice photographs.
It’s about balancing ecosystems and keeping the planet liveable. A healthy environment is a key tenet of almost every one of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.
And these are all designed to make sure Earth is a healthy place for us all. Ecosystems will collapse if one part of the chain breaks. There is a much publicised story about the wolves of Yellowstone National Park in the US. This is a shortened version of the story told on Twitter by Dr Clayton Forrester.
In 1995, 14 wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park, after an absence of 70 years. The deer population was out of control, and had damaged the plant life. The wolves didn’t eat all the deer, but their arrival did force the deer to choose carefully where to eat.
Vegetation began to thrive in the areas the deer then avoided due to the threat of the wolves. Within 6 years, the number of trees increased fivefold, and beavers appeared again, building dams. The dams then attracted musk rats, ducks and fish, making the water healthier. The wolves also ate jackals, which increased the numbers of hares and mice, which in turn attracted more birds of prey, ferrets and foxes.
Bears thrived on the scraps. In a completely unexpected consequence, rivers straightened and stabilized, and erosion was lessened, because growth of trees on riverbanks made them more stable.
14 wolves fixed the entire ecosystem of a park half the size of the Kruger National Park in a decade.
VIDEO | SABC News’ Cutting Edge visits Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve:
The SABC News Current Affairs show “Cutting Edge” focused on the problems at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi on 23 August 2022. But wolves are apex predators, just like big cats in Africa, whales and crocodiles, large snakes, hyena, tigers and polar bears.
They make up a list of threatened species, and in most cases it is because they are targeted due to their danger to people.
According to WWF, just over 9% of the globe is protected area, most of it unconnected. Animals depend on human controlled areas to survive, but often humans do not consider their ranges or the corridors they use to move around.
That means many of these animals do not live in protected areas, which makes their existence even more of a danger to humans. 40% of the range of African lions is outside of dedicated reserves. Conservation management is a field of wildly differing opinions and attitudes. When the human factor is included, it becomes even more complicated.
And when politics and lack of cultural understanding factors in, the tensions rise even more. So the short version is that farmers and communities who live alongside wildlife reserves are the victims, and not just physically in terms of the dangers of injury and even death.
It’s about fear and how it affects social interaction, it’s about crop and livestock damage and how that affects food security and livelihood, and it’s about trust in political leaders who are seen not to take their concerns seriously.
In many situations, the mitigation actions, in other words what is paid out to farmers for loss of crops and livestock, does not cover the actual costs.
The WWF takes it further, by suggesting that “When governments do not provide a timely and adequate response to the problems of large herbivores destroying crops, carnivores preying on livestock, and fear-provoking animals straying too near human settlements, they inadvertently create an enabling environment for poaching. When communities that generally embrace conservation goals feel ignored by local authorities, they may, in some cases, collaborate with poachers to rid themselves of the problem wildlife.” Personal safety fears and catastrophic food destruction often leads to the retaliatory killing of animals. This happened in the during the current Hluhluwe-Imfolozi protests, where at least one of the lions was killed by a community member, although part of the pride was also euthanized by Ezemvelo Wildlife authorities.
Urban populations tend to have a positive attitude towards wildlife, admiring their strength and beauty.
Rural populations understandably have a less favourable response, because they are the ones at the front line of the conflict, facing danger to themselves and their crops and livestock. The WWF says indigenous communities tend to have complex, nuanced relationships with wildlife and nature, on which their lives and livelihoods traditionally depend.
Then you have the conservation authorities. For many park managers, conservation and biodiversity protection is their only mandate. And they see that as an international mandate, not just one received from government or local authorities. For the people who live on the edges of these areas, the problem is very different, and very personal. They are the ones in danger, but often feel they are not consulted or considered in management decisions. They often do not benefit from the parks or the tourism and economic benefits they bring. Promises of schools and other benefits are not followed through on.
There’s a belief that government protects the animals from poachers but not the people from the animals. They thus lose patience with both the animals and the authorities.
This situation has been back in the news following the escape of a number of endemic and iconic big game animals from Hluhluwe-Imfolozi.
But it is echoed around the world, with wolves in Europe, elephant in Sri Lanka, tigers in India, gorillas in Uganda, sea lion in Peru, and bears in Canada. Lions are an essential part of the ecosystem: not only do top predators maintain the health of prey populations by removing weak and ill individuals but also they have cascading effects by preventing the over-abundance of one species and regulating the presence of smaller carnivores.
It is possible for lions and humans to live in harmony. That’s been proved in the Kwando Conservancy in Botswana, where authorities provided lion proof corrals for cattle.
That stopped the lion from coming to the villages because there was no food to be had there, and keeping the cattle in at night led to the easy collection of manure, which is used as fertilizer.
The safety of both people and animals can be guaranteed, with open honest discussions between all the stakeholders, an honest plan to work together, and an obligation that promises will be kept. Communities can be safer, their crops and livestock protected, and they should benefit from the existence of the reserve.
The parks can use the communities to help police fence lines and protect the animals from poachers. It can be a win-win, it just needs the buy-in from both sides, but unfortunately there are many situations in South Africa where this isn’t happening.