In both my current position and prior to joining WWF-Norway, my work has often entailed meeting with communities and discussing their challenges in living with wildlife, and trying to find a balance between environmental requirements and human needs.
“Elephants are our public enemy number one” the elderly gentleman gravely told me. We were overlooking a dry and dusty river bed in Zimbabwe, on a field trip during the development phase of a new conservation area. This wasn’t the first time I had heard elephants described as being a problem for rural communities, but it was the most powerful portrayal of the costs borne by communities living side by side with these mega plant eating animals. The elephant has a weakness for domesticated crops such as corn, and it can trample a human being without much effort. This makes lives very difficult for those who have to live together with these and other animals.
On another occasion, a headman in south western Zambia angrily demanded to know who would pay compensation for the crop losses that his community had to tolerate from “the state’s” wildlife. He was tasked by his chief to participate in the planning of a new conservation area. While his community lived with the dangers of wildlife, they received no benefits from it at all.
Just across the Zambezi River, in the Caprivi in Namibia, the contrast is clear. WWF has long supported a programme here which enables communities to benefit from the wildlife with which they live. Even though the elephants sometimes eat the Caprivi communities’ crops, the communities there feel ownership over the wildlife. They have the legal rights to manage and benefit from that wildlife. So while they still feel the pain of losing crops, it is mitigated by the benefits they receive from their wildlife.
The cost of living with wildlife for rural communities is a side of conservation few people think about: the lady collecting water from the river who doesn’t see the crocodile in time, or the young boys tending their families’ livestock trying to keep the predators at bay. Unlike those living in Norway, these people have no social system to support them if their livelihoods – their crops or livestock – are eaten by wildlife, or even worse, if a family member is killed.
These conflicts, as well as ways to enable rural people to benefit from living with wildlife, are crucial issues for WWF. Across southern Africa, in Kenya and in Madagascar, WWF works with communities and civil society. We lobby governments to grant communities rights over wildlife and other natural resources so that the rural communities can obtain benefits from the resources that are greater than the costs they bear living with them. We also assist communities in management planning to reduce conflict between natural resources and people’s livelihoods. We support community based monitoring of wildlife and other natural resources to better understand the conflict. In that way methods can be developed to avoid that conflict. Finally, we support the development of alternative livelihoods so that people do not need to depend on a single livelihood activity, such as growing corn.
In addition to these “on the ground” activities, WWF has developed an action plan to guide our work in Africa, addressing social and economic development in our conservation work. This action plan builds on the 2009 WWF Network Policy on Poverty and Conservation. The goal is to ensure that while ecosystems and biodiversity are sustained in the long-term for the global good, local communities’ immediate needs and concerns are also addressed.