The Social-Ecological Seesaw

By Philip Faure, Community Engagement Officer, Primate and Predator Project.

How do you balance healthy biodiversity with increasing socio-economic demands? This was the central question around which a recent PhD course hosted at Lajuma Research Centre was based. This course was organized by lecturers from the University of Venda in collaboration with Wageningen University.

The course was aimed at PhD students looking to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the complexities which shape human-wildlife interactions. This is not a simplistic topic. I wish it was, even if it would cost me my career! On the contrary, stakeholders have various opposing practices and beliefs which come into play at different scales. But as William Osler once said:

Variability is the law of life, and as no two faces are the same, no two bodies are alike, and no two individuals react alike…

Therefore, when working within the human-wildlife dimension there is never a clear guideline as to your daily routine. Such as:

Step 1:   Greet stakeholder with a smile and handshake

Step 2:   Make small chat, ask about his dog

Step 3:   Find out what animal caused the problem

Step 4:   Go back to the Conflict Mitigation for Dummies handbook and research up on the “problem” animal.

Step 5:   Implement conservation action as outlined in the handbook

Step 6:   Problem solved. Go home and enjoy a relaxing mojito while you watch the sun set below scarlet shaded clouds.

There are no set guidelines. One stakeholder loves leopards while the next views them as vermin. One cattle farmer has 100 Nguni cattle that consists of his main income whereas his neighbour is a business man from Johannesburg who only come to his farm at the end of each month to relax, look at his cattle and to feel like a farmer. Some farmers have a wallet big enough to install an electrified fence around their crop whereas others rely on their crops for food.

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Mr Knight greeting the students with a warm handshake (photo by Claudius vd Vijver)

This being said, there are things you should do and things you shouldn’t do when your aim is to mitigate human-wildlife conflict. Most importantly, DO NOT DISRESPECT OR ANGER STAKEHOLDERS! The stakeholders you work with will not always have the same knowledge as you. Sometimes they know more and sometimes less. But every “client” lost is business lost – and in conservation, business lost does not carry the immediately clear monetary labels as does gold or silver but instead, materializes in the form of lost biodiversity and diminished ecosystem services. Why ecosystem services have not yet been assigned a monetary value by the South African government is a mystery to me – It’s not like our economy depends largely on the eco-tourism industry… In any case, the valuation of ecosystem services and biodiversity is a whole different topic with its own complex pros and cons. This article might have taken a rather grim direction; however, on the brighter side of things, there are ways to lessen human-wildlife conflict (mitigation measures might be discussed further in a future blog – WATCH THIS SPACE!).

So, when dealing with stakeholders or farmers I believe you should listen attentively, ask the right questions, insinuate solutions, keep your promises, and be empathetic towards the farmer on the ground – he is after all responsible for providing food for the masses. With less finger pointing between the social, economic and ecological dimensions we can come up with the most sustainable solutions and we might even succeed in addressing the gap between research and implementation. Conversely, adopting a righteous, patronising angle on your wobbly pedestal will not benefit anyone except your own little ego. It doesn’t matter how many bunnies you’ve hugged, people would only focus on the stringency of your fault-finding finger. So I keep in mind Hugh Johnson’s words when dealing with stakeholders in conservation:

No two gardens are the same and no two days are the same in one garden.

Stakeholders are like the weather. However, let me gather my marbles which evidently I have scattered all over the floor and let’s get back to the initial topic of this article. So, the PhD group…

I took the group out to Buysdorp where I introduced them to three farmers who experience problems with wildlife. I have been working with these particular farmers before and have helped them wherever I could.

The first person we visited was a crop farmer, Mr Knight, and he has been subject to crop raids from mostly baboons, porcupines, and bushpigs, but also from the occasional bushbuck and vervet monkey. These animals raid his tomatoes, butternut and corn fields relatively frequently. Some of the species like baboons and vervet monkeys are diurnal and the prevention of crop raids are easier than those of the nocturnal animals such as bushpig and porcupine. The students were full of questions and Mr Knight was happy to answer all of them. The students brainstormed ideas and solutions but were quick to realize that the issue at hand is not always as simple as it looks on paper.

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Mr Knight answering questions (photo by Claudius vd Vijver)

We then went to visit the farm of Mr du Plessis, a livestock farmer with about 80 cattle and a couple of sheep. Mr du Plessis was not able to attend unfortunately, but instead sent one of his employees. Again the students had a chance to question and brainstorm. They asked about mitigation measures, frequency of attacks, and about general attitudes towards predators and depredation.

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Mr du Plessis’s employee explaining what they do to minimize livestock depredation (photo by Claudius vd Vijver)

Lastly, we went to one of the ladies in the community, Ms Brand. Ms Brand practices mixed farming. She has a couple of cattle, a couple of goats and then some chickens. About two months ago, Zach Mason (primate assistant for the PPP) and I responded to a call out and went to catch an African rock python which was catching her chickens. The students had a chance to question her viewpoints and she was happy to answer all of them.

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Ms Brand talking about the python we caught in her chicken coop and relocated (photo by Claudius vd Vijver)

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African Rock Python caught in Buysdorp and released into its natural environment (photo by Zach Mason)

From the three visits, the students started realizing that even though in some places livestock loss is not too high; the issue at hand is not always the amount of loss but rather problems relating to perceptions and attitudes towards predators and even more complex – social identities. People often falsely accuse predators for stock loss when in fact the animal might have died from other causes (e.g. disease, malnutrition, or snakebite). When the farmer finds his cow in the field he sees that it has been eaten by something and the only track visible are those of perhaps the elusive brown hyaena. The hyaena was only doing its duty of cleaning up the bush by eating the remains of an animals that was killed by another predator, but occasionally the farmer is lead to believe that it was the hyaena that killed his cow! Please note that I am not referring to any of the farmers mentioned above.

With some exposure I think the PhD students left with a better understanding of human-wildlife conflict. They might have left with more questions than answers, but at least they witnessed some of the complexities related to human-wildlife conflict. The management of natural resources to the benefit of both social and the ecological dimensions is not a simplistic task but instead involves a range of different stakeholders, and socioeconomic statuses. Irony is, most of the conservationists and ecologists you speak to started studying their field because they wanted to work with animals and plants instead of working with people, but evidently, man and the biosphere cannot be separated.

 

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2 thoughts on “The Social-Ecological Seesaw

  1. Ina Zeeman

    What an amazing project. Thank you for your efforts in ensuring our wildlife (and farmers’ live-stock) is safe.
    I do have one question. In one of your photographs a group of people are standing with a leopard – someone resting their hand on the leopard:(
    Do you have a project where leopard are taught to interact with humans?
    We are wildlife ‘fanatics’ and visit the bush when-ever we are able to. Watching them in their natural habitat is an amazing experience, one we never get enough of!
    Kind regards
    Ina Zeeman

    Reply
    1. Primate and Predator Project

      Dear Ina, Thanks for your kind words. We do not do any interacting with leopards, other than occasionally putting GPS collars on them for research purposes. When we collar leopards they are released as quickly as possible, normally a few hours later. The collars drop off automatically after 455 days so we do not need to recatch them a second time. I believe the photo that you are referring to is of a mounted leopard that is on display in Wilderness Camp. This leopard was killed by poisoning and was sent to a taxidermist by the owner of Lajuma to be mounted so it could be displayed as an educational tool.

      Reply

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