In Mirera village in Kenya, farmers are threatening to kill the wild animals that have been invading their farms, unless the authorities contain them — within two weeks.
In Laikipia county, there are fears of food shortages after the destruction of crops by elephants, and there is increasing concern over wildlife-related deaths.
These are not isolated incidents. Around the world, as in Africa, a slow creep of smallholder and mega-farms is taking place, and agriculture is encroaching on land where wildlife roams. Deaths on both sides are increasing but the wildlife is locked in a battle it cannot win. Although AK47-toting poachers are often framed as the chief threat to the world’s wildlife, a far more mundane risk needs to be addressed: the troubled coexistence of farmers and wildlife.
Addressing this must start with establishing a truce between rural communities, governments and the global conservation movement. The benefits and the risks of protecting wildlife should be shared by all three, rather than putting the full burden on just one party and yielding few of the benefits to local people. In that way, farmers will see that coexisting with wildlife has some value, instead of just being a threat to their crops and livestock.
A key opportunity to launch this is at the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Sri Lanka in May. It will bring together 182 member countries to regulate trade in more than 35 000 species and could provide an opportunity to move conservation strategy in a productive new direction.
But if current debates are anything to go by, the status quo is likely to remain — a strategy of fortress conservation, which promotes the total separation of wildlife habitats and people.
This stale and counterproductive approach inevitably places the onus on poor communities to look after wildlife, without benefit and regardless of the dangers. It should be seen for what it is: dead on arrival.
But many conservationists, often experts in the mostly wildlife-free northern countries, continue to justify it on the grounds of securing global public interest.
There is no doubt that rapid declines in wildlife populations demand more effective protective measures. But as farmlands encroach on wildlife habitats on all continents, human-wildlife conflicts are on the rise. Although both sides are suffering losses, wild animals will be the ultimate losers as the cycle of raiding and retaliation gathers pace.
Kenya and India offer typical examples. Between 2010 and 2015, Kenya lost 1 600 animals to human-wildlife conflict and 465 to poaching. In India, more than 100 people are killed by elephants each year. And, in countries where communities are at risk of raids and danger from wildlife, poachers will join this supply chain to exterminate wildlife.
Factoring the realities of rural populations into conservation efforts is especially important in Africa, where poverty drives the conversion of wildlife habitat to farmland. Although many state-protected areas exist for Africa’s wildlife, the bulk of wildlife habitat is outside of these protected areas.
Take the example of Botswana, where about 76% of the elephants’ range lies outside of state-protected areas, which is also where the majority of Africa’s poorest people live. As many as 63% percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa live in rural areas and they carry the costs of living with wildlife but rarely benefit from the opportunities it offers.
To reconcile these tensions, rural communities must derive net and tangible benefits from wildlife. Years of experience show that, when people do benefit, their tolerance to the inevitable incidences of human-wildlife conflict increases and the entire global community benefits.
Community tourism is one way in which rural people benefit and many private companies are entering into mutually beneficial deals with them, helping people to move out of poverty.
In addition, some communities could make better use of old tools that reduce the risks of animals raiding their crops while contributing to food security. An example is the mobile boma, established by scientist Allan Savory in northern Zimbabwe. This stockade made of canvas keeps livestock safe and away from the eyes of predators like lions and hyenas at night, and the dung from cattle fertilises crop fields in which the bomas are set.
Modern technology could also play a large and important role in preventing human-wildlife conflict. Drones or satellite collars could be used to monitor the locations of elephants, lions and other large animals and send warnings to mobile phones when animals approach.
Many governments and rural communities in Africa are waiting to see where the CITES discussions lead — a future of walls that separate impoverished communities from the natural resources they depend on, or an era that leads to farmer tolerance.
As we reimagine the future of conservation, any strategy that has the potential to succeed must bridge the gap between people and the wildlife that share their land. When it is acknowledged that the real of risks of wild animals have to be reduced while simultaneously securing the livelihoods of farmers with whom the land is shared, we can enter a new chapter of truly sustainable conservation for all life.
Maxwell Gomera is a director of the biodiversity and ecosystem services branch of UN Environment and a 2018 fellow of Aspen New Voices. He is an expert on public investments in agriculture and nature