Conservation and Humanitarianism: Two Sides of One Coin

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There is increasing urgency to include local communities in environmental matters, especially those communities living near nature reserves. This is partly fuelled by those who seek equality in reaping ecosystem benefits. However, the biggest motivation for increasing public participation is a realisation that these often poor local communities will be most affected by any failing ecosystems. Most live off the land and do not have the financial means to cushion any blows dealt by weakened ecosystems. Members of these communities may often transgress into the nearby protected areas for subsistence hunting. From this subsistence hunting some see a way of making money and escaping poverty. This then provides foot soldiers for some of Africa’s biggest environmental problems; industry-scale bush meat trade, and poaching of elephants and rhinos.

Involving local communities is then supposed to instil a sense of pride in their environment and solve these problems. Having communities that are protective of their environment could certainly resolve most environmental issues but engaging communities is often not easy and does not always yield the desired results. Failed attempts to help community members make the connection between their livelihoods and the lives of wild animals often leads to whole communities being labelled as ignorant. There is no instruction manual for meaningfully involving communities in environmental matters, especially conservation matters. There are however a few things to keep in mind when attempting to do this.

It is always good to consider why local community members continually cross into reserves to poach. The obvious answer may be that they want money in exchange for the ivory, rhino horn, or bush meat they bring back. More often than not these hunts for monetary gain started as mere hunts for the pot. So community engagement should perhaps then appeal to the most basic of instincts since survival is the reason why locals started crossing reserve borders. Survival is what we all seek, whether consciously or sub-consciously. Anything else follows once we are fairly comfortable with our survival methods. What is now a notorious poacher may have started as someone hunting to feed their family. Once presented with the prospect of making substantial amounts of money by hunting larger game they saw a way of making a living and not merely surviving. Perhaps then getting communities to back conservation movements is not by telling them that killing wild animals is wrong but rather demonstrating that everyone stands to gain more from live animals in well-functioning ecosystems.

Talks of the inherent value of wildlife and romantic notions of conservation are likely to alienate people who are still focused on surviving, but providing possible methods for bettering their livelihoods in the long-term would surely interest them. This is not to say that animal lives don’t matter, but talks of inherent value may be misinterpreted as saying that animal lives matter more than human lives. We also have to tread with caution when invoking inherent value as a reason to conserve. We have altered and fenced off so much of this world that inherent value has essentially been lessened. Nothing truly exists for the sake of its own existence anymore. Any part of the environment that we’re trying to save is ultimately for our own benefit. Conservation ultimately saves people’s lives.

This does not claim to be good practice for involving local communities in environmental matters. It is merely the perspective of an environmentalist that happens to be a member of a community that is considered ignorant to conservation issues or anything relating to the environment. Although I have dedicated my life to solving environmental problems I still do not fully relate to ideas that romanticize conservation. I find it easier to subscribe to hard truths that draw direct connections between the environment and my survival or the survival of those dear to me. If romantic notions are not overly appealing to someone who already has a conservation ethic they will surely be less enticing to someone who is unaware of our interconnection with the environment. Show someone how the lives of wild organisms affect their daily life then you will have their full attention.



Fortunate was raised in the rural parts of the Limpopo province, South Africa. He has an undergraduate degree in Environmental Management, and an honours degree in Environmental Sciences. He is currently Y4AW’s project leader and is studying towards a masters degree in Environmental Sciences. Fortunate’s academic research mainly focuses on South African amphibians and this makes him a member of the African Amphibian  Conservation Research Group (AACRG). He is also a wildlife filmmaking and photography enthusiast. Growing up in a mountainous, rural area afforded him a chance to regularly play with different animals, especially insects, frogs, and smaller reptiles. The childhood fascination with animals spilled over into his high school years. By the time he got to university level, scientific curiosity had enhanced his old fascination. Now conservation and the study of animals is all he wants to spend his life doing.

Twitter: @fortunatephaka
Instagram: @fortunate_phaka

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