The elephant, the toad and Madam Flavienne: managing human-wildlife conflict in Gabon
It’s 3pm in Kazamabika, a village near the Lopé National Park in Gabon, since 2007, a UNESCO World Heritage site. After walking several minutes into a tropical rainforest, I met Madam Mabara Flavienne, a farmer who effortlessly gained my heart in the middle of her plantation.
I went to see this captivating lady to learn about her decades of struggle with forest elephants and Gabon’s efforts to protect the species from an unrelenting legion of ivory poachers. She explained that since 1965 those giants have been the largest headache for hard-working farmers, many of whom—the women primarily—spend long hours in the equatorial sun trying to put food on the table. Similarly, elephants are also fighting for their survival. Alarming rates of illegal logging are decimating the forest and the number of trees, which supply the elephant with a natural diet of leaves, bark and fruit. Increasingly confined to fragments of their former home range and hemmed in by farmland, elephants invade farmer’s plantations during the night to eat the fresh crop. The truth is: famine and disruption are a reality both for the elephants and Madam Flavienne.
Visibly, the problem with the elephants is not the only challenge facing people in this Central African country but it is a significant part of the human-wildlife conflict problem getting the attention of authorities. The human-wildlife conflict issue even reaches the office of Gabon’s president, Ali Bongo Ondimba. The president is gaining international attention for his efforts to protect Gabon’s precious wildlife and its biodiversity overall. His task is herculean. However, as a response to the escalating anger of villagers, a new project named “fil et faune” (string wires and wildlife), has been testing electric fences in some areas to protect villager’s crops from the instinctive behavior of hungry elephants. This brings them hope. Inspired by a visit to Kenya, this project is still in its pilot stage. While it’s too early to assess the efficacy of the approach, in front of an international crowd in Libreville, capital of Gabon, farmers declared that they are very satisfied with the project as they can now grow their crops and be assured they can have food on the table once again.
Human-wildlife conflict: causes and mitigating strategies
Gabon is the last sanctuary for forest elephants, which are disappearing at a frightening rate. The most recent estimate indicates that 80% of forest elephants have been slaughtered in the last decade. That is more than 25,000 elephants! With the growing illegal wildlife trade being one of the top-five most lucrative illegal businesses, poachers are particularly violent and active on the borders with Cameroon and Republic of Congo, since access to the forests from the Gabonese side is more challenging. The massacre of these forest elephants have several long lasting consequences to the ecosystem and biodiversity of Gabon, as well as the poor communities who bear the direct costs of living with wildlife.
Because of the worsening of the consequences of illegal wildlife trade in terms of loss of lives (i.e. rangers) and the increase of consumption of products derived from wild animals, notably ivory in Asia and United States, international efforts have multiplied.
My visit to Madam Flavienne was possible thanks to the “Global Partnership on Wildlife Conservation and Crime Prevention for Sustainable Development” program also known as the Global Wildlife Program (GWP). The GWP is a US$131 million, seven-year Global Environment Facility (GEF)-funded program to assist 19 countries in Asia and Africa (Botswana, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Gabon, India, Indonesia, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Zambia, Afghanistan, Kenya, Malawi, Mali, Philippines, South Africa, Thailand, Vietnam and Zimbabwe). As a consortium, several organizations, including from the United Nations’ umbrella and non-governmental organizations, are joining forces to ensure donor coordination; knowledge exchange on technical solutions; better monitoring practices, and community-based natural resource management.
The issue of human-wildlife conflict has become another important dimension of this program’s work. To analyze this issue, the international conference Reducing Human Wildlife Conflict And Enhancing Coexistence took place in Gabon on 3-7 April 2017 with the aim to identify successful case studies and best practices. This theme is not a new one. Since our species emerged from the steppes of Africa, a tension has existed between us, evolving from one of eating their flesh (or them eating ours) to also competing over land and crops. Worryingly, with the recent decades’ dramatic expansion of agriculture, cities and industries, coupled with population growth, this relationship shift has become more troublesome. Incidents, including death, can occur when people are protecting their plantations; getting water, crossing roads and also in cities, as animals are losing their natural habitats and migrating to urban areas. Increased competition for habitat and the basic life necessities of food and water, which may only be further aggravated by climate change, is mainly responsible for the worsening situation involving human-wildlife interaction. Increased back and forth transmission of known and unknown infectious pathogens involving humans, livestock, and wildlife is another result of these ecological imbalances. This simultaneously puts people’s livelihoods and health, as well as biodiversity at risk.
Importantly, there is often a disconnect between the perceptions of conservationists and those living directly with wildlife. For the first, the imperative of protecting big animals—such as elephants, rhinos and tigers—is unambiguous. However, the sometimes romantic perceptions of iconic species cannot be found on the ground, where fear and disgust represent better the sentiment of children and general population living close to the animals that most of us only see at the zoo. People suffering with the loss of their crops, water, or even lives can come to resent conservationists and government authorities whom, unsurprisingly, feel value are neglecting their needs over wildlife. This only further encourages their resentment and killing of wildlife not just for protection, but also in retaliation. This sense of unfairness is exacerbated when those living close to or within protected area boundaries are deprived from using their natural resources. This often creates an obstacle to the success of conservation policies in the very places its most needed. Biodiversity rich countries will have to figure out how to improve coexistence between humans and wildlife.
Overcoming the barriers for a peaceful coexistence between humans and wildlife
Prevention of conflict is obviously preferable when dealing with human-wildlife interaction. Land use planning, herd management, the creation of physical and psychological barriers and the use of guard animals are some of the options that can facilitate this task. In Gabon, the use of electric fences is bringing hope to the habitants of Kazamabika. But its high costs of installation and maintenance make this solution impractical, if it is not well planned and managed.
After my week in Gabon, I learned three main lessons. First, conflict will not vanish; it can only be managed. Second, because of the complexity and uniqueness of each country and ecosystem, we should abstain for the “one-size-fit-all” recipes. A set of options should be evaluated and implemented by the ensemble of stakeholders, mainly in partnership with the local communities, those suffering the most. Despite being time-consuming, local ownership and empowerment are the only way to ensure durable and effective solutions. Third, approaches to wildlife management that simultaneous address other sustainable development is a must. This means that wildlife conservation will not be effective without taking into account the socioeconomic circumstances and perceived needs of local populations. Options that can transform wildlife into source of revenue for humans have much higher chances to succeed. Compensating mechanisms can be a mitigating option for this conflict, while other opportunities, such as eco-tourism, must ensure direct benefits for the communities. This is the only way to foster long-term success of measures aiming at the sustainable use of wildlife.
Finally, and most importantly, the human-wildlife conflict purely reflects our changing values and growing competition for finite resources. No mitigation and adaptation option will be enough without addressing the root causes of this conflict. In the end, Madame Flavienne interestingly confesses that, despite being happy with the results of the new electric fences, the elephants continue to be unpopular: “if for you they are beautiful, for me he’s a villain. He’s just like a toad, fat and ugly!” While such odd comparison first made me laugh, my second reaction was to cry. Her witness and charm were just brilliant. It made me see concretely how well-meaning conservation initiatives can sometimes miss the point by failing to see the true complexity of human-wildlife relationships when they try to protect nature’s most precious places and animals. It’s only with a better understanding and engagement of those who are the most affected will we have a chance to foster a more positive attitude towards nature conservation and trigger behavior change.
I left Gabon feeling lucky for experiencing, even if it was tiny bit, the power of some of the most pristine regions of this planet, where nature remains abundant and partially untouched.
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