Not all poachers are evil, nor are they as indifferent toward the environment as many activists make them out to be.
That statement might elicit some negative reactions from many an online conservation dilettante.
But similar to the way certain folks—including one rather objectionable presidential candidate—living in fear of terrorism will stereotype Muslims, so too can those passionate about saving Africa’s wildlife make sweeping generalizations about people that kill them.
Fortunately, in spite of a world gone mad with an intolerance that’s reaching astronomical levels, there are some working to change the way we think about, talk about, and approach conservation.
Enter James Walsh, South African filmmaker and founder of Sinamatella Productions.
His 2015 film, (En)snared, highlights the plight of Africa’s endangered wildlife, and the hardships of a Zulu community living in a rural area of KwaZulu-Natal—a place Walsh refers to as the fringes.
The documentary takes a critical look at people who are all too often unfairly upbraided by armchair environmental activists.
“We wanted to start a progressive conversation because [conservation] gets polarized very quickly,” he said.
That conservation is such a cause célèbre, bandied about from a developed world perspective where everything is on tap and convenient is, for Walsh, a far cry from rural Africa, a land where many communities struggle to make ends meet.
It’s a pertinent take on privilege and access, and how it impacts the planet’s biodiversity.
“The community perception of wilderness is very different than the romantic perception of wilderness that we have,” he said.
How Film Can Misrepresent Nature
Part of the perception problem revolves around the way wildlife filmmakers have historically captured nature.
Often referred to as blue-chip natural history films, the focal point is usually the animals, the ecosystems, and the beauty and remoteness of wilderness.
These high end, big budget documentaries give viewers the opportunity to enter an Africa devoid of humans. The end goal is to generate conservation awareness by establishing empathy for the wildlife.
The problem, however, is that some large scale productions don’t always portray the natural environment accurately.
Utilizing a combination of deliberate camera angles and choice locations, the finished product can give viewers a smoke and mirrors impression that wildlife havens are nowhere near human settlements. But as (En)snared shows, that’s not always the case.
Walsh personally appreciates the time and effort that filmmakers have committed to creating conservation awareness with the blue-chip method.
He’s concerned, though, that despite good intentions, it fosters more polarizing conservation discussions, not to mention a global expectation that humans aren’t supposed to be part of the ecosystem.
“We’ve been telling these stories about pristine areas set up in the Serengeti or in Kruger [National Park]. But it’s a simplistic representation and media perpetuates that.”
Likewise, he sees the blue-chip medium’s chronology as somewhat problematic.
“How can we show 55 minutes of beautiful leopard footage and then, almost as a footnote, spend the last five minutes saying that the leopard population is screwed? Doesn’t this leave the audience wondering, ‘Well we’ve just seen 55 minutes of beauty, clearly there is still some pristine nirvana left. Things are okay.’ There is a real disconnect here.”
Different Locations, Divergent Expectations
Nowadays, the contrast between developed world environmentalists and rural communities living on the fringes is so stark, that it usually fosters a high volume of vacuous responses to Africa’s poaching crisis from the former.
Nowhere is this more evident than in social media cyberspace, a bastion of hyperbole and overreaction where armchair activists often resort to oversimplifying very complicated scenarios.
“There’s a lot more complexity [to conservation] than is reflected in Facebook and other social media circles, particularly around the comments,” Walsh added.
A typical case in point is the notion that tourism solves every conservation problem, a concept largely advanced by those who either can’t understand or won’t acknowledge its shortcomings.
“That’s putting too much unrealistic pressure on tourism,” Walsh explained. “There’s a lot of things that are beyond our control from a macro perspective. We need to find clever mechanisms that redress that imbalance.”
As he further elaborated:
“In a lot of these areas you have the conservationists and you have the local community; you don’t have anything else. You don’t have service delivery from regional, provincial, or national governments. You don’t have people intervening, so the burden falls onto those two groups. That’s a lot to shoulder.”
Why Poaching Exists
While (En)snared takes a no-holds-barred look at the consequences of poaching, it likewise examines some of the social inequalities that have exacerbated the problem. And as Walsh explained, there are different degrees of poaching.
On one end, there are rhino poaching syndicates that operate like sophisticated drug cartels, while on the other, there are those who poach for subsistence—usually the most commonplace method.
Walsh added, “It’s not like they’re making a lot of money. They’re [poaching] to get by. They see animals on the other side of the fence as a food larder because they don’t see any other benefit. They don’t get to interact with the reserve from a tourist’s perspective.”
He also emphasized that these wildernesses do not exist because humans decided 5000 years ago that it was pristine habitat. Rather, it usually consists of, “marginal lands not suited for agriculture that as a byproduct, have now become the last remnants of biodiversity.”
The sad truth is that many communities living adjacent to the reserves only benefit from some employment—a solution financially limited to the small handful of individuals a reserve can afford to pay. Apart from that, they don’t have any ownership.
“They clearly are the custodians of our wilderness,” Walsh said, speaking on behalf of rural communities. “They need to be a serious role player.”
Conservation Needs Local Ownership
In 2007, National Geographic published the coffee table book, Wild at Heart: Man and Beast in Southern Africa.
With brilliant images taken by former Geographic photographer and editor-in-chief, Chris Johns, and written by Zimbabwean correspondent, Peter Godwin, the book is an in-depth look into why African wildlife conservation has been so historically challenging.
It was Godwin who, in the poetically clairvoyant style that he is known for, wrote the following excerpt:
“Like it or not, the economics of wildlife are impossible to ignore.
“If the impoverished human neighbors of a wildlife domain see less advantage in conserving wild animals than in eating or selling them, then neither squadrons of helicopter gunships nor miles of razor-wire fences will ultimately prevent them from poaching or from colonizing the wilderness for crops or cattle.
“It may not be a romantic notion, but to survive in an impoverished continent, Africa’s wilderness must offer a return to its people that is more than aesthetic.”
Such truth will likely make people uncomfortable because it flies in the face of false assumptions that have been perpetuated for far too long.
But thankfully, attitudes are beginning to change in some places on the African continent, largely because of dedicated organizations like Wildlife ACT, whose members are working to integrate communities into wildlife conservation.
“We can’t resort to old ways,” Walsh echoed. “We need new thinking and actions. Polarized standpoints don’t get the conversation started—they end it. Specifically, we need to explore how, in the void of government service delivery, does the public conserve the commons to the benefit of all of mankind.”
So, the question becomes: how do we evolve the discussion?
Part of the answer might start in the way that people and wildlife are portrayed on film.
Walsh sees blue-chip natural history films as works of art that often provide great introductions. But at the same time, he believes there are other intricate stories that need to be told.
“We can’t shy away from conservation’s complexities, which will create this gap in perception,” he said.
Agreed. Hopefully there’s more where that came from.
Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. He is also an honorary member of the Jane Goodall Institute and International Institute for Environment and Development’s Uganda Poverty Conservation Learning Group.