Imagine for a moment that you are a rural farmer in Uganda. You marry and start a family. To be able to provide for them, you decide to grow crops. Some will be eaten by the family, the rest sold to markets to provide a small income. There are no plots available near your home, so you move closer to a nearby national park, where the rainfall is abundant, and as a result the soils are arid and fertile. Here the only plots left to grow crops are adjacent to the national park. You accept this willingly, and begin planting maize, banana, g-nuts, and avocado. Within a few months, some of your crops are ready for harvest. The day before you harvest your crops you go to bed in anticipation, knowing tomorrow will be a big day. You awake to find that your maize is gone, your other crops are trampled. Eaten and destroyed by animals during the night. The wealth you had accumulated in agriculture has vanished. Your children will not be able to go to school this year – now you cannot afford their tuition. Instead, they will stay home and help you guard your crops day and night to prevent this from happening again.
While the above might seem disparate from the reality of many of those reading this blog, this is the situation of countless rural peoples living next to national parks, especially those in tropical countries. After hearing the stories of those affected by crop raiding animals (which include chimpanzees, baboons and elephants), it is not difficult to understand why rural communities harbor resentment and ill-will towards national parks – they protect the animals that can result in the complete downfall of their livelihoods.
As a researcher interested in conservation, I have often thought about how to alleviate the impacts of crop raiding animals. Many national parks employ revenue sharing programs, where a percentage of the revenue generated by tourism and park entry fees goes toward the needs of the nearby communities. Oftentimes, this manifests as elephant trenches – large, deep trenches built between national parks and communities that elephants cannot cross. While helpful, elephant trenches are by no means a complete solution. Over time, the elephants can learn to walk around the trenches, which ultimately results in only re-directing their damaging effects to other areas of agricultural land. Even when vast dugouts are built that cannot be subverted, they do not keep out the monkeys and apes, who can jump over or crawl up the sides of the trenches. To deter these animals, villagers have resorted to all sorts of extremes, which include surrounding the plots with chili rope or chicken wire, erecting scarecrows, and even smearing ripe crops with mixtures of chili and manure to deter the animals from eating them. The alternative to these measures is guarding the crops 24 hours a day; women and children often guard during daylight, and the men at night.
Without question, crop raiding begins a deleterious downward spiral in all those it affects. Children are kept home from school to mind the crops. Men sleep away from the house at camps adjacent to their plots, and become more prone to diseases like malaria, transmitted by biting mosquitoes, while sleeping outside. They are often too exhausted after nights awake to pursue other revenue-generating ventures during the day, and their families end up slipping into an inextricable cycle of poverty and under-education as a result.
Clearly, the issue of wildlife crop raiding is both complex and delicate. In all my pondering, I, as well countless other researchers, have failed to come up with a safe, cost-effective solution to end the problem. As a result, we are left to manage the fallout: a group of rightly embittered people who do not understand why we strive to save animals that torment them. These are the people who nearly single-handedly bear the burden of conservation. Not surprisingly, it is extremely difficult to change their minds with regard to their generations-long opinions of forested areas and their wildlife.
What these people might not have had the opportunity to consider, however, is that crop raiding is not a preferred activity of the animals undertaking it, either. A fellow researcher studying chimpanzees, Julie Rushmore, a PhD at the University of Georgia, commented that raiding chimpanzees behave differently in farmer’s fields than they do in the forest. They act more alert and watchful, with some members of the raiding party on guard as others take the food. It seems evident that crop raiding is a behaviour exhibited in times of scarcity, when food resources within the park are limited or unavailable. It might be a risk they are only willing to take when risk of starvation necessitates it.
In the absence of a direct solution to the issue of crop raiding, JGI Uganda and JGI Canada have partnered to create and implement the Community Centered Conservation programs, whose focus is on working with farmers and other residents settled near critical chimpanzee habitat. These programs build local capacity by training those who might not have revenue-generating skillsets outside of agriculture. For women, this includes workshops and lessons on beekeeping and craft-making. Men are trained in animal husbandry practises and in keeping tree nurseries that can be used for wood harvesting. Upon learning about these programs while at JGI Uganda, I was most amazed by their intricacy, since each program was crafted and centered around the needs of the community – no two Community Centred Conservation programs are the same. It is this fact that has made them the tremendous success that they are. Local peoples are responding positively, generating sustainable revenue, and benefitting in both health and well-being from the practises that they have been trained in. Most impressively, they are also becoming aware of the value of chimpanzees and other wildlife nearby as part of a natural ecosystem.
Community Centered Conservation programs hold tremendous promise to break the cycle of poverty that often begins with growing crops near wildlife areas by reducing local reliance on subsistence agriculture. While outside interventions might save endangered wildlife today, the fate of many animal populations rests in the hands of local residents, who must manage them every day in the future. By including residents in the solution, and by encouraging them to take responsibility for the protection of wildlife habitat, we have a clear way forward in conservation.