All my life I’ve loved animals. It’s just something ingrained within my soul. I connect with them, and I know I have been put on this planet to help and protect them as best as I possibly can. So, I have always considered myself an advocate and activist for animals, literally saving them one at a time from the earliest age I could.
But then I moved to Africa and started learning about conservation. That’s when I truly began seeing things a bit differently.
Conservation is a beast all its own. It’s not as simple as A + B = C. It’s complex with tiny nuances that must be considered, and the question of “why?” must always be asked. It reminds me of when we were little, and our parents would tell us something, and we’d just keep asking “why?” over and over until they were screaming at us to stop.
In the case of conservation, my learning, along with asking “why?” sounded something like the following…
Fact: Animals are being poached.
Fact: Because people who live on the periphery of the parks and reserves are being hired to kill them.
Fact: Because they are worth money in the illegal markets. But the people actually pulling the trigger often don’t want to kill them.
Fact: Because they aren’t bad people. They are just hungry and want to take care of their families, and this is an opportunity for them to do so.
Fact: Because the illegal syndicates are offering them more money to kill a rhino, for instance, than they can make in a year, or most probably, many years.
Fact: Because if you go back in the history books, you’ll often find that these community members and tribes had land, livestock, and so much more that was taken from them. They were left utterly destitute by settlers.
Fact: Because people were greedy. Then they built walls and installed electric fences to protect the land they had taken and used guns to make sure nobody came back to retaliate.
Shannon: Why? WHY?
Now that’s the question. Why would we do that to other human beings? Why would we treat our neighbors, our brothers, and our sisters that way? Unfortunately, history is full of stories very similar to this. And now that I’ve asked why it’s time to ask what? What are we going to do about this? What can we do to fix our wrongs? What can we do to help our neighbors? What can we do to save the animals?
Never before have I seen such a clear connection between animals and people. The African continent is full of stories that demonstrate a relationship between the two. If we lose animals, we lose people. But also, to protect animals, we must uplift, empower, and take care of, yes, people.
So going back to our Q&A example, we have people who had everything taken from them, have been treated shamefully, and are now struggling and hungry. And they are most likely resentful, and rightly so. Then one day, it feels like they catch a break when approached by a man offering them a simple but dangerous job. Yes, it may be illegal, but technically so was what happened to them. So, they think, “Well, if it’s okay to have my land taken from me, then surely it’s okay for me to sneak back on that land and take out a rhino or two? Nobody got in trouble for stealing from my family, so now it’s perhaps my turn. The Universe has offered me this gift that will now allow me to feed my wife and newborn baby boy. How could I say no?”
But what if we had a better offer for him? What if we could go to that same community member and say something to this effect?
“What happened to you and your family was wrong. It should have never happened, and for that, I am truly sorry. It was from a previous era, of course, but that pain and suffering lives on generation after generation. The wounds are still fresh, I’m sure. I know there are men offering one-off jobs that come around sometimes. I know they promise wealth in exchange for a little blood on your hands. But I’d like to make you a better offer. What do you like to do, what are you good at? You say you love working on cars? Let me get real training and certification for you to become a mechanic. Not just any mechanic, but the best mechanic around! Let me help you set up your own business so you can work for yourself and even be able to hire some employees. You can name the business after your grandfather if you like since he’s the reason you love cars. Then, see that game reserve over there? They will hire your company to be their in-house mechanic to work on all of the vehicles on the property. And when your little boy gets older, you can teach him all about cars, and maybe he’ll fall in love with that too. Perhaps one day, he’ll take over the family business. How does that sound? I can’t change what has happened in the past, but I can certainly help change the future. What do you think?”
That’s the narrative that I am learning here in Africa. And then it even goes further than that.
When that man and his community are working with that game reserve, and they all have careers that are thriving, and everyone can eat and laugh and sleep in a warm bed, what do you think will happen when another offer starts to come in which involves killing an animal on that very same land for a little stipend? Not only does this community not need that money now, but they will likely go to all of their partners and employers on the land and warn them.
They say that a man fitting this description in a specific truck is trespassing and threatening to kill animals. “He wants to destroy the very animals that are part of the reasons we all have jobs. We have positions on this land because tourists hear that Africa has the most exquisite animals, and it’s on their bucket list to come and experience the wonders of the continent at least once in their lifetime. And if it goes well and they can afford to come again and again, then they will. The more people come to visit, the more we all thrive. But those animals must be alive and well; otherwise, why would people come? If people want to be in nature and learn about local culture, which has always included these majestic creatures, then the animals need to flourish, and we all must work and live in harmony together.”
Suddenly these animals have a real value to local people, and that value is clearly when they are alive. Not dead.
So how do you save animals in Africa? Focus first on what the people need. If you get that right, the indigenous communities will all want to save the animals. If we protect the natural heritage of the people, we protect the world.