Executive Director Dr. Teri Allendorf shares four more stories from her conservation work with communities over the years.

Human Life and Conservation

“The government cares more for wildlife than people.” 

I have heard this statement in different communities and countries, starting in 1994 when I began my PhD research in Nepal, up until today. It is hard to argue against this in many countries, especially those that allow poachers to be killed on sight. To a large extent, I had taken these types of policies for granted. 

My perspective changed after visiting Namibia, where I had the chance to meet Garth Owen-Smith, one of the creators of Namibia’s Community Wildlife Conservancy program. 

Garth Owen-Smith.

Sitting around the campfire one night at Wêreldsend, his field camp in northwest Namibia, Garth said to a group of students from around the world, “No poacher has ever been shot in Namibia.” 

Owen-Smith explained how critical this was for the success of community conservation in Namibia.  It may seem that saving entire species, like tigers, lions, rhinos, and elephants, is worth the loss of some human lives. But Garth highlighted how it won’t save wildlife in the end when people who could be the best protectors instead feel that their own governments do not value human life.

We shouldn’t forget that killing poachers also takes a toll on guards.  A few years ago in Myanmar, I talked with staff in one protected area who had recently shot and killed a well-known local poacher as he and his group were fleeing from a temporary camp they had inside the sanctuary.  The guns were old, from World War II, and difficult to aim. The staff had never shot anyone before. They were shocked and upset they had taken a person’s life.

Gun used in protected area in Myanmar.

Killing humans to stop the killing of wildlife is counterproductive and turns conservation into a military operation.  

Pushing to include women in conservation

“Can we also come along?”

I was at a meeting of the community-based anti-poaching groups in the buffer zone of Bardia National Park in Nepal. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the annual rhino census that was about to begin. The park staff wanted to have members of the anti-poaching groups, who were volunteers from surrounding villages, participate in the rhino count. When the women in the group asked if they could participate, the NGO staff person who was coordinating between the groups and the park staff said no. It would be too difficult and dangerous, and there weren’t enough tents to have men and women participate. 

While I was considering whether I should break in and point out the unfairness of this, the park warden quickly spoke up. No, no, he said, women can also participate. He said he would assign the female ranger to go with the group and they would find enough tents. They would make it work.

Two female community forest guards in the buffer zone of Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

I felt reassured by his response. And it was an example of how we need men to support women to break into the conservation field – literally and figuratively. Women can’t do it without men helping.

Women are important for conservation because, in the simplest of terms, they represent half of the population. How can we achieve anything if we leave half of the community out? But including women can be hard because of cultural norms and the fact that conservation is dominated by men. This is true whether you are talking about local community forest groups or the staff of government and nonprofits.

The government of Nepal has created policies that recognize the importance of women’s involvement. The policies require that 50% of committees consist of women in all scales of government, from village committees to parliament. It is definitely not a cultural norm but people accept the rationale in theory even if they have not reached it completely in practice. 

Teri between two students, part of a pine removal team in Ruaha National Park, Tanzania.

Nepal is leading the world by example. In my own work with communities in other countries, I push for the inclusion of women even when people tell me it is not culturally appropriate. They may perceive me as being culturally insensitive, but I have seen in Nepal what can happen when we support women to participate in conservation and break cultural norms. 

Origami with the kids

“Is this really advancing conservation?”

I was making origami animals with kids in a school near Chatthin Wildlife Sanctuary in central Myanmar. I had brought the craft materials as an exchange gift from my son’s nature club in Mazomanie, WI.

It is fun to do activities with kids. But a part of me wondered how this was helping us to conserve the Eld’s Deer in the sanctuary, which was created to protect them. The deer were harassed by village dogs and poached by local hunters. 

I knew educational activities are important but I also felt torn. They distracted us from working with the adults and more directly achieving our goals. 

But Myint Aung, the founder of our partner organization in Myanmar, Friends of Wildlife, has helped me to see communities in a different way over the more than two decades we’ve worked together. When he was warden of the sanctuary, he conducted many environmental activities in the schools about the environment, like tree plantings and awards for best wildlife pictures and stories.

From working with him, I learned two things about these activities. One, they bring together the community in a unique way. They reach the entire community rather than just a group of interested adults to form a conservation group or a forest group. Like teaching recycling in schools in the USA, which focused on teaching kids who then taught their parents, his educational activities reached the whole community through the children and brought everyone together.

I saw him apply this approach not only within communities but also across communities. At Indawgyi Wildlife Sanctuary, he created the Township Protected Area Support Committee to work in partnership with local communities to protect the lake. The group includes representatives from the government departments of Forest, Fisheries, Agriculture, and Land Record, as well as the police, the General Administration Department, and warden of the sanctuary. He brought them together to find common ground and interest, giving opportunities for individuals to participate in and support conservation, not just in communities but also in other organizations and institutions.

Myint Aung taught me that biodiversity can only be conserved by many people working together across scales, from local to global, from different institutions and organizations.  As Elinor Ostrom said, when she won the 2009 Nobel prize for economics for her work showing that communities can work together to conserve resources, “…a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.”

Finding the conservationist in every village

“They looked at me blankly.”

We were discussing reasons Hoolock gibbons are endangered at a training I was giving to NGO field staff in Myanmar. Most of the people in the training were involved in a gibbon survey project. The group identified poaching by local communities as the major threat in the areas they were working.

When I asked them if they thought they could ask communities to help conserve the gibbon, they looked at me blankly. When I asked them if they could think of any way communities might be an opportunity to help the gibbons rather than a threat, again, they looked at me blankly.

Hoolock gibbon. Photo by Programme Huro via Creative Commons.

Then I asked if they had ever had a positive interaction about gibbons with anyone in the communities while doing the survey. Their faces quickly lit up as they described one headman that had banned the killing of gibbons in his village because he recognized their numbers were decreasing and he wanted to protect them.

He is the opportunity, I said. We talked about the potential of supporting him to help gain support of not only his community, but also of other communities and their leaders to ban hunting of gibbons.

Project planning training, Myanmar 2009.

My previous stories described individuals I met early in my career who showed me there are people everywhere, even in the smallest villages, who want to conserve biodiversity. What does this mean for how we do conservation?

It means our job is not really to convince people to conserve biodiversity. Our job is to find people who want to conserve biodiversity and support them. Unfortunately, too often we ignore local people thinking they are disinterested or see them as obstacles, rather than opportunities, for conservation.

There are opportunities in every community if we look for them.

Teri with an orphan gibbon rescued by the Forest Department staff. Biodiversity Heroes Training at Indawgyi Wildlife Sanctuary, Myanmar, 2018.

By Dr. Teri Allendorf

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