At the African wildlife conservation hunting conference, the man from the UN Environment Programme was unequivocal with me: “if elephants are global ‘public goods’, then developed countries should also pay towards local communities having to ‘manage’ living alongside them”.
There have been plenty of conservation conflicts covered by mainstream news items in 2019. In Germany wolves may now be shot if they threaten livestock (not human life); monkeys in India bit and stoned two humans to death (culling has failed due to high breeding rate); in Scotland pigeon fanciers have been targeting birds of prey who threaten their racers (a welfare charity opined ‘unnatural amounts of pigeons attract unnatural amounts of predators’); while on an island off Devon, the extermination of red-listed black rats from Lundy 10 years ago have enabled populations of seabirds to rebound.
Increasingly the clash of humans with wildlife is subtly, and not so subtly, being highlighted outside academic conservation scientific circles. However wider society continues to avoid facing up to being the protagonists within the tensions around conservation, recreation, resources and land use.
It’s all about humans
Professor Georgina Mace said in her forward to ‘Conflicts in Conservation – navigating towards solutions’ (a book I managed to slip into a Nature Notebook column for The Times), “the apparent conflicts between people and the environment are better tackled by appreciating that the conflicts are actually between different groups of people”.
On a work trip in Namibia, my notebook soon started to fill with crossover thoughts with how we in the UK rub up against the environment. It’s everywhere. Whether farming (managing hedgerows), taking part in recreation (bikers disturbing capercaillie), enjoying tourism (river users), making conservation choices (culling foxes to save curlews), walking dogs (disturbing little terns), developing land (forestry tracks), extracting resources (irrigating lawns), harvesting meat (game shooting).
No cats, thanks
A rich picking of heady topics for anyone from an ecologically bored ‘love-wildlife-but-not-too-close-to-me’ urbanising UK. But of less interest to the low density populated country of Namibia, where wildlife is prone to bite, headbutt or kick you first.
Any nuance in this matter was conveniently ignored by the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) with its high-media impact press release – ‘Dangerous decline, extinction ahead for wildlife’. With a simple, short engaging animated infographic on the five main causes of biodiversity decline released in advance of the actual report being launched, the media had long since moved on for bother with any details.
It’s no laughing matter as we cross planetary boundaries, but I fear ‘science-policy platforms’ are missing a trick by playing to ill-informed audiences, while ignoring complex issues around fragile rural communities living alongside massive child-squashing thirsty pachyderms. Or to bring it home to a UK level, how to manage wild boar from trashing neat gardens.
Far removed from our doorsteps, we sometimes seek to govern other practices, put pressure ‘to conform in a censorious age’ – as Lord Sumption said in his recent Reith Lecture – and use law not to protect us from harm, but to “recruit us to moral conformity”.
When you next set a mouse trap or ask the pest controller to keep a fox from your hen run, dip into Garth Owen-Smith’s book ‘An Arid Eden’ on how community-led programmes (endorsed by WWF Namibia) foster co-existence with dangerous ‘public good’ beasts we prefer to view on TV from the safety of the sofa.
First published as guest blog for Knight Frank June 2019 – light edit update