A few years ago, 120 boys left their remote villages in the wilds of Zambia looking for an education. They walked for days to reach Mfuwe Secondary School on the border of South Luangwa National Park. With nowhere to stay, an old classroom was converted into a dorm – and with that the school had its first boarders.
But conditions weren’t ideal; the boys had to share beds and make do with one meagre toilet. Thankfully, a number of local safari lodges funded the construction of new dorms with vast ablutions. From there it didn’t take long for a bevy of girls to arrive, having also left their own villages. Construction soon began on their new dorms – after all, how can one not reward such scholastic enthusiasm?
Because of its location on the periphery of South Luangwa National Park, part of the school’s programme is teaching children about conservation, the goal being that they learn to respect and preserve the wildlife of this region. They also learn about sustainable utilisation of natural resources.
This is not necessarily what these children left their villages for. They might have had aspirations to become doctors, lawyers, city folk; no doubt some will. But there is potential that some will find their vocation as wildlife rangers, guides, environmentalists or scientists. At the very least they may return to their villages and instil the importance of conservation in the wider rural community.
The story of the boarders might be unique to South Luangwa, but the story of local communities and the effect they have on protected areas is a global one. It is a story of marginalised people who find little recourse other than to exploit the natural resources on their doorstep in order to survive.
From India to the Amazon, poaching animals for food and harvesting wood for fuel is commonplace; but the greatest negative impact results from poaching and harvesting for commercial gain, as locals escalate their efforts in order to profit from illegal trade (from which global profit is estimated to be in the region of USD 30-70 billion a year).
The demand for animal parts such as ivory, rhino horn and pangolin scales is strong in Asia that a thriving market means these animals are nearing extinction. Charcoal from hardwood forests finds its way to the Middle East; the capture of rare bird species feeds the trade in exotic pets worldwide; and the trade in bush meat and aquatic life in Africa is unsustainable due to such high demand.
Unfortunately, poverty is the circumstance many wild communities find themselves in. With relative ease, criminal syndicates and illicit traders exploit poverty-stricken people to feed demand.
While public energy is focused on rallying against poachers, we deny them their humanity and forfeit our own. We ignore the possibility that by lifting marginalised people out of poverty, by educating and working with them, we could not only help them, but also protect our natural resources.
To tackle the real perpetrators, we need to lobby for much stronger intelligence and law enforcement focusing on the recruiters, traffickers and illegal market. We need to motivate governments to support marginalised communities so that they do not fall prey to criminal networks – and we need to support them ourselves.
The wildlife tourism industry and tourists themselves are in the unique position of being able to benefit local communities; but where some operators and tourists commit themselves to community development in tandem with conservation, it is more common that they focus on wildlife and treat local communities as secondary to the wildlife experience.
Yet the more we understand, respect and support the people who live closer to the wild, the better we’ll understand not only the role they play in the environment, but also our combined power and responsibility to conserve it. Most importantly, the better we will be as humans.
Previously a freelance journalist and editor of Africa Geographic, Anton Crone is CEO of Safarious, an online travel portal to the world’s wild places. Anton not only focuses on wildlife, he also finds himself drawn to the people he meets on his travels. He looks at journalism as a way to connect people of differing creeds and cultures, and through his writing and photography he tries to uphold the importance of the communities that live side by side with wildlife.