Africa: Can Indigenous And Wildlife Conservationists Work Together?
April 2015, Volume 13-2

Indigenous and wildlife conservationists have common goals and common adversaries, but seem to be struggling to find common ground in their fight. The forest lifestyle of the Baka people of Cameroon helps provide improved habitats for wild animals. When the Baka clear a patch for a camp, the clearing later turns into secondary forest that gorillas prefer, Survival International said. Baka have “sophisticated codes of conservation” and have lived sustainably for generations following the ancestor’s path. But pressures are coming from many angles especially resource exploitation like logging, mining, and poaching. These activities destroy habitats and bring thousands of workers to the forest who themselves hunt, eat and trade wild animals. Poachers, backed by international crime syndicates are employing increasingly sophisticated techniques.

“When wildlife trafficking and bush meat trade results in the decline in wildlife populations, the very first people to suffer are indigenous people who need those wildlife populations to survive,” said James Deutsch of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). According to him, conservationists and indigenous people have common adversaries in organized crime syndicates and extractives industry.

Survival International is concerned that although conservationists have in recent years expressed a greater commitment to working with indigenous communities, this is not always reflected on the ground. “What these anti-poaching squads are doing, and by extension the conservation agencies that fund them, is really just focusing on the least powerful people, who are just hunting to feed their families,” said a spokesperson for Survival International and added that “Often the poaching squads that enforce wildlife law are corrupt or they don’t respect the human rights of tribal people. The Baka have told us that even when they are hunting in their special zones, using techniques which are recognized as traditional and legal, and hunting just for food, sometimes their meat is confiscated, and they are being harassed by anti-poaching squads. The criteria that the Baka people need to meet in order to hunt legally are very strict and unrealistic, so often they are considered poachers, when they aren’t.”

WWF commented that “On the ground, advancing the status and rights of tribal communities while also protecting the resources vital to them and the global community is extraordinarily difficult … WWF agrees that models such as Community Based Natural Resource Management over many years have ensured that many parks have people. WWF is open to a collaborative approach and is standing by commitments to assist a Cameroon National Human Rights and Freedom Commission investigation of alleged human rights abuses by Ecoguards and military. WWF is reviewing field experience and activities in support of the Baka and forest protection in Cameroon.”

Deutsch also echoed WWF’s call for a collaborative approach, saying that a deeper partnership between the human rights community and the conservation community is needed to address complex conservation challenges. He reacted to Survival International statement that WCS funds similar anti-poaching squads in the Republic of Congo. “The conservation community has to be committed to partnering with indigenous people, because that’s the only way that we’re both going to find a future for wildlife, but also do it in such a way that human rights are respected and traditional societies are respected,” Deutsch said.

Nik Sekhran, of the UNDP Sustainable Development Cluster, said, “For many communities and for indigenous people around the world, sustainable use of wildlife and sustainable use of flora for medicines for food … is really critical to their survival.”

The financial benefits of wildlife tourism are often cited as an important reason to support wildlife conservation in developing countries. However, tourism income does not always trickle down to the poorest communities in developing countries and particularly with hunter-gatherer people since they are less able to deal with the scrum for resources.

Source: An edited version of Lyndal Rowlands’ article in AllAfrica