Wildlife trade or a livelihood source? My emotional dilemma
The wildlife trade event in London last year was definitely the highest profile meeting that I have ever attended. From security badges to strict rules on arrival times, to the presence of the Duke of Cambridge, it was certainly a most exhilarating experience. The dignitaries present made me feel that as professional and aspiring conservationists, we are not alone in the fight to save the planet. However, right from the beginning, I struggled to agree with several of the high profile speakers. How they went on about IWT being serious organised crime controlled by some kin-pins, and how we need to impose tougher penalties on poachers, etc. I was worried that most of these talks showed too little appreciation for the real situations of the local communities I was familiar with. The community voices event did a better job of focusing more on the communities (kudos to the organisers). I do remember some very good IWT sessions and talks on reducing the global demand for IWT by changing consumer behaviour, and reposing more trust in natural systems and resources. I loved this particular panel discussion where one panellist stressed the need to invest more in local communities and educate them to understand the relevant issues. It emphasised, quite rightly, that we should not attempt to change the cultural values of communities or impose alternatives. I could not agree more. It was also refreshing to see and meet the many scientists discussing their very hard work to produce the evidence needed for action. Honestly, I left with renewed optimism, ready to go back home and make a change – or so I thought.
So I got back home and almost immediately back to fieldwork. I have been working at this bushmeat market for almost a year, trying to understand how current trade dynamics are changing in response to Ghana’s changing land-use situation. Seeing the usual heap of carcasses of animals was distressing as usual, and each time I lifted up the lifeless body of a bushbuck, pangolin or civet to record the weight, I was saddened by the fact that we are increasingly losing our wildlife. It made me think; maybe we need stiffer fines and harsher punishments, or a ban on bushmeat trade to put all of these traders and hunters out of their "evil jobs" which decimate our beautiful wildlife".
Then on one such occasion, I turn around and see one of the kids of these traders running to me, calling me “Uncle". She hugged me and said hello, obviously returning from school; the school which her mother has only managed to put her through because of her “evil” job. I then remembered a young hunter recounting to me, tearful, how he missed one of his high school final exams; he had fallen ill with malaria from mosquito bites when he went out hunting. With the illness he still had to go and hunt, hopefully to get a kill to sell so he could pay for his transportation to the exam centre; he passed out on the way to the exam centre only to wake up at the hospital. Sad, right? How could I be so heartless to wish for a ban on bushmeat trade? What we sometimes term illegal trade, or poaching or whatever wildlife-unfriendly term, is a real livelihood source for others! Then again, we are losing our wildlife!
Thus, my emotional-conscientious dilema. How do we deal with trying to help conserve these important animals and at the same time not put these hunters and traders out of a livelihood? This is not meant to seek an answer or solution but to remind all of us about how our perceptions, actions and solutions to dealing with conservation issues can have serious bearing both on people and wildlife conservation. IWT (and perhaps many other conservation issues) is a complex and multifaceted issue, and should never be approached from a single angle. More often than not, there are real, vulnerable people involved in these issues and imposing laws or bans alone cannot be the solution. A takehome message from the IWT conference was that "we cannot simply arrrest and prosecute our way out of IWT"! To my fellow conservationists who have found themselves in a similar emotional state, I believe it is these emotions that ensure we keep on trying to provide the best unbiased solutions for poeple and wildlife conservation. We simply cannot give up.