Of Elephant Poaching and the Importance of Local Consultation

I recently watched a documentary which looked into elephant poaching in Mozambique, and how the illegal trading of ivory is likely to make elephants extinct if no sustainable intervention is found in five years. It was sad, to say the least. The presenter/researcher/prober of the show (from a first world country) went around, trying to come to the bottom of the problem; from government agencies, judges to game rangers. Finally, he went to the people in the villages and asked them why they had a problem with the elephants.

A group of men (whether they were just local elites is a whole other question) clearly explained to our beloved presenter that the elephants go into their fields and stamp on their maize. Sometimes, the elephants actually kill people and they were more of a nuisance to the locals. They said that was why they didn’t mind killing the animals and selling them off to some Chinese businessmen who wanted the ivory to use for whatever it is they use it for. After they clearly explained this, the presenter looked straight into the camera, and I kid you not, shook his head, and said, “I just don’t understand why anyone would kill these beautiful creatures.” *cue sad tune as video pans out*

During my undergrad, there was a course I loved so deeply called Rural Development. In each and every topic, the concept of participatory development and decentralisation could not be over emphasized. In short, it’s letting the target beneficiaries have a say in the intervention you intend to bring and letting them take some kind of control so they have ownership. We looked at so many cases where programs failed because the people were not consulted, whether before, during or after the program was implemented. After all, it’s for them, it’s only logical to consult them.

To be fair, our beloved presenter did consult the locals, but what surprised me was how he totally disregarded their views, in very few minutes and I couldn’t help but think that this is one of the main reasons external interventions fail. Here is a beautiful creature on the verge of extinction, and you just got very vital information from the locals (very important participant in this problem too!), and you go right ahead and ignore their say.

I know town folk are educated, and NGO’s, especially from the West, may come into Africa with a feeling that firstly, they know our problem; secondly, they know the solution to our problem and thirdly, they know how to address them. But there must be careful evaluation before programs are implemented. One of my favourite phrases from a book we used in Rural Development is “a peasant is a rational being”. They don’t just behave in the way they do just for just. They are actually using reason and logic to come to their decisions, based on the information and resources they have. In other words, they are not stupid. Usually, the problems that external agents would like to solve for the locals is not even a priority to them. For instance, our dear neighbours were worried about their lives and their maize field, while the presenter is worried about something that is (loosely said) a luxury to them.

All in all, I was sad that we humans are yet again, destroying the environment and mercilessly killing animals. There is desperate need for civic education in our communities. At the same time, I felt for the locals who were worried about their bellies and their loved ones. I know designing and implementing interventions is more complex than I’m putting it, but if a solution is to be found, the locals MUST be consulted AND most importantly, their views must not be disregarded.

*video pans out*

*credits roll*

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