Crisis Conservation Seminar Report

On Thursday 11 July, the Rhino Convention Centre was privileged to host a Crisis Conservation Seminar, organised by Wageningen University and Research (WUR).

Conservation is facing various crises, with an overwhelming number of species at risk of extinction. A variety of emergent factors contribute to this picture, with poaching being among the most immediate and damaging in the South African context. Consequently, to address this factor, tactical responses are often employed that have further unintended socio-economic consequences in an already historically divided and economically unequal country.

The contributors to the seminar brought their respective experiences, field studies and early conclusions to highlight areas of particular social concern. Each contributor is currently actively researching these areas for academic publication, using this opportunity to stimulate dialogue and gather opinions for consideration and inclusion. The audience of local conservation stakeholders responded with thoughtful questions, anecdotes and suggestions.

Bram Büscher opens the seminar

Prof. Dr. Bram Büscher introduced the seminar and Lerato Thakholi, Ph. D Candidate, took to the floor to present the first topic: “Implications of Wildlife Crime on Low-Wage Conservation Labour”. In 2015 the Department of Environmental Affairs gazetted the National Biodiversity Economy Strategy, defining the biodiversity economy as “the businesses and economic activities that either directly depend on biodiversity for their core business or that contribute to conservation of biodiversity through their activities”. Consequently, Ms. Thakholi conceptualises a low-wage conservation labourer as any person who works in the biodiversity economy, participates in creating conservation products but earns a fraction of the economic value that they produce.

The emergence of the wildlife economy has played a major part in reshaping the property and labour markets in the broader Lowveld area, creating many new challenges for people living in the area. Further, the response of private wildlife owners to wildlife crime also has a significant, but as yet unstudied, influence on communities. These core questions provide the structure for Ms. Thakholi’s enquiry.

Lerato Thakholi delivers her preliminary research findings

Ms. Thakholi, who has focussed her study on private nature reserves, shared her preliminary field work findings from 16 months (and three field trips) in Hoedspruit and Bushbuckridge. These two areas, while geographically close are in stark juxtaposition in terms of many key developmental and quality-of-life indicators.

While in these areas, she conducted many formal interviews with various stakeholders, attended pertinent public meetings and recorded life histories and informal conversations. Along with the hard data from archive research, Ms. Thakholi has gathered a trove of valuable grassroots information that provide an insight into the prevailing opinions and attitudes of communities in the area.

The outlook of much of this data is alarming.

From the data, there is no question that the wildlife economy is offering at least some form of employment and economic relief. Yet, the labour that creates these unique tourism experiences in the wildlife sector, are “invisibilised” by private reserves due to a profit-driven consumer interface. This practice cradles the seeds of resentment while also inhibiting social mobility in practical terms.

To clarify, these “hidden” workers generally spend stretches of 21 consecutive days on, and 7 days off duty, while housed in under-resourced living spaces. This has a compounding effect on the quality of life of the worker and his/her family in terms of social development, but the regime is accepted as inherent to the job. The working environment itself is inherently dangerous due to exposure to predators (and large herbivores), an unremunerated and largely unmitigated personal risk. ”I have had near-death experiences” says one interview respondent, a typical observation for most wildlife workers.

Two rhinos grazing in KNP – Photo by Frans De Waal

In recent times, the exponential escalation (both in terms of increase and violent intensity) in wildlife crime is, in a strange twist of fortune, creating new wildlife protection opportunities. However, this new line of employment is patently unsustainable and generally speaking, crime is making an already difficult situation, much worse. Suspicion in the workplace has increased along with the stressors normally associated with high-security institutions, such as polygraph tests and other rigours.

The socio-economic realities of low-wage wildlife workers are invisibly bound to the conservation products that they produce. These workers generally understand this nexus between conservation, tourist earnings and socio-economic development in the region. However, in areas like Bushbuckridge, where basic needs such as access to clean drinking water remain a daily problem, topics such as wildlife crime and conservation are still nested in the aspirational spaces of the general hierarchy of needs.

To make matters even more dangerous, conservation workers may live in the same neighbourhoods as poachers, their family members or friends. Suspicion therefore follows the worker home, where neighbours may suspect him or her of spying on them for the benefit of “white people” (which is how private reserves are often seen). Often a worker has had to shoot at (or be shot at by) a person that is likely to frequent the same public spaces that he or she frequents. These meetings, even when coincidental, have turned violent and even deadly. The worker’s family is also subject to this discrimination, which is especially difficult for the worker when away from home for the protracted periods of time mentioned. There is no effective mechanism for protection at home.

“The best promotion I can get from this position is to become a poacher”

Historically, workers have faced severe limits in growth potential at the work place. They are often informally employed for a decade or more, which bars access to credit-denominated goods and services, which include property, vehicles, quality education and more. Yet, the worker quoted above is grateful for his employment, as one in two people in his neighbourhood are unemployed.

Another states flatly – “I’m a hero when I go home because I have a job”. But the temptation to turn to crime is understandably severe when a gang comes knocking, offering a quid pro quo that exceeds months of remuneration. (One of the workers quoted above is a veteran of 15 years at one reserve who has yet to be offered a full-time work contract.)

Park rangers at KNP – Photo by Ptera

Emile Smidt a Ph. D researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, has spent 18 years in the conservation management sphere in South and East Africa. For the seminar Mr. Smidt delivered a report entitled “The Human Cost of Militarised Conservation: Workplace Victimisation, Objectification and Torture”, which draws a bead on the increase in poaching and the militarisation of the response.

Mr. Smidt’s preliminary findings, sketch a similar scenario in the public Kruger National Park (KNP) as Ms. Thakholi’s. A comparison to historical data on salaries in the KNP show that income polarisation has not changed much over the last century and remains less equal when compared to the rest of SA society.

In the decade from 2008-2018, an estimated 8000 rhinos have been killed, with roughly 60% of those in the KNP. Policing inside the KNP has increasingly become referred to as Counter Insurgency (or COIN), a military term that carries distinctly negative connotations in the post-Apartheid era. With violent interactions now an implicit probability in the job description, this phenomenon is understandably exacting a huge psychosocial cost from rangers.

Mr. Smidt has sought to clarify the extent of the impact. In gathering his findings, he spent a great deal of time observing rangers at work, conducting interviews and attending court cases at Skukuza court. Due to the immensity of the KNP, Mr. Smidt also sought to detect and plot variances across this vast landscape.

In many “live” cases, and as any active military veteran will tell you, engagement is never as clean and clear as the rules would specify. Armed operations fuelled by adrenalin, executed with survival mode cognition and tolerant of decisive force are inherently messy and violent. Pristine protocols “change in the bush”. Game rangers, however, are NOT military veterans and are generally driven or drawn to the job, either by a sensitivity to life or by the utilitarian need for economic survival. The current state of affairs requires that these workers have to become as desensitised as any soldier in order to dehumanise an “enemy” poacher. In order to somehow protect.

This regime creates all the psychological trauma that we have come to associate with war – post traumatic stress disorder, burnout disorder and acute stress disorder are all prevalent, and are communicated to family, friends and the community. The response to these psychological conditions by the KNP administration is a simple document written by a counterinsurgency expert (and not a psychologist/therapist) – an anecdotal band-aid for a complex and potentially debilitating mental health issue. While rangers are offered counselling, resource limitations and other hurdles

often impede access to comprehensive treatment and there are times where workers may not be granted access to this resource at all, based on the suspicion that underpins the employer-employee relationship.

While rangers are increasingly expected to take on the role of police, this policing is turned inward due to the potential for collusion between workers and poachers. The invariable results are polarisation, objectification, workplace victimisation and, as certain cased demonstrate, even torture. Racial tensions in the workplace are re- amplified, and as the racial makeup varies across the landscape of the KNP, this has a polarising effect between regions, hampering the coordination of conservation efforts across the park. Mr. Smidt describes a “toxic culture of mistrust’.

Audience members were invited to ask questions of the Ph. D candidates and to offer their own insights gleaned from the coal face of conservation, and the exchange was eagerly absorbed.

The discussions above were augmented by Prof. Frank Matose’s (UCT) presentation on local conservation perspectives outside KNP, and Dr. Stasja Koot’s (WUR) initial thoughts on the tourism industry’s responses to the rhino poaching crisis at privatised game reserves west of KNP.

While these academic insights are subject to refinement, they provide valuable insights into the lives and motivations of the people behind the Big 5 breakaway bucket list item. Dark as it may seem, pessimism and resignation is only an option if we commit to complete inaction. The response to the call for attendance, and passionate participation provides a modicum of hope that the converse is true. Greater awareness is the only way in which to grow our human compassion to include a widening circle of people and animals. It is this compassion that compels us to adapt our own perspective and to dare to attempt better methods of overcoming this crisis.

One Reply to “Crisis Conservation Seminar Report”

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