27 min read

How Zoos Hurt Local Conservationists

<p>(Photo: Vladimir Yu. Arkhipov, Arkhivov)</p>

When you read the word, "conservationist" who comes to mind? There is no right answer to this question but, if I were to guess, I would say that the majority of people reading this might have thought of a famous conservationist from his or her respective country. Jane Goodall, David Attenborough perhaps. Some of you might have thought of your own friends or colleagues who have perhaps studied conservation and have achieved masters degrees or PhDs in their chosen fields. Maybe your response is more abstract – not someone you know but a vague idea of rainforests or ice caps, field stations and scientific equipment.

When I think of the word conservationist, I think of some of my dear friends who have dedicated their lives to protecting forests and other delicate habitats around the world. I think of them studying hard for their qualifications in conservation, ecology, forestry engineering, anthropology, botany and a host of other subjects. I think of the time when I was working as a conservationist. I think of time spent time in the rainforest collecting scientific data using strict methodologies to establish information about wildlife populations, of grant proposals and data entry, of report writing and conferences.

I also think of Don Azulay Vazquez, Don Javier Sanchez (R.I.P.), Arturo Naranjo, Don Mamerto del Aguila, Doña Estelita Chota and Jhon Vazquez, amongst others. All of these people were my colleagues when I worked in Colombia and all of these people have more knowledge about the rainforest in their little fingers than I could hope to learn in a lifetime. Don Azulay taught me about how, during the course of his lifetime, climate change had impacted upon the lives of the people in his community; the Tikuna indigenous community of San Martin de Amacayacu which sat on a tributary a half an hour boat ride from the Amazon River. Arturo taught me about identifying animals during data collection and the various field sites used for conservation monitoring in the area.

Don Javier Sanchez taught me so much about the forest.

Doña Estelita, from the community of Mocagua, which sits right on the banks of the Amazon, taught me about the history of the local area and folklore. Don Javier could tell you exactly which animal had crossed our forest path and at what point during the day based on tracks and lingering smells. Don Mamerto guided me through the forest, teaching me about the plants and animals we encountered. Jhon taught me about the complexities of rehabilitation and release of wildlife within protected areas. Together we worked to conserve and protect the local environment and every member of the team brought something of value. We learned from each other whilst striving towards a common goal.

And yet, when we talk about conservation here in the UK, I am often struck by the "us and them" narrative so common amongst NGOs. Local people are sometimes completely absent when organisations talk about their conservation work and, when they are present, all too often they are either patronised (portrayed as exotic, disempowered, primitive and ultimately ignorant of conservation issues) or demonised (portrayed as the "poacher" or the "logger" and therefore the "enemy" to conservation). What these two overly-simplistic and often downright false characterizations demand, of course, is the "savior" who will fix the conservation problem. This savior is usually provided in the form of a foreign NGO which might battle against the local people (in the case of poachers or loggers), or work with them to "educate" them about the need for conservation efforts or provide financial incentives to encourage them to protect, rather than destroy, the environment.

A good friend of mine, Dr. Noga Shanee, wrote an eye-opening article, entitled "Local people are not the enemy: Real conservation from the front line" on this subject recently. She notes that "in order to capture funding, [big conservation groups] need to create a spectacle presenting themselves as conservation heroes fighting against ‘bad', illicit destroyers". Dr. Shanee continues to say that her long-term experience of working with local people on the front line of conservation efforts tells a very different story; a story which I can relate to much more than the two characterizations described above. She says: "Rural people in Northeastern Peru [where Dr. Shanee's current work is based] find nature and biodiversity conservation attractive for their intrinsic, social, aesthetic, and moral values, as well as a measure to ensure their own future. In most cases the prospects of economic benefits are perceived as an obviously welcome, but secondary outcome."

Conservationists, Sara and Jhon, working in the forest.

A disturbing example of how foreign NGOs, in this case the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquaria (BIAZA), can effectively erase local people from conservation narratives and place themselves in the position of "savior" was highlighted by CAPS and Dr Shanee in 2013. The zoo industry body had released its annual report entitled "Top Ten Mammals Reliant on Zoos". The self-serving nature of the report was evident from its title with the UK zoo industry not just claiming success in contributing to species conservation, but claiming that these were ten species which literally would not survive if it weren't for zoos.

Leading gorilla conservationist, Ian Redmond, said that the rangers risking their lives to protect gorillas in the DRC might not be in agreement that UK zoos were somehow responsible for the very survival of the species.

Redmond said at the time:

"Whilst it is true that some zoos employ very dedicated field conservationists, the proportion of the worldwide zoo industry's multi-billion dollar budget that goes to in-situ conservation is tiny. To the wardens and rangers who put their lives on the line to protect gorillas in Africa, this must seem like the crumbs from a rich man's table".

In addition to the claims regarding these great apes, the report also stated that the zoo industry established and funded the only project in the world focused upon protecting the critically endangered San Martin Titi monkey; a small primate found in the Peruvian Amazon. There is no denying that the project referred to does do great work on the ground, however there are also seven other locally-run and long-established projects working to protect the same habitat of the same animals.

The San Martin Titi Monkey. (Photo: N Allgas, NPC)

Even when their error was pointed out to them, BIAZA did nothing to amend the report and it remains on the charity's website in its original form; the work of the local conservationists willfully ignored.

Given that zoos claim that it is by visiting their sites that members of the public become inspired to get involved in conservation efforts, it seemed to me that the way in which local people's role in conservation was portrayed on site would be an interesting issue to investigate on my next zoo visit. London Zoo seemed as good as any to consider so I took a trip there a week ago to see for myself.

As suspected, there were a number of concerning references to local people throughout the zoo and a number of places where mention of local support for ZSL's conservation work was notably absent. Perhaps the worst example I saw, however, was found near the pigmy hippo enclosure.

According to ZSL, this sign outlines the "steps to successful fieldwork."

There, a huge, brightly colored sign was proudly displayed outside the hippo's indoor room entitled "Check in with Chief". On first glance, it looked like ZSL might be giving local people's contribution to conservation in their own area the credit it was due. On closer inspection, it became clear that this was not the case...

Described as "important steps for successful fieldwork", the sign tells budding hippo conservationists how to engage with local communities [my comments in italics below]:

1. Arrive in forest village. Head straight for a chat with the chief.

[So far so good – recognition that if you are going to be working in the local area, you are likely to need the permission of the people that live there as well as their support, knowledge and expertise]

2. Slip chief a small gift to move things in the right direction.

[Remember folks, local people couldn't possibly be interested in conservation for the same reasons we are – therefore bribery is, according to ZSL, required if you want them to play along!]

3. Chief bangs his drum to summon villagers to his house.

[Remember folks, local people are primitive and exotic!]

4. Introduce ZSL and our mission. Ask for assistance.

[No dialogue on what conservation efforts might be needed (or wanted) in the local area is established. According to ZSL, you turn up, bribe the chief, sneer at his primitive form of communication, present your project and off you go – all within the space of one day, it seems. There is at least some recognition that the local people have something to offer, but what could it be....?]

5. If the Chief says yes, we can ask villagers if they've seen fresh hippo tracks and employ guides to lead us to the spots. The guides know the forest paths like London taxi drivers know London.

[The contribution of the local people is to take the ZSL scientists to the spots where tracks have been seen. They are likened to taxi drivers with regard to their role in the project]

So far, it doesn't seem as if ZSL has much respect for the people living in the areas in which their staff are working. And it is not just the visitor signs that portray this damaging message. The educational materials supplied to young children during school trips mirror the same superior stance which polarises the role of the "conservation scientists" and the local people.

In the zoo's activity pack on this particular conservation initiative, they attribute statements to various stakeholders [my comments in italics].

According to ZSL, the following are of concern to the Conservation Scientists...

Conservation Scientists:

• We want to save the pygmy hippo from extinction as they are very unique animals.

• We want people to stop cutting down the trees and draining the swamps so that pygmy hippos have a place to live.
[Local people as the enemy]

• We want local people to learn about pygmy hippos and understand why they should be protected.
[Local people as in need of "education"]

• We need to do lots of research and patrolling to protect an endangered species. This costs a lot of money.
[Conservation project is to be delivered by the "conservation scientists"]

On the other hand, the local people's take on the pigmy hippos is far more simplistic. According to ZSL, these views are attributed to the local people...

Local people

• We don't know much about pygmy hippos – we had heard that they are able to kill a human and that their skin is bullet proof.
[Local people portrayed here as ignorant. Whilst folklore may well suggest that the hippos are bullet-proof, the fact that ZSL accepts that hunting is the main threat would suggest that people in the local area are well aware that the animals can be killed by bullets]

• It is a long way to the supermarket – if we need meat it is easier to hunt what we find in the forest.
[Presents local people as lazy and offers complete lack of cultural context which might explore the history of subsistence hunting, for example, in the area. Implicitly presents meat purchased from the supermarket as more ethical/environmentally responsible and hunting in the forest as unethical/environmentally irresponsible.]

• Pygmy hippos damage our fishing nets making it hard to catch fish to eat.
[A complex issue of human-wildlife conflict presented implicitly as hippos being targeted to save fish for people already labelled by the zoo as too lazy to go to the supermarket].

• There is not a lot of money in our village.
[Not explored in any context. Is there no money because of poverty or does the local community simply not operate a monetary economy? The absence of money offers a much more compelling reason to the implied laziness to not go to the supermarket and makes the issue of hippos damaging fishing nets much more important if fish are a major food source for the people]

To take both the signage and the educational materials relating to their conservation work regarding pygmy hippos into account, ZSL's messaging on this issue appears to meet all the requirements of the "savior" complex outlined by Dr. Shanee earlier in this piece.

Local people are presented as primitive, uninterested in conservation for conservation's sake, motivated by money, lazy, unknowledgeable, poor and useful only to the extent that they can lead the "conservation scientists" to the relevant sites where the animals might be found.

The "conservation scientists" on the other hand are portrayed as motivated by their passion for conserving this unique animal. The local people need to be "educated" about the importance of the pygmy hippos by the conservation scientists and yet there appears to be no recognised need for dialogue with the local community about what they might be able to offer, or what they might need or want.

The truth is, I imagine (I hope) that those people working on the front line in these projects would be horrified to see their work represented in this way. I imagine the trite description of meeting the chief was likely a much more complex process involving permissions, introductions and discussions. If the project is being carried out on either ancestral land or land belonging to, or used by the community, it will involve a complex range of issues relating to both land and human rights balanced with conservation need. The process is likely to involve detailed negotiations on the part of the "conservation scientists" and the village leaders and the development of a close and respectful working relationship with the community. I would also wager that the "conservation scientists" learned a hell of a lot from the local people employed to be their guides.

But all the hard work of those people, local and otherwise, working in the field is dumbed down and spun by the zoo's PR machine to ensure that the zoo's role in the conservation of this species remains paramount, while the local people are presented as in desperate need of the zoo's help so that they don't (either through laziness or ignorance) kill off this precious species.

Whilst there were signs which explicitly recognised local efforts in places, the pigmy hippo project was one of a number of areas where the contribution of local people to conservation initiatives was dumbed down by the zoo. Worryingly, the 1.3 million visitors to London Zoo annually will have this stereotypical portrayal of local people in conservation reinforced and the message that zoos are vital in conservation is perpetuated.

"Conservation Scientists," each and every one!

Of course, I absolutely recognise that local populations in conservation sensitive areas can, and do in places, have a very negative impact on the environment. I recognise that hunting and poaching is hugely damaging and that forest clearance and other forms of environmental degradation must be addressed. I am not, therefore, advocating the replacement of one damaging stereotype (local people as primitive and ignorant) with another (that all local people live in harmony with their environment). But the arbitrary division between the foreign "conservation scientists" who need to save the environment from local populations in conservation sensitive areas is, at best, disingenuous and, at worst, extremely damaging.

Conservation is complex and, in my view, can only be carried out effectively within conservation sensitive areas if all stakeholders are meaningfully engaged and those working in the area have a good understanding of the local context. By dumbing down this complex and difficult process, ZSL is doing a huge disservice to both the local communities it portrays and to its own "conservation scientists" working on the front line.

Header photo: By Vladimir Yu. Arkhipov, Arkhivov (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons