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...
• 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...
• 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 killed 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.