The environmental movement has the ability to unite people – if only we would let it.
At the recent We are Africa Conservation Lab held in Cape Town several speakers talked about the soft side of conservation – the winning of hearts and minds. While the phrase is trite it is arguably the most important aspect in the preservation of what’s still wild on this planet.
The ongoing holocaust of Africa’s wildlife ensures this continent’s place at the forefront of the current debate – a place that is on one hand terrifying, and yet opens up the opportunity for differentiation, innovation and forging an uniquely African brand identity. It presents Africa with a chance to lead the way in a global renaissance of what it means to be human.
Over the past 300 years or so (since the Age of Enlightenment) we have slowly separated ourselves from nature in our scientific exploration of her. (It’s extremely difficult to be the subject of your own objective observation.) This separation has led to indifference – an indifference that nature is reminding us will not be tolerated. To paraphrase Dr Ian Player: nature can be ruthless and ruthless she will be if we don’t take heed.
At the same time the necessity to reform our relationship encounters an opposite force in the drive for progress and prosperity. If Africa follows the example of other continents we can say goodbye to free-ranging wildlife. But it need not be so. Can we pull off an unique brand of progress?
WildAid’s Adam Welz announced that his NGO is commencing an African Wildlife Pride marketing campaign in an effort to articulate the meaningful place that wildlife has in the psyche of people across the globe. “We need to recreate the human connection,” he said. To which there was resounding applause from the audience.
Paula Kahumbu of Wildlife Direct described how Kenyans are uniting against the enemy decimating the country’s elephants. Celebrities from the First Lady to hip hop artists are articulating their ‘love affair’ with wildlife. They are also using citizen science as a way to close the gap between humans and wildlife. A zebra count with school children resulted in surprising spin-offs, for example poetry, underscoring the artistic value of wildlife.
Even Damien Mander, of the International Anti-poaching Foundation, who works on the sharp side of conservation, mentioned that winning hearts and minds is essential to curbing the poaching scourge along the eastern boundary of Kruger National Park.
What interested me was his point that poachers visit a sangoma (traditional healer) to seek protection before they go on a poaching expedition. The people who live around Kruger are Shangaan. A Shangaan sangoma once told me this: “A rhino’s horn is normally soft but when it sees people it gets hard and it wants to kill you. It will chase you up a tree and then dig at the base of the tree. It waits many days.”
What she meant is that rhino only need their horns for defence against people. Rhino don’t have other natural predators. The second part is a warning. By chasing you up a tree you think you are safe in your separateness but the rhino will undermine your position – all of which is a metaphor for the fact that rhino are a keystone species, whose non-existence will radically change the ecosystems upon which people depend.
This is a powerful message uttered by one of the very people who poachers go to for protection.
The connection between rhino and humans already exists in the lore of the Shangaan. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. But we do need to guard against widening the disconnect.
Jan Hutton of Social Act put up a series of photos which clearly shows the dichotomy between humans and wildlife – symbols of the separation from nature that has become part of our everyday lives. Understanding the environment as a psychological reality does not nullify the fact that sustainable development is the imperative of national governments.
Wildlife to Africans can become what the Ark of the Covenant is to the Jews, what the Marianne is to the French and what the Royal Family is to the English. Environmental conservation is our creation, our contract with God, our art. Let it not be subverted by those with other agenda.
In the words of Juliani, Kenya’s renowned hip hop artist: “I owe it to my country to do this.” All Africans can be as proud of their heritage as he is. We owe it to ourselves.