Wildlife conservation can be challenging at the best of times. And when you throw competing human values into the mix, the protection of endangered species, in particular, becomes even more complex.
“Our values determine how we interact with endangered species, and our beliefs contradict and compete with others. Our values also determine whether we consume or preserve endangered species, whether we support extractive or recreational economic activities involving them, whether we value the animal if it's dead or if it's alive, and whether we care at all," says wildlife lover, Lindsay Mandy, who recently obtained her Master's degree in Political Science at Stellenbosch University.
She did research on current conservation methods in Southern Africa (Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa) focusing on lions and vultures as their conservation is riddled with political problems and time is running out for us to save them.
In her study, Mandy tried to show that protecting endangered wildlife has become a complex social, economic and political natural resource conflict that we need to deal with by also focusing on the competition between contradictory human values which are inherently “wicked" by design. This is the so-called Wicked Problem Theory.
“Wicked problems permeate political boundaries, institutions, business sectors, among others. This perhaps explains why poachers are able to stay a step ahead of law enforcement, why growing responsibility is placed on NGO's, and why there's a move toward grassroots anti-poaching efforts."
According to Mandy, we can't just rely on the natural sciences to solve the problem as they often underestimate the intrinsic and toxic role of human values in creating and sustaining conflict over endangered species.
“When communities are facing their own concerns over the lack of education and jobs, poverty and hunger, conservation often takes a back seat. Also, sustainable development initiatives have fatigued communities and haven't delivered on their promises."
She says we need more than just scientific analyses to deal with the complexities of social, traditional, religious, moral, and sentimental attachments to the exploitation of vultures and lions.
“We need to realise that various interest groups operating in the region are driven by political, financial, moral and ecological incentives and attempt to influence public action and policy in accordance with their goals.
“They cause problems by politicising conservation, by taking advantage of threatened species for publicity and financial gain, and encouraging polarised public perceptions."
Mandy adds that vague legal parameters allow criminals to manipulate animal protection laws, and encourage political disputes over the position of protected species in the law.
She says conservation is more likely to work when communities benefit economically from animals being alive, the symbolic value of the species promotes life, and when all stakeholders feel equally involved.
“On the other hand, conservation doesn't work when communities are disengaged, when they feel a dead animal has more value, when there are loopholes in legislation that make way for illegal activities, and when politicians fail to pass appropriate legislation. Conservation is also extremely difficult to police in protected areas, especially along borders between countries where most of the poaching takes place."
Although it's not easy to solve problems related to competing human values and conversation, Mandy says this shouldn't stop us from trying to gain a better understanding of why people choose to kill wildlife, especially endangered species, and disregard the law.
“We need to figure out the socio-economic factors that influence the decisions of stakeholders, and how they may affect their interest or disinterest in supporting conservation. When it comes to wildlife conservation, we should communicate in such a way that people can see how a protected (live) animal has a higher economic value long-term (through tourism, etc.) than the short-term economic value of the dead animal."
It would also be important to look into how conservation and social development can happen symbiotically, she adds.