Community Supported Conservation

Originally posted on May 15, 2017

Image: George Archibald, “Wattled Cranes Forage While a Family Washes Their Clothes,” Crane Media Collective, used by permission

by Kelly Hoyer
Guest Contributor

Animal poaching first came to my attention when I learned about the ivory trade. When I heard about elephants and rhinos being killed for their tusks, I felt angry. Faceless poachers marched through my imagination, their single goal to take out as many of these amazing animals as they could. The populations of these animals were dwindling to double and even single digits, and yet people were still going out and killing them so their tusks could be made into jewelry!

Recently, however, I came across an interview with an elephant poacher on The Dodo. The poacher, a Kenyan man named John Kaimoi from the village of Kabarnet, served a two-year prison sentence for killing 70 elephants. Before he turned to poaching, Kaimoi would plant a subsistence crop of maize and millet with his family, until problems such as famine and drought arose, both intensified by climate change. They also depended on livestock, which Kaimoi would sell at local markets. However, once the famine came, many of the animals died off. This loss of livestock and crops forced Kaimoi to start killing elephants. I realized that he was not only killing elephants, he was also risking his own life to do so, as elephants are extremely dangerous animals. Despite everything going against him, including his own guilt for killing these creatures, Kaimoi knew that he had no other means of providing for his family.

International Crane Foundation, “Black Crowned Crane with Turned Head,” Crane Media Collective, used by permission

After reading this, I was still upset about mass killings of elephants, but this feeling was compounded by a sense of helplessness. As long as there is extreme poverty in the world, those most affected by it will do whatever it takes to feed themselves and their families. Nearly half of the world’s population lives on less than two dollars per day. Approximately one billion people are currently suffering from hunger, while 3.5 billion people have deficiencies in critical vitamins and minerals (Poverty and the Environment). Lack of income alternatives drives destitute people to over-exploit natural resources, so much so that poverty has been identified as one of the leading causes of biodiversity loss (WWF). When I found out the desperation faced by people in extreme situations such as that faced by Kamoi, I understood that the heart of conservation includes figuring out ways that people living in impoverished communities can support themselves, other than resorting to poaching. High ideals of conservationists notwithstanding, the intrinsic value of nature and wildlife pales in comparison to the need to put food on the table.

As an environmentalist and aspiring aquatic ecologist, I have always been interested in conservation efforts of all species of wildlife, especially those residing in wetland habitats as wetlands are particularly vulnerable to the destruction humans have caused. In my career as a scientist I have taken special effort to learn as much as I can about endangered species, hoping to aid in mitigating the impact of human actions on them. I am particularly drawn to cranes, one of those endangered, wetland-residing animals. Cranes are amazing to me because of their behavioral resemblance to humans. For example, cranes are monogamous, and both parents help to rear offspring. In non-breeding seasons they form large flocks in which to socialize, roost, and eat, communicating through a large vocabulary of specific calls. The cultural importance cranes hold in many countries fascinates me, and I will further delve into this further below. And yet, though people around the world revere cranes in their cultures and mythology, these same people destroy the habitats of the creatures they claim to love. This confused me at first. If people love something, shouldn’t they be willing to do anything to protect it? When seen in context, however, the meaning becomes clear: the one thing people love more than their cultural symbols, it turns out, is their family. People will do everything in their power to protect and provide for their families. What happens when these two values compete, the cultural reverence for a species, and the need to feed one’s family? Does this have any bearing on the question of how to coordinate effective wildlife conservation? With these questions in mind, I want to explore the cultural import and conservation efforts around cranes.

Jim Harris, “Costume Rearing Technique,” Crane Media Collective, used by permission

Cranes, a clade of long-legged, long-necked birds residing on all continents except Antarctica and South America, have been the subject of religious rituals and stories amongst many cultures for centuries. In Japan, red-crowned cranes are revered as symbols of longevity, wisdom and good fortune. Since cranes are known for being monogamous, they are incorporated into Japanese wedding décor as symbols of love and loyalty. One such story of Japanese inspiration from cranes is that of Sadako Saski, a woman who contracted cancer after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Sadako truly believed in the healing power of the crane, and made 1000 paper origami cranes, wishing she would get well. Although she died in 1955, her faith and determination inspired many Japanese children, who raised funds to create a park in Sadako’s name. Many other areas of the world revere cranes as integral parts of their culture. African cultures embrace cranes as symbols of love, long marriage, and happiness. In Greece, they are seen as intelligent creatures that once served as guides to Greek gods. Cranes have also been present in North American symbolism, found in many Native American stories.

Unfortunately, crane populations have greatly diminished due to human threats. Their wetlands are rapidly being decimated by agricultural activities and development. Cranes have specific annual migratory routes, compromised by destruction of resting areas, water source re-allocation for human needs, and collisions with telephone wires. Given the cultural relevance of cranes, I wondered why people would let this happen. As I uncovered more about the impoverished conditions of some of the communities surrounding crane habitat, it became clearer to me: just like animals in the wild, human beings do whatever it takes to care for their offspring, even if it means putting beloved creatures such as cranes at risk.

International Crane Foundation, “Sandhill Cranes Dancing,” Crane Media Collective, used by permission

The International Crane Foundation (ICF), headquartered in Wisconsin, has teams of conservation biologists around the world, working to restore ecosystems occupied by cranes. The ICF recognizes that in order to conserve wildlife and natural resources, poverty must be alleviated simultaneously. The foundation works to protect cranes while collaborating to create business opportunities and “win-win” sustainable farming solutions for local people. The ICF’s annual report contains many examples of collaboration between the ICF and local residents of communities in many different parts of the world.

I wondered how the local people felt about being told they should change their everyday practices to restore the cranes’ ecosystems, so I contacted the ICF’s Cully Shelton, who informed me that in some cases, there was initial resistance from the local community. For example, at the Cao Hai Nature Reserve in China, the surrounding community was originally not willing to make changes to their daily lives in an effort to save wetlands, and there was animosity between the nature reserve and the public. The ICF had to face the common accusation against conservationists, that we only care about nature and wildlife, and couldn’t care less about people who are struggling.

In response to the initial negative reactions of the people living near the Cao Hai Nature Reserve, the ICF worked with the reserve to develop a different approach to build stakeholder buy-in. They knew they needed to incorporate residents of the community in the conservation of the wetland. The ICF and the reserve came up with economic incentives to empower local leaders in the community. They developed a grant program to benefit community members starting new business ventures, forming new ways to stimulate the economy without as much reliance on wetland resources critical to black-necked cranes. Initially sustained by the ICF and a non-profit called Trickle Up, the conservation effort is now entirely managed by local leaders within the community. This process of connecting conservation and human livelihood intervention drove the series of conservation activities at Cao Hai Nature Reserve. According to an assessment done by Salafky and Wollenberg (2000), this system of linking biodiversity and livelihood intervention is self-perpetuating because the livelihood options are more attractive to stakeholders, so that they stop the livelihood activities that threaten biodiversity.

A further story from the ICF illustrates how crucial it is to establish trust between all parties involved. Conservationists must fully understand the livelihood needs of the region’s people before coming up with a conservation plan. Local people must see that the conservation group is linking their needs with those of the ecosystem, and the people must understand that the conservationists are on their side.

Many farmers in the United States see cranes as pests and do not hesitate to kill them because cranes eat their crops, which are supposed to last the farmers all year so that they can sell them for profit. To my surprise, farmers were willing to work with the ICF to find a mutually beneficial solution. The ICF first established a relationship with the farming community, then developed a harmless deterrent, consisting of a bitter-tasting, non-toxic, non-lethal bird repellent called Avipel. The farmers agreeing to try the repellent received a subsidy, and they saw for themselves how well it worked. Because cranes avoided the farmers’ crops and instead ate insects and waste corn (both of which inhibit crop growth), the crops yield was higher than without the presence of cranes. This earned the ICF the farmers’ trust. After some farmers saw success for their crops using this repellent, they started encouraging their neighbors to use it on their crops. Pretty quickly, farmers across the upper Midwest began using the repellant on their crops.

Crane WU, “Demoiselle Cranes Flying over Desert,” Crane Media Collective, used by permission

An important question I grappled with is whether or not the people were aware of the damage they were causing to their environment when they poach endangered animals. Shelton notes that in some communities, people express awareness and interest in working towards finding a solution beneficial to all affected parties. These individuals sometimes take up leadership roles in conservation efforts. Some communities are aware of the damage being done and do not take an interest in making a change, while in others, there is little to no awareness.

The ICF has representatives leading conservation efforts on Grey-Crowned Cranes in Uganda, working to restore the Nyamariru Wetland. According to Jimmy Muheebwe, an ICF research associate featured in Cranes: Symbols of Survival, this wetland had been completely decimated 20 years ago by the people in the community due to intense pressure for land usage. The ICF demonstrated alternative uses for the wetland that would help provide income to the local community, and goats were provided to villagers as an incentive for them to participate in the conservation effort. The farmers observed the link between improved health of the wetland and improvement of their own livelihoods. In response, they started to actively replant the wetland. Together, the villagers led by Muheebwe planted papyrus around the river, causing the river to flood, which led to more wetlands arising. Community members harvested the papyrus to make crafts to sell for income. This restoration program has led to the regrowth and reestablishment of 80 hectares of wetland. These success stories strengthen my resolve to protect the environment while empowering other individuals to take up the cause.

Through this journey to comprehensively understand the problems conservationists face, I discovered that one must have empathy for the struggles that destitute people within communities face, knowledge of the specific conservation needs of the area, and a great deal of patience. Most issues cannot be fixed in one attempt, and not all individuals will choose to change their ways immediately. Learning about ongoing projects helping impoverished people integrate species conservation into their livelihood activities has compelled me to share these stories with as many people as I can. My goal is to turn awareness into activism, and to be able to use that in my career. The perspectives of people affected by poverty have opened my eyes to see how many people in the world suffer from poverty and hunger every day, and how this in turn depletes resources. My heart broke as I went through this learning process, but I gained a deeper understanding of just how complex conservation can be. Anger is misplaced when aimed at people who are suffering. I’m developing understanding and empathy. Only by working together can we turn this destructive cycle into a constructive one, where people help themselves, each other, and the planet.


Bio: Kelly Hoyer is an aspiring aquatic ecologist with a degree in ecology and conservation biology from Boston University. She currently works as a resource science assistant for the Missouri Department of Conservation studying the impacts of stream flow alteration on fish communities in Ozark streams and rivers. She previously worked as a stream technician at Oklahoma State University studying smallmouth bass movement. Hoyer has always loved nature and has made it her mission to conserve wildlife and habitats. Her goals include reaching out to as many people as possible to share her message of the importance of protecting endangered species. She hopes to do this by initiating sustainable alternatives to making a living in impoverished communities around the world. She will start working on her master’s degree in the fall of 2017, and plans to continue researching mitigation strategies around the impacts of human-induced disturbances on aquatic habitats.

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