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Getting Along With Elephants

Ecologist advocates new solutions to conservation dilemmas

In a world of ecological doomsday prophets, David Western is one of the few yeasayers.

On a recent lecture tour of the United States as director of the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), he reiterated the theme of his new eco-autobiography "In the Dust of Kilimanjaro," that coexistence between humans and wildlife, essential for the survival of the earth's biodiversity, is achievable.

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"I grew up with the mentality that this is the end of the game, the last time you'll ever see wildlife like the great herds of the African savannah," Dr. Western says. "But I've lived through it, seen it come out the other end."

Former director of international programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society and former chairman of the African Elephant and Rhino Specialist Group, Western has worked to transform wildlife from liability to asset for local people.

Not a popular approach

Western's approach, known as locally based conservation, involves people and wild animals living alongside each other. It's hard to see how elephants can make good neighbors, but according to Western, "coexistence has a place in most traditional societies, but also has enormous potential to improve the lives of rural communities and the status of wildlife."

The approach is not the most popular among conservationists. But according to African Wildlife Foundation president Michael Wright: "History and culture have proved considering people as interlopers is wrong. The only way for wildlife to survive in Africa is if people and animals are linked."

Under coexistence programs in Kenya and other southern African countries, proceeds from tourism go not to government but directly to the wildlife service. Locals, as a result, receive social services, jobs, and other benefits through the wildlife service. Until now, most conservation measures have come through national legislation or international treaties, failing to consider the needs of people.

Nor had animals' needs been met by the parks created to save them. Western asserts that "national parks were established in areas with concentrations of animals in the dry season, not taking into account their seasonal movements."

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Studying migrations in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, he discovered an amazing succession. He explains that elephants first arrive in the marshes as "nature's bulldozer, chewing and crushing the coarse sedges."

They move on, grasses pop up, and in come buffalo to graze on this secondary growth. Next follow zebra, wildebeest, and gazelle, safer from predators with the tall growth gone and visibility increased. According to Western, "If not for elephants, the swamp areas would be a drab marsh devoid of plains species."

Western's brand of locally based conservation combines his own research with the theory of island biogeography, which posits that small isolated islands support fewer species than the mainland and experience higher rates of extinction and slower recolonization.

He draws a startling parallel: "National parks are actually habitat islands on the mainland. No park, no matter how big, could ever be a self-sufficient system. National parks, far from saving species, could become extinction traps if ecologically isolated by human activity."

In essence, he says: When the animals have the space to wander, they keep the savannah ecosystem viable. Can this interplay work today, with human populations playing havoc with habitats? Western says yes, and tells of building a corridor along an elephant migration route with 50-meter-wide, tall electrified fences to protect adjacent farms.

Such space has been won under a new program with Masai savannah herders' participation. But as elephants lose fear of humans and leave the parks, they require protection against poachers and against conflict with small farmers.

Western reports new methods to resolve conflicts, like Amboseli's Conflict Mitigation Group, which recently prevented the revenge-spearing of innocent elephants by hunting down the actual aggressive animal offenders "so the behavior doesn't spread." The Masai now help prevent poaching; and in return for moving out of the way of migrators, they partake of park profits and have access to new water sources.

"[Western] provides truly new and important solutions to conservation dilemmas from the inside out," says William Conway, president of the Wildlife Conservation Society, "the result of growing up with the local peoples amidst the problems facing wildlife in East Africa. Most of us must go into the field, and inevitably we look from the outside in." He gains authority, says Mr. Conway, "from covering the spectrum as no other scientist, from academic ecologist to actual manager of a national park system."

Father was a game hunter

Western grew up in Tanzania, and watched his father evolve from big-game hunter to conservationist. The youngster observed locals' resentment of wildlife as they lost land and rights. As a young man, he studied the ecology of Amboseli. He learned from the Masai the African belief that God had granted wildlife free for anyone to use, a right revoked by colonial rule when hunting became the province of whites.

Finding compromises has not happened overnight. Like the Masai, with whom Western came of age as a conservationist, he is patient. He's worked through many problems such as poaching by Somali gangs with AK-47s, government corruption, international threats to the hard-won ban on ivory trade, and resistance from fellow conservationists.

Today the biggest threat to coexistence programs is the push of marginal agriculture into the savannahs. "If there's more incentive in marginal agriculture," says Western, "herders will become farmers. But if we can pay them the difference between what they'd earn from marginal agriculture versus what they earn from livestock plus wildlife, we could stop that."

So convinced is Western that community-based conservation is the answer, he says that even if comparatively few actual programs work, countless species will be saved and entire ecosystems conserved.

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