Monday, November 10, 2014

A call for a more holistic approach to conservation science

Conducting our fieldwork in the Gede restoration forest this week, we learned that there are large challenges looming for conservation in the vicinity. The Kenyan government has given permission to an energy company to explore for oil & gas in the Arabuko-Sokoke Forest, the main site where we have been working the past several years (and just 2km away from where we are doing fieldwork this week). This exploration will entail cutting large (4m-wide) swaths through the three different forest habitat types (Brachystegia woodland, Cynometra thicket, and Mixed forest) in order to sink drills deep into the ground - potentially disastrous for the resident wildlife, not to mention the integrity of the forest reserve. A Chinese company that has been subcontracted to conduct the exploratory drilling has decamped to a (former) corn field just adjacent to our restoration forest plots in Gede. The local newspapers summarized the situation in a a story they ran late in the week
View of BGP staging area for oil/gas exploration from our study site

This type of threat to the preservation of forest habitat and rare animals is, sadly, not uncommon - witness the ongoing challenges to conservation and indigenous rights faced in the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador. Arabuko-Sokoke Forest (ASF) is home to a critical mass of endangered/threatened birds and mammals, and, as the last remaining big patch of coastal forest in East Africa, is extremely critical to numerous conservation efforts. For the past five years I've been working with a local NGO that has amassed a ton of data on many of the endangered species in the forest; together we've worked to collect more data and publish scientific papers that try to describe the habitat needs of threatened bird species as well as the complexities of managing for a disparate array of wildlife  (including a herd of African elephants) in the confined space of a small forest reserve, among other things. But arguably a much bigger threat to conservation is the fact that ASF is also ringed by 50+ villages of Giriama (one of the nine coastal ethnic groups that comprise the Mijikenda) residents - with a total population of 100,000 or so local residents who have historically relied to varying degrees on forest products (bushmeat, wood for charcoal production & fuelwood, etc.). Reducing some of the pressure on the forest associated with such intense anthropogenic disturbances is key to conserving the Arabuko habitat and the species within, of course. And, as elsewhere in tropical biodiversity hotspots, there have been some well-meaning and effective programs established over the years aimed at providing alternative incoming generating activities for locals, including butterfly rearing and bee-keeping programs as well as a terrific environmental education scheme. But these can seem woefully inadequate in scale when put in a geopolitical context. 

     Of course, apart from the poaching concerns, there is also the ever-present issue of security in this country - as I write this, rioting youth have blocked the streets with coral and burning tires in nearby Timboni village in protest over the inaction of police in response to a killing in the streets of Watamu Saturday night. The ongoing battle with Al-Shabab in neighboring Somalia (a conflict which just marked its fourth year anniversary) and its attendant unrest also continues to threaten stability throughout the country. This ultimately leads to heightened threats to the environment: as tourism has plummeted due to security concerns, many people have been reduced to relying on dwindling forest and marine resources for survival.

The challenge for conservation science is incorporating all of these issues into cogent, practical, and effective solutions. A scientific approach to the underlying ecological issues is of course absolutely essential -- as is a fierce and passionate dedication to the conservation of biodiversity. At the same time, conservation strategies that willfully ignore the basic needs and misunderstand the culture of local people will never be effective or sustainable. Working together with local communities to solve social, economic, and environmental challenges will be the key here. Several recent articles circulating in the scientific community have argued eloquently for a more holistic, inclusive approach to conservation science - a call that extends to working to ensure an increased diversity of perspectives within the scientific community as well. This approach would be well-suited to situations such as the ones facing many communities here in coastal Kenya.
     In the meantime, here on the ground in Kilifi District, a number of local community groups along with concerned NGOs presented the governor with a petition protesting the oil & gas exploration plan a few days ago. Let's hope this diverse array of voices will be heard, and more rationale attitudes prevail -- we already face enough challenges!


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