Wednesday Feb 25
This Wednesday morning we accompany a young American couple on their lion tracking adventure. Dr. Siefert is not available for this trek, so while Dr. Gottfried and I narrate and answer questions, James looks for the lions. Obviously we have learned much about the lions and the park ecology – maybe we have a future in eco-tourism?
We return to the sight of the water buffalo kill, where we have again picked up Sharon’s signal. The buffalo carcass is reduced to mere bones with tiny bits of flesh, and no fewer than 15 white-backed vultures are scavenging the remains…there is no waste here in the park. Sharon and the cubs have moved up the hill and are out of sight in the thick tangle of thorns and low brush. It has become too treacherous for navigation by 4-wheel drive and we must turn back.
Though the morning has yielded no samples for our study, we have successfully located several more lions. More importantly, we have conveyed a wealth of information to some very receptive park tourists. Hopefully this morning has had an impact on them – now they can not only say they have seen lions, but they understand a little more about complex conservation issues.
This afternoon’s communication challenge seems more daunting. We return to the community visited a few days ago, where we paid part compensation for a calf killed by a leopard. Today, Dr. Siefert will present his ideas to move the community forward, and solicit a letter of support from them to apply for grant funding for these improvement projects.
The community meeting takes place on a few rickety wooden benches placed on the dusty ground underneath a tree. The chairman of the community, Eliphaz, and 10 other high-ranking community members are present. Several other men wander in and out, standing quietly behind the benches as Dr. Seifert talks. He attempts to establish himself as “not the police, not the UWA,” but someone who has the interests of wildlife and the community in mind. He describes how his own family in Germany re-established their financial stability following the “misery” of WWII using a combination of agriculture, animal products, and forest eco-tourism, including a pub and restaurant. His point is that this community can also be more successful financially by utilizing similar ideas.
The most pressing need is for construction of proper corrals for the livestock – made 9 meters tall, with wire fence material and weather-resistant poles, surrounded by a second bio-fencing barrier made of the invasive thorny bushes so prevalent throughout the park. Dr. Siefert introduces the concept of “zero grazing” by which livestock are fed on smaller fenced pastures with grasses cultivated by the community, leaving the park grasses available for wild prey species. Not wanting to leave anyone out, he proposes creating sport-fishing eco-tours for the fishermen in the community, and describes accommodations necessary for that industry.
Finally, one man breaks his silence, and Eliphaz translates for us. The community members would like to comment and are becoming impatient! I have the impression that Dr. Siefert’s ideas are a bit overwhelming. They agree that proper livestock pens are essential, but balk at the idea of shared community pens. They argue that people need to be able to check their livestock throughout the day while at home, there is too much potential for disease transmission, and someone would have to be paid to maintain the outside perimeter wire and bio-fence. Dr. Siefert nods, as if understanding, but reminds the group that community pens are more reasonable given UCP’s limited funds.
After a lively discussion, the community decides that they will only agree to support construction of a separate pen for each family, even if that means waiting indefinitely until the funding is available. Dr. Siefert reluctantly consents, requesting cost estimates to be available tomorrow when we return with a letter of support for them to sign. We close the meeting with my statement as a representative of Oakland Zoo, and shake hands again. A woman who has been silent throughout the meeting speaks up, saying that she is happy for the help, unless we are the ones who brought the leopard to the village.
We drive away with mixed emotions. Dr. Siefert’s ideas have been received and discussed honestly, yet in the end, there is always suspicion. He is baffled by the accusation that he (or we!) moves leopards around the park. I try to understand the resistance to change and improvements in the community, and wonder how best to resolve this communication challenge…