“Alright, I’m ready- sorry, guys. Shall we go?”
I remember how excited I was that day. So much so that I just grabbed the kaki shirt I regularly used for work and put it on without thinking twice about it, rushing out of the house to reach the parking lot where a big cross-country car was waiting. Silly me. When I got to the car, I noticed that my colleague Lars was wearing the volunteer t-shirt we were given on our first day a week prior- which made me realize that I was supposed to wear mine, too. I quickly apologized and ran back to the house to change. At least, I managed to get it done quickly enough. Now everything was checked. We hopped into the car, and finally left.
By that time, I had adjusted to the daily routine at Kinyonga Reptile Centre- show up for work at 9 am, then spend the day cleaning cages (by far the most time-consuming of our tasks), feeding animals, and serve as guides for visitors. However, that day was going to be very different. Donald Strydom, Kinyonga’s owner and founder, decided to take me and fellow volunteer Lars with him to assist with the interactive presentation he was going to deliver for tourists at a wildlife reserve nearby. Being a very respected and knowledgeable figure in South Africa, he was often called for such events and liked to involve volunteers as well- which both Lars and I were very much looking forward to.
The game reserve was 45 minutes away by car, giving Donald plenty of time to debrief us on the road. It turned out that the people we were going to meet were not exactly ordinary people. In fact, the presentation was to be given to members of a network connecting some of the richest people on the planet. These people, Donald said, embarked on customized safari tours in Africa every year, and his snake demonstration had been featured in their itinerary for a long time already by then. Of course, the package included strict rules- no pictures allowed, no talking to the guests unless spoken to. For security reasons, we weren’t even told who they actually were. Lars and I were not sure how to feel about it- we barely had any experience with public events in the first place, let alone in such a setting. Man, this was going way beyond my expectations.
When we finally arrived at the reserve, we immediately noticed that the perimeter was surrounded by a fence to keep animals inside. However, as George Orwell aptly put it, some animals are more equal than others. That kind of fence is very effective with big game species such as elephants and rhinos, but nigh useless when it comes to smaller animals, from birds to lizards and monkeys- they are perfectly able to dig their way out or simply fly over the fence, eventually ending up exposed to the dangers of unprotected land.
It can be argued that the reason why such confinement measures are implemented is profit rather than actual conservation- tourists and trophy hunters pay substantial amounts of money to see or shoot lions, buffalos, elephants, not for reptiles or rodents. The mindset behind many protected areas and game reserves (especially private ones) all around Africa is “if it pays, it stays”, meaning that the very existence of such areas is geared towards charismatic game species. It is true that centering conservation efforts around charismatic megafauna will often have positive cascading effects on the ecosystem as a whole, but this cannot be blindly assumed– not to mention the disrupted migration and territorial patterns of several charismatic species themselves due to fences and human structures restricting the area and obstructing the way. In the end, as conservation biology expert Dr. Hans de Iongh remarked during a class I had with him two years ago, it gets to the point where protected areas become some sort of open-air zoos where the animals are fed, constantly monitored, and medicated by assigned staff to ensure that visitors keep coming and money keeps flowing. Moreover, many protected areas throughout the continent have a history of human rights violations and colonial wrongdoing- to paraphrase the words of Mexican wildlife biologist Sergio Avila regarding a nearly identical pattern in North America, they were created by white people, for white people.
Multiple prime examples of this phenomenon are extensively discussed in The Big Conservation Lie, one of the most eye- opening books I’ve ever read. Written by journalist John Mbaria and carnivore ecologist Dr. Mordecai Ogada, the book denounces the persistent colonial legacy that still poisons the very core of wildlife conservation today. Taking their home country of Kenya as an example, the authors shatter the veil of self-sacrifice and alleged genuine compassion to expose the ugliest side of conservation in Africa, from the vested interests of foreign multi-million dollar companies to the substrate of racism and paternalism that lies beneath the apparently selfless and no-profit work of global NGOs like WWF (which was recently involved in a far-reaching human rights violation scandal). In short, Western conservation paradigms have turned wildlife into a marketable product whose existence depends on how much profit it can generate- that is, for those “heroes” who own the land and the animals themselves. Nowadays, the ever-present Western élite of landowners-turned-“conservationists” is often joined by equally wealthy and racially prejudiced figures from- among other places- the Middle East and China, who are wasting no time in appropriating, and profiting off, Africa’s wildlife (in a variety of ways).
Another deleterious consequence of such commodification of nature and profit-oriented conservation is the often complete, and even more often deliberate, alienation of local communities from their own natural heritage. In fact, neocolonialist dynamics are apparent when one faces the fact that all major “champions” of conservation in the eyes of the general public are invariably white Westerners, from Richard Leakey and Daphne Sheldrick all the way to Steve Irwin. To refer once more to The Big Conservation Lie, the message is that heroic white knights are devoting their lives to save Africa’s nature from African people- who, of course, are way too short-sighted and uncivilized to care for their native wildlife. Nobody would ever dare say this explicitly- on the contrary, most of the very people who personify this phenomenon genuinely believe there is no racism involved whatsoever. In the end, though, indigenous communities are forcibly displaced to make room for new nature reserves, their ancestral lands are privatized and sold to white investors who enjoy hefty revenues from tourism and trophy hunting, and native conservation practices born of traditional ecological knowledge are dismissed as “primitive” despite a centuries-long history of success.
At the entrance, we were greeted by a ranger who escorted us all the way to the campsite in the middle of the bushveld. The landscape was simply a delight, much less so the rocky terrain that caused our vehicle to bounce constantly- but it was well worth the experience of diving into such a beautiful scenery. The bushveld ecosystem is dominated by bushes and shrubs, but short trees abound as well, providing food for a great variety of herbivores. Clearly, the reserve was benefitting at least some of the wildlife in terms of protection and preservation of habitat. It is not my intention here to outright deny the contribution of protected lands to conservation (which would be simply absurd), but rather to point out that the “fortress protected area” model whereby nobody bar wealthy foreigners is allowed to make use of wildlife and/or land (no matter how sustainably) is obsolete and harmful to local communities to an extent that simply can’t be overlooked in the name of conservation. Sure, conservation can be forcibly imposed onto people and still succeed in terms of wildlife recovery and/or profit. However, we can- in fact, we must– no longer pretend that “there is no other way” or that “wildlife is the only thing that matters”.
My train of thoughts was abruptly interrupted when we spotted a small herd of impalas (Aepyceros melampus) quietly grazing the scarce patches of grass that managed to grow in winter. These elegant antelopes are one of the most common species found in the savanna, yet they appeared more than unique to an eye that had only seen them in documentaries before. They did not run away when the big, roaring vehicle passed next to them, allowing us to snap a couple of pictures before moving on.
We didn’t have to wait long for our next animal encounter- in fact, we couldn’t have possibly missed it to begin with. While my eyes were wandering in awe through the bushveld, Lars, who was sitting on the right side of the vehicle, suddenly shouted: “Look there, a giraffe!” I immediately turned around to face the other side of the trail, and there it was- a majestic Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa giraffa) towering over the landscape, seemingly oblivious to our presence. I don’t know much about giraffes (most of what I learned about them comes from National Geographic documentaries) but spotting one right after the impala herd was a perfect example of how diverse functional traits can be. Both species are 100% herbivorous, yet their diet is markedly different- impalas feed on grasses and small shrub leaves, whereas giraffes browse tall trees thanks to their famously long necks. The dentition, tongue, and digestive tract are also different across species, allowing herbivores to diversify without competing with each other in the savanna- a process that took millions of years and is still ongoing in this very moment. These animals are proof that there is more to biodiversity than just species richness- evolutionary diversification (phylogenetic diversity) and variety of traits associated with particular functions in the ecosystem (functional diversity) can actually tell us much more about the history and dynamics of life on Earth than mere species counts.
A few minutes later, we finally arrived at the campsite- although I’m unsure whether that is the most appropriate word to describe something of such sort. There was a huge tent with rows of tables full of delicious, fresh food, while a stand attended to by two muscular guards showcased a bottle of champagne complete with chalices for the guests. Smaller tents where the visitors slept were visible behind the bigger structure, which was erected right on the shore of a large pond where, as we would eventually learn, two hippos and at least one crocodile dwelled. Lars and I jumped out of the jeep while Donald parked his car and began preparing for the demonstrations. We carefully took the snake containers and placed them behind a bush with tongs and hooks, ready for Donald once the guests were ready for the event. Speaking of the guests, they were busy watching a documentary on lion conservation under the big tent, as the manager who came to greet us explained. Since Donald was called for demonstrations in that reserve every year, staff and owners alike knew him well- so well that they just wouldn’t leave him for a second. While he was busy recalling previous times with his friends, Lars and I were approached by some curious visitors who probably were only able to sit still in front of a documentary for so long. Three kids around 8-10 years old (personal guess) walked up to us, their body language showing no signs of hesitation nor suspiciousness- I liked them at first sight, which, considering how bad I am with children, is saying something. One of them in particular appeared especially interested, bombarding us with questions that we were not allowed to answer- Donald had prepared a surprise that just could not be spoilt.
“Do you have real snakes?”
“We know you do”.
“Will you let us touch them?”
“Just wait and see”.
“It wouldn’t make sense otherwise though, right?”
The girl is going places, I’m telling you. Her name was Sophia (or Sofia, for what I know) and she was the oldest of the three. I presumed the girl at her side to be her younger sister given the evident resemblance, whereas the boy who followed them was probably just a friend- his hair was jet black as opposed to the girls’ honey blond, and physical features didn’t match either. Speaking of him, he then turned to the rangers at the champagne stand, eagerly explaining to them which country he and his family would visit next in their world-tour holiday. I can’t remember which one it was, but believe me, the whole description gave a clear idea of how rich this kid’s family must have been. The evident luxury of the campsite itself was an even more apparent giveaway- people had the chance to enjoy the “wilderness” while living in a nearly five-start facility. The resemblance to colonial estates of old, where the white élite revelled in artificially created “wild” areas devoid of those annoying natives who just couldn’t understand they had been destroying nature for thousands of years until Western saviors allowed them to be enlightened by the superior European wisdom, was striking in my mind.
In the end, Donald’s demonstration was a huge success. Not only his level of skill and expertise with the snakes is unmatched, but he is also a great presenter and public speaker. The audience was in awe when he brought out cobras, puff adders, and boomslangs for them to behold while busting myths and promoting snake conservation at the same time. The children- once again spearheaded by Sophia- were enraptured. In the meantime, Lars and I were standing behind the audience- until Donald rallied us for the final twist of the event. To the guests’ amazement, we took out a 2.5 meter-long Burmese python for them to touch and hold, which most of them happily tried. Needless to say, the kids were once again at the forefront- their smiles going from ear to ear once they caressed the python’s outstretched body were a joy to watch. The people we met and assisted that day sure were not evil- at least not that we could discern- and most likely were genuinely convinced that their presence and the donations they would bring would be a benefit for everyone in the area. However, the substrate of social inequality, poverty, and injustice perpetrated in the name of conservation cannot be erased by such acts of (often unconscious, but nonetheless unhelpful) saviorism. In conservation, perhaps more than in any other field, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.