It's just a small white box, attached securely to the entrance wall of Botswana’s Chobe National Park. But its presence is an unexpected and profound warning to those who pass through.
Chobe is full of danger — at least according to the warning signs that clutter the idyllic entrance to this park and dissuade us from even getting out of our Land Rover as we fill out some paperwork and pay the entrance fee.
About 120,000 elephants trample through here, along with countless buffalo, lions, leopards, and hyenas. Massive crocodiles float like overturned canoes in the water, while hippos (Africa’s deadliest wild animals) rest in the shallows — uneasy, jostling pods.
Having been to countless national parks around the world, I now read warning signs mostly for amusement. But then I notice the white box, at eye-level and within easy reach.
It dispenses condoms. Completely free!
The dispenser actually makes more sense than the wildlife signs — at least from a local perspective.
Stupid tourists now and then do manage to get munched or trampled by one of the park’s denizens. But AIDS will kill and debilitate many more local residents than the “Big Five” animals — lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo, and elephant — combined. (I just wonder what the bus load of Italian tourists behind us will think.)
In Zambia a few days prior, I had listened to a middle-aged park warden lament the woes of his job. This litany is usually the same worldwide: bad salaries, lousy vehicles and no radios. “We have a capacity problem,” he began.
I eagerly nodded, thinking I'd heard this all before. At The Nature Conservancy, we have whole groups of conservationists working on increasing the capacity of local partners. “More training and equipment?” I asked.
“No," he replied. "My people are dying.”
Just as his wildlife populations had been rebounding from the lows of the 1980s (when poachers had devastated his parks), this warden's staff was now being decimated by HIV/AIDS.
As young men and (increasingly) young women were moving up through the park's ranks and entering middle management, they would become incapacitated by opportunistic infections due to AIDS.
With anti-retroviral (ARV) therapy a distant “city” dream (and poor nutrition as well as other tropical diseases exacerbating the situation), a significant part of the warden's middle-management ranks had fallen.
Worse still, young guys (mostly ex-military) that had been recruited to go on long, lonely anti-poaching patrols deep into the bush were spreading HIV into remote village communities through risky practices.
This vicious cycle keeps HIV alive and well while placing the community and (by extension) wildlife at great risk. Imagine you were a park manager and one out of every seven members of your staff was dying — and in the most productive phases of their lives.
There are 30 million people infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa — and those adults of prime age (between ages 25 and 40) are the hardest hit. In addition to the overwhelming human tragedy, this largely preventable and manageable disease has had unexpected impacts on natural resources.
In Malawi, for example, AIDS deaths have created increasing demand for coffins, which is having a noticeable impact on some tropical hardwood forests.
And as households lose wage-earners to AIDS, survivors are resorting more and more to hunting, fishing, and charcoal production to get by — exploiting fragile natural resources "as the ultimate safety net," says the Africa Biodiversity Collaborative Group, a coalition of non-governmental organizations.
The conservation community is not going to launch major health-care initiatives. But though there are individuals who have done much, as a group we have lagged in our understanding and response to a major threat that is decimating the very people entrusted to safeguard wildlife.
We need to argue that conservation staff who are posted in remote locations must be allowed to have their families join them.
We should fund awareness-raising programs, preventative measures, and ARV therapy — within the ranks of the conservation practitioners and the communities they frequent.
Long-term conservation success in Africa is entirely dependent on local partners and stakeholders. If they are in trouble, we cannot but step in.
"Nowadays when we talk about capacity-building for park staff and managers, we cannot simply focus on training, equipment and compensation," says my colleague Judy Oglethorpe, the director of conservation strategies at WWF-US and a leading thinker on the problem of HIV/AIDS and African conservation. "We must also keep them healthy and working."
None of us that day at the entrance to Chobe National Park took any of the free condoms on offer. (Then again, none of us got out of our Land Rover.)
The dispenser was a potent reminder that, when we Western conservationists talk about capacity-building for conservation in faraway places, what we really mean is understanding local conditions and responding to local needs.
And sometimes it simply means keeping wildlife staff alive.
The opinion's expressed in "Wild Life" are those of the author and should not be construed as the official position of The Nature Conservancy or its employees.February 23, 2011