I sometimes think conservationists — with their unending warnings of gloom and doom — are the most depressing people on earth.
But then I run into people like Alfred Kikoti, a young Tanzanian ecologist who's ebullient despite being unceremoniously crammed into the very rear of our wildly bouncing vehicle as we take back roads to cross the border with Kenya near Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Amused by my party's wildlife checklists, Kikoti is holding forth on the over 1,000 species of birds, 300 species of mammals…and four species of roads that endow his country. “You have already seen three of them,” he beams about the roads.
(Apparently, this tooth-jarring elephant path that's abusing us — as we brace ourselves in this metal box on wheels optimistically called a Land Cruiser — actually qualifies as a road of sorts.)
Kikoti works for the African Wildlife Foundation, one of the oldest conservation NGOs in Africa and a key partner for The Nature Conservancy on the continent.
He's showing us a recently designated wildlife corridor that will allow elephants to safely traverse the highly fragmented agricultural lands between two preserves they frequent: the forested slopes of Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park and the simmering grasslands of Kenya's Amboseli National Park below.
As land becomes increasingly fragmented in the region, elephants searching for fodder and water have had to thread through a gauntlet of agriculture and settlements to get between the parks.
Scientists first had to figure out (with the aid of GPS collars) the exact paths elephants were habitually using and where the conflict spots might be with humans — where the animals might trample a hut or destroy crops.
Next, researchers documented the importance to local communities of leaving some land uncultivated as a reservoir for livestock, fuel-wood, honey and medicinal plants. Then Kikoti and his team set about convincing the local communities that the corridor would be in their best interest.
Now — after many years of dialogue — the Tanzania side of this no-agriculture corridor is complete, acknowledged by both communities and the government.
It is an impressive project — set in the heart of an impoverished country and created voluntarily. This is tangible conservation accomplished not through big money, big government or big litigation, but simply through artful persuasion.
Alfred Kikoti is an unabashed optimist. And in East Africa, he is not alone. Everywhere we go here, conservationists tell us the same thing: Sure, there are plenty of problems with the country or the government or the wildlife. But by and large, "things are getting better!"
This is a rare quality in my field — especially among my Western colleagues and graduate students. Of course, conservation biology was born as a crisis discipline, with U.S. rivers catching on fire in the 1960s and influential books such as Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb published in the 1970s.
But conservationists have been content for the past two decades to peddle bad news disguised as clarion calls-to-action. We have succeeded in getting people's attention, but not in directing them towards tangible lasting action. It has been akin to crying fire in a crowded theater without knowing where the exits are.
Many conservation students tell me that they rarely read environmental books anymore and don't even watch wildlife shows on TV. "Why do we need to know how screwed up our planet is?" they ask.
I can see their point. Despite the welcome and newfound interest in the environment — despite green being touted as the new black — we risk inundating our audience with enough bad news to render them catatonic.
Michael Soule, my graduate school advisor and one of the founding fathers of the conservation movement, puts it well: "Coffins don’t sell simply because they are on sale."
I don't have a simple explanation for the optimism of my East African colleagues. Maybe they simply enjoy showing their work to a bunch of visiting foreigners. Maybe they are finally finding a new field through which they feel empowered to effect change. And maybe they are seeing their old landscapes in a new way, illuminated by newfound knowledge.
But there is another explanation: That they focus not on what’s been lost, but what still remains. After all, the true miracle of Africa is that — despite rampant corruption, widespread diseases and grinding poverty — so much wildlife has managed to persist.
When I ask Kikoti about how he explains his optimism, he ponders, his constant monologue silenced for a brief moment. “If you keep going, the road always gets better,” he finally responds.
An incomplete answer at best — but beautifully timed. As our vehicle leaves the foothills of Mt. Kilimanjaro, we finally encounter the fourth species of Tanzania road…the blessedly smooth tarmac.
The opinions expressed in Wild Life are those of the author and should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy or any of its other employees.August 14, 2011