Human-wildlife conflict highlighted in award-winning SA documentary

The Edge of Existence, directed by James Suter and Charlie Luckock, delves into the issues, causes and challenges of the threat to wildlife and human life, and considers sustainable solutions.

Conservation is under strain. Pressure from communities living on the borders of wildlife reserves, is resulting in encroachment, poaching and overgrazing.

According to the latest update (March 2020),  by the  World Database on Protected Areas (WDPA) the terrestrial protected areas across the globe cover 20,4 million km² – which equates to 15.1% of the world’s landmass.

Conversely, local communities living in the vicinity of wildlife areas suffer significant losses as local farmers’ crops are decimated by raiding elephants, and livestock is killed by predators. Both animals and people are often injured or killed, especially in open systems, where the conservation boundaries are not fenced in.

The situation results in a loss of income and even starvation, and in this context, it is not surprising to see poaching on the increase, reinforced by local and international demand for bush meat.

In Africa, 1,967 sites have been identified as Key Biodiversity Areas; that is, areas that contribute to the global persistence of biodiversity, including vital habitat for threatened plant and animal species. Of these sites,  only 38% fall enjoy any form of protection.

Suter says that in making the documentary, they set out to provide a comprehensive, balanced and objective overview to the scale and severity of human-wildlife conflict.

“One of the most interesting things about this project is that it’s a story that hasn’t really been told, and it’s a story that affects populations of people all around the world, as well as wilderness areas and the wildlife that inhabits them,” said Suter.

They specifically focused on the western boundary of the Grumeti concession area (comprising IGGR, Ikona WMA and village grazing land), but the issues they covered are universal across wildlife areas in Africa. “We’ve taken the western corridor of the Serengeti as a microcosm of what happens around the world. Yes, it happens in different ways and different species are involved, but it’s a massive issue here in Africa facing conservation. With the exponential growth in populations, both people and wildlife stand to be affected,” said Suter. 

“Few people really understand the concept of human-wildlife conflict. Even within the conservation space, it’s a topic that only recently is starting to be discussed. It has always lived in the shadow of poaching. Human-wildlife conflict, in my opinion, is a much bigger issue. It affects wilderness areas, not just one specific species, and its impact is complex.”

Suter explains that the wildlife market is fuelling the fire. “You got people subsistence poaching, basically hunting as they always did to feed themselves. A lot of people see this as a right. On the other side of the coin, you’ve also got a huge demand for bush meat. It’s become a syndicate operation.  There is a huge market in Africa for bush meat, there’s also a huge number of Africans living abroad with a massive demand for bush meat.   

It’s all done illegally. There are large ports, like Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. It’s not impossible for these guys to illegally ship tons of bush meat in one shipment. 

“In Tanzania, with the annual wildlife migration, tens of thousands of animals are poached every year with wire snares. It’s similar to fishing. They will take a line and there are hundreds of nooses along the line. The poor animals die such a slow and lingering death.”

The documentary looks at the conflict from a very personal perspective, considering the lives and the stories of both conservationists and villagers. “We met so many people who had been so badly affected by human-wildlife conflict. Subsistence farmers, who if they can grow a surplus, they can sell their crops and send their kids to school. 

“In a single sitting, an elephant or herd of elephants can decimate a field of mielies, destroying a family’s food and income for a season. We have documented people who were attacked by leopard and killed by elephant.”

“What we are really trying to do with the human wildlife conflict story is come from an objective opinion. Look at both sides. Look at the people living with wildlife, empathise with them. Look at the wildlife that are affected by the people and empathise with them. Look at the conservation organisations that are working to mitigate conflict, but at the same time protect wildlife, which ironically actually has a negative effect on people – increasing wildlife has a negative affect populations of people living with those wildlife. We are also looking at what governments do as well. It is very complex and this is why it is such a difficult story to tell.”

The South African conservation documentary, scooped a top award at the 10th annual Wildlife Conservation Film Festival (WCFF). Out of 150 documentaries at the festival, The Edge of Existence won the award for, “Best Human and Nature Film”.

View The Edge of Existence trailer online:

Credit: Sacha Specker

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