Notes from the field: Rewilding elephants, protection protocol, revitalizing grasslands

Aug 6, 2020 | News

By Kiley Price – Conservation international

Though news headlines about the state of the planet may seem bleak, they don’t always capture the whole story. Right now, around the world, the work of protecting nature and the climate is happening in the field — and achieving small triumphs that don’t make the news. 

Here are three recent conservation success stories you should know about. 

1. A new start for four African elephants 

In Kenya, African elephants are vulnerable to a variety of threats — from poachers to disease to climate change. 

The Reteti Elephant Sanctuary — the first community-owned elephant sanctuary in East Africa — provides a place for injured elephants to heal and a home for elephants orphaned by poaching. 

In May, four rehabilitated elephant calves between the ages of three and four were released from the sanctuary into the Sera Conservancy, a neighboring swath of land protected from poachers by a network of rangers from local communities. The latest reports confirm that they are successfully integrating into the wild rangelands. 

Two of these calves were rescued after falling into a community well and getting stuck in mud, while the other two were taken to the sanctuary after being orphaned during a severe drought. For four years, members of the Samburu community cared for the young elephants at the sanctuary, with the ultimate goal of returning them to the wild. 

With support from Conservation International, members of the semi-nomadic Samburu pastoralist community have helped run the sanctuary since 2008, rescuing and returning dozens of elephants to the wild. 

“Beyond rescuing orphaned or abandoned baby elephants, Reteti is winning the hearts of local communities in favor of conservation of their wildlife,” said Matthew Lewis, who leads Conservation International’s work to stop wildlife trafficking in Africa. “The facility has created jobs for the locals including women and is generating income from tourism to be invested in community projects.”

  • Meet the African elephants of Reteti — and the community trying to save them — in Conservation International’s “My Africa” virtual reality film. 
2. Tourism guidelines to support iconic marine species — and local communities 

The waters of Timor-Leste offer a spectacular display of coral reefs and iconic marine life, including 30 different species of whales and dolphins.

This biodiversity has made the Southeast Asian island nation a fast-growing hub for ecotourism, which provides economic benefits and job opportunities for local people. However, the tourism industry could harm the species it depends on if not done sustainably.  

To prevent this, Conservation International and the Timor-Leste Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries partnered to establish a list of responsible tourism guidelines for interactions with whales, dolphins and dugongs. 

“The goal of these guidelines is to help protect the high number of whale, dugong and dolphin species and unique multi-species groups found in Timor-Leste, while encouraging sustainable tourism practices that will benefit local communities,” said Olive Andrews, a marine program manager at Conservation International who helped create the guidelines. 

By creating off-limits areas designated for people, the guidelines will ensure that commercial and recreational boat operators do not disturb species while they are breeding, feeding and resting. They will also require commercial operators, vessels and tour guides to receive safety training and to register with the government of Timor-Leste for regular inspections and monitoring. 

“Timor-Leste is among the best places on Earth to see an array of iconic marine species and learn about them from knowledgeable local guides,” said Andrews. “If followed effectively, the guidelines will provide a sustainable and consistent source of income for communities and educate the public to become stewards for nature, while protecting vulnerable species of whales, dolphins and dugongs in the region.”

3. An unlikely conservation ally in South Africa’s poorest province

“Back in the olden days the valleys were so beautiful, with more than enough grass for our livestock, indigenous forest, rivers overflowing with fish,” recalled Mangena Goodfriday Maqashalala, a septuagenarian known throughout his village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape for his passion for agriculture. 

Over time, however, invasive wattle trees overtook the grasses livestock needed to feed. Cattle became diseased and stopped breeding. The streams dried up.

In this arid savanna, Conservation South Africa (CSA) — a Conservation International field office — is helping rural farmers restore their degraded lands. The work is funded by Toyota, the global car manufacturer, whose grant program has been supporting these conservation efforts since 2017. Toyota is investing in South Africa’s next generation of rural, communal farmers who have historically been forgotten in the country’s turbulent political past, enabling them to improve their knowledge and skills — and ultimately their earnings — in a way that is ecologically sound. 

“Toyota South Africa Motors (TSAM) is first and foremost a corporate citizen and its values — among others — are premised on respect for people and the communities in which they live,” said Mzo Witbooi, a corporate communications manager at TSAM. “The project aims to encourage each Toyota region — including TSAM — to face up to global as well as local environmental issues and take an active role in creating a better world.”

Through this partnership, CSA has held a series of trainings and workshops with communities and grazing associations to teach farmers to clear invasive species, restore grasses and streams, recognize and treat livestock diseases, and adopt more sustainable land practices, such as rotational grazing. 

The end result: thriving grasslands and healthy cattle that fetch significantly higher prices at market, motivating farmers to stay local and care for the land — sustainably.

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