The power of digital media in wildlife conservation

Jul 6, 2019 | News

Sifelani Tsiko Agric, Environment & Innovations Editor – The Herald

Wildlife films can be a powerful tool in raising awareness of conservation and environmental issues. Apart from the entertainment value people get, the films can help create debate and inspire a positive change that can help conserve Africa’s wildlife heritage which is under severe pressure from poaching and the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products.

Recently, the University of Zimbabwe faculty of science in partnership with the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) premièred ‘‘Sides of a Horn,” a short wildlife film that captures riveting scenes of poaching and the issues that drive it in most African communities rich in wildlife resources.

The film was launched to help bring the story to the global audience through the power of story telling and dialogue.

“This film demonstrates the potential and power of the digital media in fighting wildlife crimes,” says Patience Gandiwa, a senior official of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

“There has been very little investment in the digital media to create messages that promote conservation and make people to appreciate the value of their wildlife heritage.”

The award winning short dramatic film was written and directed by Toby Wosskow from executive producer Richard Branson.

It was filmed in South African townships and is predominantly in Zulu with English subtitles.

The 17 – minute film explores the illegal rhino horn trade, specifically looking at how community and family dynamics are disrupted when two brothers find themselves on opposite sides of the poaching crisis.

“Sides of a Horn is thought provoking. It explores the real issues behind the illegal wildlife trade and makes it abundantly clear that we need to put that much more effort towards protecting this iconic species and ensure that local communities can fully benefit from their wildlife and wild lands,” says AWF chief executive Kaddu Sebunya.

AWF has invested heavily in rhino conservation across the African continent. Some of the projects that AWF has supported include rhino sanctuaries in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.

In March last year, the last remaining northern white rhino in the world died, leaving the sub-species facing extinction.

Black rhinos, are critically endangered and the AWF estimates that only 5 050 black rhinos remain in the wild today, down from a population of 65 000 in 1964.

The showing of the movie at the UZ generated interest and provoked debate on poaching and wildlife conservation issues.

UZ environmentalist and researcher, Professor Christopher Magadza says poaching still continues unabated in most areas adjacent to game sanctuaries because the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) – a Zimbabwean community-based natural resource management initiative had failed to address individual poverty.

“The system failed to address individual poverty in rural communities,” he says. “Only private conservancies and rural district councils are benefiting. Locals are not benefiting. Yes, clinics and schools have been built, but how do you address the needs of someone who needs food, school fees and clothing or money to get treatment?

“Individual poverty still persist and it has not been addressed by the Campfire initiative. Locals still have no say in how the wildlife is managed. They have no say in how they should benefit.”

Local communities, he says, have been the biggest losers in the conflicts between communities and wildlife resulting in loss of property,crops and life.

The conflicts between the rangers and communities and that between Zimpaks and Rural District Councils has also compounded the problems.

The conflict revolves around hunting quotas and sharing of sport hunting proceeds.

Sebunya says apart from the need to benefit from wildlife resources, greater emphasis should also be placed in taking pride in Africa’s wildlife heritage.

“There is so much obsession about benefits. Benefits from our wildlife should not be about money only. Not all of us are going to benefit. We are not going to benefit or survive if the wildlife and the environment don’t survive,” he says.

“Conservation should not be an end to itself. We need to ask ourselves what is the benefit of the wildlife to our ecosystem. A huge benefit to us is our ecosystem. The wildlife defines who we are as Africans, its part of us.”

He says education, involvement, dialogue and engagement of local communities is critical in all efforts to save the wildlife.

Yolanda Mutinhima, of the Global Youth Biodiversity Network says there was need for youth involvement in wildlife conservation matters as well as improving local participation in wildlife conservation efforts.

“Local people are alienated from being the custodians of their wildlife. They are not benefiting and this tends to drive up poaching,” she says. “Local community participation and you involvement is quite important.”

Zimbabwe and most other African countries are facing an unprecedented spike in poaching and illegal wildlife trade which is threatening to decimate the continent’s rich wildlife resource base.

Poaching is threatening the survival of elephants, rhinos, cheetahs, lions, hippos and a whole list of other animals still found on the continent.

Wildlife crime is now prevalent across Africa with a complex web of highly dangerous international networks. Wildlife and animal parts are being trafficked to various parts of the world.

The poaching of elephants for ivory and other wild animals for their skins and bones has taken on new and deadly dimensions, with poachers using chemicals such as cyanide to poison wildlife.

Countless other species such as turtles, pangolins, snakes and other wild plants and animals are being caught or harvested from the wild and then sold to buyers who make food, pets, ornamental plants, leather, tourist ornaments and medicine.

Tusk Trust, a wildlife organisation, reports that 100 000 elephants were killed in the past few years, leaving a population of about 400 000 — half what it was more than two-and-half decades ago.

Rampant poaching in the sub-Saharan range has resulted in the deaths of 100 000 elephants from 2011 to 2013, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Tanzania’s elephant population plummeted by 60 percent to 43 330 in the five years ending in 2014, according to the Great Elephant Census, carried out by a coalition of wildlife groups while Mozambique lost half its elephants in the same period, falling to 10 300.

Wildlife campaigners say the statistics “underscore the toxic mix of determined criminal gangs, corrupt government officials and a strong market for smuggled ivory in Asia — particularly in China — which has deepened its economic ties to Africa in recent years.”

Another round cyanide poisonings in Zimbabwe killed 14 elephants in September 2015 while 26 more were found poisoned at two sites in the Hwange National Park, according to the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority.

In 2013, cyanide poisoning decimated about 300 elephants in Hwange as poachers placed salt laced with cyanide near wildlife watering holes.

This has had ripple effects on the ecosystem, killing other animals too, including predators feeding off the elephant carcasses.

Zimbabwe has one of Africa’s biggest surviving elephant populations and Hwange National Park is home to half of the country’s estimated 100 000 elephants that are thought to live in this protected area, west of the country. The country has an elephant population of about 100 000 against a carrying capacity of 40 000.

Zimparks authorities blame overpopulation, inadequate funding and manpower for the spike in elephant poaching in conservation spots dotted around the country.

Despite all the woes facing Africa’s wildlife sector, Mr Sebunya said the survival of the continent’s wildlife will depend on whether Africa and its local communities benefit from it or not.

“Africa needs to benefit first and foremost from the sustainable exploitation of its wildlife resources,” he says.

“It is not about stopping the trafficking of wildlife products such as rhino but Africans need to figure out how to benefit from their wildlife.

There must be a benefit from conserving rhinos and elephants, it must be explained.”

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