“At night, we are prisoners in our huts,” said an elderly Zambian woman who served as chief of a village of some 100 souls. “We cannot go outside…the lions are waiting for us.”
I was there five years ago to film a series that highlighted the ongoing struggle between people and wildlife, a story most in the West have ignored as they pontificate over the best way to save Africa’s cast of charismatic megafauna, with little to no regard to the fate of the continent’s people. What is becoming increasingly clear, however, is there is no path to a sustainable future for the continent’s wildlife unless Africans have a seat at the table.
Most of the villagers we interviewed had harrowing tales to tell, one woman telling of her daughter who was chased out of her hut by lions that then ran her down as she tried to escape to another shelter. Several men from the village used torches to chase the cats off the woman’s half-consumed body, resting only 75 yards from the village. Crocodiles and hippos, too, had taken members of the village as if scenes straight out of Ghost and the Darkness. Wild animals haunt communities across Africa, so an increasing number of so-called African wildlife experts are coming to grips with the fact that most indigenous people are focused on their own survival first rather than any concerns for animals with whom they struggle daily in the food chain.
Already this year, some 60 Zimbabweans have lost their lives to elephants alone, and more than 50 others have been injured. Elephants killed another 70 people in 2021. The battle between man and beast isn’t a distant notion, but rather is the daily reality for families across Sub-Saharan Africa. Yet the disconnect between the fears of many Africans and desires of environmentalists in the West is a chasm that some feel may be too wide and deep to bridge. While the debate heats up, Africans continue to snare, shoot, and poison all manner of wildlife to feed their families and protect themselves, livestock, and crops from leopards, buffalo, lions, elephants, and other animals.
At the heart of the debate is the role of trophy hunting in the future of African wildlife management. What is clear is that removing recreational hunting from the equation eliminates much of the incentive for most Africans to tolerate wildlife in the first place. Without the employment, meat, and funds for communities that foreign hunters provide—to say nothing of significant private donations made by those hunters to schools, orphanages, and clinics—an African sees a lion the same way a western rancher looks upon a coyote. If an animal doesn’t bring value to African people, it is often expendable.
For conservation thought leaders, corporate media chiefs and politicians who live comfortable, safe lives in places like London, New York, and Washington D.C., if they want to be relevant in the future of African wildlife, they would be wise to talk less and listen more…especially when Africans speak.