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Dr Mark Infield, Fauna & Flora International’s Cultural Values Programme Director, explains how we can harness people’s deep (and sometimes surprising) connections with nature for the benefit of all.
Some months ago I wrote about the difficulty of creating economic arguments for conserving geckos. The same cannot be said for crocodiles. Though arguments continue about whether trade in crocodile skins helps retain these magnificent (though slightly scary) creatures in the wild, there is no question about their economic importance.
Even so, I can understand why communities might not worry too much about the loss of crocodiles from the rivers where they draw water, bathe and fish. However I was soon put straight on this point by the women of Marverma village in Liberia when I visited them. When they discovered I was travelling with the Warden of the new Lake Piso Multiple Use Reserve, they demanded his help. People were laying nets in the key rivers and channels of this magnificent wetland and they wanted it stopped. Because people were stealing their fish? No. Because the nets were killing crocodiles.
I am indebted to the Arcus Foundation for my trip to Lake Piso. The Arcus Foundation funds ape conservation and thought there might be a relationship between the Vai people and chimpanzees that could help conserve this increasingly threatened species. It is known that the Wedjeh clan living around nearby Sapo National Park consider chimpanzees as relatives and forbid their hunting, so it was a reasonable thought. Unfortunately, although the Vai do not hunt chimpanzees, they are quite happy if someone else does. There was nothing in their relationship to help chimp conservation.
Despite this disappointment, I found plenty of other connections. Scratch beneath the surface and communities reveal profound and often surprising connections to nature and their natural world.
The magical societies of west Africa are notoriously ‘secretive’ but with the help of Richard Sambolah, a senior Liberia officer at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) who hails from the Lake Piso area, I heard fascinating descriptions of ‘bush schools’ and their forest infrastructure, tales of revered streams and ponds, and mysterious talk of the magnificent cotton trees that stand sentinel in every village we visited.
Finally, the women of Marverma told us about their crocodile oracles, about crocodiles as judges and advisors, and of crocodiles as the friends of the community. Though the turmoil in Liberia has damaged the connection in many areas, for the time being at least, villages are befriended by Nile crocodiles that come when called to provide auguries of the coming harvest, give advice on the wisdom of decisions, and adjudicate in family or community disputes.
Crocodiles are not dangerous to the people and are not feared. And the people, especially the women, protect them.
One of FFI’s great success stories has been its work saving the Siamese crocodile in Cambodia. A deep spiritual connection meant the indigenous Khmer communities conserved this Critically Endangered species for centuries while it disappeared everywhere else. A similar connection between indigenous people and the Philippine crocodile is helping the Mabuwaya Foundation and communities save the last of this species too. So it was exciting to find another example, halfway across the world, of a link between people and crocodiles.
I am more used to hearing of conflicting interests between protected area managers and communities, so it was wonderful to hear the women of Marverma asking for support from the Warden to protect their crocodiles. They might not have been so worried about chimpanzees but they were very concerned about their reptilian friends.
That is why I find exploring the cultural values approach to conservation so exciting. We all have different relationships with nature but, when engaged correctly, we can all support conservation.