National park boundaries have separated local people from wildlife, both physically and psychologically, to the extent that human communities no longer know how to coexist with wildlife and do not perceive any benefit of protecting wild animals. This growing divide threatens the lives of humans and wildlife species, particularly elephants. The goal of our park visitation program is to begin repairing the disconnect between humans and wildlife, by offering local people the opportunity to directly benefit from living near wildlife in the most intuitive and perhaps meaningful way possible: through personal experience. To date, we have brought more than 3,000 local people to visit Ruaha National Park. This program increases peoples’ opportunities to enjoy positive experiences with wild animals, and has begun a foundation of support for wildlife conservation among local people.
While Tanzania represents one the most biologically diverse countries in Africa, as well as one of the premier tourist destinations on earth, the vast majority of Tanzanians have never had the opportunity to visit a Tanzanian National Park. It is estimated that 95% of Tanzanians have never even seen a lion or elephant in the wild. The reason for this is that most Tanzanians do not have the means to pay for a vehicle, which is most often the required mode of transportation inside national parks. Meanwhile, local people are left to bear the enormous burden of living near protected wildlife. Subsistence farmers frequently experience devastating crop losses due to raiding animals, and pastoralists must remain ever vigilant against carnivores like lions and cheetahs predating upon their cattle.
Despite these conflicts, people living in these areas are as enamored as anyone by the incredible beauty and majesty of wild animals, and are desirous of the opportunity to view and learn about them. The goal of our work is to re-connect local people with wildlife, and engage them as genuine partners in elephant conservation.
In 2010, we started a park visitation program for villagers living around the boundary of Ruaha National Park. For a day, participants are provided the opportunity and resources to visit the park with a local, professional guide. Our guide teaches visitors about the wildlife species encountered in the park, including lions, cheetahs, elephants, impala, hippos, etc, etc. Special attention is given to locating, watching, and discussing elephants. People alway respond very strongly to seeing elephants and express keen interest in learning about their matriarchal family structure, intelligence, long memories, feeding ecology, and general life history. We use this opportunity to discuss the effect poaching is having on the viability of the population, as well as their behavior. Participants are also given a digital camera of their own to use for the day, and are later given photos that they have taken during their park visit to keep as souvenirs. These photographs represent tangible mementos of each individual’s experience and reinforce the positive experience each participant had in the park. They also serve as important dissemination tools in the village.
This program has been incredibly successful, where the number of people who wish to participate far outnumbers our capacity. As always, it is the participants who are our greatest ambassadors; a sample of quotes collected from past participants is below:
“I thank you for taking me to the park, and I will now be like a park ranger because I won’t keep quiet when I see poachers.”
“It will be good to send all villagers to the park, because if everyone goes, then no one will poach.”
“By visiting the park I can see that the main problem is people disturbing animals, not the other way around.”
“I beg this project to continue with this – with all the education we are getting, I swear poaching activities will stop.”
“(The highlight of my trip was) to see an elephant, which (I saw) eats grass, because since I was born I had never seen an elephant.”
“The highlight of my trip was to see elephants, because they are peaceful if undisturbed.”
“(I request) an increase in security so we can decrease the death of elephants from poachers.”
“(The highlight of my trip) was to see the animals and learn how to protect them.”