Jour deux

Day 2: Talibadji, Linguekone & Koussan

The sun crept in through the gaps between the thatch roof and the stone hut, and by 7:30 the day could no longer be ignored. We were greeted with coffee, tea and two loaves of the best bread I have eaten in nearly a year and a half.

Next, we took a relaxed walking tour of the village Talibadji, beginning with the dam the project built, but which lays dry due to a disgruntled local emptying the water to avoid encroachment on his land. We wound our way through the village, passing the fenced-off clusters of huts that signify individual family domains. Many inhabitants were lounging outside, preparing breakfast on open fires, and nearly all of these unimaginably generous and poor residents offered us breakfast. We made our way back to the peaceful camp, remarking all the way on the beautifully calm atmosphere of the village.

We then filmed our first interview. Soulemane Bane, a 42-year-old cattle farmer, is a volunteer eco-guard for the reserve, as well as the volunteer maintainer of our tourist retreat. The eco-guards are unpaid residents appointed by the community to uphold and reinforce the ideals of the reserve. This mainly entails monitoring the area for, and discouraging, hunting and logging, especially illegal logging by those outside the community. His age and knowledge of the reserve were appealing for a film on the project versus the people’s needs, but what really catalyzed the interview was an offhand and very candid conversation Gabriel had with him the night before. In fact, his ideas on the project and its potential ramifications unveiled an aspect of conservation that often goes unvoiced and overlooked. In essentials, he expressed that he was an eco-guard not for any concern of the animals or the environment, but because he expected the position would at some point be paid. He did explain that the reserve had allowed specials to rebound that had diminished greatly since his childhood, but he was skeptical of the benefit. Particularly with the return of leopards and lions, he feared for the cattle and children, who are accustomed to wandering freely without trepidation.

Young lions. (Photo credit Jono Gilbert)

This perspective beautifully underscores the disconnection between the Western ideals of conservation and the needs, desires and priorities of local people. Filming this aspect would make for brilliant discussions the project’s goals and structure, as well as the broader scope of conservation in these delicate situations. With our cameras rolling, however, the narrative completely changed. Suddenly his answers were full of praise for the creation of the reserve and for the project’s presence and education. When asked why he became an eco-guard, there was no mention of money, merely a desire to protect the animals and the land, and an interest in what the project could teach them about sustainable living. Moreover, when probed further about whether or not he wants the animals to return, there was no hint of apprehension, only a reiterated stance that the reserve is good and working, and that if there are more animals (especially lions), tourists will come, and if they are happy, he is happy.

From left to right: Jono (Farsight team), Soulemane (cattle herder and Eco-Guard), Gabriel (guide)

The answers initially shocked me; we were expecting the brutal truth and instead got the sugar coated lines he thought we wanted to hear. With a little hindsight, it was less surprising – nobody likes to be candid with a camera directly in his or her face. But its not only a shame and a missed opportunity, but also points to an important cultural hindrance to projects such as this. If people are inclined to appease, as Senegalese seem to be, then their stance changes on a whim, and their true opinions rarely see the light of day. What it results in is the people happily agreeing to the conservation aims, feigning support without ever raising the concerns that leads the projects to ultimately flounder. But if the people living in the area fear the animals we are avidly seeking to increase, all we’ve done is create more potential conflicts between humans and wildlife. Moreover, if the people support conservation solely for the economic benefits, we are doomed to overexploitation.

Take the case of the baobab. The fruits have gained traction abroad, and the baobab may provide an opportunity for economic development in the Boundou. However, the trees take 10 years (five with active fertilization) from seedling to producing fruit. Once the baobab becomes profitable, it is likely, as with the logging, that the people will take all the fruits to maximize their short-term profits, without recognizing their long-term undoing.

The same could happen-if tourism develops. With roads and housing clear-cutting the reserve, and tour guides ignoring ecological principles in the pursuit of the animals that bring in the most tips. Worst still is the possibility that game hunting becomes the tourist mainstay, if lions, leopards and elephants are returned to the area. Such endeavors, while lucrative, have seemingly failed to result in conservation progress, and have instead fostered the exorbitant captive breeding of majestic ‘wildlife’ for the purpose of trophy hunts – thus perpetuating a utilitarian and apathetic stance towards wildlife.

To say the state of the Boundou is complicated is clearly euphemistic. However, it is a fascinating case study for conservation, and how to balance the lives of the people and their prosperity with that of the environment.

School children playing with a tyre. (Photo credit Jono Gilbert)

The subsequent interviews with school children in Linguekone only reinforced the disconnect between the inherent value conservation puts on the environment with the utilitarian lens the locals view it through. Four children were interviewed, ages 9-18 (although the 18 year old was something more like 14 in our opinion). None were able to give a non-utilitarian reason for planting trees or protecting the land and animals, though they said such things were important to protect because they provide food, money, medicine, and shade. They considered only domesticated animals in need of protection, and most had given no thought to protecting wild animals, although they are willing to eat them. They don’t even recognize they are in a reserve; let alone what a reserve is or what intends to do. Their behaviour is clearly learned, as demonstrated by the issue of trash. The streets are littered with plastic refuse, an issue the project hopes to change. We asked them why they litter, and all responded that it was because they see other people doing it. None had given thought to alternatives, although two remembered trash being centrally tossed and eventually burned.

Again, the issue arises of the adults and communities holding sway over ecological behaviours and attitudes, and of the adults failing to meet our standards. Although, while the case of the animals or harvesting profitable products from the land is fraught with complications, the case of the trash is just pure apathy. Perhaps it’s a practice that can be changed – though what is the best alternative? Burning? Setting up a collection system? But what happens to it after it is collected? Who pays? Perhaps it’s not as simple as I thought…

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