Protect the Lions, Help the People, Save the Planet
Simba is in trouble. African lions, those icons of the savannah, have vanished from 94% of their historical range. With fewer than 25,000 remaining in the wild, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists them as vulnerable to extinction. Their problems are many and multiplying as climate change grips the region, but one big threat is human-wildlife conflict. Lacking other food sources, lions prey upon livestock. Locals, having lost a source of income and food, often kill the big cats in retaliation. But in northern Kenya, theres hope. The lion population in the Ewaso landscape is stable, having grown to about 50 known cats in 2022 from 11 in 2008. Thats thanks to the work of Ewaso Lions, a non-profit organization founded by conservationist Shivani Bhalla. Her approach: Rather than working against or apart from those responsible for lion killings, Bhalla works closely with them. Bhalla has been in the spotlight recently after winning a coveted Whitley Gold Award from the UK charity Whitley Fund for Nature (WFN). The common thread across the winners is that their work is as much about improving the lives of local communities as it is about the animals theyre striving to protect. The battle to save our planet could learn a lot from these holistic projects. For example: Tulshi Laxmi Suwals work with her organization Small Mammals Conservation and Research Foundation revolves around developing mutually beneficial solutions for both pangolins under threat from poaching and forest fires and people in Nepal. Mamy Razafitsalama, of non-profit Planet Madagascar, focuses on educating communities to protect forests from human-caused fires and slash-and-burn agriculture methods that are destroying the habitat of lemurs and other species unique to the island nation. Suwals and Razafitsalamas projects also offer training or support in alternative sustainable livelihoods to alleviate poverty and reduce pressure on the environment, whether thats citrus and sugar processing in Madagascar or selling traditional leaf plates, known as tapari, in Nepal. Nothing lives within a glass cage, said Edward Whitley, founder of the WFN. While you can establish a terrific store of biodiversity in a fenced-off nature reserve, it could all disappear in a crisis if people outside it havent been given the resources they need. And communities know best what their land needs to thrive, so any conservation decisions have to come from them. Its not about someone coming from the outside and telling everyone how to do it, Bhalla said. In Kenya, for instance, Jenaria Lekilelei, community conservation director at Ewaso Lions and former Samburu warrior, started a program called Warrior Watch. By tracking lions, warriors are able to help herders avoid clashing with the big cats. The lions are left in peace, and local livelihoods remain unplundered. The success of the program is a contrast with Kenyas struggling wildlife-conflict compensation scheme, says Dino Martins, a WFN trustee and former Gold Award winner. Claims in the first year were more than the entire budget of the Kenya Wildlife Service and have been accruing ever since. Theres no way the Kenyan taxpayer can support that. You need a multi-pronged approach so that people dont look at wildlife as a source of problems, Martins said. Indeed, the Warrior Watch program has successfully improved attitudes towards lions, creating a sense of pride among community members. Its the same elsewhere. Razafitsalama told me that during a period in which his project was without funding, his fire patrol group continued working for free. More recently, they added another 1.4 kilometers of firebreak intended to prevent flames from uncontrolled fires reaching the forest themselves. That was very important to me, he said. It shows a clear sense of ownership. Projects like these matter. The World Economic Forum suggests that $44 trillion of economic value generation more than half the worlds total GDP is moderately or highly dependent on nature. But nature is in serious decline. Wildlife populations have declined by an average of 69% since 1970, according to the World Wildlife Funds Living Planet Index. A 2020 study suggests that the world has lost between 5%-10% of all insect species in the last 150 years. If youre happy to wave goodbye to creepy-crawlies, consider that not only are they a vital food source for many other creatures, but they pollinate 75% of global crops. A 2021 review on the economics of biodiversity concluded that nature has been a blind spot and that we can no longer afford to exclude it from economic decisions. The tide does seem to be turning. A growing focus on the intertwined climate and biodiversity crises has led to a proliferation of projects to finance ecosystem restoration (including one parodied but very real attempt to place an economic value on a whale). Itll be well worth our time and money. As Ive written before, biodiversity is a powerful tool in carbon sequestration efforts. Ir Budiono, a 2012 WFN winner from Indonesia, runs a project protecting the Mahakam River dolphin. He estimates that by preventing a 220,000 hectare area from being converted into palm oil plantations a monoculture with negative consequences for biodiversity and carbon sequestration the project is keeping 78 million tons of carbon locked up in wetland and peat swamps. However we finance these efforts whether through credits or charitable donations we should remember the lessons from WFNs community-led winners. Novel attempts to preserve biodiversity need to put sustainable human development at their heart. More From Bloomberg Opinion: Eurovisions Business Model Beats the Olympics: Howard Chua-Eoan The Hole Where Britains Ambition Used to Be: Matthew Brooker What Banking Crisis? Executives Bet On Parisian Renaissance: Lionel Laurent This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Lara Williams is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering climate change. More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com/opinion 2023 Bloomberg L.P.