Changing Planet

Face-to-Face Conservation

“The phone calls always seem to be on a Sunday and 1000 kilometres (600 miles) away from here” Florian Weise tells me. We’re standing next to a huge drum of diesel — “this is where the NGS Big Cats Initiative money went” he explains, filling up his pick-up for the long journey.

Florian’s insights into big cat conservation have filled our last two days as we recover in the comfort of the N/a’an ku se resort outside of Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. My travelling companion, Rudi van Aarde and I appreciate the resort’s comfort and our very limited budget its hospitality.

We had ridden into Windhoek with no spare tyre — always exciting when you know that blowing another means being stuck. Changing a tyre as night falls in big cat country means someone keeps watch for predators as the other does the dirty work. We both made it to a nearby hotel, tired, grimy with dirt, to find it had no functional showers and couldn’t produce a simple meal after three hours of waiting. It was good to be clean and fed again and to have the spare we’d just bought.

The typical call to Florian is from a rancher who has a problem — a leopard or a cheetah, usually. Perhaps it’s an animal that has been caught in a trap. Ranchers could easily kill animals and tell no one. But, word of mouth has told them to call Florian instead. Florian heads out, travelling from one end of Namibia to the next, much of it on those very lonely dirt roads.

He’s become a hugely effective protector of the country’s cheetahs and leopards. And, his solution? Face-to-face conservation. “When I arrive, we talk, have a coffee… I don’t take notes, I never use a clipboard. Only after I’ve left do I write down the information.”

Florian speaks the ranchers’ language — both literally and metaphorically. “His Afrikaans is excellent”, Rudi tells me ”and his native German seems to have the local accent.” These are the two languages most ranchers speak and fluency is essential. He’s also sympathetic.

So, Florian sips his coffee, listens, and provides advice. He knows some ranchers kill animals. A few of them kill scores of cheetahs each year.

“Ranchers have a lot of problems. Rising costs, taxes, school fees, others who steal their stock, all too familiar family problems. A big cat that they think is killing their animals seems a simple problem to deal with.” Yet, increasingly, they call for Florian to help. All of his visits come from referrals. He’s visited ranches that covered 10,000 square miles of Namibia.

Florian Weise talks to ranchers about their problem animals.  Photo Naankuse Foundation
Florian Weise talks to ranchers about their problem animals. Photo Naankuse Foundation

 

“Ranchers are both the problem and the solution.” He explains. Yes, some kill many animals. But, they are managing their lands to make them excellent habitat, especially for cheetahs.” While some of the ranches get their principal income from cattle, some specialise on local game, and all of them have the native species of antelope that are the cheetah’s preferred food. Lions are a major competitor, but they are gone from most of the ranches. “Ranchers have created a ‘cheetah commons’ — and the animals are as common here as anywhere.”

So, Florian provides advice. He points out that killing the trapped animal might make the problem worse. If it’s the local dominant male, its removal might cause a flood of new animals to move in, each trying to assert dominance. Sometimes he does remove the animals, but that’s expensive, as he explained in his recent blog.

Sometimes, he puts a satellite collar on the animal, so ranchers know where it is. “They often become very curious about ‘their’ leopard or cheetah, wanting to know where it is and whether it’s OK or not.’ And, often there’s just basic advice about better husbandry practices. I’m looking to find practical solutions.”

Collaring resident cheetah for monitoring.  Photo Naankuse Foundation.
Collaring resident cheetah for monitoring. Photo Naankuse Foundation.

Judging by the number of ranchers who now call on him regularly for advice, he’s found the essence of good conservation: empathy for the problems others have with nature. It’s the first step in finding a solution that works for people and predators alike.

 

Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).

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