Conservation in Conflict Zones

How does political conflict influence the protection of vulnerable natural areas? How does social conflict between local groups and conservationists affect the successful implementation of conservation strategies? In this event, we wished to explore the effect of social conflict and turmoil on the conservation effort.

The lecture room was filled to capacity as lots of people showed up for the talks, something we are very grateful for. Many members of the audience also contributed to the discussion between the speakers, and the debate on the role of the social sciences in nature conservation is something we feel is crucial for the successful protection of nature.

Our first speaker, Dr Nick Brown (Lecturer in Forestry at Oxford University) shared his experiences with the United Nations Post Conflict and Disaster Management team over the last 15 years. He explained how the application of ecological principles can be used to restore natural areas that have been severely damaged. There is often strong conflict between the interests of oil companies and conservationists. Dr Brown shared valuable knowledge on how to repair the damage caused by petroleum extraction at occasions where conservationists loose that struggle.

The very first event by OUNCS debated the reintroduction of species, and Dr Mark Stanley-Price gave an account of the challenges of reintroducing the Arabian oryx to Oman from the perspective of a conservation biologist. Prof Dawn Chatty (Professor of Anthropology and forced Migration and Director of the Refugee Study Centre, Oxford University) worked with the Harasiis Tribe in the region where the oryx were introduced and she now presented the very same case from the perspective of a social scientist. Her talk revealed that though there is mutual respect between her and Dr Stanley-Price, they differed fiercely in their view on how to ensure the success of the oryx introduction programme in light of the particular circumstances in the region. She argued that the failure of the oryx programme was mainly due to failure to fully take into account the local tribal social and political situation rather than for biological reasons. The reserve was set up without local consultation, and though the project gained the support of the older generation, the younger tribe members quickly grew disillusioned. An unanticipated effect of efforts to include the tribe in the oryx project was a wave of poaching from neighbouring tribes jealous of the perceived status of the Harasiis as custodians of the oryx.   Comparing the earlier talk by Dr Stanley-Price with that of Prof Chatty given at this event revealed a profound difference in perspective, approach, and priorities between conservation and the social field.

Prof Richard Kock (Professor in Wildlife Health and Emerging Diseases at the Royal Veterinary College) shared the story of how the effort to conserve the Greater One-horned Rhinoceros in Nepal was carried out through a period of intense conflict. In the 20th century Nepal plunged into a cycle of poverty, social and political turmoil and war which reached its heights in the early years of the 21st century. Prof Kock helped discover that official data on poaching rates were highly unreliable with an estimated under-reporting rate of >55%. Worryingly, WWF was heavily involved in the area and reported inflated success rates to increase the perceived success of the organisation in the region. Despite these difficulties there was considerable success in preserving Nepal’s rhinos. Prof Kock stated that the road to success in the region lies through people’s hearts and minds. The project used innovative social techniques, such as storytelling through theatre, to motivate the local inhabitants to work for conservation of the rhino. Sustainable use of forest resources and investment in non-palatable crops, such as mentha, was encouraged. It was very interesting to note the success of this conservation project which integrated the social and biological aspects of wildlife conservation.

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