The history of South Africa’s Oribi mirrors conservation issues for other iconic species
If only it was that easy to find more grassland for an antelope.
The story of efforts to preserve the critically endangered Oribi in South Africa represents a diaspora with problems as diverse as the people who live there. On their surface, as with many threatened species, there is a conflict between the need for habitat and private land ownership.
But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover a shady dark side of political corruption, gambling, land struggle, and racial tensions. Regardless of how much success is achieved through more traditional conservation efforts, the species will continue to be threatened until human conflicts can be mitigated or resolved, according to a new study by a University of Georgia researcher.
“It’s an interesting case study because the Oribi is so dependent on habitats that are on private land,” said Elizabeth Pienaar, associate professor at the University of Georgia’s Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources. “But it’s also a species that is caught up in much larger political and social conflicts. … That is the dark side of nature conservation. We can say the species needs X, Y, and Z to survive and recover, but in such cases conservation efforts are entangled in a complex political, social, and historical framework. These much larger problems remain unsolved. “
For the Oribi (OR-uh-bee), Pienaar said, the solutions start with access to native grasslands that have quickly disappeared in the South African countryside. This means education for farmers who own land on which oribi graze, but is rapidly expanding to prevent illegal poaching and even de-escalate racial tensions, while land reform (the return of white-owned farmland to black residents) creates significant conflict.
Meeting with farmers can help
Threatened or critically endangered species in other parts of the world face different problems, but the success of their conservation is likely tied in socio-political networks, Pienaar said. The study, recently published in the journal Endangered Species Research, is the first of two parts that aim to provide insight into conservation agencies and organizations that navigate similar waters. It was written jointly by master student Adrienne Louw and professor Adrian Shrader from the University of Pretoria.
Often times, landowners want to conserve species because they are part of their cultural heritage or because they are interested in wildlife and land management. But a misunderstanding about the needs of animals, insufficient reach of the authorities due to budget constraints and a general distrust of the government due to years of political conflict and corruption stand in the way of even the most basic education and awareness-raising efforts.
“The farmers don’t want what to do, but you can give them advice and they will do as they see fit,” added Pienaar. “That could be one of the most powerful things: someone who is seen as a neutral third party goes out and just meets with them. And the farmer is going to try a few things and if it doesn’t affect his profit margin then “I’ll do it. That’s what they’re looking for – some advice. “
Regardless, Pienaar said, local communities need employment and food security to reduce the need for illegal hunting. Poverty is a serious problem in South Africa, where 65.4% of the population live below the poverty line and where infrastructure and services are poor in rural areas. Improved economic and social security, including the ability to buy meat at affordable prices, can reduce conflict and poaching. But poverty goes beyond financial insecurity, she added. Poverty is a lack of a say, the inability to determine one’s own future.
In addition, communities resent the loss of their traditional hunting rights under neocolonial wildlife management. Poaching becomes a means of political protest against landowners and the government, especially when the government is perceived as failed communities by failing to provide the services it needs.
Underground gambling rings exacerbate the problem
However, these solutions only address part of the problem. Improving habitat access and community services will not stop a serious threat to Oribi: illegal nighttime hunting with trained greyhounds and hunting dogs that maintain underground play rings.
Called “taxi hunt”, greyhound owners – who have the income or assets to buy these expensive hunting dogs – arrive on the edge of a farm under cover of night. The dogs that are trained to run and catch the little antelopes are quick and quiet. Whoever catches the oribi wins the money pot, as does the dog who kills the most antelopes.
If a farm owner cannot stop the taxi hunt before the dogs are released, they are almost powerless to prevent it. They are forbidden to shoot a hunting dog that is with its handler, even if it is on the farmer’s land. And if they do, retaliatory measures in the form of arson, property damage or the arrest of the farmer for shooting the dogs can result.
Then add race: farm owners are white while taxi hunters are black. “The farmers feel threatened because not only is land reform being pushed forward, but increasing crime in the countryside is also being combated and at the same time attempts are being made to prevent poaching by people who are not at risk of poverty,” said Pienaar. “It’s not just about protecting the Oribi. It’s about protecting the safety of their family, property and heritage.”
And then there’s the Oribi that’s stuck in the middle.
“But it’s not just the oribi. The oribi is a case study that coincides with other endangered species like rhinos and pangolins,” Pienaar said. “Biologists and ecologists are fantastic at what these species need in terms of habitat or the maintenance of viable populations. But if major socio-political conflicts cannot be resolved, the animal is still at risk. Most of the conservation problems I know are about people and the pressures they are exposed to. “