Eco-Bargain: Save Animals, Reduce Poverty

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Andy Rouse / Corbis

Young hippos play in the Luangwa River.

If you want to protect wildlife in developing countries, the conventional wisdom has long been that you put the animals in a well-run reserve and safeguard it like it were a prison, keeping the wildlife separate from the people who actually live there. The locals, in this case, are the threat because they're the ones who poach endangered wildlife, whether for the ivory or skin trade, or just for meat. But, so far, this conventional wisdom hasn't led to much progress. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's annual report, nearly 40% of surveyed species are currently threatened, and their numbers are growing.

Dale Lewis has a different theory of conservation: Instead of helping the animals that are being hunted, help the people who are doing the hunting. In the West African country of Zambia, where he has lived and worked for nearly 30 years, Lewis has helped launch an innovative new program that seeks to save wildlife by improving the livelihoods of local people, giving them an economic incentive to give up poaching. The program is called Community Markets for Conservation (COMACO), and it may help change the way wildlife is protected. "I realized I could have told you all the vital statistics of an elephant, but not the vital statistics of the people who lived with an elephant," says Lewis, whose work is sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society. "Once you really begin to know what they're up against, you can really begin to understand [their behavior]." And once you understand that behavior, Lewis continues, you can change it.

For villagers in Zambia's Luangwa Valley, where Lewis is based, poaching can represent the best — sometimes only — way to pull themselves out of poverty. A farmer on his own might make $75 in a year — a good poacher, thanks to the growing demand for ivory in Asia, might pull in over $300. "If I were in their position, I might set out a snare too," says Lewis.

COMACO counters the economic pull of poaching with a safer, more consistent alternative: organic farming. Villagers who sign up for COMACO receive training in sustainable agriculture — such as organic bee-keeping techniques — and band together to form farming co-ops. COMACO agrees to buy their produce at a higher-than-normal price, and the organization markets the products to Zambian stores, under the brand name "It's Wild!" If villagers agree to join COMACO, they aren't allowed to poach, and they pledge to protect the land, eschewing slash-and-burn farming techniques. COMACO checks up on its members — villages that see elevated poaching rates, or evidence of erosion, earn visits from Lewis's staff. "If you do certain things, we'll provide certain things," says Lewis. "We work together, and see if we're all better off."

The results are heartening. Some 40,000 villagers have joined COMACO since it was launched in 2001, and poaching rates have declined, though animal numbers have not yet rebounded. Some 800 guns and more than 40,000 wire snares have been turned in to COMACO, and many former poachers are now being retrained as wildlife guides. (Lewis notes that it costs a little more than $200 to retrain a poacher, but as much as $800 to catch, arrest and jail him.) Those traps are even being recycled, with a local jeweler refashioning the wire as necklaces and bracelets called Snarewear. (The jewelry isn't available in the U.S. yet, but you can make advance orders on COMACO's website.) "These are better ways of making an income [than hunting]," says Lewis. "If we can make sure that fathers don't teach their sons how to kill, poaching won't go on."

COMACO has been successful enough that the model should be adapted in other high-poaching areas, though it would require conservationists to rethink their methods. And they should — as population density and economic growth increase throughout the developing world, the ideal of the isolated, pristine nature preserve may become a thing of the past. Humans and wildlife will intersect, and only by taking care of people, can we take care of animals. "This is a virgin area, and we'll be testing it repeatedly," says Lewis. "But at least we have something on the ground. It's not theoretical. We're all sick of talking about theoretical ways of reducing poverty." Lewis's COMACO is win-win-win — and that's not theory.