Eight Years Later: Part 2

This fall marks the 8-year anniversary of an adventure that redefined me.  Eight years ago, I packed a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and notebooks and boarded the first of several planes that would bring me to Tanzania, the first stop in a two-country study abroad experience. It was my first time traveling on a plane without my family, my first time leaving the country, and the first step in a new direction for my life.

               I spent the fall semester of 2012 in Tanzania and Kenya (very distinct countries from one another, though I’ll describe my experiences with the broader term East Africa) with a group of 29 other students studying wildlife management, ecology, the Kiswahili language, and the interactions of humans and the environment. Witnessing elephants and lions in their natural habitats, being immersed in new culture, and being away from my comfort zone profoundly moved me. Until this point in my life, I floated confidently through college classes with a close-knit group of friends around me and a faith in God that had not been put through any difficult tests. I thought I would graduate college and go onto a graduate degree in wildlife management to find a job in the National Park Service. Upon returning from studying abroad, I found my life upended.

               Eight years down the road, I’m reflecting back on the ways my life was impacted by my semester abroad. I’ll be reflecting on faith, my worldview, my relationship with environmental issues, and general life direction in this four-part series.  This is Part 2: Environment.

The first time I saw elephants in their natural habitat, everything else froze. I could only see the elephants. The way they gently swayed and slowly picked up their feet, their eyes examining the surroundings and staring warily at our jeep, the mothers shepherding their calves with their trunks. They were majestic. When they had passed and the world started moving again, I had to remind myself they were real. 

While studying abroad in Kenya and Tanzania, I was blessed to observe and marvel at animals I had long dreamt of seeing in their natural habitats. Over the course of the semester, we went to six different national parks and several wildlife conservation areas.  I saw countless hippos, a lioness stalking a herd of zebras, ostriches mating, a leopard dragging its prey up a tree, elephants playing, cheetahs resting in the shade of a nearby car, and even chased off some baboons from our kitchen. But beyond the moving experience of observing these magnificent animals, I also realized they don’t always inspire wonder among everyone.

Having a herd of elephants walk in front of your jeep is a humbling experience. It’s also terrifying. Female elephants are fiercely protective of their young and have been known to push over cars if they feel threatened. On one day in Amboseli National Park in Kenya, a female elephant felt we were too close to her calf and trumpeted and started running towards our jeep. Fortunately, our driver sped away before anything further happened. But we had protection of a vehicle. The people who live along wildlife corridors in Kenya and Tanzania don’t always have such protection and have lost their livelihoods and even lives to wildlife. 

A Kenyan friend, Francis, told me the story of a family member who lost his life because he stumbled upon an elephant in the dark and the elephant, acting in self-defense, trampled the man.  Unfortunately, such a story isn’t rare. We heard stories of others who had been attacked by hyenas or lions. 

In Kenya, we also met and interviewed farmers who had entire crops eaten by gazelles, trampled by elephants, or damaged by baboons. We learned from pastoralists, people who made their livings shepherding cows, sheep, or goats. Often these animals are easy prey for leopards or lions. Farmers and herders, angry at losing their livelihoods, often retaliate by killing or poisoning wildlife. 

Prior to talking to these farmers, retaliation against wildlife infuriated me. I recall reading about ranchers in the western United States who would go after wolves if the animals killed their sheep or cows. I couldn’t understand. Meeting farmers in East Africa gave me a new understanding of the conflict. And now as a farmer, it adds another layer. I farm in a forested area that is home to many deer. We’ve lost countless crops and thousands of dollars to deer. In deer hunting season, we are happy when hunters thin out the deer herd on our property. But deer aren’t valued in the same way as elephants or lioms so my celebration over thinning the deer herd doesn’t cause stirs. 

A major issue with human-wildlife conflict in East Africa is over the value of wildlife. Tourists bring about 1 billion US dollars yearly to do as I did – travel to national parks and be astounded by the wildlife. However, in Kenya, all wildlife belongs to the government.  If humans are killed or injured by wildlife, the Kenyan government has a process for people to receive compensation for their loss. The compensation for a deceased family member is 5 million Kenyan shillings, about $46,000 US dollars, while an injury is worth about $18,000 US dollars. But the process to receive compensation is laborious and often gets tied up in Kenyan bureaucracy for years. The entire situation leads many Kenyans to wonder who is more valuable, the wildlife or the humans. 

The challenging nuances of human-environmental conflict wasn’t real to me until my semester in Kenya and Tanzania. I had always landed on a preservationist side regarding the environment. I thought the environment, including wildlife, should be preserved at all costs and that humans should intrinsically value pristine wilderness and wildlife. I began to realize there were more factors in the value calculation than I had thought. 

Wildlife and the environment are indued with immense intrinsic value. I believe that the environment was created with joy and that God looks on it with love and satisfaction that. I enjoy the environment beyond what it can provide for me. And I believe humans are tasked with the role of caring and protecting the environment. Yet the balancing act of human lives and the environment is challenging. Can I tell another human that their livelihood is less valuable than an elephant or lion? Is it wrong for humans to feel the urge to retaliate against wildlife if a loved one is taken from them? Are there times that we put more resources into protecting wilderness than protecting the lives of humans? 

While I believed when I was younger that the environment could be something separate from humans, I learned that caring for the environment means also regarding humans. Habitat destruction is a large problem in many places around the world, including Kenya and the United States. Often natural forests or grasslands are destroyed to make way for human activities. But if we zoom out from habitat destruction, we see many times that destruction is preceded by poverty.  Even poaching, one of the major environmental crises of our time, is done by people who need money to feed their families or send kids to school. When people are struggling to find food, it’s hard for them to enjoy the majesty of an elephant that trampled down their means to a paycheck. 

Any environmental action needs to take humans and their values into account. Most humans won’t do something if it doesn’t align in their value calculations. This is why climate change action is so tricky. If people don’t see direct effects of climate change in their lives, they have little impetus to adapt. A good example of an environmental solution aligning with values in Kenya are beehive fences. Elephants fear African honeybees and have been observed to make a distinct rumble to alert other elephants when faced with a hive. Fences made of honeybee hives protect fields and offer an additional source of income to farmers from the sale of honey and beeswax. When humans aren’t coming into conflict with wildlife, they are more able and willing to see the value of wildlife. 

As our world faces environmental challenges like wildfires, climate change, poaching, and deforestation, we will need to find solutions that protect humans and livelihoods while also not forsaking our role as caretakers and stewards of the natural world. 

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