Finding Common Ground to Improve Livelihoods and Conserve Wildlife

This is the first part in a two-part interview with Steve Osofsky, Director of Wildlife Health Policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In this first part of the interview, Osofsky discusses how his field work informs his policy work, as well as how farmers can both help, and benefit from, wildlife conservation.

Name: Steve Osofsky

Location: Washington, DC

Affiliation: Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)

Bio: Steve Osofsky is Director of Wildlife Health Policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). Before coming to WCS, Dr. Osofsky had been with the World Wildlife Fund since 1998, serving as WWF’s Director, Field Support for species programs in Asia and Africa. Dr. Osofsky is also is an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Maryland, and has served on eight IUCN Species Survival Commission Specialist Groups.  Previously, he was the first Wildlife Veterinary Officer for the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, and then a AAAS Science and Diplomacy Fellow serving as a Biodiversity Program Specialist at USAID. He developed and now manages the Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development (AHEAD) Program for WCS, one of the foundational components of the WCS ‘One World, One Health‘ initiative.

(Photo credit: Steve Osofsky)

You started out as a wildlife veterinarian. Why did you make the transition from being a wildlife vet on the ground in Africa to policy work?

As a field veterinarian- for example, when I was the wildlife vet for the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks-I had a very interesting portfolio involving research and management and yet, over time, I was getting concerned that the work wasn’t exactly having the type of wider impact I was hoping for. In other words, it’s not usually the wildlife vet on the ground who influences a parliament’s decisions or a minister’s decisions on whether a particular area will have wilderness or wheat, cattle or carnivores, in the future. And I got more and more interested in the land-use dimensions and the policy arena which seemed of more direct relevance to the development trajectories of the countries I had experience working in. I think as conservationists we all struggle a bit in terms of trying to pragmatically link our science efforts to policy.

But I think my field experience is critical to my work. If I’d never been in the field, if I’d never been a hands-on vet and gotten into the nitty-gritty, I wouldn’t have been effective on the policy side. I think it’s really important to have people in the policy arena who have experience in the real world, if you will, so that those two levels can be properly connected. Because it’s people who’ve been out there—whether they were working for foreign governments like I was or whether it was through an entity (in the case of Americans) like the Peace Corps— people who are able to see things through the eyes of local stakeholders— those people can really contribute in the policy arena. It is really important to bring that perspective with you to the policy side of things.

What is an example of something happening on the ground that you are better able to address through your policy work?

What we are working on right now with the Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development (AHEAD) program, in southern Africa in particular, is land use policy, which is in many ways driven by agricultural policy. Specifically, it’s often driven by the desire to get beef to international markets like Europe. And to make a long story short, right now under current international agreements, in order to get beef out of southern Africa you have to have geographically zoned management of diseases like foot and mouth disease (a virus harbored by the African buffalo). At the ground level you can sort of get a sense of the conflicts that that presents: the migratory patterns of wild animals get cut off by miles and miles of fencing; the impact that has on natural resources over time; and the opportunity costs to communities that don’t have a more diversified income stream.  Nature-based tourism (photographic safaris, trophy hunting, etc.) now contributes about as much to the gross domestic product of southern Africa as agriculture, forestry, and fisheries combined – a remarkable and relatively recent development documented by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  However, the management of wildlife and livestock diseases (including zoonoses – diseases transmissible between animals and people) within the southern Africans’ vision of larger transboundary landscapes remains unresolved and an emerging policy issue of major concern to livestock production, associated access to export markets, and other sectors, including public health, in the region.  Livestock farming is, of course, an important traditional way for communities in sub-Saharan Africa to build and maintain wealth, not to mention attain food security.  Essentially, the transfrontier conservation area (TFCA) concept and current internationally accepted approaches to the management of transboundary animal diseases (TADs) are largely incompatible. The TFCA concept promotes free movement of wildlife over large geographic areas across international boundaries, whereas the present approach to the control of TADs is to use vast fences to prevent movement of susceptible animals between areas where TADs occur and areas where they do not, and to similarly restrict trade in commodities derived from animals. In short, the incompatibility between (a) current regulatory approaches for the control of diseases of agro-economic importance and (b) the vision of vast conservation landscapes with fewer major fences needs to be reconciled now that SADC countries have chosen to pursue transfrontier conservation initiatives in the interest of regional risk-diversification of land-use options and livelihood opportunities.

Furthermore, if you are constrained by these fences and can only manage livestock , then that has implications in terms of your adaptability and your resilience in the face of things like climate change. So, I saw on the ground, the implications— over decades—of what happened when some countries fenced extensive portions of their grazing lands and what that did to wildlife. And it’s a very intractable problem at the ground level because it’s really driven by the policies of the European Union (EU), for example,  by international policies regulating the trade of livestock products. By looking at that set of issues from a policy perspective and how that relates to economic growth and to food security, I think we have a better chance of finding compromises. In the context of the work we’re doing now, looking at ways to help countries to reconnect some of their conservation areas by maybe even realigning some of these fences, that’s only going to happen through policy intervention, and as a hands-on field vet, I don’t think I would have been able to even try to navigate this.  Then  again, if I had never been a field vet, I don’ think I would have developed an understanding of these complex challenges in a grounded way.

Can you talk about the relationship between wildlife and food systems?

You know, if you are in much of rural, southern or East Africa, there is a lot of tension between farmers and wildlife. A lot of it comes down to human/wildlife conflict, whether you are talking about elephants or buffalo eating crops or people getting killed by elephants, buffalo, crocodiles or hippos. There is a lot of tension there. And if local people, farmers, pastoralists, don’t derive a benefit from local wildlife, they are going to continue to oppose sharing land with wildlife. We see that time and time again. So I think we have to recognize that wildlife has a significant cost for people and those costs have to be dealt with.

As an example from a veterinary point of view, one of the things that some colleagues of mine did in Kenya, was look at people’s relationship with carnivores. If you are a Maasai pastoralist and you see the remnants of one of your calves and you see pug marks from a lion next to it, you are going to have a very visceral reaction. And you are going to want to exact retribution, get rid of the lion that you think caused this loss. And what this group of vets did, is they started to look at what was really impacting the livestock and livelihoods for these pastoralists. And to make a long story short, what they found, in that case, was that there were quite a few basic local diseases—often tick-born disease and parasitic diseases—that were literally having orders of magnitude more impact on the livelihoods of pastoralists. In other words, their milk and meat production was being much more significantly impacted by these locally present diseases than it was by occasional predation. By providing intervention and training and empowering local people to be able to deal with the very common veterinary issues, while at the same time educating people about the value of wildlife and some of the economic benefits that they were deriving— and could derive—from things like tourism, in the case of Kenya, they were able to raise the threshold of tolerance among the pastoralists for the occasional livestock losses.  I am not saying this is easy to do, but there is clearly a logic to looking at livelihood issues more holistically.

Now, why didn’t the Maasai deal with this before the vets got there? The Maasai knew these diseases were there—they are part of the background noise, if you will, of raising cattle in Kenya. But they didn’t have all of the tools that could help them. They didn’t have any modern vaccines or treatments. And with some of these very cost-effective interventions, like I said, they were able to increase their productivity, and by linking the service and the training that was provided to some agreements about how to interact with local wildlife, it was a real win –win. I know that in Nourishing the Planet’s travels you’ve been out to see the COMACO (Community Markets for Conservation) program in Zambia, which is very similar. It’s looking at how to increase people’s threshold of tolerance for wildlife by providing agricultural extension opportunities, and taking out the middle man and helping people secure better prices for what they produce. People begin to have a greater appreciation for the wildlife sector and at the same time, as wildlife rebounds, thanks to changes in attitudes and behavior, people can begin to increase their own economic opportunities: building bush camps for tourists as has happened with COMACO, developing jobs that service the tourist industry- whether it’s providing chickens to the local lodge or providing tours. COMACO helps people to see the value of a diversified portfolio. And in addition, in much of southern Africa, we are going to see changes in climate; we are going to see many places get much drier. And in those conditions, wildlife can be much more resilient—wildlife that has evolved in these areas for millennia. When it rains, great. Livestock can do well. But what we are trying to do in our conservation program is provide more resilience to livelihood opportunities and link them to more than just livestock—it’s very rarely an either/ or, livestock or wildlife. It’s often likely to be both. We are looking to make wildlife and livestock more compatible by dealing with diseases, by dealing with human/wildlife conflict, and at the same time seeking economic opportunity in both of these arenas.

Stay tuned for part two of this interview series in the coming days.

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