In the news: Escaped lions highlight plight of park neighbors

© Trond Larsen

A lion in Kruger National Park, South Africa. (© Trond Larsen)

Editor’s note: A recent case of escaped lions in South Africa’s Kruger National Park illustrates the tension that can exist between people and wildlife around protected areas. In the coming weeks, Human Nature will feature a series of stories from the communities surrounding Kruger, exploring the challenges — and opportunities — they face in living next to one of Africa’s most famous wildlife reserves.

Three lions that escaped from Kruger National Park earlier this week have been killed, according to multiple news reports.

The tragic conclusion follows a days-long search by park rangers in the villages surrounding Kruger. Residents were warned by park officials to “exercise extreme caution” in going about their daily lives. This week’s search is the second time this year that lions have escaped Kruger into nearby communities.

According to Keith Roberts, Conservation International’s executive director for wildlife trafficking, escaped animals represent just one example of how difficult it can be to live near a wildlife area.

“These communities don’t necessarily see benefits from the reserves,” Roberts said. “They only see the costs.”

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In addition to potentially dangerous encounters with animals, elephants can destroy multiple acres of crops in a single night, buffalo herds can transfer disease to nearby cattle, and poachers passing through communities can bring violence and crime.

For poor residents living off a small plot of land, destruction of crops or livestock can mean financial ruin. “If you’re a subsistence farmer, it’s survival,” said Roberts. “If their crops are destroyed, they can’t feed themselves. Because of this, they see wildlife only as a threat.”

This adversarial relationship has costs for both people and wildlife. According to a review by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, conflict between humans and wildlife is one of the most significant threats to conservation in Africa — much of it stemming from agricultural-based conflict.

The key, according to Roberts, is to ensure communities see value from their wildlife. “The only way is for them to see direct, tangible benefits,” he said. “There is no other way.”

In the villages around Kruger National Park, Conservation South Africa — a member of the CI network — is working to do just that, supporting schools, clinics and small businesses that put money into the pocket of residents.

Follow this space for stories from the community members working to balance their livelihoods, safety and well-being with the protection of wildlife living in Kruger.

Jamey Anderson is a senior writer for Conservation International.

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