Rethinking Conservation in a Changing World – A Holistic Approach in Botswana

In a world in which colonial history remains largely unreconciled, where populations are expanding and wild areas receding, Dr Tempe Adams, a conservation scientist, who lives and works in Botswana, has come up with a simple but radical response to support elephant/human co-existence there. 

3rd Space: Welcome Tempe.

You’ve been working in Africa for almost nine years as a conservation scientist, a critical area for the survival of our global ecosystem; but it’s also controversial in various ways. From what you describe, it’s been a learning journey in terms of developing a deeper understanding and sensitivity to the context surrounding conservation; especially as a non-African ‘expert’ working in this area in a continent with such a history of exploitation and colonial domination. I would imagine anyone coming from ‘outside’ carries this shadow?

Tempe Adams: Yes. That’s true.

3rd Space: In your work in elephant/human conflict mitigation, you clearly bring a lot of scientific expertise. How does the historical context affect your approach? 

Tempe Adams: That’s a big question. The first thing is, exactly as you are saying, being aware of the history that has taken place. I think it’s something a lot of people are still naive about, sometimes innocently, sometimes not. When I first took up the challenge and really started considering this work, it was very intimidating. But it was also very exciting. From the start, I was clear that I didn’t want to work as a foreigner for a foreign NGO. I was aware of my identity as not being from Africa.

I researched Elephants Without Borders – the NGO I work for— and heard positive reports of the mindful way they were achieving results. It’s a citizen-owned NGO. That was very important to me. I started out by simply listening. I thought if I was to achieve anything, I had to learn, to understand what was important to focus on. I don’t think I gave my opinion on anything for at least six months. I was fortunate to have discussions with people from various walks of life and different fields of work. The impression I got was that this hadn’t happened much in the past. 

Gone are the days when conservation solely focused on wildlife. We have so many people on the planet that to continue living with all the other beings on the planet, we’ve got to recognise that people are just as important in the context of conservation as animals are. It’s critical to focus on wildlife numbers and what’s happening with trends, but we also need to understand human behaviour around that.

Elephants always attracted me. They are known as an “umbrella species”.  When you conserve one individual animal, it conserves everything else beneath it. Also we (people) have a natural connection with elephants.

Botswana is very significant because it has the largest elephant population in the world. This is important not just to the country but to the region, the continent, and to the world. So there are different levels of complexity involved in their conservation. Botswana has a very low human population. A large amount of land has been given over for the protection of wildlife, which is an amazing feat. But at the same time living with these animals can be very challenging. Because a solution is proven to work well in say India, it doesn’t mean it’s going to work in Botswana. The more I talked with people, the more I began to understand this. My PhD proposal in Australia was based on pulling together literature from around the world on conflict resolution, but very little of it had come from Botswana. When I actually spoke to different stakeholders on the ground about what the core issues were, this initiated a process of creating an information base to reduce those problems, and most of my original proposal went out the window. 

3rd Space. You do a lot of research work collaring elephants and tracking their movements; but the majority of your work right now is working directly with farmers whose livelihood depends on co-existing with elephants, right? 

Tempe Adams: Yes. But in Botswana there is also urban conflict. In fact there are different forms of human/animal conflict within the entire elephant range. A lot of people moved into tourism (wildlife) areas because of the economic opportunities this created. But most people never grew up with these animals. So how are they meant to know how to live with them? There’s little education on wildlife in the schools. So it took actually understanding the drivers of the conflict in that area. Local urban conflict had never really been acknowledged. Large trans-boundary movements are a big part of EWB’s work, and that is really important. But the smaller movements are also important. This realisation came when I started having real conversations. As a result, one of the solutions was creating urban corridors.

3rd Space. When we don’t have direct knowledge of a place, there’s often lack of understanding of the complexity and nuance associated with context and circumstance. A common perception in the West is that anyone who threatens elephants is a “bad guy”. Of course that can be true. There are poaching gangs funded by foreign agents, as well as hunting companies, who represent a real threat to this magnificent species. What are other reasons people kill elephants?  

Tempe Adams:  People tend to think in terms of “good guys”/”bad guys”. But that’s just not an honest representation. It’s how the media represents the issue, but there is so much more complexity behind it. I was aware there was overwhelming conflict within the agricultural sector. Initially I didn’t want to go into that area. I wasn’t ready. But after I finished my doctorate, we got invited to work on this. By then all the groundwork I had done gave me ideas on how to tackle that conflict, but it’s a whole other level of responsibility when people’s livelihoods are at stake. I knew that an invitation was critical. These are incredibly magnificent animals. But to live with them can be hugely, if not personally, threatening. As a farmer, you’re told all the time (by non-farmers) you’ve got to love these animals, respect them, whilst at the same time you can lose your entire crop overnight. What right have we to ask that?

I also discovered that agricultural conflict has had a lot of foreign research and money thrown at it. There have been World Bank projects, USAID projects – millions of dollars have gone into reducing conflict. But there’s little to show for it. So when I got invited by the community to work on this, I realised I needed to find out what had gone wrong. Clearly neither money nor research alone had solved the problem. But why not? My whole approach was basically door knocking. I went to the Kotler (village council) and asked for permission to speak with people about the conflict. It was obviously a contentious issue – very sensitive. There was a perception that researchers, apart from failing, had made money off the community working on conflict resolution.

3rd Space: Is there any truth to that? 

Tempe Adams: Probably yes. I would say so.

3rd Space: So you were coming into an environment that was charged with history?

Tempe Adams:  Yes. That is why permission was such an important thing to obtain. It was also important to communicate to farmers that if they didn’t want to participate, they didn’t have to; and this would not mean missing out on opportunities. I was also very careful about my translator. I had to have someone who could really communicate what I was trying to do. I was very fortunate to get a fantastic translator who volunteered. He really cared about his community. Once we got all the permissions, we literally just went from house to house asking people about their elephant issues. When you create the conditions for a real dialogue more and more gets revealed. I think my longest interview was around four or five hours. The farmers had a lot to say. We discussed a whole range of things from personal loss due to elephants, to where they thought the money had gone in the past? Why did they think we (researchers) have failed? What were the real issues they were concerned about?

I discovered the most important thing was that farmers wanted to be heard. They wanted to voice their views, and they wanted someone to listen. I got a wealth of information to begin combating the issues.

3rd Space: So was lack of engagement with the local community’s views one of the main reasons prior research funding had failed? 

Tempe Adams: Yes. For example the World Bank might have a five-year project with a specific amount of money set aside for it. ‘You can employ this many people. These are the outcomes, the goals and objectives you need to achieve’. It’s literally ticking a box, right?  Nor is money, alone, a solution. 

3rd Space:  It seems such projects are based on fixed or abstract ideas rather than direct knowledge?  

Tempe Adams: Yes, exactly.  And the significance of this is heightened when people can literally lose their lives, or livelihood. Researchers often don’t give the time, or value, to really listening.  I think that’s what’s happened in Botswana in the past. There was a lot of anger about foreigners who did not even come from a country that had elephants, telling local farmers how to live with these animals, how they should relate to elephants as siblings. Furthermore, after throwing money at the problem, they would disappear.

3rd Space: It’s clear why there would be anger. When you gathered all this information from the farmers, was a relationship formed?  

Tempe Adams: Yes, slowly. After multiple conversations, I started creating mitigations, and I asked farmers. Once we began trialling, we began a real relationship. I don’t think farmers quite believed this until it started happening. For myself, I had to plan more long-term than six months or a year.  Of course, I have to write reports that reflect those timelines, but that’s not how we conduct ourselves in the field. We enter into relationships, and people know we’re always available. As farmers began to see more results happening, trust built…So much of this is about trust.

3rd Space: It sounds so simple, yet radical. There is such a history of foreigners coming into a country, even with the best of intentions, yet ending up dominating operations, and then leaving.

Tempe Adams: Exactly. What has also been a winning factor is the combination of Izzy and myself. He is my partner in the work. He’s from the local community. His father is one of the sub-chiefs in the village. Izzy has a degree in IT, but he was always very interested in conservation. He heard about my work in the area, and asked to help me out as a translator. That’s how we started.

Initially he was shy, but we both grew together. He used to comment on how I seem to care so much. I could never really explain it to him. I just said that in order for these relationships to work, both sides have got to care. Again, it comes down to trust. If the community doesn’t trust you, they’re not going to care. But when you build up trust through consistency and results, then they start to care more and more about making these mitigations work. It is a gamble though. If the trials fail, it could leave farmers more angry.

3rd space: Has this ever happened?

Tempe Adams: Never, thankfully. There’s been frustration, but we have managed to talk about it. In the culture I work in, people shy away from conflict. Conversations are part of the culture and that is good for finding resolutions.

3rd space: You’ve had success with people in areas where there’s a lot of hostility towards elephants. How much of that success is due to taking the time to create real reciprocal relationships? 

Tempe Adams: There was one farmer who flagged us down. He came from a well-known, powerful family in the community. They have a reputation for killing a lot of animals – leopard, lions, and elephants. This farmer had a lot of anger towards elephants because of crop damage. I’ve come to understand this as a natural response. Also, it’s not my job to tell anyone how to feel about animals – something that has happened a lot in the past. If you’re told you are “benefitting” from tourism, but in fact your experience is negative, then you are not going to see the value in conservation. 

3rd Space: Given your personal passion for the environment, your love of wildlife – especially elephants – it must take a lot to make room for the extreme responses from those who feel quite differently, and at times act in tragic ways? 

Tempe Adams:  Yes, it’s definitely challenging, and I’ve witnessed traumatic events. But I think once you realise that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and more importantly there’s a reason behind that opinion, that reason becomes more significant than the opinion itself. Something has happened to produce that strong reaction – especially hatred. It’s really important to understand why. I want to hear. I think listening is something that we don’t do nearly enough of.

There’s also cultural pride. I’ve heard certain chiefs in the area say, “We will continue to farm till the very end”. I’m from a farming family in Australia and the local farmers respond to this. Being able to relate at that level is important. I understand what it’s like farming with pests, and that’s how elephants are classified from a farming perspective – a “pest”.

My job is to facilitate. Ownership of the mitigation is on the farmers themselves. And again, that comes out of the dialogues we have. We discuss successes and problems. Nothing is perfect. No one solution is going to work for all. It takes effort and willingness to be creative. Elephants are very intelligent and they learn fast, so we have to be adaptive. 

This particular farmer’s land was in a designated Wild Life Area, which means he had been allocated land with conflicting usage. One of the things we’re looking into at EWB is informed land use planning; that is, not making people farm where there are elephants. So a process was started with this farmer. In science, everyone wants significant results fast, yet small steps are just as important. Here was someone with entrenched hostility, who was now open to other solutions.

It’s also important to accept that it might take five, ten years, maybe never. It’s not about winning everyone over immediately. That’s just not going to happen. For a lot of researchers, it’s about getting results at any cost.  When you’ve got a specific time frame and you’re being paid money as a consultant, you have to get results. But if you’ve completed your budgeted workshops and you haven’t got the outcomes, then what do you do? The whole format sets you and, in this case, the farmers up for failure. 

3rd Space: How do you manage to do this differently?

Tempe Adams: I’m very fortunate to have a lot of freedom in my work and in the way I’ve set up the project. But it’s sometimes hard to explain how you’ve been spending your time to your bosses. A lot of what I do comes down to having conversations.

3rd Space: You work colleague mentioned care. A lot of people think of “care” as simply loving elephants. But the care he was picking up on is more dimensional?

Tempe Adams: Much more. It’s about taking on the whole situation, making the farmers feel they can rely on us for information. They’ve felt such a lack of support. Those who react in the most extreme ways put themselves, as well as the elephants in danger, because they feel they have no other reliable solutions. People build up trust and openness when they feel heard and are given the tools to manage whatever problems they have, themselves. 

3rd Space: That seems a different approach to conservation than a strictly scientific one? 

Tempe Adams: Yes, absolutely. 

3rd Space: It would seem to require a certain humility, a willingness to learn, especially after years completing a doctorate?

Tempe Adams: I might have a lot of scientific knowledge but in the real world that means nothing to a farmer; saying your work has been peer reviewed and published doesn’t necessarily give it credibility on the ground. A subsistence farmer producing maize for his or her family doesn’t care about doctoral papers. Why should they? In some spheres, yes, that knowledge is very relevant, but not in all. Hearing our neighbours talk about their successes; sharing laughter and tears, understanding what they’re going through each year, is more important than simply having expertise. Obviously I need to have both. But yes, it’s a very different approach. My mantra is one needs to have patience, persistence, and passion. I realised early on, if you want to work in applied conservation, you need to have these three things equally. Things are always changing, the environment is changing, especially now.  

3rd Space: So your saying conservation requires fluidity, the ability to be responsive to what is actually happening?

Tempe Adams: Yes, everything is moving. The climate and society are changing. Meaningful change takes time. Structurally, conservation has been set up to expect quick results. But when you’re dealing with a culture that has deep pride in what they’re doing, in an environment that is rapidly changing, a combination of skills and knowledge is needed. 

In the West we tend to compartmentalise – biological science, political science, social science, political ecology – there are so many streams. But you have to combine different methods and skills these days. A holistic approach to science is needed. This is becoming recognised, but it’s not invested in yet because the ability to combine these things is challenging.  Scientific information and analysis are hugely important but how do you create change? That’s where combining these different areas of science and our human abilities comes into it.

3rd Space: You mentioned a lack of education about wildlife in Botswana; that it’s not a government priority. To what degree does that impact animal/human co-existence?

Tempe Adams: Countries like Costa Rica, recognise the importance of investment in education in order to build a culture that values conservation. Yes, the tourism model generates economic value but in order for there to be long-term sustainable change, the government needs to invest in education, in basic knowledge about wildlife. In Botswana there’s a lot of national pride in the fact that we have such a big elephant population, but very little understanding of the animals themselves. 

3rd Space: Pride would seem a good basis for education?  

Tempe Adams:  Definitely. EWB has been looking at the need for education. I did a study a few years ago with a variety of stakeholders. It revealed a love for the wildlife that’s deeply rooted in society. But a basic understanding is needed because you need knowledge to create change. So EWB has created an education programme. Again, slowly easing into it, working out what’s happened in the past, understanding the failures. The future lies with kids.

3rd Space: Last year you sent me some images of children visiting the elephant orphanage at EWB. What was the impact of this?

Tempe Adams: When children are brought up with elephants being regarded as a pest species – one that can threaten the lives of your community – of course they’re scared of that animal. It’s natural.  So we’ve developed a programme of workshops for kids on basic elephant ecology, human/animal conflict, and elephant family dynamics. The herd are related to one another and they stay in that family unit their entire lives, with a matriarch as the overarching mother. We take the children to meet our orphan elephants. Often they are very affected by this because they can relate to them. Seeing the dynamics and emotions of human family structures mirrored in the elephant family… well, love starts from that. You can’t teach empathy, but something gets transmitted when kids relate emotionally to these little orphan elephants. More and more conservation organisations are seeing value in investing in education. Ultimately this is setting up the future.

3rd Space: It sounds like EWB is helping create a culture that’s not just proud of its large elephant population but also understands conservation. That transition – from a conflictual to a custodial relationship – is huge. What would you say to young aspiring conservationists?

Tempe Adams: It’s difficult as a young person nowadays, with so many choices. It can be challenging to know how to actually apply yourself. I have friends who finished high school and just didn’t know what to do. That feeling of being lost is scary, especially if you’ve been given a great education and you feel you don’t want to waste it; yet you have no idea how, or where, to channel yourself.

3rd Space: Yes, there’s also pressure to be ‘successful’. Defining success varies, right?  You spoke earlier about the necessity of having passion. How important is this?

Tempe Adams: Very important, but passion alone can also lead to forgetting to listen. I feel I am very fortunate. I wasn’t born wanting to work with elephants, but I always knew the kind of work I wanted to be doing. Giving time to discover this, and then following it, is really important.

Doing what you love and care about is my measure of happiness and success. Not just getting an award from the university. Getting things published is very satisfying because it feels like a contribution. But when you find your purpose, you get that gut feeling of really landing somewhere, of really being able to achieve something. And the satisfaction from that is very addictive…. you find yourself wanting more of it.

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Comments 2

  1. Avatar

    An incredible interview from 3rd Space. Very in-depth and so interesting. Talking to Tempe gives an entirely different prospective on living and working in Africa. b.Botswana especially ,given her work in human elephant conflict, and her incredible work with and talking to the farming community.
    Her deep passion and love of Botswana very clearly comes through.

  2. Avatar

    I too love Botswana, and since 2011 have every year and sometime twice, on Safari. I travel with Thru-the-Lens, Joe Ramsden and he and his family are good friends. We talk about the work, and Joe has family farming, so I know the problem from the farmers point of view. I wish you well, and your attitude is exactly right.

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