As miles of ice collapse into the sea and the phantom of climate change continues to haunt us, this written collaboration between a Kenyan and an Argentine, concerning the environment and wildlife in Africa, took place as the result of an apparently random encounter. One of us happened to be at the Samburu National Reserve in June, during a break from his teaching responsibilities, courtesy of Samburu Game Lodge’s hospitality. On a Sunday morning, he decided to go to Mass at the Catholic Parish in Archers Post, a classic mark on the Kenyan maps of old.
The days preceding that Sunday had been problematic in Archers, with several human-wildlife conflict incidents. A leopard, which had been spotted near some cattle, had been shot dead by a villager and several elephants that had basically invaded the vicinity by night (breaking fences and scaring people) had, in return, been terrified by locals on motorbikes. In this context, the other one of us, the Kenyan, who grew up in Archers, asked the local parish priest, Father Ambrose, whether he could authorise him to deliver a few words to the community, after the Sunday Mass, to try to explain to them how to handle efficiently the ongoing situation. He would deliver the speech in his double capacity as an expert in conservation, who works with the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, and as a parishioner who spent the greater part of his life with the very same people he was about to address. In the speech in Kiswahili, he started by explaining the likely reason for the animals trespassing. While the several neighbouring reserves had seen severe drought, Archers Post had instead become like a small island where, of late, it had rained. This accounted for the elephants coming to the village more than in normal times. Not that the animals had anything against the people. Rather, the speaker said, the elephants were merely in search of water and food. As the parishioner was making this clarification, the other one of us, who was sitting on one of the benches and had never met the speaker yet, could observe the evident scepticism of many in attendance; some of them even protested when the speaker tried to acquit the elephants.
Fr Ambrose’s calm demeanour, which seemed to approve the gist of the speech, came to the service of the speaker-parishioner, who was able to proceed. He offered advice to the villagers on what to do, if and when the elephants should return to town.
While part of the audience continued to be apparently doubtful, one could observe at the same time that several people nodded and thanked the speaker with their body language. At least it was a beginning. Perhaps with more speeches in future and additional explanations, those less convinced might buy the idea that the human-wildlife conflict can be prevented without irreversible harm to the parties involved.
What happened that Sunday morning in the middle of nowhere is but an example of what could become a potentially fruitful and practical partnership – that between churches and those of us, members of churches as we are, who want to spread the word about the need for conservation.
In the case of the Catholic Church, this collaboration is enhanced and made even easier by its concern for the environment, which has become increasingly evident in recent times. The 2015 Encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, offers an ample platform for such collaboration as it places in the limelight the issue of the conservation of “our common home”, compared by the Pope to a sister. When he visited Kenya, the Pope made it clear that the protection of the ecosystem and what he called a “human ecology” ought to be one of the church’s priorities. While law and government have an unquestionable role when it comes to handling the human-wildlife conflict, dialogue tends to be more effective, especially with regard to prevention.
In this respect, churches are aptly equipped. Parishioners usually will pay attention to a fellow churchgoer and the odds are that many times the message will be better delivered in the absence of coercive threats and in the presence of opportunities for questions and answers. This is why we see a promising avenue in experiences such as the one at Archers Post. We hope they will be multiplied all around Kenya and are certain that if that were to happen, only good results would come out of it, for the benefit of our sister earth and for the benefit of ourselves.
Daniel Letoiye is regional coordinator, Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association. [email protected]
Prof Santiago Legarre is a visiting professor at Strathmore Law School. [email protected]