Instead, we listen, talk, and listen some more. More than ever we need to be able to adopt perspective and compassion towards people – and not just in conservation. Chengeta Wildlife Communities programmes works with communities to develop locally based, lasting solutions towards the protection of natural resources, including self-monitored hunter off-take studies with local hunters. Chengeta also works to promote and support another independent community programme, the Sangha Pangolin Project (SPP). The SPP is a a truly inspiring local research initiative located in the Dzanga-Sangha Protected Area – a small initiative with a huge heart and mission. “It’s imperative to understand local ways of life and perceptions before we start designing projects. We can’t just go in with assumptions and expectations, otherwise we run the risk of disappointing the very people we’d like to engage with”, explains Tessa Ullmann, researcher from the SPP. « The SPP does not focus on reducing pangolin meat consumption, but rather on raising awareness on the growing threat of the scale trade and discouraging people to participate in it ».
Empowering communities begins with understanding the perceptions of various ethnicities, be it towards conservation and those who practice it, pangolins, illegal trade and what it means if a species integral to their culture goes extinct. Culture is a continuously evolving and dynamic entity, adapting and responding to change much in a way that species do biologically. Thus, shifting perceptions at a local level to either find alternatives or spread awareness requires a lot of communication. In line with Chengeta’s approach to communicating with local communities, SPP led a conservation campaign designed to spread awareness about the pangolins’ plight from village to village. “What they are, who we are, why they need protection”, says Tessa. A simple, illustrative and poignant campaign that tailored the message to diverse ethnicities populating the Dzanga-Sangha area: no two villages are the same. The BaAka for instance, are hunter-gatherers who hold incredible knowledge and understanding of the forest, intimately tied to their understanding of balance. They immediately reacted to what ecological consequences would arise if pangolins came to disappear. Similarly, Bantu tribes were more receptive to the concept of legacy and whether their children and grand-children would be able to grow alongside pangolins in their lifetime.
“We ask people how they feel about individuals at the other end of the chain who earn a lot of money and benefits from depleting the forest as opposed to local communities. We ask, ‘What if some of the meat you hunted last week stayed in the forest or your community? There would be more tomorrow, which means children can be fed, school fees paid’. We must allow people to make their own decisions when faced with different perspectives”, explains Dr Carolyn Robinson.
The responses of the awareness campaign were overwhelming: people want to help, want to get involved with protecting their livelihoods and legacies, and the next phase of involving the community is underway. “The Q&A at the end was fascinating, because it helped us understand what concerned each village the most, ranging from finding alternatives to their sources of protein to how they could be a part of putting an end to the trade”, Tessa concludes excitedly.