Resolving human-wildlife conflicts through trust, respect, and… humor?

At the International Marine Conservation Congress, I attended a workshop focusing on resolution of human-wildlife conflict that was put on by Francine Madden of the Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration. Francine explained her strategies for bringing both sides (wolf conservationists and ranchers, fishermen and government managers, etc) to the table for productive negotiations that benefit everyone.

Though she is an exceptional diplomat, much of what she was saying I had heard before- nothing productive can happen unless both sides trust each other, there needs to be a forum for everyone’s voice to be heard, etc. However, one technique really caught my attention.

Francine was working in Uganda addressing a difficult conservation challenge- due mostly to mountain gorilla’s habituation from tourism, more gorillas were losing their fear of humans and were leaving the park to raid crops. Some lone gorillas had even injured local villagers. Francine convened a large community stakeholder meeting, including villagers, government officials, conservationists, and development workers. Francine facilitated the discussion, and during a particularly contentious moment, she redirected the group by asking participants to brainstorm what they thought should be done about the conflict.

According to Francine (slightly paraphrased),

“One angry villager shouted ‘Kill all the gorillas’! To everyone’s surprise, I said ‘Great!’ and wrote ‘Kill all gorillas’ on the whiteboard. A shocked environmentalist said ‘You can’t do that’, and I said ‘Sure we can. Killing all the gorillas is a solution. It may not be the one this group ends up with, but it is one possibility and would solve the problem.’ The environmentalist then said ‘fine, then, you could also get rid of all the people!’ I said ‘That’s great! If we get rid of all the people, there won’t be any more conflict between humans and gorillas.’ I wrote on the whiteboard ‘get rid of all humans’.  Immediately, everyone in the room laughed. The group continued to brainstorm ideas and make decisions about how to deal with the conflict. Because everyone felt heard and we created an atmosphere where we respected one another’s views and allowed for a truly open dialogue, the entire group was able to move past the extremes and work together to find solutions agreeable to all. No one ever mentioned killing the gorillas or getting rid of the people again and the solutions that were implemented immediately after that meeting are still in effect today. Those jointly-owned solutions — simply because of the process used for decision making and implementation of the solutions — have remained in effect despite rebel incursions, murders, changes in leadership and staff, and other hardships in the park.”

She didn’t act horrified by the villager’s suggestion to kill all the gorillas. She didn’t talk down to him by explaining the importance of endangered species as if he had never heard it before. She didn’t shoot down his idea by pointing out that it was illegal. Instead, Francine let everyone’s voice be heard, and she let frustrations be vented. The humorous juxtaposition of extreme viewpoints sorted itself out.