November 16, 2020
- as seen by -Tim Davenport @TimRBDavenport@trbdavenport
There is a Swahili proverb that says Tafuta simba na utapata paka, literally, look for a lion, and you will find a cat. It has many layers of meaning about disappointment and truth, but it sprang to my mind last week when I was driving at dawn in Ruaha National Park, central Tanzania. I was looking for a dog, and I found a lion, or to be more accurate, seven lionesses.
After many years as Country Director for the WCS Tanzania Program, I recently left that position to become WCS Director of Species Conservation and Science for Africa. Science has been at the heart of the Wildlife Conservation Society for all of its 125 years. But at no time has it been so important, or the manner in which we do it, so essential. Science guides our interventions across complex environments to ensure they are effective, objective and legitimate. And yet humans are mostly an emotional, not a rational animal, and so we often turn to the ‘species’ to help bind these conflicting realities. Species are the unit of conservation; they may be the focus of applied research, but they also engage human emotion in a way that no other conservation concept can. Carbon may be the issue but polar bears help explain it. Species may be proxies, such as ‘flagships’, ‘keystones’, ‘indicators’ or ‘umbrellas’. And species provide a clarion call for an issue, a habitat or a way of environmental thinking. And so combining science with species concentrates conservation focus at both the human and the empirical levels.
So, last weekend I found myself at first light tracking African wild dogs with Monty Kalyahe, a charistmatic Tanzanian carnivore biologist who has spent years working on these glorious animals. We are working towards developing a wild dog strategy for WCS, and I was in the field with a man who knows them better than most. Every few hundred yards we stopped and looked at fresh spoor, hoping to find the pack before they vanished into the bush. Every time we rounded a corner we hoped to see them. Until, of course, we drove right into these beautiful sleepy creatures. Not wild dogs… but lions never disappoint.
Tulitafuta mbwa lakini tukapata paka. We looked for dogs, but we found cats.