Economics creates the human-wildlife conflict, and only economics can cure it

We watched episode 3 of Dynasties last night, presented by the indefatigable Sir David Attenborough. Set in Kenya’s Masai Mara, it told the story of an exceptionally resourceful lioness, ‘Charm’, and her number two, ‘Sienna’, and their struggles to feed and protect their extended young family – the remnants of the famous Marsh Pride. Deserted by the males, Charm and her band of young and adolescent lions faced the same challenges that her forebears have done for thousands of years – among them marauding hyena, aggressive buffalo, and the potentially lethal, slashing horns of those they would prey on – chiefly wildebeest.


When while taking her turn to feed the pride, Sienna was badly gored on a nocturnal hunting trip, we felt sorrow and pity for her pain and suffering as she lay motionless in the grass, barely breathing. The pressure was now fully on Charm to feed and protect the entire pride on her own – a challenge to any single lioness, even one possessed of her exceptional skill and stamina. This was Nature in the raw – played out for millennia in a way and on a stage that has not jeopardised the survival of either hunter or prey species. It was gratifying certainly, to see Sienna, despite a further mauling from a wildebeest, eventually manage to make her way back to the pride and be welcomed with endearing enthusiasm. Yet had Sienna died of her wounds it would have made sad watching, yes, but it would have been entirely natural – not gut-wrenching in the way what was to happen next was.

The huge herds of herbivores had crossed back over the Mara River heading for the Serengeti, leaving slim pickings for a hungry pride of lions. Into this abandoned region now arrived a new presence – herders grazing their cattle illegally on land reserved exclusively for the use of wild animals. To lion, cattle are just another prey species – it is doubtful they appreciate the difference between a wildebeest and a cow. So under this threat the herders did what herders do almost everywhere when competing with big cats – they put out poisoned meat for them.

Despite severe sickness, all but one young male lion survived; but the sight of this pathetic animal, left behind reluctantly by Charm to fulfil her duty to the rest of the pride, was deeply upsetting to the viewer and teary-eyed camera crew alike. This forlorn, emaciated, bedraggled creature hadn’t the strength to follow her mentor any further, and lay down to die in the long grass. There was nothing that even vets could do to save it.

There was nothing natural about this, and one should be angry. We were angry. But here’s the thing – who should we direct our anger against? The herders? The Park Rangers who failed to keep the herders out? The inadequacy of the lawmakers who set the penalties for such behaviour? The elders of the tribe to which the herders belong? All of them? Perhaps the entire human race for being so invasive and destructive?

For me, the answer is - none of them. Here’s why.

Because economics is to blame: the economics that makes cattle more valuable than lions to the herders. The economics that makes the grasslands in which the lions roam necessary for the cattle. The economics that makes some people wealthy on tourist cash while others can only watch with resentment as their ancestral homeland becomes a ‘natural-experience’ playground for well-off tourists. People like myself and my wife who travelled to the Mara just last July for that very experience, so I know. We encountered rogue cattle herders just like those in Dynasties. We questioned our guide about their presence. “A delicate local situation” he said, tapping the side of his nose.

What played out in that film was in reality a cameo of the worldwide human-wildlife conflict that is destroying natural environments and wildlife at a speed that beggars belief. The reason this is happening is the same everywhere - the failure by our leaders to recognise a fundamental truth - that we humans inhabit an economic ecosystem dominated by markets, and that this market ecosystem has become distorted by the easy and excessive opportunities it presents.

But as the late President George Bush recognised, ( markets are not the enemy of the natural world – only our failure to control them is. With judicious manipulation, markets can be made to benefit mankind and the natural world alike, as has been shown many times over. But to change the world such measures need to become part of the daily curriculum of government, not just an occasional foray as at present.

That young lion therefore died - not because of bad people, but because of bad economics. The economic parameters surrounding its existence were out of kilter, nothing more, nothing less. It is entirely within our power to change those parameters for the better, and the sooner this becomes a universally accepted paradigm, the sooner I believe we can restore balance between the natural world and the economic one.

November 4th 2018