Finding Balance Between Conservation and Agricultural Innovation

The Magical Giraffes that Sailed to China

Confucian tradition lists four mythical beasts — qilin, dragon, phoenix and turtle — and possessing one of these miraculous animals gave honour and legitimacy to the ruling power. In 1413AD  a “magical” giraffe believed to be a“qilin” was given as tribute to the Chinese Emperor by traders from the coast of Malindi.Science news

When you look at this picture you can see why in the 13th century, Chinese explorers encountering them for the first time believed that they were magical. At that time between  1403 and 1433AD, the Chinese explorers under the Ming emperor Yongle sent out numerous trade missions that reached as far as present-day Kenya. During the fourth expedition, which left China in 1413, part of the fleet led by commander Zheng. He sailed to Bengal in India, where in 1414 they met envoys from the African coastal state of Malindi (now part of Kenya). The men from Malindi had brought with them as tribute giraffes, and they gave one of those giraffes to the Chinese, who took it home. A year later, Malindi sent another giraffe to China, along with a zebra and an oryx.

Giraffes were believed to be possessed of magical powers, similar to those of the mythical unicorn. What fascinates me about that story is that although African wildlife gives delight to many tourists today, the African giraffe is actually now under threat from poachers and pastoralists. These conflicts between man and animals over land and natural resources are increasing, especially with the modern drive towards agricultural intensification.

This unresolved tension is not only hindering our idealistic realization of sustainable interdependent living between man and his environment; but also on a more practical level, threatening the sustainability of human food systems and destroying entire ecosystems.  African farmers who are rightfully seeking ways to increase productivity from their ever decreasing plots of land, often view any encroachment by animals on their farms as a big threat to their livelihoods.  And so they kill even timid “magical” creatures like giraffes. But people have to live and they need to farm to get that food to eat, so where’s the balance in this system?

The conservation group International Animal Rescue Foundation writes “Farmers using unsustainable agricultural and aquaculture practices present the (greatest immediate threat) to species and ecosystems around the world. Farmed areas – both on land and in the water – provide important habitats for many wild plants and animals. When farming operations are sustainably managed, they can help preserve and restore critical habitats, protect watersheds, and improve soil health and water quality. But when practiced without care, farming presents the greatest threat to species and ecosystems.”

So, what can we do? The biggest challenge with encouraging people towards more sustainable (and often more costly) farming practices is that they cannot measure the unseen cost to their ecosystems now and therefore cannot begin to think of moving towards better alternatives. They cannot see the “big” picture and they do not have the visualization tools to project into the future to measure the impact of their actions.

Well, I came across a great new project by Conservation International actually tries to do this. I had tea this morning with Dr Sandy Andelman, who described how Vital Signs is working with Ushahidi across Africa to provide critical metrics to inform smart, sustainable agricultural development. Take a look….it might encourage you. “There is always something new coming out of Africa.”

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