God Loves Protected Species. And the Poachers Who Kill Them.

A theocentric conservation effort looks out for both man and nature.
God Loves Protected Species. And the Poachers Who Kill Them.
Image: Illustration by Mallory Rentsch

We sat in the slivered shade of the acacia tree outside of Serengeti National Park. Deus, a 30-something Lutheran pastor, used a stick in the sand to tally the income he generated per month from poaching. He paused after drawing an equal sign. “I preach in church every week,” he said, smiling. “Except when I’m hunting, of course.”

“Church?” I asked. “Doesn’t your denomination see poaching as sin?”

“Oh no,” he replied. “God gives us every animal.”

I stared at him, and he sensed my unease at his benediction of an illegal activity. “Don’t worry,” he said, patting my knee reassuringly. “I pray over every animal I kill. I thank God for each and every one.”

Of course, I knew that God loved the world, but it dawned on me then that Deus’s comment exemplified Thomas Moore’s simple idea in Care of the Soul. “If you don’t love things in particular, you cannot love the world,” Moore wrote, “because the world doesn’t exist except in individual things.”

I was idealistic when I met Deus during my research on human-wildlife interactions in 2007, and the particular thing I loved was wilderness—one unencroached on by poachers. John Muir and Henry David Thoreau’s wilderness: large landscapes unspoiled by human habitation and development. Places to escape to, to unclutter the mind and rejuvenate. Jesus valued wilderness, I reasoned, seeking it out on several occasions. So as a grad student in my mid-20s, I sought it out myself in Tanzania, embarking on a research expedition in the unspoiled wilderness of sub-Saharan Africa.

Everybody Poaches

When I first began interviewing subjects four years earlier, I asked a village chairman if I could interview poachers. He chortled and said, “Nobody poaches! So how can you find them to interview?”

Without poachers to interview, I settled on agriculturalists. For this, he assigned me a guide named Kenyatta and sent us off with a wave. Out of earshot of the chairman, I turned to Kenyatta. “When did people stop poaching?” I asked.

“Stop poaching?” he said. “They haven’t. Everybody poaches.”

“But the chairman said . . .”

“Everybody poaches,” he repeated, his eyes twinkling. “Even me.”

Two hours later, my first respondent, Juma, who boasted a decade of hunting experience, was upending prior assumptions I’d held. For starters, he helped me to see that poaching isn’t some reckless, irrational activity.

The rationality of poaching is simple. Juma’s great-grandfather hunted. His grandfather hunted. His father hunted. For much of this time, legality was a moot issue; bushmeat harvesting was widespread in and around what would eventually become Serengeti National Park. A vast commons surrounded Juma’s village, bursting with more than a million wildebeest and almost half as many zebra. Locals supplemented crops—corn, millet, and cassava—with wild-caught game. Neighbors in other villages sought ivory as a means to put food on the table.

Then the preservationists swept in—first the British colonial government in the early 20th century, then later the Tanzanian government. Authorities appropriated village land and restricted villagers’ activities. Grazing, firewood collection, and hunting were limited. Restrictions tightened over the decades. Livelihood options were slowly taken away and no alternatives were added.

After the park’s official establishment in 1951, elephants could leave the protected area to eat or trample Juma’s crops just outside the park. It left him without recourse—or food. From Juma’s perspective, and that of most of the villagers now squeezed outside the newly formed Serengeti Park, the government’s actions seemed, well, arbitrary.

America’s Best Idea

This simplified account fits into a larger arc: the creation of national parks in general. When Serengeti was designated, it was the first one in Tanzania. Now there are 16. Many of them have involved forcible relocations, or, as in Juma’s case, the appropriation of hunting land. The plight of such people—called “conservation refugees”—has long been ignored, according to journalist Mark Dowie. This phenomenon isn’t unique to Africa, nor did it start there. It traces back to 1872 with the creation of Yellowstone National Park.

Like many Americans, I grew up believing an ethnocentric myth that Yellowstone was the world’s first. In fact, Bogd Khan Mountain National Park in Mongolia was. Bogd Khan was first protected in 1778, nearly 100 years before Yellowstone. Other evidence suggests protected areas went back even further, one as early as 1294. The Yellowstone myth I learned is popularly traced to painter George Catlin. In the 1830s, Catlin traversed the American West telling everybody he came across about the government’s prerogative to preserve:

in their pristine beauty and wildness . . . where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse . . . amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffalos. [This could become a] nation’s Park containing man and beast, in all the wild freshness of their nature’s beauty.

The Catlin origin story proved a far more captivating tale that fit the nation’s desire to find features portraying its greatness. It froze Native Americans in time and space, ignoring their vast local knowledge. Paternalistic? Yes. But the Catlin story took root, finding its way into some of the most popular conservation literature. History professor and influential environmentalist Roderick Nash equated national parks with progress, propping them up as “America’s best idea” in a seminal 1967 book about wilderness—an expression later coined by Wallace Stegner. The rest of the world quickly caught on, argued Nash, especially in the latter half of the 20th century. Today, more than 100,000 protected areas exist, covering nearly 12 percent of the world’s land surface.

National parks are easy to champion. Setting land aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” is a democratic-sounding mission. But irony lies behind Catlin’s vision, too. To him, parks were a modern Garden of Eden, but their rapid worldwide spread occurred in the context of European colonialism. The prevailing mindset reflected the interests of a narrow group of Western elites rather than local people living in or near the places being conserved.

Although Catlin wanted people in his parks, many folks—both in Catlin’s time and today—believe this is an oxymoron, that pristine beauty is sacrificed the second people show up. At the headwaters of this thinking, Thoreau prescribed nature as a remedy to the ills of ever-encroaching civilization. He advocated for large expanses of nature to be sealed off from development. If people are allowed into such areas, it should only be as tourists. “In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau wrote. Wilderness adherents appropriated their patron saint’s words; all landscapes that included people were viewed as less valuable, sullied even.

Much of the world, of course, has people. Ignoring peopled landscapes and all their attendant biodiversity is myopic. This, said environmental historian William Cronon, “is the trouble with wilderness.”

Creating a park on paper isn’t enough. Ironically, to empty a place of people and to keep others out requires the actions of large numbers of people—powerful people. After Yellowstone was designated, wanton slaughter of bison and elk continued apace. It took the arrival of the US Army to stop the carnage. Laws and enforcement were needed, leading to the creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

Calls for vigorous defense in the face of relentless human encroachment continue. In his 2004 book, ecologist John Terborgh called for an international conservation fund and policing force to protect the world’s parks. This force should carry arms, make arrests, and provide a final defense against the incoming tide of humanity. Parks, for nature protectors like Terborgh, are a clear and impassable “line in the sand.”

A Theocentric Ethic

The supposed conservation ethic of Christians has been accused of grave harm. In 1967, the historian Lynn White Jr. wrote a five-page essay in the journal Science in which he declared unequivocally: “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen.” White saw Christianity as the cause of the world’s ecological crisis. Like Catlin’s words perpetuated the Yellowstone myth, White’s simple thesis resonated with the secular late-’60s ethos. It spread as quickly, soon appearing as standard fare in ecological textbooks across the country.

But in fact, a conservation ethic for Christians hasn’t been very clearly defined. Like many Christians who have read White’s article, I felt defensive. But it also got me thinking. If Christianity isn’t anthropocentric, what is it? Yes, Genesis sets humans in nature. But it also sets them apart. Fred Van Dyke, director of the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, offers a better alternative to White’s accusation. Actually, Van Dyke suggests, a Christian ethic is theocentric: God is the center, not humans or nature.

To this idea, contemporary writer A. J. Swoboda adds his own framework for biblically grounded creation care. “Theology is centered on God’s image in humanity,” Swoboda writes, “and God’s cultural mandate to humanity as stewards of his creation.”

On one of Swoboda’s recent tours, I invited him to speak in my conservation biology class at Houghton College. “Creation care,” he stated, “is not about polar bears. It’s about the poor.” Swoboda is right; the tendency—even among contemporary conservationists—to exclude local people from nature is strong.

His axiom is backed by many recent actions. In Dowie’s reporting on conservation refugees, he focuses on the Batwe of Uganda, whose ancestral home is the forests of three national parks that feature the charismatic silverback gorilla. In the 1990s, once the World Bank began funding conservation, the tribe was forcibly removed under pressure from Western conservationists, who suspected that they were poaching (the tribe, which feels kinship with the gorilla, insists it was not).

Before I interviewed my first poacher, I attended a conference in 2003 of about 50 scientists in Serengeti National Park, gathered with the aim of conserving the park more effectively. At the concluding session, I sat in the back, one of four wide-eyed graduate students, madly scribbling notes in my journal. The researcher Craig Packer stood up and drew a diagram, a large flattened X, separating the human and natural worlds. At the X’s center, he wrote my name, announcing to the audience that I would be studying the intersection between the human and natural worlds. I copied the diagram carefully, flattered to feel so central in such an important endeavor.

My enthusiasm didn’t last long. On the way back to our lodge, my doctoral adviser slid into my seat on the minibus. “Did you take notes on that meeting?” she asked gravely.

“Yes,” I said, somewhat proudly.

“Let me see your notes,” she demanded. I fished the small notebook out of my pocket and handed it to her. Pulling a pen from her handbag, she scribbled out the diagram and drew a large circle on the facing page. In it she wrote two words, humans and nature. “This is how the world works,” she said, handing my notebook back. “It’s all one system.”

Suddenly, the full truth of “God so loved the world” from John 3:16 snapped into focus, at least as it related to the wilds of sub-Saharan Africa all around me. “There is no natural world,” author David Quammen wrote recently. “There is only the world.”

Theologian Sallie McFague points to the incarnation as the example of how much God loved the world—he became a part of it. “But now it takes on new meaning and depth as we realize the radical interrelationship and interdependence of all forms of life,” she said. “In sum, we are not called to love God or the world. Rather, we are called to love God in the world. We love God by loving the world. We love God through and with the world. But this turns out to be a kenotic, a sacrificial love.”

If a Christian ethic of conservation is theocentric, then it starts with what God loves. To protect creation, we must find a way to protect the image-bearers who steward it. Conservation is about people, touts a well-known axiom. It’s about the poor.

Walking with the Poor

To love the poor as God does, we must care enough to know them. Few people have modeled this better than anthropologist and physician Seth Holmes, who wrote a book detailing how he walked with migrant workers to understand why they risk so much to enter the United States.

After building trust with migrant workers, Holmes traveled with them on their hazardous journey north from Mexico to the US, even being arrested and detained alongside them. Along the way, he discovered the power of poverty—how it can drive people to take inordinate risks. Holmes described what he saw as structural violence, violence that arises from social inequalities that have “injurious effects on bodies similar to the violence of a stabbing or shooting.” Similarly, when we fail to recognize these inequalities, or when we dismiss them as “natural,” we commit what Holmes and others call symbolic violence.

When I started my research on poachers, I lacked Holmes’s tenacity and the helpful concepts of structural and symbolic violence. But Holmes’s portrayal of real lives to illustrate the relevance of these concepts now gives meaning to my own learning experience.

After 418 two-hour interviews, I began to construct a story of the livelihood difficulties faced by the people living along the margins of Serengeti. My relationship with Kenyatta deepened until, eventually, he became my lucky break: a key informant willing to bring his fellow poachers in to talk.

He had me follow a map drawn on a napkin to arrive at a nondescript location under an old acacia tree. I’d need help finding the road again, but that didn’t matter now. Just as Kenyatta predicted, sinewy men in faded trousers and flip-flops emerged from the surrounding scrub and we got acquainted. With my knees near my chin and a clipboard in my lap, these men schooled me in the harsh social realities that Holmes defined as structural violence.

Questions were hardly necessary; stories followed stories. I wrote constantly, my hands cramping, filling the margins of my questionnaires and flipping them over for more space. Sometimes I interrupted my respondents. I needed quantities, durations, and extent. I constructed household economies, categorized their hunting strategies and discerned their motivations. Tediously I plumbed their memories for the species they killed, the amounts for which they sold them, and the times they’d been caught. Sometimes I’d put my pen down, enthralled.

Contrary to accounts that portray poachers as eager lawbreakers bent on profit, the guys I conversed with embodied reluctance. Poaching was hard. To evade patrols, they entered the park at night, overlapping their schedules with those of lions, leopards, elephants, hippo, and buffalo. Their flashlights, if they could afford batteries, were ineffectual. Flip-flops were the only protection from snakes and scorpions. They hunted with wire snares. Sometimes lions and leopards became inadvertently trapped. If they weren’t caught themselves, they were often nearby, hoping to dispatch one of the dying animals that was.

If a poacher successfully killed an animal, they butchered and smoked it, hoping the smoke wouldn’t attract park rangers. If luck held, they hauled heavy loads of meat out of the park and began discreetly distributing it. If detected, they’d run, leaving their hard-earned meat. Usually they outran their pursuers, hiding in dense mosquito-ridden thickets, or worse, in rivers with hippos and crocodiles. If caught, they faced fines. If they couldn’t pay, prison. If locked up and deprived of meat and income, a poacher’s family faced even leaner months ahead.

People poached not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Jobless and with mouths to feed, these were the configurations of social inequalities created by misguided colonialism and poor government policies—similar to the structural violence that Holmes found with his migrant workers. Had I divorced the human and the natural worlds and focused only on arrests and carcass counts, I would have missed it. Even research, I realized, has lots of room for symbolic violence—our failure to notice inequality.

Living out a holistic Christian ethic to conservation required time. Time for storytelling. After weeks of listening, a theme emerged. All 104 poachers I spoke with were unequivocal: If they had any other source of income or employment, they would stop poaching immediately.

The Solution Isn’t Mine

Since completing my research, I’ve entered tens of thousands of data points, published half a dozen papers, and thrown every statistical test I can at the poaching problem. I’ve championed the causes of employment and development, led subsequent research endeavors with squadrons of my own college students and quibbled endlessly with other scholars about the merits of my, and other, Western interventions. As a researcher, I continue to probe for more data, ever hopeful to tease out meaningful patterns and solutions.

However, within my field, the number of issues and their intractability can easily feel overwhelming. Sovereignty issues in Bear’s Ears, pipeline conflicts in Standing Rock, oil exploration on federal lands, ranchers’ rights in Chile, rising seas affecting the Sami reindeer herders. The list is long.

However, the longer I study, the leerier I’m becoming of solutions, especially simplistic interventions with pat answers. I’ve read and assigned Garrett Hardin’s classic essay Tragedy of the Commons countless times, but only recently did I realize the profundity of his rarely mentioned subtitle. “The population problem has no technical solution,” he wrote. “It requires a fundamental extension in morality.”

Buried within the essay is a short paragraph on the game of tic-tac-toe. If both players understand the rules, there is no technical solution to the game. You cannot win. Hardin suggests that winning can only occur by hitting an opponent over the head or drugging them.

I’m convinced that conservation around national parks resembles tic-tac-toe. In the past we’ve been perfectly willing to clobber our opponents—local people. Yet today, when the stakes are just as high, we’re abandoning the game or refusing to play altogether.

What I’ve grown more confident in is my theocentric ethic. I know one day God will make all things new (Rev. 21:5). His purposes for his creation will be accomplished, addressing the systems that perpetrate violence today against people like poachers in Tanzania, as well as the threatened wildlife suffering from poor stewardship. This is the ultimate solution.

For now, Hardin’s “fundamental extension in morality” seems apt—we cannot abandon the game. Leaning into a theocentric ethic, we work knowing that a change in human values and perspective is more vital than any “solution” stemming from the sciences.

Wherever my research goes and no matter how much I love wildlife and wilderness, I’m reminded of the face of Deus, the devout Lutheran pastor who poached as fervently as he preached. While I must start with what God loves—particular poachers and the particular animals they hunt—I remember that Deus’s visage is embedded within a grand landscape. It’s all one world.

Eli Knapp is an assistant professor of intercultural studies, biology, and earth science at Houghton College. He directs the Houghton-East Africa study abroad program and recently published The Delightful Horror of Family Birding.

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