Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic
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National Geographic Explorer Hans Cosmas Ngoteya is working with villages around Katavi National Park. He found that villagers take resources from the park because they lack options, so he is developing alternatives that are environmentally friendly and meet the needs of the community.

Photograph by Mark Thiessen, National Geographic

In Villages That Relied on Illegal Logging, This Man Is Pushing for Change

The key to stop poaching and logging in protected lands? Offer real solutions for local communities.

When Hans Cosmas Ngoteya, a National Geographic explorer and conservationist from Tanzania, started working in the field four years ago, he didn’t understand why someone would kill wildlife or damage the forests in a national park. (Read more about National Geographic’s newest explorers.)

“Why should someone cut down trees for no reason?” he thought at the time. “Why should someone go and poach for no reason?”

Ngoteya works with villages around Katavi National Park, a large western Tanzanian park that sees less tourism than more well-known destinations like Serengeti. Without tourism, communities near Katavi have limited economic opportunities. Most people rely on livestock for their income—raising cattle outside their small homes and keeping chickens and ducks inside.

“Nature is the thing that always provided for us,” the locals told Ngoteya. “So when you put limits on us to access nature, it’s like you’re putting limits for our life.”

Human encroachment on protected lands takes many forms. Perhaps most well known is the hunting of animals for either financial benefits or for meat, but another common incursion is illegal logging, especially of endangered mninga and mpodo trees. Offenders are lumped into the same category: criminals. However, Ngoteya learned that there are different drivers for each.

The first step of Ngoteya’s conservation work was to gain the trust of the community. After years of accusations and arrests by conservationists who prioritized the well-being of wildlife over that of people, the village was skeptical of VIMA, Ngoteya’s project aimed at bringing conservation education and alternative livelihood options to rural communities near Katavi. They even suspected Ngoteya of being an informer for the park. “If you go there on the side of wildlife, you’re not a friend.” Ngoteya says.

Ngoteya’s community-centered wildlife management methods are also popular with larger conservation groups, like the World Wildlife Fund. Lisa Steel, senior director for Africa and Madagascar with the Fund, says she’d like local communities to have “the power to enact their own vision.” Unlike Ngoteya, Steel’s work focuses on areas not protected as national parks, but these areas still need sustainable wildlife management. In her work, Steel understands that it’s not enough to tell communities to refrain from using the natural resources around them. Rather, she says, the World Wildlife Fund is working to help locals to “see more value in wildlife alive than dead.”

Ngoteya has tried a similar approach. Over the last year, VIMA has focused on the issue of illegal logging in Katavi. Ngoteya first sought to understand why people were cutting down trees, and he learned that it was a matter of necessity: Residents needed firewood.

Ngoteya also worked with Oxford University to gather data on the success of VIMA’s conservation efforts along three dimensions: knowledge, attitude, and behavior. VIMA’s programs in wildlife education, like an initiative that brought local youth to Katavi to speak with park rangers, improved the knowledge and attitudes in the village. Behavior in the community changed, too, but it was not in the way that Ngoteya hoped it would.

On one hand, a tree nursery in the village was so successful that the demand for saplings exceeded their supply. But on the other, data collected by Ngoteya and the team at Oxford showed that the community started purchasing charcoal to replace the firewood, essentially paying someone else to cut the trees down for them. (Read about a replacement for fuel wood in Uganda.)

To truly solve the problem, Ngoteya knew he needed to offer a sustainable alternative.

“The idea that we have right now is to establish a biogas system that is powered by cow manure,” Ngoteya says. “So now if you tell them not to cut down trees, we have an alternative for them. Use this now. It’s not expensive, it’s just your cow, you can be using them to create energy.” (Read about biogas in California.)

With this data-driven approach, Ngoteya can be responsive to the changing results of his conservation program and emphasize the most effective strategies to improve human and wildlife coexistence. He hopes his long-term methods will result in better protection of the Katavi National Park’s wildlife and forests—and sustainable solutions for the nearby villages.

Related: This Man Risked It All to Change Uganda's Energy Destiny National Geographic 2014 Emerging Explorer and social entrepreneur Sanga Moses quit his job, sold his possessions, and braved ridicule and rejection to launch a clean, sustainable energy initiative in Uganda. Called Eco-Fuel Africa, the program tackles energy, food, and health issues in Uganda to help people and the environment.

Click here to read more about Sanga Moses and his work.

The Explorers Project chronicles the work of National Geographic's Emerging Explorers—tomorrow's visionaries who are making discoveries, making a difference, and inspiring people to care about the planet.  Click here to learn more.