Why CoExistence

by Dr Tarsh Thekaekara

For approximately 300,000 years, humans have inhabited Earth as one of species among million others. Circa 12,000 years ago we learnt how to cultivate crops and store grain, which gave us a distinct advantage over every other species. Then 300 years ago, we invented the steam engine, and began using fossil fuels more extensively, tapping into an energy resource that the planet had in store for more than 400 million years. Slowly but surely we began to separate ourselves from nature. We industrialised and made great progress, organising our society around an economic model that is based on consuming more resources from the natural world. We saw significant development, but also rapid destruction, heralding a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene where humans dominate the planet.

In response to this, came the modern conservation movement, the first efforts were seen in the form of the Yellowstone National Park in the USA about 100 years ago. In the wake of decimation of many animal species and indigenous people on the continent, the need to conserve the natural world was visible. Acres of land were set aside for nature, without human interference. The “protected area” paradigm has spread and taken root around the world, with continued calls to set aside more land for nature. The “Half-Earth” project is also a great example, which aims to have 30% of the world’s land under protected areas by 2030. To goal is to make some areas human free and divert human activity in the other areas. Another movement is the “land sparing” campaign, which proposes highly ‘efficient’ urban spaces for humans devoid of all other life forms, supported by large swaths of land intensively factory farmed with genetically modified crops – with islands of nature locked away and ‘preserved’.

All evidence points to the fact that the problem began with our intensive use of fossil fuels and the rise of the industrial revolution. Surely the solution lies outside of these model of infinite ‘growth’ and consumption?

CoExistence is a call to change the global conservation paradigm. From saving nature in far-away pockets to living well with nature around us. To value the human connection with nature and celebrate all life forms around us by sharing space. To encourage people to remember that they are of, and for nature. We have the capacity to heal, grow, thrive, and support symbiotically with nature, as other species do. To urge the genius of human innovation towards reducing levels of consumption and human population growth. To go beyond saving 30 or 50% of the planet, but Earth as a whole.

The know-how exists with indigenous people across the globe, whose existence is threatened every day. Current ‘development’ and conservation trajectories are working to remove them from nature and erase our increasingly tenuous link to the vast knowledge bank on living sustainably.

‘Developed’ humans may find it hard to live in a forest, most wild animals may find it hard to live in a city. Without drawing rigid lines that separate humans and nature, it’s more natural for us to embrace the gradient from wild to urban. Celebrate shared spaces where humans and animals live together, rather than remove all people from nature or all nature from around people. Humanity has a way forward in learning from those not plugged into the globalised world.

It’s easier said than done, luckily, there are plenty of examples that we can draw from.

Elephants are a flagship for CoExistence: As we know 80% of their range is outside protected areas, shared with people living at very high densities of over 400 people/ km2. They consume large quantities of food and water and compete with people for the same resources. Yet they are tolerated, and there is a continuous negotiation in the shared space. The willingness to negotiate is the key to a wholesome / sustainable relationship. While the global media highlights negative interactions as conflict, the most severe sites of ‘human-wildlife conflict’ are perhaps cities. Where humans have won over and decimated almost all other life forms. If some people can live with the largest terrestrial mammal on this earth, why can’t all other people live with smaller life forms? Viewed in this light, human wildlife interactions are not a problem, but the solution.

As these Lantana elephants travel around the world, they call on people to live well with nature around them, carrying the stories and knowledge of how they live with people.