As a native Zimbabwean, Brent Stapelkamp was always among nature. He organically co-existed as a child among his wild surroundings, matured to lead professional safaris, and took an intrigue in lions—quickly centering his work around protecting the big cat species and all they represent.
“If we can’t conserve our oldest companion in our evolutionary journey as humans then what chance do springhares and porcupines and termites and wasps have? Lions attract attention, they are sexy and strong, everyone loves lions and I think we can catch the world’s attention and funds by exploring that,” shares Stapelkamp.
After studying wildlife management in the UK, Stapelkamp returned to Zimbabwe and joined the Hwange Lion Project where he applied his special interest in “conflict lions” to data collection and management of prominent prides in the Hwange area. As Stapelkamp spent time interviewing local tribes on the effects of lion depredation to a village’s livestock, he recognized the need for a long-term solution to encourage human-wildlife coexistence; a type of harmony similar to the coexistence Stapelkamp felt growing up.
Therefore, he founded Soft Foot Alliance with his wife, Laurie Simpson as a two-part solution; “to improve the livelihoods of the people living with these animals and to promote the conservation of the animal.” He explains that lions, hyenas, elephants, baboons and honey-badgers are among the species that predominantly impact the local’s livelihood, so the name ‘Soft Foot Alliance’ is a reflection of this list. “We tried to start our work from a positive point of view instead of strictly negative one and so looked for what we had in common with these five species. Soft feet is that common ground. We liked that, because it spoke to treading lightly,” he says.
We caught up with Mr. Stapelkamp and his wife to learn more about the shift from his work at the Lion Research Project, to the last two years of developing the Soft Foot Alliance, and how exactly they are promoting coexistence.
When did you first become invested in conservation and wildlife? How has your interest continued to develop?
Brent: My whole life I have been devoted to wildlife in one way or another and indeed spent all of my waking hours outdoors watching birds, catching fish and exploring the outside world. My childhood heroes were all wildlife people and conservationists but I don’t think I really understood what conservation was until I joined the Lion Research Project here in Hwange and from there it has really developed. I feel where we are now–as the Soft Foot Alliance–we are truly working on conservation with all its complexities and challenges.
Laurie: My love of wildlife has always been “Nature not Nurture” and so animals have always been important to me. I guess I only really became involved in conservation per se when I came to Zimbabwe in 2007. Coincidently, I too, have always had a deep love for lions.
How did you first get involved with “wild permaculture”?
Laurie: I did a course in natural building and then another in permaculture and there I found the first clear path to solving many of the issues that seem to baffle us all. Permaculture is a design system before anything else. A design system that is guided by some strict principles but takes into account every aspect associated to an action before you implement anything. It can be used in everything from business to agriculture and it is something that gives us a framework on which to build our work.
What made you decide to create The Soft Foot Alliance? Is there a moment that stands out for you in founding the Alliance?
Brent: I don’t think there was any one moment that catalyzed the setting up of the SFA but rather it was an evolutionary process born in all of our insights and frustrations over the last decade in the Hwange area. Where we were committed to our work with the lions and the mitigation of the conflict between them, and the people on the park edges. We always felt that we needed to change and tackle the bigger issues that no one wanted to really do. To practice what we were preaching so to speak. So, we did!
The Soft Foot Alliance recognizes that lions, hyaenas, elephants, baboons and honey-badgers are among the species that impact people’s livelihoods. Can you provide more detail on how these species impact livelihoods?
Brent: Firstly, to set the context, the people we call neighbors are said to live on about 30 cents per household per day. They are largely subsistence agro-pastoralists trying to survive on what they can farm themselves. Their crops, poultry and livestock are their source of livelihoods from everything from school fees to draught power.
The lion and the hyena kill cattle, shoats (sheep and goats) and donkeys which means a direct impact on people’s lives. An ox gets eaten, people can’t plough their fields. A donkey gets killed people have no way of getting to the clinic if sick or injured. Their cattle are killed there is no milk, no bride price and a direct loss of saved “capital” and it is as direct as if your goat is killed in the night you can’t pay school fees that term for a child.
The elephant and the baboon are crop-raiders. One raids at night (the ele) and the other during the day. They are both very smart and the elephant can be extremely dangerous when trying to chase him out of your field at night with only a firebrand or a vuvuzela (plastic horn). They can devastate a crop field and therefore a family’s entire year of food in a single raid.
And finally, the one that almost no-one mentions, the honey-badger. This tenacious little animal is cunning as they come and kill poultry. Because goats and cattle are considered wealth rather than “meat” they are very rarely eaten and so chickens, ducks and guinea fowl provide that for a family. The honey-badger is responsible for much loss in that department.
What are a few of the most prominent resources you’ve aimed to provide to increase efficiency of man and wildlife coexisting – what is a way you are maximizing them?
Brent: There are so many little things we do that all build into a larger picture but an example is the ‘mobile-boma.’ This idea wasn’t ours, but instead borrowed from the brilliant Allan Savory’s Holistic grazing planning. Cattle have been kept safe in stockades or “bomas” for eons and indeed that is what separates predators from your livestock at night. Due to a shortage of timber, the average boma these days is insufficiently protective to keep lions and hyena out.
The mobile boma is for all intents and purposes a curtain hung from hooks or poles encircling your livestock at night. The principle is if the lion can’t see the cattle inside he won’t jump in. If the cattle can’t see the lion outside they won’t break out. The real prize is these bomas are mobile. The cattle graze out in the pastures during the day and spend the night tearing up the ground and fertilizing the field sites with their urine and dung. After a week in situ the boma is moved to another site and the crops are planted in this newly fertile ground. Upwards of 30 percent increase in crop yields have been recorded whilst keeping the livestock safe. No livestock killed means a reduction in retaliatory killing of lions and so everyone benefits.
What is one of the most impactful changes you have witnessed since the Soft Foot Alliance began?
Brent: We are still only about two years old but I would love to say that one of the most impactful changes we have made is to inspire our community and build self-belief. One of the small projects started is called Kulsumpura beads and is a cooperative of women recycling glass bottles from safari lodges and making glass beads which they sell back to the tourists. The self-esteem and self-reliance amongst these women is a beautiful thing to see.
As a former safari guide, what would be your advice to a first-time safari traveler when it comes to interacting with the wilderness? How can you leave less of an impact and coexist?
Brent: I love first-timers on safari because I know what it must be like to see an elephant or a lion for the first time! I know what Africa means to us in the deepest sense of being human because this is where “we started”. I’d say immerse yourself in Africa, don’t come here with what you expect Africa to be and certainly don’t force that on your hosts. Africa’s wildlife will survive if Africans’ cultural attachment to their wildlife and landscapes is not corrupted by our shallow, consumerist perspective. So as first timers, come to Africa, go deep, soak it all in and celebrate Africa and her people for what they are and mean to us all.
Photos courtesy of Soft Foot Alliance