A Carleton degree in psychology helped prepare Dennis Rentsch ’02 for the paradoxes of African wildlife conservation.
When Dennis Rentsch ’02 began work in the Serengeti and the communities surrounding this bountiful wildlife area in East Africa, he expected to be awed by the wildlife—the elephants and giraffes that walk past his windows in daylight and the lions and hyenas that prowl the shadows at night.
But what he found even more intriguing were the paradoxes that lie within the human condition, and the complex interaction between poverty, human needs, and the value of wildlife.
Rentsch is technical adviser for the Serengeti Community Outreach Program at the Frankfurt Zoological Society, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to secure biodiversity in key ecosystems worldwide. His immediate task is to reconcile wildlife conservation with the development needs of the burgeoning human population outside Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park.
“When I started this job in March 2008, I realized that although I was looking at how to conserve wildlife, the far more interesting questions had to do with the interactions between people and wildlife,” says Rentsch. The challenge was to make it possible for humans and wildlife to coexist—to somehow make wildlife conservation beneficial to local people.
The Serengeti is one of the natural wonders of the world, an ecosystem of some 12,000 square miles of grassland, savanna, and woodlands. At its heart lies Serengeti National Park and the adjoining Ngorongoro Conservation Area. The region supports the largest terrestrial migration of mammals in the world, as more than a million wildebeests, a quarter million zebras, and a host of other herbivores and predators move with the seasons to find food. Among the charismatic species that draw tourists from around the world are lions, leopards, elephants, black rhinos, gazelles, impalas, Cape buffalo, baboons, and giraffes.
Rentsch first visited Tanzania in 2000 as a Carleton student on a study-abroad program. For four months he studied wildlife conservation and community development and “I just fell in love with the place and the people,” he says.
After graduating from Carleton, Rentsch worked in a conservation program at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo for a year. In 2004 he enrolled in the conservation biology graduate program at the University of Minnesota, where he met and worked with faculty member Craig Packer, perhaps the world’s foremost lion expert. The program, Rentsch says, “seemed like a good fit, especially [its focus] on the economic issues of wildlife conservation. It gave me a chance to look in a more scientific and critical way at what was happening in Tanzania, and I was fortunate enough to work in the Serengeti ecosystem.”
One of the most serious threats to wildlife in Africa comes from illegal hunting, which provides a source of protein and income for communities around Serengeti. As part of his doctoral research, Rentsch studied the relationship between poaching and alternative sources of protein like poultry. In Africa, raising chickens is difficult because of Newcastle disease, which is caused by a contagious virus that is fatal to many domestic and wild bird species. Rentsch reasoned that by training workers to vaccinate village flocks, farmers could raise more chickens, which would reduce the need for “bushmeat”—the meat from poached wildlife that is sold in African markets.
To test that theory, Rentsch organized “village protein surveyors” to determine levels of bushmeat consumption in 132 households in villages near the park. Further, 20 villagers were trained in vaccinating chickens and inoculated some 6,000 birds. Indeed, says Rentsch, perhaps the most worthwhile outcome of the study was that people were trained to protect local livestock—a real boost to the wealth of communities.
But he was surprised to see little or no impact on poaching. Because poultry fetches higher prices at market than bushmeat, farmers were selling their chickens for income, yet continuing to buy bushmeat for their own consumption. “As wealth increases at the household level, overall consumption of meat—and specifically the consumption of bushmeat—increases as well,” says Rentsch.
Understanding that dynamic has helped him as he works with communities to find conservation solutions, such as giving villages more leeway in managing hunting in local wildlife management areas. “My doctoral research is something we take into account now when we do a conservation project,” he says, “especially how it relates to bushmeat and hunting.”
For example, not all hunting in the Serengeti region is illegal. In fact, permits for hunting in local wildlife management areas, purchased primarily by foreigners, provide hundreds of thousands of much-needed dollars for wildlife conservation. “Tanzania is one of several countries in Africa that has really capitalized on hunting as a source of income and a sustainable management tool for wildlife,” says Rentsch.
Unfortunately, local villagers reap few benefits from the sale of these permits, yet they often suffer the repercussions of living near this awe-inspiring wildlife. “A herd of 10 elephants can eat someone’s entire agricultural field in one night,” Rentsch says. “You can’t do much to chase them away.”
As a result, he is working with villagers to develop strategies for sharing the benefits of wildlife. “If conservation is going to take place,” Rentsch says, “villagers have to be engaged, they have to be involved, and they have to see the benefit of it.”
In one strategy, the Frankfurt Zoological Society has funded and trained local people in establishing wildlife management areas that serve as buffers between the villages and the park. To ensure that these areas benefit the local communities, Rentsch and his colleagues help villagers gain control of a certain number of hunting permits. Community members can choose to hunt themselves for subsistence or market, or sell the permits to hunting outfitters and keep the money (potentially tens of thousands of dollars) in the community.
Despite his love of Africa and village life, Rentsch—who lives just outside Serengeti National Park with a tribal group known as the Ikoma—is a city kid who grew up near Central Park on New York’s Upper West Side. He majored in psychology at Carleton because of its primate cognition lab and his strong interest in animal behavior. As it turned out, his psychology background, combined with the broad curriculum of a liberal arts school, prepared him for a life in the bush.
“At Carleton, you’re encouraged to share ideas across disciplines, look at opposing views, and reach outside of your comfort zone,” Rentsch says. “Carleton’s psychology program was probably as good a background as I could have had for what I’m doing now.
“The thing I’ve learned most from working in the Serengeti is that the issues surrounding conservation and sustainability are complex,” he says. “If the solution were simple, it would have been done already. We’re always looking for win-win situations, and those are difficult to come by.”