‘The Edge of Existence’: Documentary explores human-wildlife conflict in Africa

'The Edge of Existence'. Picture: Black Bean Productions

Forget illicit cigarettes in South Africa. In China, bushmeat could be the next banned commodity.

The coronavirus pandemic has placed a glaring spotlight on the international wildlife trade.

South African filmmakers Black Bean Productions, which has spent three years producing an in-depth feature documentary that highlights the complex issues around human-wildlife conflict in Africa, specifically focusing on Tanzania, says the wildlife markets, poaching and the bushmeat trade that the coronavirus has highlighted are symptoms of a much bigger crisis as communities and reserves vie for resources.

The Edge of Existence, directed by James Suter and Charlie Luckock and set to launch after lockdown, delves into the issues, causes and challenges of the threat to wildlife and human life, and considers the solutions.

“China recently announced a permanent ban on wildlife trade and consumption, but this won’t eradicate the market as there are loopholes in the legislation, and other Asian markets have yet to ban trade,” said Suter. “It [also] doesn’t address the other bigger issues Africa faces, like a rapidly growing population, poverty and unemployment.”

Trade in live wild animals and bushmeat has been associated with several serious diseases, such as the coronavirus and ebola.

China’s legislation “comprehensively prohibiting the illegal trade of wild animals, eliminating the bad habits of wild animal consumption and protecting the health and safety of the people” bans all trade and consumption of non-aquatic wild animals, but does not ban trade of fur or sales for medicine or research, which creates a loophole for traffickers to exploit.

Pressure from communities living on the borders of wildlife reserves is resulting in encroachment, poaching and overgrazing.

Local communities living near wildlife areas suffer significant losses as local farmers’ crops are decimated by raiding elephants and livestock is killed by predators. Animals and people are often injured or killed, especially in open systems where the conservation areas are not fenced.

The situation results in a loss of income and even starvation, so it is not surprising to see poaching on the increase, reinforced by the local and international demand for bushmeat.

In making the documentary, Suter and Luckock wanted to provide a comprehensive, balanced and objective overview of the scale and severity of the human-wildlife conflict.

“It’s a story that hasn’t really been told, and it’s a story that affects populations around the world, as well as wilderness areas and its wildlife,” said Suter.

They focused on the western boundary of the Singita Grumeti concession area (comprising the International Group of Gaming and Resorts, Ikona Wildlife Management Area and village grazing land), but the issues they uncovered are universal.

“We’ve taken the western corridor of the Serengeti as a microcosm of what happens around the world,” said Suter. “Yes, it happens in different ways and different species are involved, but it’s a massive issue in Africa. With exponential growth in populations, both people and wildlife stand to be affected.

“Few people really understand the concept … even within the conservation space, it’s a topic that is only recently starting to be discussed. It has always lived in the shadow of poaching. Human-wildlife conflict is a much bigger issue … and its impact is complex.”

The film is lined up for several film festivals, but these have been placed on hold as the world lives through lockdown. Suter says they are currently negotiating with broadcasters to buy and flight the documentary.

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