Lessons on caring for creation start early in Torotoro.
It’s gone viral on social networks – a man showing the body of a recently-killed lion named Cecil, and the ensuing outcry over the loss of a beautiful part of God’s creation.
I’m not anti-hunting. Being a native Michigander, I grew up surrounded by hunters. In college I participated in University of Michigan’s “Deer Drive” on the Edwin S. George Reserve. I crawled on my belly with a mile-long line of volunteers, through a frozen swamp, in January, in order to count any white-tailed deer passing to my left. Did I mention it was January? And below zero?
The data we gathered helped researchers keep our state’s official animal healthy and happy. I love deer but hate the thought of them dying a long, horrible death from starvation and disease because there are too many of them in one place. I’m willing to let others shoot them humanely.
What saddened me more than anything about Cecil’s death was the alleged poaching aspect. Poaching is short-term financial gain for one or two people; legal game conservation and management means long-term gain for many families. While we think of lions as voracious predators, in this case, Cecil put food in myriad bellies of anyone affiliated with his game preserve.
I’ve seen first hand how hard it can be to change mentalities about caring for creation, to wait for the long-term gain.
I visited Food for the Hungry’s (FH) Bolivia program several years ago, to see successful programs in Torotoro, along the Caine River. Children in this high-altitude, dry region died frequently from sicknesses caused in part by sky-high malnutrition rates. So FH is helping families increase agricultural production and family income, and teaching moms how to help young children survive their first five years.
FH staff saw that this region had potential for more than just good crops. It had a wealth of natural resources that could be developed into an eco-tourism industry. In addition to a national park with dinosaur tracks and massive caves, Torotoro is home to a deep canyon on the Caine River that’s home to the rare red-fronted macaw.
From maize-killer to hunger-killer
Local leaders told me they didn’t like the macaws. They could decimate crops like maize and peanuts. So they found ways to kill them. It’s short-term thinking: The bird is causing problems, so the easiest and fastest solution is to get rid of the bird.
FH helped the leaders see that the birds could put money in their pockets. First, the farmers learned ways to keep the birds away and how to increase their overall crop yields so they could afford to lose a bit to birds. FH helped teach classes in schools replete with bright colored posters – “The red-fronted macaw is your FRIEND!”
One of the guides at the interpretive center for the macaw observation deck.
And FH helped build an easily accessible observation deck over the canyon, so that birders from all over the world could see the bird’s breeding area in the cliffs of the canyon. Each morning and night, the macaws leave and return as a flock from the cliff face. Local people have been trained as rangers and guides, providing jobs and income, to help tourists enjoy the macaws.
With the construction of a better road into Toro Toro, which also helps farmers get produce to market, the backpackers that cheerily invade Bolivia every year began to rearrange itineraries to see the macaws. Incomes increased. Children ate better.
That’s how a macaw went from maize-killer to hunger-killer, and how leaders learned to think longer term.
View from the observation deck: the Rio Caine canyon, where the macaws nest. They come out to forage every morning and return at night. FH workers had to adjust their schedules when building the overlook so as not to disturb the birds’ departure and return every day.
I did get to see a pair of the wild macaws myself. I was driving with one of FH’s global leaders in a Toyota Land Cruiser. The leader, who is Bolivian, was recounting how rare it is to see the macaws while just motoring through the communities. “You’ll have to get up early and go to the observation deck,” he said. At that moment, two red-fronted macaws flew almost directly over the hood of the moving car.
My heart skipped a beat at the beauty and we of course laughed uproariously at God’s joke on us. It’s part of our fallen nature to be scared that God won’t provide for us, which makes us do things like killing one of God’s creatures when there’s a better way. But God says, when you incline your heart to mine, and see the world through my eyes, I’ll give you riches you never dreamed of.