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The Les Miserables Paradox

Warning to readers; this is quite a niche blog topic! But as this blog has Latin at the start of it, this blog is perhaps the perfect place for such a post…


My favourite musical is Les Miserables – I first watched it when I was at school, and I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times I can almost sing the words by heart (although I’m not great at singing, so I tend to do so only when driving alone!).


At the heart of the story of Les Miserables is the hero Jean Valjean. He was arrested for theft and imprisoned, but then released on parole to eventually become a successful town mayor and saviour of a young child.


So, how does this relate to conservation, you might be thinking.

Well, Les Miserables could be seen as a fable for what conservation often does wrong and what it needs to do right.


Jean Valjean sings that ‘I stole a loaf of bread…. My sister’s child was close to death, and we were starving.’


That is the same problem causing much wildlife poaching; people without jobs are just trying to feed their families, and poaching is the only way to do that.


As we see from Les Miserables, upon release, with no other options, Jean Valjean is drawn back into theft. But a kindly Priest offers him an alternative – some silverware to use to start a new life. Jean Valjean then becomes a well-respected town Mayor, employing workers and looking after the child of one of the women who dies.


It’s a key lesson for conservation. If we criminalise people who are only poaching to feed their families, we end up arresting and jailing potentially good and honest people who could be great protectors if instead we offered them support.


That’s what John Kahekwa, founder of the multi-award winning Pole Pole Foundation conservation charity and one of the four charities we support, did. When he heard people poached because they had empty stomachs, he offered them training to become carvers so they could earn a living helping to protect gorillas.


That turned poachers into protectors, and he has gone onto do the same for many people since.


The paradox is that we know what we need to do – not just from John, but because these solutions are in the stories, films and fables we have within society already, and yet all too often we make the same mistakes the villains of those stories make, rather than learning from the heroes.


We behave more like Javert than Valjean, and that is a great mistake.