Does prohibiting local access to nature hurt African wildlife conservation?

Elephants - Photo Credit: Michael Schwartz

By  - 11 August 2016

  • Some conservationists and researchers believe that increased habitat loss is largely a result of punitive policies that have rendered wildlife valueless for landowners, especially in wildlife-dense areas of Africa that extend beyond the borders of tourist-favored national parks, and that such restrictions, ironically, turn people into nature’s enemy.
  • Africa’s system of national parks and game reserves were largely modeled after the American approach: fortress-style ecosystems that people can visit but not live in, so that animals can dwell in virtually “unspoiled” environments.
  • The difference between U.S. parks and Africa’s protected areas, however, is that while parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite remain primarily intact thanks to a more robust American economy and fewer rural people demanding land usage, park rangers, conservationists, and policy makers in Africa are fighting a tidal wave of rural poor who are constantly in search of rangelands to make a living.

The notion that international wildlife crime predominates Africa’s conservation crisis is largely due to conventional media’s acute focus on elephant tusk and rhino horn poaching. But despite such heavy-handed publicity and the global community’s well-intentioned outcry, Africa’s illegal hunting problem pales in comparison to habitat loss, which is decimating far more animal species at a much faster rate.

What makes this situation especially thorny is that some conservationists and researchers believe that increased habitat loss is largely a result of punitive policies that have rendered wildlife valueless for landowners, especially in wildlife-dense areas of Africa that extend beyond the borders of tourist-favored national parks, and that such restrictions, ironically, turn people into nature’s enemy.

Africa’s system of national parks and game reserves were largely modeled after the American approach: fortress-style ecosystems that people can visit but not live in, so that animals can dwell in virtually “unspoiled” environments.

The difference between U.S. parks and Africa’s protected areas, however, is that while parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite remain primarily intact thanks to a more robust American economy and fewer rural people demanding land usage, park rangers, conservationists, and policy makers in Africa are fighting a tidal wave of rural poor who are constantly in search of rangelands to make a living (Pearce 2010).

At the same time, much of Africa’s wildlife still resides outside of formal protected areas. Elephants, for example, are nomadic. Keep them in enclosed areas and the environmental havoc they wreak can be catastrophic for preserving biodiversity, a problem already happening in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. But once they leave a park, they often clash with farmers by crop raiding.

As sub-Saharan Africa’s human population grows, human-wildlife conflict and habitat loss will most certainly increase. Photo by Michael Schwartz.

As Africa’s human numbers continue growing, the increased industrial agriculture, extractive industries, and infrastructure that accompanies that population growth are the primary drivers of habitat loss — and are magnets that draw in even more underprivileged people. Nowhere is this more evident than in the changing nature of pastoral society.

“In Kenya, the whole pastoral system is in a state of rapid evolution from extensive transhuman production to more settled agro-pastoralism, driven by pastoral population growth and expanding markets for livestock and agricultural produce,” Kenyan wildlife economist, Dr. Mike Norton-Griffiths, wrote in an email.

That growing numbers of human communities living in ever-closer proximity to wildlife are compressing them into islands surrounded by a sea of people means additional pressure, both on unprotected areas and existing parks like the Serengeti in Tanzania or the Masai Mara National Reserve in neighboring Kenya.

Are Animal Rights Good for Conservation?

For Anthropocene-thinking conservationists, the key to understanding increasing rates of wildlife killing is by acknowledging the root cause of habitat loss — namely, prohibitionist regulations under which local, law-abiding people (most of whom are in some state of poverty) are restricted from any benefits that natural resources could potentially provide them.

Laws that give control of natural resources directly to African governments are usually followed by the removal of any incentive for compliant landowners to use their properties as wildlife sanctuaries, which only furthers wildlife’s inevitable decline, since people are subsequently forced to implement alternative legal uses of the ecosystems that they inhabit.

Furthermore, these most critically endangered wilderness areas are usually marginal lands that, despite hosting a range of biodiversity, can’t bring in adequate tourism revenue to maintain themselves the way protected areas like Kenya’s two Tsavo parks or Botswana’s Okavango Delta can.

Norton-Griffiths believes that “Kenya’s pastoralists would prefer a livestock-wildlife mix to a livestock agriculture mix if each were equally profitable. But [since] they are not, they are adopting the livestock agriculture development trajectory” at the expense of the natural world.

If reactionary measures to the loss of Africa’s natural resources come from the assumption that poaching for wildlife products is the number one culprit, then, in some cases, prohibitive measures based on the ethical principles of animal rights may be paradoxically increasing environmental destruction by unintentionally birthing alternative income strategies.

Moreover, many of these top-down laws are championed by prohibitionist conservationists who believe that humans should be kept primarily out of intact ecosystems for the benefit of wildlife in lieu of Anthropocene solutions that opposing conservationists believe would help people live in a more relative state of harmony with nature.

It’s key to point out that African governments are not entirely at fault when it comes to implementing these types of regulations.

Both ends of the conservation spectrum — from more animal-rights leaning organizations like the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Born Free, and The Humane Society, to less prohibitive ones like the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, and The Nature Conservancy — can advance their agenda by wielding deep pockets as both the enticing carrot when African governments comply with Western-funded marching orders, and the proverbial stick of tourism boycotts and/or financial withdrawal should they decide to reverse course — thus keeping African countries in a fairly constrictive hold when it comes to sovereign decision-making for how best to implement conservation.

Either way, a great number of conservationists do not believe that animal rights has positively impacted long-term goals of conserving Africa’s wildlife, primarily because animal rights laws usually transfer ownership of natural resources from landowners to the state.

Not surprisingly, with lack of ownership comes a general feeling of indifference over the fate of wildlife. Simply put, people lose interest in a system that they’re not allowed to be a part of.

Kenya’s Conservation Approach

Whereas countries like South Africa, Namibia, and, in part, Botswana, successfully devolved wildlife ownership and user rights from centralized government to landowners and land users, many conservationists point to Kenya as an example of what happens when land rights for local people are removed, often based largely on the assumption that wildlife poaching is the number one cause for species declines, coupled with legislative fiats that promote animal rights at the expense of the people living alongside them.

Kenya experienced a wave of unmitigated poaching throughout the 1960s and 70s. And while anti-poaching response mechanisms were integral to upending the scourge, since 1977 and 1978, when sustainable use bans were put into effect, Kenya’s wildlife has undergone an annual decline of between roughly 3.2 percent and 4 percent per year. These rates continue to this day (Norton-Griffiths 1998).

Experts believe that, at the going rate, the country’s wildlife could disappear from all private and communal land outside of the national parks and game reserves within the next 20 years.

Kenyan conservationist Calvin Cottar observes that while his country has seen a sharp drop in wildlife numbers, “land use data shows that agriculture [use] is increasing at 8 percent per year at the cost to wild habitat” (Norton-Griffiths 1998, 2007).

What’s clear is that Kenya’s rangeland conversion significantly outweighs poaching for ivory, rhino horn, or other wildlife products. The majority of animals, according to Cottar, are killed by local people to remove wildlife competition impacting their agriculture and domestic animal pastoralism.

Cottar views bad policy as inherently damaging for wildlife as “African governments continue to impose inherited variations of colonial-era game laws, which make wildlife a state-owned asset.” He also observes that Kenya, “under pressure from animal rights-oriented NGOs, has chosen to use this state monopoly of wildlife to impose complete bans and moratoriums on all commoditization or consumptive use of wildlife, applying the theory that the more ‘devalued’ the wildlife, the less incentive local people have to kill it.”

In other words, if Kenya’s natural resources are unavailable to landowners, they will simply let it be, an idea that organizations like the International Union for Conservation of Nature view as both illogical and impractical.

Kenya’s policies are especially damaging since the presence of wildlife causes losses of up to 48 percent of productivity revenues from agriculture and domestic livestock, mostly due to predation, crop damage, disease transfer, and infrastructure damage (Norton-Griffiths 2007). Should an old, deposed lion, for example, repeatedly prey on a Maasai pastoralist’s cattle, the pastoralist is not legally allowed to take any action in defense of his livelihood that would result in the death of the big cat.

Though this law looks good on paper for the offending lion, what usually follows is a much worse fate than if that lion was permitted to be dealt with legally. More often than not, that same herdsman will simply poison an entire pride illegally instead.

It would seem that by turning to such extraordinary measures, Africa’s most storied conservation country has effectively transformed its extraordinary wilderness and iconic wildlife from once-valued resources into what is now seen as direct competition with legal land use practices.

A Uganda Wildlife Authority Ranger helps guard mountain gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Rainforest. Though necessary for wildlife protection, many of the rural poor who only have limited access to the park’s resources continue putting unsustainable pressure on it. Photo by Michael Schwartz.

Norton-Griffiths puts it this way: “Why do tens of thousands of pastoralists not invest in wildebeest? Because they cannot make money and because governments make policy decisions to actively prevent tens of thousands of individuals from investing in wildebeest.”

Irrespective of one’s thinking about attaching economic value to nature, what is evident is that the clearing of wildlife from communal and private lands is the result of regulations that have turned local people against the natural resources these same protocols were meant to protect.

However, instituting certain sustainable use components — especially sport hunting — in Kenya would likely have just as disastrous an impact on wildlife populations living outside of protected areas today.

The problem isn’t with the practice of sustainable use mechanisms per se — though the moral aspects of it certainly keep many conservationists rancorously divided — inasmuch as it would take an immense amount of time to set up a workable framework — time that Kenya no longer has on its side (Schwartz 2016).

It’s also worth noting that with high levels of political corruption, sustainable use programs might easily fall by the wayside. Ultimately, Kenya is completely under the thumb of those who are influential enough to prevent its reintroduction anyway, thus making any notion of reintroducing sustainable use a moot point.

Appropriating Land Rights in Namibia

While Kenya may be suffering a conservation calamity, Namibia is by far one of Africa’s best conservation success stories, thanks in large part to pioneer conservationist Garth Owen-Smith.

Despite not having a formal background in conservation, Owen-Smith transformed a country at risk of losing its natural heritage to one of the greatest wilderness and wildlife spectacles on earth.

Owen-Smith’s method was remarkably simple: move away from the traditional model of humans on one side of the divide and animals on the other. That essentially means that pastoralists and farmers not only need to be more involved in conservation, but also deserve proper ownership of natural resources.

It was this line of thinking that led to the vast number of Namibia’s tribal conservancies created for the direct benefit of the Ovambo, Himba, Herero, San, Nama, and Kavango peoples. Despite being far from perfect, this framework helped bring Namibia back from the brink of environmental disaster.

In his autobiography, An Arid Eden: A Personal Account of Conservation in the Kaokoveld, Owen-Smith detailed his experiences with rural people who were up against debilitating poverty, poaching scourges, and human-wildlife conflict. One particular event that underscored the need for community conservation centered on a Damaraland farm that Owen-Smith visited frequently. The farm was owned by an elderly Damara man called ‘Old Kaokoveld’ who would often express frustration that bull elephants regularly destroyed the trees he had planted.

“On every visit [Old Kaokoveld] complained bitterly about the damage they caused and the danger they posed to the people living there,” Owen-Smith wrote. “Eventually, tired of hearing the same story each time we met, I told him that the only solution was for them to be shot.

“He took a few seconds to digest what I said, and then replied [in Afrikaans]: ‘Niemand moet een van my olifante skiet nie.’ (No one must shoot one of my elephants.)

“At the time I had started to think that getting the local communities’ support for stopping the poaching was a hopeless task, but Old Kaokoveld’s response made me believe that it was possible. The key was — whose wild animals were they?”

Elephants often leave protected areas in search of food, which can lead to crop raiding and retaliations by farmers. Photo by Michael Schwartz.

Owen-Smith’s choice to work with the African people instead of implementing his own ideas on their behalf ultimately led to a complete shift in Namibia’s conservation paradigm. By taking ownership of wildlife, people there are critical investors in conservation. And thanks to Owen-Smith’s efforts, people who might have otherwise remained poachers instead became stewards of their environment.

Pro-People Conservation: A Way Forward?

Many people who love animals might consider it sacrilegious if wildlife trafficking in Africa were referred to as a red herring. But according to conservationists like Dr. Mike Norton-Griffiths, that’s exactly what it is.

For many other on-the-ground conservationists, poaching for animal parts, while undeniably still a huge problem, has been overused as a sensationalist tool to serve the interests of certain institutions that rely on these crises for fiduciary gain, and whose push for a continuation of failed prohibitive policies are directly responsible for the increasing rate at which Africa’s wilderness and wildlife is being destroyed. These policies unwittingly created the continent’s conservation pandemic, while failing to prevent the situation from getting worse.

However, if there is one potential danger that could arise from wedding rural communities in high-density population areas such as East Africa’s Lake Victoria region with their natural resources, it is the possibility that biologically diverse areas might not be able to support the numbers. Naturally, this draws some much needed attention to the human population explosion occurring throughout critical portions of the African continent, which conservationists, scientists, social workers, healthcare practitioners, and heads of state should be preparing for.

If any truth can be derived from the argument that conservation needs to incorporate rural peoples, it is that idealistic notions of wildlife preservation cannot work without pragmatic approaches, and that African peoples cannot be expected to shoulder the responsibility of safeguarding natural resources if restrictions are placed on the degree to which they are allowed to participate in the protection of their own natural capital.

This is not to say that national parks should be disbanded, that hunting should necessarily be reinstated in places where it’s already banned, or that protectionist measures (anti-poaching, park border patrols) aren’t still absolutely necessary.

But at the same time, conservationists must also look to alternative approaches that lie somewhere between the polarizing perspectives of the moral conservationist’s belief in wildlife preservation at all costs, and the consequentialist conservationist’s case for what is doomed to happen when autocratic laws prevent local people from relying on nature sustainably and for their own survival.

It was the author of the book, Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife, Glen Martin, who summed it up best:

“For a Turkana pastoralist whose cattle have perished, whose children are wasting away before his eyes, who lives in a brushwood banda and has no nearby source of water or fuel, the idea of an inviolate wildlife refuge seems an absurdity.

“On the other hand, this same man likely would support a reserve that would accommodate regulated grazing and firewood collecting, furnish small stipends derived from tourists or hunters, or even provide occasional rations of meat from wildlife culls.

“To abide in the Peaceable Kingdom, after all, one must have a full belly; otherwise, the lion will be killed and the lamb devoured.”


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