Africa is a battleground of the global conservation movement.
At stake is whether Africans will manage their wildlife or whether the task will be usurped by a cartel of conservation organizations based in the United States and Western Europe. In this context, western conservation philosophy is increasingly divorced from the social and economic realities of much of sub-Saharan Africa. There is a growing tendency by many conservation advocates to promote their personal concept of Africa as an idyllic and sacrosanct wildlife sanctuary somehow separated from the socioeconomic realities of the region. This elitist and condescending attitude lowers the credibility of international conservation efforts and has spawned a new term for African conservationists and wildlife managers: eco-colonialism.
The problem stems from a cultural schism between many of the temperate-zone advocates of conservation and the people they are ostensibly seeking to assist. It was succinctly summarized by Dr. Mostafa Tolba, United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Executive Director in his opening address to the Eighth Conference of the Parties of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in February of 1992 when he said:
“There are complaints – loud complaints – from a number of developing countries, that the rich are more interested in making the Third World into a natural history museum than they are in filling the bellies of its people. [These people] use a small fraction of the world’s resources; they earn a pitiful fraction of the world’s income; they bear the brunt of famine, of poverty, and of disease. They want a better life. They also happen to live mainly in the tropical and sub-tropical belts of our planet. These people cannot be denied the right to use their natural patrimony.”
Nonetheless, the view from some in the international conservation community is that Africans are not competent to establish their own wildlife goals nor implement effective conservation programs. The implication is that Third World people do not possess the proper conservation ethic nor are they able to duplicate First World managerial efficiency. This self-righteous and culturally prejudiced view is responsible for increasing bitterness among many dedicated African conservationists and wildlife managers and impedes the long-term welfare of the region’s wildlife resources.
Formal conservation first came to Africa during the colonial period in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Its most obvious manifestations – national parks and wildlife protection laws – were based upon European game laws and hunting preserves. These policies evolved from experiences in temperate climes with relatively stable rainfall patterns. They also were based on the concerns of the upper strata and leisure class of society. However, unlike the world’s temperate zones, much of sub-Saharan Africa is subject to dramatically fluctuating weather patterns, and many life forms depend on cyclical and sporadic rains. When there is sufficient rain, populations can rise astoundingly. During periods of drought, these same populations may dwindle to a small fraction of their former distribution and abundance. This was poorly understood when most parks and reserves were created during the colonial period. Little or no consideration was given to wet and dry season animal movements, so parks and protected areas seldom comprised ecological units. In addition, game laws promoted the interests of the European leisure classes and disenfranchised indigenous people from what previously had been their wildlife. Wildlife conservation in general and parks and reserves in particular became an alien concept to the people who had coexisted with wildlife for many centuries.
Land use and wildlife conservation objectives of most African nations are now fundamentally different from those of colonial policy. The administrative transition has been difficult as these nations strive to implement policies favoring internal development and indigenous people. The new leaders must set priorities in terms of benefits to the public they serve. In the context of wildlife conservation, benefits must accrue to the people who coexist with the wildlife or economically more viable land uses will be preferred. Lack of capital combined with intense competition for space and natural resources by burgeoning human populations cannot accommodate the environmental purist philosophies found in many western societies. It is this point that the new colonialists – the eco-colonialist – either do not grasp or choose to ignore. In many developed countries the people value wildlife for such intangible attributes as aesthetics and recreation. However, throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa, such things as food and shelter are paramount, and wildlife must compete economically for its existence.
In many African countries the lives and livelihoods of rural peoples are threatened by wild animals. Poaching is often tolerated because it provided needed protein to a hungry populace or removes animals viewed as pests or threats. Pressures to resettle lands previously reserved for wildlife escalate as human populations increase. Without significant economic returns, wildlife will be overwhelmed by such interests as commercial and subsistence farming, livestock production, mining, and community expansion. In many countries, governments and conservationists are scrambling to develop wildlife programs that produce economic benefits to indigenous people who face disease and starvation. Without such programs to maximize the benefits from wildlife resources, undeveloped land will inevitably be dedicated to more economically viable land uses.
Influence of international aid
Superimposed on this situation is the influence of international aid to wildlife conservation. Often donor programs are administered by expatriate personnel with little experience in the problems and practicalities of on-the-ground management of wildlife. Many have academic backgrounds with advanced degrees. Few have the experience or inclination to work with local people on a daily basis in uncomfortable and unhygenic conditions. Furthermore, their offices are often great distances from the projects they administer. Budgets generally do not provide for the site visits and experience necessary to understand local conditions. Nevertheless, such limitations are ignored in the pursuit of in vogue First World wildlife conservation objectives. Frequently, such objectives do not coincide with those of the recipient country or region, resulting in the failure of many well intentioned and well funded projects.
There are several reasons for this. Private conservation organizations supporting such efforts depend on funds donated by well meaning but uninformed patrons. Similarly, aid from foreign government agencies reflects the conservation sentiments of their citizens. Fund-raising campaigns and media attention focused on the large and glamorous mammals that are readily identifiable to the US and European public. Anthropomorphic interpretations of wildlife behavior and environmental impacts are emphasized to promote public interest. The objective is not to educate the public in complex conservation issues: it is to produce sound bites and graphic visuals to get money. Patrons are not told about the cost to Africans for protecting animals that donors love to love. These costs include living with massive crop damage from herbivores, dry season damage to dwellings and water systems from thirsty or hungry elephants (Loxodonta africana), and livestock losses from perdition. In addition, rural Africans forfeit subsistence resources including hunting, livestock grazing, firewood, and thatching grass when nearby areas are protected to conserve wildlife. In essence, Africans lose control of their environment. It should be no surprise that their wildlife priorities differ from those of most donor organizations.
Contributing further to this problem is the foreign academician whose research is often funded by international conservation organizations or universities with international grant programs. Many of these individuals lack an appreciation for local research priorities and ignore the realities of wildlife and human interaction. All too often the resulting research is of little use to the host country and contributes nothing to the management of its wildlife resources.
Preservation versus utilization
These problems become increasingly severe as a projectionist and animal rights philosophy infiltrates international conservation organizations. Many African nations are struggling to implement wildlife management programs that balance both consumptive (hunting, international trade, etc.) and appreciative values (eco-tourism). Running counter to this effort is pressure from many animal rights groups for total protection and preservation. This preservationist philosophy jeopardizes long-term conservation of the region’s wildlife, a fact that seems irrelevant to many who embrace the animal rights cause.
What ever happened to science?
In recent years much of what passed as wildlife management was a media circus. Somehow, scientific management lost the high ground in the efforts to conserve the world’s wildlife resources. Media hype directed toward emotional appeals for money moved to the forefront of public consciousness. Madison Avenue types and accountants now set the agenda, and the tail wags the dog in the conservation movement. Instead of educating their patrons, donor conservation organizations tell them what they want to hear. Science has either stood by quietly and watched it happen or, in some cases, joined the circus. This is nowhere more obvious than in the controversy surrounding elephant management in sub-Saharan Africa. If we are to focus on the awesome task of conserving the planet’s wildlife, science needs to get back in the game. Scientists and managers with proper academic credentials and relevant real world experience must be willing to stand up and comment wisely when misinformation and emotional distortion flickers across the television screen or appears in the printed media.
Good wildlife management is often mundane
Most wildlife management efforts are not particularly photogenic. That does not, however, make them unimportant. At this stage in the evolution of conservation programs in most sub-Saharan African countries, enforcement of laws and regulations is critical. High profile research programs and facilities are no substitute for law enforcement when the immediate threats are illegal harvests or loss of habitat. In addition, some of the more crucial needs are basic supplies and equipment, road maintenance, staff accommodations, reliable transportation, and such simple things as park signboards and information brochures. Beyond this, wildlife conservation education beginning in grade school is key to long-term management success. Traditional recognition of wildlife as a local economic asset has largely been lost by removing authority over the resource from local decision-making. Countries cannot make lasting commitments to protect natural resources without a conservation ethic again being internalized by their citizens. In the end, this is the only way to promote nationwide support for conservation without depending on donor aid.
Donor conservation organizations also need to educate their patrons about perspectives of indigenous people toward wildlife in Africa. Patrons must understand what costs poor rural Africans bear to keep the First World’s favored wildlife species. It must be recognized that conservation projects will not succeed unless they include African priorities, regardless of their conflict with First World sensitivities. This may often mean supporting sustainable harvest of wildlife to provide indigenous people with food, income, and the resulting motivation to conserve their wildlife and its habitat. Patrons must be educated to appreciate why such activities have a higher priority for funding than more glamorous wildlife research or construction projects. Only through such education will donor organizations gain patron support for taking the controversial positions required to accommodate African priorities.
Negotiate – don’t dictate
The first step in any donor program should be to determine the host government’s goals and objectives for wildlife resources. Their values and priorities should be paramount in project considerations. In addition, project feasibility should be further examined through preliminary site investigations. Local priorities should be incorporated into project designs. Local perspectives on proposed projects should be obtained and community involvement encouraged. Projects are all too often approved on the basis of a quick inspection by outside consultants who visit local communities for several days and leave as “experts” on local conditions. It is not surprising that the projects based on their recommendations often fail because they lack community support.
When a project does go forward it is crucial that the individuals involved have field management experience. Too many projects have been supervised by persons having excellent academic backgrounds but no practical experience in management or working with local people under difficult and trying field conditions.
There is no free lunch
Once a project is defined and adopted, the objective should always be to provide the government with sustainable long-term benefits and improve the efficiency of donor funding. Each project should clearly describe the roles and obligations of donors and their government partners. Many projects fail because either donors do not define government responsibilities or governments do not understand or implement them. There is no incentive for governments to fully participate if unsatisfactory performance results in more unconditional donor aid. Donors are obligated to spend money effectively. Funding should be reduced, shifted to other projects, or terminated depending on how well governments meet their agreed obligations.
Donors should start with small pilot projects with minimum investment and expand only when the project’s tangible benefits justify additional funding. Small investments promote innovative experimentation that focuses on meeting local needs and allows for prompt improvements based on new information. Small projects increase funding efficiency because they can be modified or eliminated at a relatively low cost. Many potentially fruitful projects are ignored because they are perceived as too small to be worth their administration costs. There are many examples of wasteful and unsuccessful “megabucks” projects to demonstrate the fallacy of such thinking.
A code of conduct
A code of conduct is needed for donor-funded researchers. Too often these individuals research questions no one is asking! There are a host of wildlife management problems throughout sub-Saharan Africa that need research attention. Many of these problems do not involve charismatic megafauna in beautiful and pristine locations, but are nonetheless important. Donor-funded researchers need to direct their efforts toward the host countries’ priorities, not their own. They should also routinely brief local authorities about their activities and help rural residents understand why they are there. Researchers are often granted special privileges to work in protected areas that are denied to the locals. These privileges, such as free entry into protected areas, visiting privileges for friends, access to closed areas, facilities, and resources are easily abused and well noticed by the locals. Further, it is important that donor-funded researchers help local peoples understand the management implications of their research results. In too many cases researchers poorly communicated their results locally, yet returned home to berate the host country for not implementing their suggestions. This quickly leads to resentment of the researcher, of research in general, and of the organization funding the researcher.
Conservation points to ponder
With its massive publicity and funding, the international donor community has taken many wildlife decisions away from Africans. The result, however, has not been the salvation of wildlife or habitat. This salvation can only be accomplished if Africans choose to conserve their wildlife. It should by now be apparent that the timeworn strategies of conservation donor aid are largely a failure in Africa. Such efforts will fail until donor organizations and their patrons modify their attitudes and values to meet African needs. Furthermore, imposing the conservation philosophies of the well fed on the starving masses only hastens habitat and species loss.
Benefits from wildlife can be in the form of aesthetic, recreational, education, scientific, and economic returns. In whatever form, these benefits must accrue to the people who “own” the resource. In many First World countries, wildlife is valued for aesthetic and recreational benefits. This, however, is a luxury few Africans can afford. To an under-educated and starving populace, the only meaningful benefit is economic, or making money through a variety of uses of the resource. In the foreseeable future, only tangible economic returns will prompt Africans to protect wild animals and their supporting habitats. This is the same principle the First World countries call profit motive.
Revenues and meals, not researchers or donor lobbyists, will ensure the long-term well being of wildlife. In this context, donors should become enlightened partners of African governments. They should negotiate with the country leaders and local communities to ensure that governments take a proactive role in making long-term commitments to conservation efforts. This role should include providing staff and basic infrastructure to help governments realize the full economic potential of their wildlife resources.
New and innovative projects that promote sustainable consumptive and appreciative uses of wildlife should be pursued within the framework of local goals and objectives. Law enforcement and basic wildlife management should take precedence over the traditional priorities of glamorous research and development projects. Donors need to educate their patrons to help them see the wildlife world through African eyes. Patrons who may personally abhor the killing of individual animals for food, sport or profit must be led to understand that such activities, combined with other sustainable uses such as eco-tourism, often represent the best chance for saving wildlife because they maximize economic returns. This will not be an easy task. It will require the undoing of past misinformation and emotional sales pitches. It will be difficult to change long-held attitudes by governments, donors, patrons, and the international media. But continuing to support projects that tell poor people they cannot earn money from the use of wildlife is not only profoundly hypocritical but counterproductive in the long run. Wildlife conservation is a choice for Africans and donor organizations. The test is to see if donors will choose strategies that allow Africans to save what is, after all, their wildlife.