Africa’s Conservation Model Under Threat

by Peter Ruddle

Africa’s conservation model relies on consumptive (hunting) and non-consumptive (photographic) safaris as funding agents to implement the necessary management interventions of its successful conservation policies. An agricultural based source estimates that there are more than 10,000 wildlife farms (up from 3,500 game ranches in 1991) covering 20 million hectares (49 million acres) under conservation management. This is more than three times the combined size of South Africa’s national and provincial proclaimed parks and reserves.

South Africa’s wildlife industry is worth half a billion dollars a year of which more than half is generated from trophy hunting. The funding generated from both photographic and hunting safaris has taken a massive knock during the Covid pandemic and thus all of Africa’s conservation effort cannot be sustained at current levels.

A big herd of buffalo and eland at a waterhole
Private landowners, who conserve massive amounts of land with profits from various forms of tourism, are facing a great challenge.

In the words of Cleve Cheney, “Never before in its history has the wildlife tourism and hunting industry been in such existential jeopardy – not only in South Africa but worldwide. Unless momentous decisions are taken now, hunting and wildlife tourism may be doomed to long-term failure at best and permanent failure at worst”.

Just how fragile this model is, is being put to the test with all the pandemic lockdowns and business closures. The traditional international photographic safari industry has virtually collapsed with many operators and lodges having already permanently closed their doors and this sector is expected to take a very long time to recover. 

International trophy hunting has also been dealt a major blow. But, being a consumptive-use industry, the hunting operators were able to shift their focus from international clients to the local hunting and venison producing market. Obviously the landowners experienced a massive drop in revenue, but at least the majority managed to survive until now. However, with the rumblings of trophy importation bans in the USA and other countries this could be the death knell of over a centuries conservation work.

Conservation in Africa: First Steps

South Africa’s conservation model was kicked into gear by the late president Paul Kruger who in his wisdom created the first game reserve in South Africa back in June 1894. This was brought about by the numerous attempts made to eradicate all wildlife for the development of cattle ranching throughout the country. Wildlife human conflict raged as competition for cattle grazing became more apparent and diseases transmitted from wildlife to cattle was the biggest threat at the time to the agricultural sector.  

So the first national and provincial parks were created. The strategy was to defend these isolated conservation islands, using brute force if needs be. Militant type policing management structures were put in place and those guarding these conservation areas were armed and strict law enforcement strategies were implemented. Some rural tribes at the time struggled to understand this western concept of preservation when they had come from a resource utilisation based lifestyle passed down for many generations and in some cases hundreds of thousands of years. Hunting scenes depicted in the Bushmen (San) paintings found across Africa lay testament to this fact.

Many of these core conservation areas were surrounded by rural communities whose very survival depended on the use of the land and its resources, much of their land was now included in these proclaimed game reserves.  As western culture influenced these tribal people daily lives so too their demands for a stake in the tourism spoils became apparent.  

The Rights of Local Communities

Community population numbers grew exponentially diminishing the remaining available natural resources at an alarming rate and the ability for tribal communities to live off the land. Now the cherries that remain are inside these proclaimed conservation areas and the communities started demanding more of a share in the tourism spoils that had developed in these areas.

Two Africans in a canoe
Many original conservation attempts ignored the rights of local communities.

Keeping people out of these areas using military styled operation became less and less effective and poaching activities intensified as poverty increased in the surrounding rural areas. In some cases, communities that were once evicted from these proclaimed areas were now claiming the rights to these former tribal lands. This concern was soon noted by both government and private wildlife managers as land invasions are on the increase. Such incidents were experienced in Ndumo Game Reserve (South Africa) and Samburu National Park (Kenya) were you now see more cattle and people, than wildlife. 

Slowly at first the nature conservation authorities managing these areas started to allow some form of natural resource utilisation from within these reserves. Concessions were made, allowing people to visit their ancestral grave sites and in many reserves the harvesting of thatch grass and reeds, a renewable natural resource is now permitted.

The voices grew louder, communities wanted more. The game reserves were seen as the elite’s playground. The privileged could drive around in their fancy cars, take photos and stay in luxury lodges to the exclusion of the surrounding communities whose only benefit were the limited employment opportunities to be found at these facilities. In rural Africa it is estimated that one employee’s salary supports ten family members back home and these employment opportunities are often the only source of employment to be found in these rural areas.

Next came the community levies. A form of taxation where each person visiting these parks now pays a community levy which is collected and paid over to the tribal hierarchy structures and when not misappropriated is supposed to be used for the entire community’s benefit. Unfortunately, Africa has a winner takes all policy and it is an accepted norm that the tribal chiefs and elders benefit mostly without being questioned by the villagers. 

Community Involvement Programs 

Building on the concept of community involvement, governments expanded the wildlife utilisation programmes into the rural areas as the majority of the areas were not suitable for photographic safaris. The remaining pockets of wildlife in these areas known as concessions in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Mozambique and more recently as conservancies in Namibia, were created. Wildlife now had a value to these previously marginalised communities and generated a worthy income stream that laid the foundations for the all-important buy-in from these communities.

The focus was to secure a hunting outfitter to rent, manage, maintain and not only improve the wildlife habitat in these areas but to also advance the socio-economic well-being of these communities with the establishment of schools, clinics, the provision of safe drinking water and predator proof stockades to protect their livestock from Lions and Leopard. These success stories have been well-documented throughout the hunting concessions of Africa. Poaching has decreased and game numbers have increased.

These conservation efforts led to projects like Campfire in Zimbabwe. The rationale behind these developments was to secure an income from the wildlife in these community areas for the people who had to tolerate the hardships caused by marauding Lions and Leopards killing their livestock or Elephants and Hippos eating their crops. It is estimated that over a 1000 people a year are killed in human wildlife conflict in Africa.

Read More: Community-based sustainable-utilisation conservation programs work in Asia, too.

Human Rights or Animal Rights?

Western countries call upon African people to spare the lives of these animals without offering any alternative solutions or compensation. Unfortunately this sentiment is not shared by the people directly affected by these marauding or rogue animals. It’s like being too frightened to go out your yard in case your neighbour’s dog bites you. What would you do in such an instance?

There are growing concerns that western countries expect African countries to accept animal rights to supersede those of human rights. This is not going to happen. The people on the ground expect government intervention. Just how much they do can be demonstrated by the fact that the issue became a crucial winning point during Botswana’s most recent general election. Botswanians voted for the candidate who promised a workable solution.

elephant crossing sign
A testimony to the intensity of elephant-human conflict in Botswana: “Beware of the Elephant” road sign nearly destroyed by elephants!

Problem animals need to be controlled, and it doesn’t make much difference for the animal if it’s shot by a parks official or a hunter. So why not allow the animal to be hunted and the trophy fee paid as compensation for those living in the shadow of these damage causing animal? Hunting these animals is by far the most humane way to resolve the problem than leaving the community to resort to whatever means they have to do the job themselves, often resorting to some of the cruellest solutions, using poison, spears, snares and those horrific gin traps. 

Options for Conservation in Africa 

For all the complications involved in this issue, there are many conservation success stories to be told in Africa. Various models have been tried and tested, with mixed results. Many countries of the world rely on government financing, but in Africa most governments simply don’t have enough funds to start with. Government subsidies are very low to non-existent, and management of conservation areas is not recognised as a priority. 

Some reserves are funded by donations, and this source proved to be not as sustainable as one could hope. Especially since we’re talking about a continent where funds are misappropriated and end up in foreign bank accounts. The late president Mugabe of Zimbabwe died one of the richest men in the world while his country suffered with over 90% employment. Unemployment further exacerbates pressure on the natural resources as community member’s battle to provide a meal for their family which ultimately means an increase in poaching.    

Traps converted to concrete reinforcement
Pour over the concrete: The hunting operator in Coutada 11, Mozambique, confiscated so many poachers’ gin traps that they had to figure out what to do with them. They found a truly innovative solution!

A number of creative ideas were suggested to alleviate the problem of government corruption and lack of funds. The most successful of these are the community based wildlife utilisation programmes in Zimbabwe and Namibia. In both these countries, the formula was giving the utilisation rights of the wildlife to the communities and allowing them the opportunity to seek out a suitable market which fulfils their needs to benefit from this resource.

Some local communities managed to secure photographic safari operations. But by far the majority rely on hunting as their areas are not suitable or attractive to photographic safari operators. By creating a value from this product, soon communities realised the economic value of this asset and poaching was self-policed and therefore reduced in an effort to foster the economic benefits derived from hunting. To such an extent the largest free roaming Lion population outside of the National Parks in Africa can be found in the community conservancies of Namibia.

In Kenya the reverse happened, hunting was banned. Wildlife was devalued and the country experienced a 75 – 80% reduction in their wildlife populations. Declining Northern Giraffe and Reticulated Giraffe populations in Kenya are placing these species in jeopardy. However, the numbers of the Southern Giraffe in countries where they can be hunted and have a value, are increasing.

Scientifically it is proven over and over that regulated sustainable hunting is not the issue for dwindling wildlife numbers. Habitat loss is the biggest driver of wildlife population decline. Africa’s Lion populations have declined by 30% whilst their habitat has shrunk by 82%. This phenomenon is not restricted to Africa. The Amazon Jungle is being cleared to plant soya, a popular food source with vegetarians. Examples of habitat destruction can be seen worldwide from the forests of Borneo cleared to palm oil production and even in England where natural land is cleared and planted to barley to produce Whiskey. 

Almost double the area in Africa is conserved by hunting areas as opposed to those areas under some form of stewardship protection. Removing the value of hunting in these areas will lead to a change in landuse utilisation to the detriment of the wildlife and conserved habitats. Wildlife will be replaced by saleable commodities like agricultural crops, livestock and mining. The latter is already encroaching on proclaimed game reserves in South Africa and the possibility exists that it is only a matter of time before these areas are deproclaimed to make way for mining.

A Well-Intentioned Threat

Sadly, sound ecological scientific facts and advice are ignored as celebrities and politicians who do not even live in Africa, push their agenda on banning the importation of trophy hunted animal products. If this should occur it will completely undermine Africa’s conservation efforts and what are the alternatives? The cow and the plough will prevail. Wildlife will have no value to those whom it concerns and alternative income generating opportunities will be sought and over a century of dedicated conservation work will be reduced to nought.

People viewing a herd of animals
Non-consumptive use (like photosafaris) is seen an alternative to hunting tourism. Unfortunately, not all areas are suitable for it.

CITES agreements alone will not save Africa’s wildlife. Without the incentive of African states being able to export legally harvested hunting trophies due to potential hunting bans, there is no reason to remain signatories of the CITES agreements. Wildlife trade will continue in some form or another and all sorts of what is currently declared illegal wildlife trafficking and trade could become the norm.

Should the newly elected president of the United States sign a trophy importation ban from Africa it will set thousands of people out of work and their once prized sustainable natural wildlife products will end up in the pot to feed the hungry masses.

The West needs to heed the voices of Africans calling for a sound understanding of Africa’s sustainable utilisation conservation policies and look beyond the emotional rhetoric before it is too late. 


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