Into Africa, Outside the “Bubble”

Managing Africa’s wildlife means taking care of animals outside national parks and, vitally, taking care of the people there, too.

By Stuart Pimm

Mara National Park, Kenya–I’m sitting in the bar of a game lodge perched high on a koppie.

The view is outstanding, for I can see better than 180 degrees of land stretching to the horizon. And, as far as I can see there are wildebeest–certainly tens of thousands of them. Some have already crossed the Mara River with its huge and deadly crocodiles. Others have that prospect ahead of them.


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Wlldebeest from horizon to horizon is what attracts tourists to the Serengeti-Mara ecosystem.

Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

A cold beer and snacks arrive in minutes. My chair is comfortable. All I need to do is enjoy perhaps the most impressive wildlife spectacle on Earth. I’m in “the bubble”–protected by luxury, enjoying the sights, and yet on a continent where four-fifths of the billion people who live there do not have ready access to electricity, antibiotics, or safe water supplies.


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While “inside the bubble” tourists drink their cold beers, outside, people travel long distances with donkeys to get water–and do so every day.

Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

This is not a blog about my conscience.

The practical issue is that Africa’s national parks, though huge by comparison to those on other continents, are nonetheless too small to hold ecologically viable populations of key species. In particular, lions and other predators, and elephants as the largest herbivores, need more space than set aside in parks.

Indeed, many species need the much larger areas around them to survive. Those areas are definitely “outside the bubble.” Most tourists do not venture there. The animals they have travelled so far to see, must. And many people live in those areas.

Tarangire National Park, two hundred miles away to the south in Tanzania illustrates this particularly well. The visitor map shows where the animals are. I’m here during a dry season, so the lions, elephants and antelopes are concentrated along the wetland that is at its centre. In the wet season, the animals will move out to seek quite literally greener pastures elsewhere. The map shows that those wet season foraging areas are roughly four times larger than the park itself.

National Geographic Grantee Laly Lichtenfeld and I stand on top of another koppie. Laly points to Tarangire National Park to the left and Maasai village land to the right.

“One of the most important things to notice is that there are no fences. The wildlife is free to move in and out of the National Park. This maintains the health of the National Park, but it sets up a huge amount of conflict between wildlife and local people,” Laly says.”One of the most important things to notice is that there are no fences. The wildlife is free to move in and out of the National Park. This maintains the health of the National Park, but it sets up a huge amount of conflict between wildlife and local people.”

It’s these conflicts that got fellow NGS grantee Anne Kent Taylor involved with wildlife in the Mara. “I started taking care of animals when I found many of them with wire snares attached. They had terrible injuries–elephants with cut trunks, their legs severed–horrible, horrible injuries,” Anne says.


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That conservation improves lives is unlikely to be a compelling argument when a lion has just killed a very valuable cow.

Photo courtesy of Anne Kent Taylor

Anne’s response was to create an anti-poaching team to remove snares. In addition, her team works with Kenya Wildlife Service vets who sedate injured animals, remove the snares, and do as much as possible to mitigate the injuries.

From this was a short step to protecting bomas, so that communities would have no reason to retaliate when lions and other predators took livestock–as they do now from unprotected bomas.

What is striking about both Anne and Laly–who have never met–is what they do in addition to this. Both have very active programs that engage local communities in many other ways. Anne, for example, helps provide a nutritionally complete meal to children in local schools. (For more about these programs go to Laly’s website and Anne’s website.)

I saw firsthand how successful this was. Visiting on graduation day, the children’s test scores were high. Without a meal or even water during the day and lacking advice on basic hygiene, the children were often sick and too hungry and thirsty to be attentive.

Put simply, both Anne and Laly are active in community development–making the lives of people who live near national parks much better.

Probably, like me, you care about people as well as our environment. But don’t let’s get confused by wishful thinking. Here are the tough questions:

  • Does conservation lead to development — that is, does protecting wildlife make peoples’ lives better?
  • And does development lead to conservation — in these cases, making people less likely to harm wildlife if they are better off?

The answer to the first question is “in theory.” People living next to the Mara are supposed to get revenue from the tourists. People living next to Tarangire are supposed to get revenue for the hunting concessions. Laly and Anne both understood that those benefits were sometimes hard to identify.

The examples of how much harm wildlife does were obvious. Of course, addressing this cost-benefit equation is exactly why they were building better bomas. At the very least, by conserving wildlife we should do not harm to the people who live amongst it.

But what of the second question?

“I believe very strongly that development will lead to conservation.” Anne told me in her reply to my question.

“A lot of the issues with communities and animals go away of you acknowledge that there is a problem. If you help them deal with that problem, they are already a little bit on your side. When they see the success of the projects, they get on board. They make the connection.

“If you can show them that we care, that goes a long way. One of my team said to me: ‘You’ve ruined us! You’ve taught us compassion. Before, we didn’t care about wild animals. If a leg was severed by a snare, that was too bad.’

“They are now beginning to look at animals in a different way.”


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Anne Kent Taylor with a school for which she shares the cost–with the parents–of giving the children a midday meal.  Test scores have improved considerably.

Photo by Stuart L. Pimm

Woody Allen might have been talking about conservation when he said “80 percent of success is turning up.” Anne and Laly are both actively engaged in programs beyond the boma-building. By “turning up”–outside the bubble, into the places where the tourists don’t go–they ensure that wildlife has a chance across far larger areas than the national parks.

Anne Kent Taylor and Laly Lichtenfeld have received grants from the National Geographic Big Cats Initiative. You can read Anne Kent Taylor’s blog posts about her grant work here.


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Professor Stuart L. Pimm is a conservation biologist at Duke University, North Carolina. A former member of the National Geographic Committee for Research and Exploration, Pimm is the author of dozens of books and research papers, including the book “The World According to Pimm: A Scientist Audits the Earth.”


Earlier blog posts by Stuart Pimm>>


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Changing Planet

Meet the Author
Stuart Pimm is the Doris Duke Chair of Conservation Ecology at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University. He is a world leader in the study of present day extinctions and what we can do to prevent them. Pimm received his BSc degree from Oxford University in 1971 and his Ph.D from New Mexico State University in 1974. Pimm is the author of nearly 300 scientific papers and four books. He is one of the most highly cited environmental scientists. Pimm wrote the highly acclaimed assessment of the human impact to the planet: The World According to Pimm: a Scientist Audits the Earth in 2001. His commitment to the interface between science and policy has led to his testimony to both House and Senate Committees on the re-authorization of the Endangered Species Act. He has served on National Geographic’s Committee for Research and Exploration and currently works with their Big Cats Initiative. In addition to his studies in Africa, Pimm has worked in the wet forests of Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for decades and is a long-term collaborator of the forest fragmentation project north of Manaus, Brazil. Pimm directs SavingSpecies, a 501c3 non-profit that uses funds for carbon emissions offsets to fund local conservation groups to restore degraded lands in areas of exceptional tropical biodiversity. His international honours include the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement (2010), the Dr. A.H. Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences from the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (2006).