By Michael Schwartz
On the whole, tourism revenue is an optimal way of conserving Africa’s remaining elephant and rhino populations. But the current spike in global terrorist activities should serve as a sobering reminder that it can’t be relied on as a conservation panacea.
The recent uptick in global terrorism, in all likelihood, will deter some travelers from visiting the continent, just as the 2014 Ebola outbreak did in West Africa. This is especially true considering the international travel advisory for American citizens recently issued by the U.S. State Department.
Tragedies such as the Paris attacks and the downing of the Russian airliner in the Sinai Peninsula foment a climate of fear—giving organizations like al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, and the Islamic State opportunities to effectively promote their terror agenda.
An unfortunate repercussion is a loss of tourism revenue, which helps fund protected areas for wildlife.
The good news, however, is that there exists alternative methods that are, and should be, increasingly implemented as reliable measures for elephant and rhinoceros conservation.
Encouraging Local Stewardship
Elephants and rhinos are the African people’s heritage. But some protected areas, such as Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve and Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park remain largely bereft of local involvement, undermining sustainable management of the continent’s natural resources.
Historically, rural communities that had coexisted with wildlife in a relative state of balance viewed national parks created during the European colonial era with suspicion or even hostility.
Many NGOs are now redressing the old, fortress-style conservation methodology, an anachronistic concept that kept people and wildlife separate from one another, weakening local economies and failing to leverage traditional knowledge of best conservation practices.
One group in northern Tanzania that is changing the face of conservation is the Ujamaa Community Resource Team (UCRT). Its strategies include “building local capacity, codifying community rights, and collaboratively working for policy improvements that better recognize and support community-based natural resource management.”
UCRT rightfully acknowledges that Africa’s people—indigenous groups and rural communities, especially—deserve to play a greater role in the conservation of their resources.
By encouraging stewardship at the grassroots level, conservation is refined from archaic practices to more modern-day approaches.
Supporting Communal Conservancies
Nowhere is the success of communal conservancies—ecosystem blocs created and governed by local peoples in lieu of the state—more evident than in Namibia, where the constitution is enshrined to give tribal communities freehold over wilderness and wildlife.
This approach diversifies the opportunities for funding necessary to maintain ecosystems and protect elephants and rhinos.
With 79 conservancies covering roughly 58,000 square miles (150,000 square kilometers)—many of which are run by principal ethnic groups such as the Damara, Herero, Himba, and San—Namibia boasts some of the largest populations of black rhinos in Africa, as well as nearly pristine ecosystems where elephant herds are thriving.
Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust and Lewa Wildlife Conservancy also work hand-in-hand with local communities on various capacity-building and poverty-reduction endeavors. Lewa itself began as a sanctuary for black rhinos and has since evolved into a trust partnership with a number of surrounding communities.
Even where conservancies are doing well, though, continued public funding is still vital, especially because many remain partly reliant on tourism to cover expenditures.
Strengthening Community-Level Governance
It’s no secret that many national governments—and wildlife departments—in Africa are prone to corruption. Symptoms of such misconduct include payoffs for turning a blind eye to poaching, direct involvement in the illegal wildlife trade by officials, and little-to-no revenue passed along to local people who live alongside wildlife tourism areas.
One practical solution involves strengthening community-level leadership, as in the case of Namibia’s Nyae Nyae Conservancy.
Nyae Nyae is the ancestral homeland of the Ju|’hoansi San, an indigenous hunter-gatherer people who were granted land management rights by the Namibian government in 1998.
Run by an elected board and steering committee, the Ju|’hoansi work as a separate but collaborative institution with the country’s Ministry of Environment and Tourism.
The Ju|’hoansi San have unparalleled skills at tracking game, and they’ve brought that expertise to bear in hunting down poachers, leading to a number of arrests.
Thanks to their efforts, the conservancy continues to be a home for a diverse array of wild animals, including bush elephants who have reestablished migratory routes between Nyae Nyae and the larger Khaudum Game Reserve.
Overall, encouraging this type of entrepreneurship will help offset the unreliable revenue gains from tourism and will provide the all-too-necessary incentive for the African people to protect their natural heritage for generations to come.
Michael Schwartz is a journalist and African wildlife conservation researcher. With field experience around the continent since 2005, his passion for Africa’s wildlife is matched by his compassion for the people who live there. A significant portion of his field work is carried out in Uganda, where he studies lion and elephant conservation. You can visit his website at http://www.michaelwschwartz.com.