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The Big Conservation Lie: Overview and Interview With the Authors

Conservation is rightfully celebrated for its contribution to preserving iconic wildlife in their natural habitats. Yet there are those who question some of its ethics, wondering where people fit into the bigger picture.  With a no-holds-barred analysis (some might say assault on) the widely held African conservation paradigm, The Big Conservation Lie is a contentious, indeed largely...

Conservation is rightfully celebrated for its contribution to preserving iconic wildlife in their natural habitats. Yet there are those who question some of its ethics, wondering where people fit into the bigger picture. 

With a no-holds-barred analysis (some might say assault on) the widely held African conservation paradigm, The Big Conservation Lie is a contentious, indeed largely contrarian, book that offers up several such arguments for debate, much of which is sure to cause ripple effects in the pond of conservation ethics.

Kenyan journalist John Mbaria and Kenyan carnivore ecologist Mordecai Ogada maintain that much of Africa’s modern conservation methodology primarily benefits a minority of outside forces operating with impunity at the expense of the economically disadvantaged majority of Africans, essentially all but excluding them from sharing the continent’s wealth of natural resources.

Added to Western dominance over the supervision of Africa’s conservation sector the largesse from millions of justifiably concerned people across the world, but with only a pittance of donations reaching community-based in situ efforts, the authors contend that the disenfranchised are left paradoxically to fend for themselves the only way they know how: bushmeat hunting, poaching, habitat encroachment for alternative land use, and punitive action against wildlife that poses a threat to their livelihood.

By challenging a hefty number of Africa’s conservation prototypes, Mbaria and Ogada make their case that the West’s effort to save flora and fauna has effectively usurped traditional frameworks that once governed how best to steward them, while major organizations and individuals espousing largely Western ideals rake in untold revenue off of the diminishing returns.

The Big Conservation Lie offers a lot to objectively consider. Yet many will undoubtedly read and counter that it throws out the baby with the bathwater; that were it not for the historical and modern-day contributions of conservationists–both foreign and African–the continent would have lost significantly more natural resources in a much shorter period of time.

Too, since hindsight is 20/20, the authors may be branded as critically reactive rather than analytically proactive in their resolve to alter the framework of African conservation.

Others, meanwhile, will undoubtedly decry the book for its palpable frustration that angrily pounces off the pages, especially the attacks against several renowned conservationists.

It’s impossible to ignore the unrelenting assault on many a conservationist of European origin, who have worked to protect elephants, lions, and other African wildlife. Yet it is precisely because it is African wilderness and wildlife being saved largely by non-Africans or Africans with European antecedents that both authors express their discontent; they question why more black Africans aren’t involved in conservation management and decision-making.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with such assertions, the issue comes at a particularly thorny time in Kenya’s Laikipia County, where a number of white Kenyan farmers, many of whom manage vast, largely successful wildlife conservancies, are at odds with their much poorer countryfolk.

The last several months has seen a slew of violence as Pokot and Samburu pastoralists were urged to bring their cattle onto the conservancies to graze; humans, wildlife, and the ecosystems have all suffered as a result.

Despite being a Kenyan affair, Laikipia’s microcosmic woes represents sub-Saharan Africa’s unremitting struggle with land-use and postcolonial saga of perceived inequality, all against a backdrop of ongoing droughts and political malfeasance.

There are those that would argue that the disconnect is manifested in the colonial era and the largely Western notion of independent idealism versus the more African concept of collectivism. For white Kenyan ranchers, Laikipia’s conservancies are the result of personal investment, sacrifice, and intense labor, while for the struggling rural poor, they are symbols of elitism in a country rocked by administrative corruption and corporate greed.

Others, however, see Laikipia’s land crisis as part of a manufactured political ploy, one in which the continued encouragement of mobocracy by some very powerful public servants would all but ensure their reelection, not to mention gaining them personal fortunes from such aggressive agrarian reform tactics.

Some on the ground also contend that black Africans in Laikipia have themselves fallen victim to violence incurred from invading pastoralists. One especially damning report, written by an individual or individuals wishing to remain anonymous, gives a fairly comprehensive analysis.

In light of the events in Laikipia, and after reading The Big Conservation Lie, I reached out to Mordecai Ogada and John Mbaria in the hopes that they might elaborate on several related topics. It is important to hear and understand what they are saying, even (and especially if) there is room for disagreement.

When did you decide to write The Big Conservation Lie, and who were some of the people who encouraged you to do so?

MO: It was sometime in late 2013. Personally, I wasn’t encouraged by anyone because I don’t think that anyone other than John and I wanted this book written.

JM: We encouraged each other. Mordecai made the initial suggestion, and I agreed.

Can you elaborate on your criticism of the Western world’s obsession with saving Africa?

MO: It is the ultimate self-actualization tool used by young naive idealists, failed professionals, idle billionaires, and everyone in between. It is not really an obsession with Africa. It is obsession with self. Africa’s people or wildlife are just the tools to satisfy this need.

JM: It is a tool of control, oiled by an inexplicable hunger in the West of bearing the burdens of others. The message of a hopeless continent has been beamed into millions of living rooms in the West, and Africa, for its part, has been weak in creating the counter-narrative.

Are you at all troubled about repercussions or character-assassination from those you’ve criticized? Is there any way to mend the divide?

MO: The character-assassination is there, but it is a burden that must be borne by anyone who speaks against wrongs that have become norms. We [Kenyans] are the ones excluded from the [conservation] club, so it is very easy to bridge the divide, but is is up to the other side to include us. We don’t have a club.

JM: Some of us have been at this [in the media] for a long time now. We’ve experienced all manner of criticism and exclusion; we’ve accepted it, grown thick skin, and moved on. Conservation should no longer be about money or fame, especially when one bears in mind the economic, social, and natural repercussions of climate change and the ongoing wanton destruction of species and habitats in Africa. All of this is presided over by the Western conservation paradigm.

Many will defend the conservationists you’ve criticized for their role in preserving wilderness and saving endangered species. Is there a way to join forces with them in spite of your disagreements?

MO: The response would be that these people have certainly made their contribution to the wild animals and wild places. However, over time, their actions have moved from conservation or science to self-actualization. Their proposed conservation actions have lost relevance due to changes in human population, the state of knowledge, climate change, and other realities. We are willing to contribute to changing the way conservation is pursued, but the practitioners are less willing to change the modus operandi that has bestowed worldwide fame, relevance, and fortune on them.

JM: Joining forces would require encouraging them to appreciate that indigenous Kenyans have a role to play and that conservation should no longer be considered an endgame, which can only be guided by thoughts and practices that reigned well in the early 1900s. In any case, such thoughts and practices have not prevented the destruction of species. Yes, we are willing to join when everyone is agreed to the need for a paradigm shift in conservation.

It is said that the farm invasions in Laikipia County is a mix of personal, political, and climate-related forces. How would you best describe what’s going on there, and what can be done to heal the wounds?

MO: The farm invasions in Laikipia are driven by environmental factors, politics, poor land governance, arrogance, and racism. None of these things are new, but this year was a perfect storm; they all peaked simultaneously, resulting in violence. Dialogue is the only way forward.

How do you see Kenya’s resources being utilized sustainably when there is so much poverty and need?

MO: There are many ways to do this, but not by privatizing resources. Poverty or wealth are non-issues in deciding how to use resources. Equity and ethical fairness under the law are all that matter. When people harp on poverty, it is because they want to get away with giving pittances because it’s better than nothing, and the poor have nothing.

JM: We must put a halt to the elite capture of natural resources here in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa that is deceptively passed on as conservation. This is gaining a strong foothold here in Kenya, where big NGOs have been whipping everyone into accepting the fencing off of resources. This is a recipe for serious resource-based conflicts. We must embrace and deploy serious participatory land-use planning in order to use resources sustainably, which would include halting urban sprawl into water-catchment areas and places with rich agricultural potential; a long-term projection of population growth, food requirement, and land use; embracing equity in resource utilization; and ensuring that plans are adequately implemented across the country.

What role should European and American citizens who truly do care about wildlife conservation and the African people play?

MO: The problem is not the color of the people working in conservation; it is the color of the model of conservation. Coarsely speaking, the current white paradigm is that African wildlife is in danger, and the problem is that African people don’t love the animals like white people do. I would like to see a model where black people are treated as the true custodians of the wildlife with which they share their lands and are intellectual participants in the discourse around this wildlife. This would be the black paradigm, one in which white people are most welcome to participate.

JM: The first thing Europeans and Americans should do is to learn, accept, and recognize that Africans did preserve a huge number of species before colonialism. Africans had their own indigenous conservation ethics and practices that were upended during the colonial period. Luckily, some of it remained, which is why some of the best forests in Kenya today have been conserved through the indigenous model (Loita Forest, Kaya Forests, etc.) Accepting this might involve an unlearning process that will [hopefully] scrub from [European and American] minds the false narratives about Africans. I think anyone who genuinely wants to play a positive role should find out how they can go through this unlearning process.

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Meet the Author

Michael Schwartz
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