The real question about wildlife conservation

How did wildlife in Africa survive for millennia in together with people who never earned anything from it?

Eco School, an environmental education program in South Africa. Image via Wikimedia.

Conservation is increasingly under scrutiny in East Africa. For years, western conservationists have defended an approach that prioritizes western scientific solutions to wildlife protection, whilst blaming local communities for environmental mismanagement. Debates over who has the most comprehensive knowledge about African environments are underscored by the perceived binary between local and global views.

It is commonly assumed that local people are exclusively motivated to participate in conservation if monetary compensation is provided. As a result, despite community-based conservation’s intent to establish local responsibility for resource management, local input, and thus engagement, are unrealized.

The Kenyan  journalist John Mbaria and the conservationist Mordecai Ogada, authors of The Big Conservation Lie (2017), interrogate the problematic idea that Kenyans will become invested in conservation only if they receive benefits. Mbaria asks, “How did wildlife survive for millennia in Kenyan rangelands together with people who never earned anything from it?” This train of thought raises several fundamental questions about conservation in Africa: Is there a universal approach to realizing conservation goals? Does scientifically informed environmental education interest local people? Does it provide the tools to practice conservation? Or, should conservationists adopt place-based approaches, acknowledging unique conservation models?

Non-governmental and conservation organizations are introducing environmental education programs across the continent at an increasing rate. The potential success of local environmental education programs is met with skepticism, based on the racial prejudices that have governed conservation in Africa for decades. On the other hand, some critics ask whether environmental education is a window-dressing, with an underlying goal to decrease local resistance. They fear that the “education campaign,” as this movement is called, encourages conformity and western scientific interpretations, while excluding local knowledge. However, research in Tanzanian about the reception of youth to environmental education shows that interest in conservation is vibrant.

Singita Grumeti Reserve is a game reserve located in the western corridor of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. The reserve was established in 2003 to restore wildlife populations, threatened by poaching. The Singita Grumeti Fund conducts wildlife conservation and community development in the reserve. Protecting wildlife has meant the implementation of strict law-enforcement against local hunting and encroachment. The reserve is met with a variety of responses from the communities, some dependent on bush-meat hunting. Therefore, embodying an inclusive model for conservation is confronted at every turn.

Students of an environmental education program in the area called the Environmental Education Centre (EEC) have taken up the conservation fight with enthusiasm. The EEC is a facility within the reserve established to “develop, amongst young people, an awareness of the importance of preserving the bio-diversity of their communal lands and reserves.” The EEC partners with twelve schools and educates approximately 288 students annually. Emphasis is placed on empowering local communities, which invokes a passion for conservation among youth. Because of that, conservation interest is initiated by local populations, rather than imposed by global conservation interests, bringing an important nuance to the debate about conservation in contemporary Africa.

Student input suggests that rural communities are not divorced from global conservation discourse. Some students value aesthetic and practical elements of conservation practice, others find it important to protect Tanzanian’s heritage for future generations. Many see conservation not as a western import, but a Tanzanian mind-frame, derived from the country’s first president, Julius Nyerere.

Teachers confront challenges the reserve faces, while acknowledging the costs to the community that conservation inflicts. A teacher explained, “Students have only seen elephant as beasts who flatten their farmland. Here, they see the other side of the coin. Even if they don’t agree, these new perspectives will always be in their mind.”

After the course students asked questions resembling, “What can be done for our parents to remain living with these animals?” Human-wildlife conflict is a challenge because elephant, for example, often destroy crops. Further, the bush-meat trade is an intractable and culturally complex issue.

Nevertheless, students spoke passionately about the importance of anti-poaching. One revealed, “Villagers are poachers… this is their life.” If initial attempts to curb poaching activities fail, “…we report them to the anti-poaching unit. It is difficult because some are my friends and parents, but on this issue we are serious.”

EEC students see benefits as larger than material, although these different incentives are not disconnected. A former student is now an anti-poacher. He shared, “This reserve has employment, but I am here because of conservation. There is a culture that I am proud to protect.” In the face of social change and new opportunities, youth embrace conservation practices and seize career opportunities.

Conservationists recognize the need to acknowledge the legitimacy of traditional or local knowledge in environmental management. However, a point often neglected is that the term “traditional” currently embraces global elements of conservation; representing hybridity. When asked whether environmental education is imposed, a headmaster responded, “No, environmental education is not just benefitting you, it is benefitting all of us.”

Global conservation discourse that is localized as environmental education, enables students to practice conservation in ways relevant to their daily reality. Through exposure to cosmopolitan ideas, students have the opportunity to question the common, and often exclusive, conservation narrative.

Acknowledging the problematic history of conservation in Africa is a crucial first step in creating a more equitable conservation practice. The inability to see local populations as stakeholders in the conservation fight has slowed the introduction of environmental education in local schools. While global rhetoric concerning climate change, population growth, and the depletion of wildlife, has hastened the implementation of environmental studies into local curricula, importantly, local demand for environmental education in local communities continues to grow. It is also necessary to recognize that African people hold interests in conservation that extend far beyond monetary benefits. Rethinking local interests and recognizing that certain local practices are already conducive to conservation reveals the potential to realize conservation goals that are beneficial to all.

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