Appeal: Can Africa's impoverished people and its animals live together?

Posted in Africa | 07-Dec-04 | Source: The Independent

A new conservation initiative encourages local African communities to manage their own wildlife instead of relying upon help from outside. Report by Michael McCarthy

There they are. Your eyes widen; you stop dead in your tracks; you involuntarily draw breath. They are unforgettable when you first see them in the wild, the great animals of Africa, the elephants, the rhinos, the giraffes; their majesty triggers an awe deep inside us which must be a myriad generations old, dating back to the ages when early man hunted them and reverently painted their images on cave walls.

Even thousands of miles way. their hold on our imagination is enormous. They fill our children's story books much more than our own wild creatures: our otters and foxes and badgers, cherished though they are, suddenly seem insignificant by comparison. And it is not just the size, but the sheer variety of African wildlife that is astounding; never mind the big cats, check your guide book just for antelopes, and you find pages and pages of them, all delicate grace or athletic power: waterbuck, bushbuck, springbok, oryx, impala.

Seeing them all in their natural habitat, you can have no doubt that you are in the presence of one of the planet's great natural wonders, one of the great profusions of life. Although other regions, such as North America, have remarkable wild creatures too, it is surely beyond dispute that the continent of Africa has the most awesome, most inspiring, most wonderful wildlife in the world.

And it also has the world's poorest people.

What are the implications of this dramatic paradox? That we should forget the wildlife and bother about the people only? Though some specialists in aid and development might indeed take this view, for anyone who cares about the environment, to say that Africa's astounding biodiversity should be written off as irrelevant would undoubtedly be unacceptable. It surely cannot be weighed in the balance and found valueless.

If you care for Africa's wildlife you will have to embrace both issues, both human and environmental, at the same time, and one of the possibilities you then have to face is that, given increasing competition from desperate human populations, much of that wildlife may not survive the 21st century.

This is a genuinely difficult question which, perhaps because of its awkwardness, many in the past have preferred to ignore. It is hardly considered, for example, by the crowds of camera-toting safari tourists from rich countries, who blithely flock to Africa to delight in the magnificent spectacle of buffalos and hippos, lions, leopards and cheetahs - the "charismatic megafauna" which they presume will always be there in their video viewfinders.

But in Africa itself it cannot be avoided. This is because for the continent's millions of small farmers and villagers, especially the hungry and the near-destitute, the reality of such animals is very far from the tourist spectacle. They are often competitors for natural resources, sometimes downright and dangerous enemies, and not infrequently a potential source of food, or even, in the case of elephants and rhinos, of small fortunes (and life-saving ones at that) through poaching.

The worst manifestation of the problem is the burgeoning bushmeat crisis. There, across a range of states from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon to Nigeria, the hunting of wild animals for food has gone in barely a decade from being a sustainable local custom to an enormous, uncontrolled commercial business, facilitated through industrialised logging by American, European and Asian companies, which is opening up forests throughout the region.

The bushmeat trade is having a catastrophic effect on the great apes - the chimpanzees, bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) and gorillas - which are being shot and eaten in their thousands. Many naturalists, led by the celebrated chimpanzee researcher and conservationist Jane Goodall, believe that because of it, man's nearest relatives will all go extinct in the wild in the next 15 years outside protected areas, and even there it will be a struggle to save them.

And that is now. But by 2050, the UN says, another billion people, most of them desperately poor, will have been added to Africa's population of 850 million. What will the human pressures on wildlife be then? Is there any way people and wildlife will be able to live together in Africa in the 21st century?

A group that thinks there may well be is IRDNC, the third subject of The Independent's Christmas Appeal. Based in Namibia, which became independent from South Africa in 1990, IRDNC is a key player in a new way of looking at Africa's populations and natural resources together. The initials stand for Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (they cheerfully agree it's a mouthful) and the phrase encapsulates its philosophy: improve people's lives and conserve wildlife as part of the same process. How? By turning the wildlife over to the local people and telling them to manage it themselves as a resource that they can use.

This is revolutionary. The previous approach has been very much top-down, dictated by central governments, and one might characterise it as "fences and fines": you put a fence up around a wildlife reserve with notices saying do not enter and do not touch. This will work, the theory goes, because people who ignore the notices will be fined, or otherwise punished, and so they will obey them. By and large, it works in the rich countries. And in some places in Africa, such as a national park close to a major centre of population, it may be the only appropriate way.

But an increasing number of conservationists, Western and African, are coming round to the view that it simply no longer fits for Africa as whole, as poor and hungry people will always get over fences if there is something they need on the other side, and where law enforcement is rudimentary, they will be fined or otherwise punished very rarely. Many conservationists now believe Africa's wildlife will only be saved in the long term if local people think it is worth saving, and that means, if they feel they have a stake in it themselves: that it belongs to them, and that it is worth something tangible. This approach is known as Community-Based Natural Resource Management (or CBNRM - curse these five-letter acronyms) and it is the most talked-about subject in African conservation. It may not be well known in Britain yet but do an internet search for CBNRM and you will find 18,500 entries. IRDNC, founded by Garth Owen-Smith, a former game warden, and Dr Margaret Jacobsohn, an anthropologist, has pioneered the approach in Namibia with signal success.

In the 1980s it persuaded local communities in Kunene, in the country's remote north-west, to monitor their wildlife and think of it as their own. This helped end an epidemic of poaching which, following a devastating drought and the chaos of the war of liberation between South African forces and guerrillas of Swapo (the South-West African People's Organisation), was killing larger animals, such as elephants and black rhinos. It could have stopped there. But at independence, the new Namibian government took the idea on officially, and with IRDNC's advice, allowed local communities to set up official bodies known as conservancies, which give them legal rights to the wildlife. They can exploit it: they can generate income by hunting it, selling it, or setting up tourist ventures to view it. But they have to manage it and exploit it sustainably, so that it will always be there for future generations.

There are now dozens of conservancies active in Namibia, and they have become almost an alternative local government, a galvanising of civil society. Using the income they generate from wildlife, they are addressing a range of issues from health and education to local transport, poverty relief and Aids. But the basis of their activities remains, that they will look after the biodiversity that is bringing them benefits.

Some conservationists disagree, believing that once wildlife is handed over to communities, there will always be a temptation to over-exploit it.

The IRDNC staff think otherwise. Richard Diggle, co- ordinator of IRDNC's programme in Caprivi, north-east Namibia, says: "Essentially, it's a judgement call about human nature. I have faith in African communities. Give them responsibility and they will manage their resources responsibly. It's when they think it belongs to 'them' rather than 'us' that they might over-exploit it."

The conservancies have shown that it is possible to safeguard and foster wildlife while giving substantial benefits from it to poor communities. We will be examining their work, and IRDNC's work in supporting them (backed by the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF) in detail in subsequent articles.

Last year, Jane Goodall told The Independent she realised "that we can't possibly have any kind of wildlife conservation in Africa unless we deal with the people problems too". That is the realisation that IRDNC is trying to put into practice.