Communities and African conservation: a chance or a challenge?

This blog post was written by postgraduate student Shakhzoda Alikhanova as part of the course, Research Methods in Ecology (Ecol 608). Shakhzoda revisits a Lincoln University research area that looks at community based wildlife management in Africa published in 1999.

“Indigenous knowledge is an integral part of the culture and history of a local community. We need to learn from local communities to enrich the development process.” James D. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank

Lately, the terms “indigenous/ traditional knowledge” as well as “indigenous peoples/communities” have gained much attention in addressing environmental issues of today. What drives us to get back to the roots of knowledge on the environment in such a dynamic world with its ever-increasing ecological challenges? It is not that science fails in resolving certain ecological problems. It is the comprehension of the environment as a complex system of which human beings, among all other species, are an integral part. This kind of perception of the environment is common among indigenous communities and authorities have realised its importance when working with them. However, it seems not to be a simple task when it comes to implementing projects in practice.

Photo by: Simon English

Alexander Songorwa, a former Lincoln University student, carried out research on an attempt to implement community-based wildlife management in Tanzania back in the 1980s and 1990s. The approach was based on offering the local communities ownership rights and management responsibilities over the natural resources. It was intended to create conditions where local communities benefit from sustainable wildlife management by getting actively engaged themselves. In other words, it was an alternative to a “fences and fines” method. However, was the main message of these programs delivered to public at all? Apparently not, as most of the Tanzanian projects failed. Alexander explained it as an inability of stakeholders to cooperate and provoke interest of communities in wildlife conservation. In most cases the projects implemented in different regions of Tanzania basically neglected their principal objective of involving people in decision-making process. This led to the opposite effect. Removing poaching was the issue identified to work with the community in Tanzania, yet, after the community-based approach was introduced, it became even more rampant. Alexander mentions cases when indigenous community members experienced economic and social losses as a result of increase in wildlife populations. For example, documented cases when wildlife caused tremendous crop damage, hence food shortage, in project implementation areas. There were also reported cases of human injuries caused by wildlife. In the long run, the species of great concern (mostly elephants, hippos and buffalo) became pests in the eyes of the local people. In an attempt to protect themselves, their crops, and their livestock and to compensate losses, people resorted to poaching. This became a vicious circle. The results of interviews conducted by Alexander revealed that half of the participants of the projects though that it had not brought many benefits, while those who saw no benefits at all made up 11.3%. However, lack or rather loss of interest in such kinds of projects might have been drawn by non-fulfilment of excessively high expectations of the local people (e.g. additional income generation possibilities, increase of meat supply etc.). Many of them also believed that the aim of those programs was to provide rural aid.

Photo by Tina Troup

The case of Tanzania implies that community support and engagement is crucial for successful implementation of community-based wildlife management projects, but communities will cooperate only if they are motivated to do so. I believe in this case it is rather difficult to blame rural communities for being more interested in additional income generation, rather than in wildlife conservation.

Community-based wildlife management is ideally a partnership of stakeholders, which helps the scientific approach to be adaptive and therefore more effective. However, Tanzanian example proves that how well goals are reached is up to the ability of both parties to listen, learn and cooperate.

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