The Silent Killer: Habitat Loss and the Role of African Protected Areas to Conserve Biodiversity

  • Kathleen H. Fitzgerald


SITTING ON THE BANKS of the Olifants River in Kruger National Park, we watch as over 60 elephants gather in the river. They are cooling themselves, drinking water and spraying themselves with moist river sand. The herd comprises all ages—an awesome assortment of sizes. The matriarch, an enormous female, starts walking downstream and all the elephants slowly follow. The terrain is steep, rocky, and variable, but the elephants navigate their way in single file. Along the bank is an area of sand that slopes toward the river. When the matriarch approaches the top of the bank, she looks down, leans onto her back knees, and slides down. Imagine a three-ton animal sand-sledding. It is incredible to watch; the scene makes it hard not to imagine hearing an anthropomorphic “Yee-haw” coming out of their mouths. We sit in awe watching as each elephant in turn follows the matriarch’s action and does the same.


Ecosystem Service Protected Area Mountain Gorilla Private Landowner Protect Area Management 
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The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a source of wonder and inspiration, but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and well-being. In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grandchildren will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance.


SITTING ON THE BANKS of the Olifants River in Kruger National Park, we watch as over 60 elephants gather in the river. They are cooling themselves, drinking water and spraying themselves with moist river sand. The herd comprises all ages—an awesome assortment of sizes. The matriarch, an enormous female, starts walking downstream and all the elephants slowly follow. The terrain is steep, rocky, and variable, but the elephants navigate their way in single file. Along the bank is an area of sand that slopes toward the river. When the matriarch approaches the top of the bank, she looks down, leans onto her back knees, and slides down. Imagine a three-ton animal sand-sledding. It is incredible to watch; the scene makes it hard not to imagine hearing an anthropomorphic “Yee-haw” coming out of their mouths. We sit in awe watching as each elephant in turn follows the matriarch’s action and does the same.

When one of the baby elephants follows suit, rather than sledding easily down like the others, she is forced into somersaults by the river bank’s steepness and she rolls down, spiraling like a tire going down a hill, and lands at the bottom on her back with her legs flailing up in the air. One of the other elephants trumpets, and immediately six elephants run to help her. They protectively surround the baby and nudge her over and up onto her feet, whereupon she wobbles off, flanked by her protectors, the collective herd giving an amazing glimpse into the complex familial systems of elephants.

THE AFRICAN ELEPHANT (Loxodonta africana) is just one of Africa’s iconic species threatened by a severe poaching crisis gripping the continent. Driven by an insatiable demand for ivory in Asia, more than 25,000 elephants were poached in 2011, as estimated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Other evidence suggests the year-to-year figures are much higher. Enormous time, energy, and resources are necessarily being invested in Africa’s wildlife in an attempt to stop the poaching, trafficking, and demand. Even if we stop the current onslaught of poaching,2 however, viable populations of in situ wildlife in Africa will not survive given present rates of habitat loss. Habitat loss is African wildlife’s silent killer, and it needs urgent attention.

The survival of Africa’s wildlife is dependent on large, wild protected lands and requires a deliberate choice by African governments to protect habitat for these species. The range of the African elephant, a conservation dependent species, for example, has declined significantly over the past two decades. Only 31 percent of the elephant range lies in protected areas, which cover approximately 9 percent of the continent, putting the future of this magnificent species at risk.3

A similar situation exists for Africa’s four great apes, which are concentrated in forest landscapes in West and Central Africa. The chimpanzee, the most populous of all great apes, has four subspecies: Central, Eastern, Western, and Nigeria-Cameroon chimpanzee, and all subspecies are in decline and listed as endangered with only 22 percent of their suitable habitat secured in protected areas.4

Drivers of habitat loss

What are the main factors leading to accelerated habitat loss across the continent?

The simple answer is growth. This includes economic, population, development, resource extraction, agricultural, and international growth— all of which is directly and indirectly resulting in habitat loss.

In the past decade, Africa’s growth rates have been approaching those of Asia. In 2011, seven African countries were among the world’s ten fastest-growing economies, with each having an annual growth rate of 8 percent or more.5 The African Development Bank projects that by the year 2030 Africa’s population will grow to 1.6 billion—up from 1 billion today—representing 19 percent of the world’s population. With more people and an expanding economy come new and increasing demands on land and natural resources, resulting in habitat conversion and fragmentation if not managed properly.

Economic and population growth brings with it large-scale infrastructure, and vice versa. Roads, oil pipelines, and railways are increasingly a part of Africa’s new landscape. Today it is possible to travel on good highways throughout southern Africa. The Chinese are developing a new East African railway line that will connect Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

One factor driving Africa’s economic growth stems from the removal of Africa’s natural wealth through mining, drilling, and other forms of extraction, and it too is increasing in scope and scale across the continent. Be it a coal mine in Zimbabwe or a transmission line across northern Kenya into Ethiopia, these developments have an impact on habitat. Infrastructure development and resource extraction also threaten a large number of Africa’s parks and reserves including: Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve (uranium mining), Zambia’s Lower Zambezi National Park (coal mining), Zimbabwe’s Mana Pools National Park (sand mining), Uganda’s Murchison Falls National Park (oil extraction), Kenya’s Nairobi, Amboseli, and Tsavo National Parks (highway development), and Namibia’s Namib-Naukluft National Park (uranium mining).

Africa’s forests and woodlands are also subject to accelerated extraction. Comprising 17 percent of the world’s forest cover, Africa hosts the second-largest tropical forest in the world, the Congo Basin forest, 250 million hectares (618 million acres).6 In addition to harboring extraordinary biodiversity—including four of the world’s five great apes—the Congo Basin and other forest systems across Africa provide regional and global ecological services as carbon sinks and water catchments. However, deforestation rates in Africa are four times the world average.7 Over the past twenty years, 200,000 square kilometers of ape habitat has been lost as a result of forest depletion due to increased logging, small-scale mining, palm oil plantations, and other extractive industries.8 This habitat loss combined with the bush meat trade has resulted in all African ape subspecies becoming endangered or critically endangered. With developing economies, increased access to forests through infrastructure development, and the lack of a firm regulatory framework, deforestation will continue to accelerate, eroding not only key habitat for primates and other wildlife but destroying a critical carbon sink and vital ecosystem services in the process.

Rapid growth is also taking place in the agricultural sector. Small-, mid-, and large-scale farms are expanding across the continent. With increased global attention on food security from international and national governments and donors, subsidies and support for agricultural expansion have increased across the continent. This expansion is taking place without proper planning, leading to dramatic declines in water resources and habitat. For example, inside Southern Ethiopia’s Gambella National Park, which hosts the great white-eared kob migration, the second-largest mammal migration in Africa, thousands of hectares were allocated to foreign companies for agricultural development. Likewise, the Zambezi River in Zambia is lined with agricultural development, prohibiting elephant movement along traditional corridors that extend from Botswana and Zimbabwe into Zambia. Both the expansion of agriculture and increasing food security are understandable priorities for many African countries, but achieving these must be carried out with proper planning, water management, and other methods that support the surrounding environment.

International growth is also fueling change in Africa. Foreign governments and multinational corporations are buying up large tracts of land in Africa due to a high global demand for food, biofuel, and minerals. Between 2000 and 2010, 134 million hectares (331 million acres) were purchased in Africa.9 The targeted lands are highly productive for agriculture. These acquisitions result in large-scale development and land conversion, displacement of wildlife and people, and ecological degradation on a colossal scale. The demand for land is expected to rise with the global population nearing 9 billion, consumption patterns shifting toward more resource-intensive foods, and bio-based resources replacing fossil fuels used in transport and plastics. The world needs more land to produce more, and Africa is widely viewed as the continent with the most land to spare.

Despite Africa’s growth, most Africans remain poor. While Africa’s urban areas are rapidly expanding and its middle and upper classes growing, a majority of Africans are rural and directly dependent upon natural resources for their daily survival. Biodiversity and ecosystem services underpin every aspect of human life, including food security, livelihoods, health, ethnic diversity, and cultural enrichment. A quarter of the total wealth of low-income countries comes from “natural capital,” compared to only 2 percent in wealthier nations.10

What does all of this mean for the long-term survival of wildlife and wild lands in Africa? Africa hosts a significant percentage of the globe’s biodiversity and is rich with endemic species. For example, one-quarter of the world’s mammals and more than a fifth of the globe’s birds occur in Africa.11 Africa’s diversity and density of wildlife is recognized globally and remains unparalleled on any other continent. From the massive elephant herds of southern Africa to the world-renowned wildebeest migration in eastern Africa to the awe-inspiring mountain gorillas in Central Africa, without a doubt the continent holds some of the world’s most unique, rare, and precious wildlife.

Africa is at a crossroads with development increasing and habitat and wildlife decreasing. However, with proper spatial planning and strategic conservation investment, Africa can host dynamic and productive economies while simultaneously supporting an expansive Pan-African network of protected areas, connected and complemented by community and private conservation areas. African governments have an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that conservation and economic development can coexist and that a continent does not need to sacrifice its natural heritage to develop.

While there is global recognition of the need to protect Africa’s natural heritage, the prioritization of wildlife and wild lands conservation must be led and championed by Africans.

Value of protected areas and large landscape conservation in Africa

Protected areas have served historically as the main conservation tool in Africa, and they remain the fundamental building blocks of biodiversity conservation. They have protected a diversity of ecosystems, and they continue to provide key habitat and safe havens for wildlife and to support vital ecosystem services upon which wildlife and people depend.12

Protected areas are important to national, regional, and local economies. For example, Kenya’s wildlife-based tourism accounts for 70 percent of the country’s tourism revenue, is the third-largest contributor to national gross domestic product (GDP), and is a leading earner of foreign exchange, generating approximately US$745 million in 2007, up from US$247 million in 2002.13 South Africa’s tourism economy is the most robust and diverse on the continent and is strongly underpinned by nature-based tourism. Over 60 percent of visitors to the country visit at least one protected area during their stay. South Africa’s world-renowned parks, such as Kruger National Park, play a significant role in attracting international tourists. Tourist arrivals to South Africa grew by 10.2 percent in 2012 compared to the global tourism visitation growth of 3.8 percent for the same period.14

Wildlife-based revenue goes far beyond fees paid for lodging and park entry. A suite of expenditures are made by tourists—such as domestic flights, vehicle transport, hotels in major cities, shopping, tipping, and dining. Other economic benefits derived from protected areas include spin-off businesses and employment. Much of this income is not calculated when considering the economic value of protected areas.

Protected areas are key components in climate change mitigation strategies. While Africa contributes little to climate change through CO2 emissions, Africa’s people, wildlife, and economies are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change given limitations in their ability to adapt to the projected changes. Climate change is recognized as a driver of species and habitat loss, and its impacts are projected to escalate in the future.15 Climate change adaptation initiatives could cost African countries more than 5–10 percent of their GDP.16 An expansive protected area network can help to effectively mitigate the ecological, social, and economic risks and costs related to climate change.

There are more than 1,100 national parks and reserves in Sub-Saharan Africa. Since 1970, total protected-area coverage in Africa has increased nearly twofold and now encompasses 3.06 million square kilometers of terrestrial and marine habitats. Protected areas currently cover 15.9 percent and 10.1 percent of total land surface in the East/Southern African and West/Central African regions, respectively.17 Despite the number of protected areas, wildlife continues to decline at an alarming rate across the continent for the following reasons:
  • Too Small, Too Isolated. Protected areas are too small and too isolated to support viable populations of certain species, ecosystem dynamics, natural processes, biodiversity, genetic exchange, and wildlife movement.

  • Encroachment and Degradation. Some protected areas are surrounded by incompatible land use, resulting in encroachment on and degradation of the protected area and species loss as they move outside protected area boundaries.

  • Poorly Managed. Many protected areas are poorly managed due to limited capacity and resources and do not effectively protect biodiversity or ecosystem services.

Overall, evidence from a broad range of African protected areas indicates that the main cause of wildlife declines is that many protected areas, due to size and shape, do not encompass the full range of functional resource gradients, migratory corridors, and seasonal habitats required to maintain a diverse array of productive wildlife populations.18 As a result, wildlife are dependent upon both protected areas and adjacent lands, resulting in a source-and-sink situation in many landscapes where the lands adjacent to protected areas are not managed in a conservation-friendly way.

The source-sink dynamic is aptly displayed in Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. The Amboseli ecosystem stretches from the park to the Chyulu Hills and Tsavo West National Parks in Kenya to Mt. Kilimanjaro National Park in Tanzania. Amboseli National Park (392 square kilometers) forms the core of the ecosystem, while six surrounding group ranches—a form of communal ownership—surround the park. While Amboseli is world-renowned for its elephants, the park is too small to support viable populations of elephants, predators, and certain ungulates. Wildlife is dependent on the unprotected areas outside the park, which is held by Maasai pastoralists. Many of the group ranches have subdivided the land into plots ranging in size from 10 to 60 acres. Fencing, cultivation, development, and other forms of habitat fragmentation, along with increased hostility toward wildlife due to predation on livestock and competition over resources, have a dire impact on wildlife and have resulted in a “sink” area.19

While protected areas often represent the core of a larger ecosystem, they must be ecologically connected to the lands, forests, and water sources that surround them. The benefits of conserving and restoring ecosystems and large landscapes make ecological and economic sense. For example, a 2012 United Nations Environment Programme report on the contribution of montane forests and related ecosystem services to Kenya’s economy reported that the cumulative negative effect on the economy of deforestation through the reduction of water-regulating services was an estimated US$40 million annually, more than 2.8 times the cash revenue generated by deforestation.


African governments and partners can reverse the trends of habitat loss and protect viable populations of Africa’s wildlife and natural heritage by:
  • ► increasing the number and size of protected areas;

  • ► improving protected areas management;

  • ► engaging communities in conservation in a meaningful way; and

  • ► increasing awareness and prioritization of the ecological and economic value of conservation.

Reference to protected areas refers to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) definition, which includes six distinct categories ranging from strictly protected nature reserves and parks to protected areas with sustainable use of natural resources.20

There is an ongoing academic debate between those pushing for strictly protected areas and those pushing for community-based natural resource management. The debate revolves around which approach is more effective for biodiversity conservation.21 For those of us who live in Africa and work in the field with protected area authorities, private landowners, and communities across the continent, the answer to this debate is quite simple: We need both. If biodiversity is going to survive in the long term there must be a robust, well-managed network of large protected areas that is complemented by good private land and community-based natural resource management and conservation areas outside protected areas.

Increasing protected areas

Expand and increase parks and government reserves. Protected areas networks need to be expanded, linked to and complemented by other conservation areas that are well established and managed, and legally binding. As Africa continues to grow, there will be more pressure on land and natural resources. National parks provide the most secure means of protecting wildlife and habitat, since they are relatively legally secure and, in most African countries, any degazetting of an established park requires an act of parliament.

Across the continent private land is for sale from willing owners. These lands are being purchased by land speculators (both foreign and the emerging African elite), developers, and agricultural companies. Strategic lands should be purchased for protected areas expansion. These lands can be transferred to governments for management as national parks or retained privately for conservation. Many African governments have requested this kind of support. Some governments, such as South Africa’s, have protected area expansion strategies, while others—despite having been approached by willing sellers—lack the necessary funding or the ability to perform the transaction.

In many African countries land is owned by the central government; therefore, the establishment of a protected area must be done through legal governmental processes. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) worked with local communities and the government to establish two faunal reserves— the 3,625-square-kilometer Lomako-Yokokala Faunal Reserve, and the 1,100-square-kilometer Iyondji Community Bonobo Reserve, which were gazetted in 2006 and 2013, respectively. Part of the Congo Basin forest, these reserves protect tropical forest habitat for the endangered bonobo and other primates, forest elephants, the elusive Congo peacock, and other species. Similar to AWF’s work in DRC and other countries, there is an opportunity to work with communities and governments across the continent to create new protected areas through existing legal frameworks.

Expand and increase community and private conservancies. Across the continent, the number of “conservancies”—whereby communities and/or private landowners decide to set aside their land for conservation purposes—has increased. In Namibia, for example, approximately 16 percent of the country is in community conservancies.22 In Kenya, there are over 150 conservancies—private and community-owned. The establishment of conservancies, if set up properly, can help expand land under conservation and, importantly, directly benefit communities and landowners. As an approach that incentivizes conservation it should be supported across the continent.

Conservancy legislation differs country by country, and conservancies vary in size, structure, and land tenure. Despite the diversity among them, conservancies throughout Africa share somewhat universal benefits. Conservancies:
  • ► complement state-owned protected areas by providing additional wildlife habitat;

  • ► diversify the tourism economy by offering a different type of tourism product than state-owned protected areas, such as walking safaris and cultural interaction;

  • ► diversify land management, providing a range of habitat types to support a broader diversity of wildlife and ecosystems; and

  • ► directly engage and empower communities and private landowners in taking part in and benefiting from conservation, thereby incentivizing protection of wildlife and habitat, increasing the number of people benefiting from conservation, and decreasing animosity toward wildlife.23

The African Wildlife Foundation assessed conservancies in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Tanzania, and Kenya and found the following consistent factors that lead to the long-term success of conservancies:
  • ► Well-defined property, land, and wildlife user rights.

  • ► A vibrant national tourism economy and a diversity of tourism opportunities in the conservancy.

  • ► Meaningful engagement of landowners and adjacent neighbors to ensure local support.

  • ► Parties obtaining ownership/equity in conservancies bring resources, money, land, expertise, and assume a level of risk—handouts do not work.

  • ► Strong legal structure, with bylaws and constitutions to ensure good governance, transparency, adherence to conservation parameters, code of conduct, membership obligations, and revenue sharing.

  • ► Adopted and updated scientifically based habitat and wildlife management plans.

  • ► Professional management, a solid business plan, and a formal institutional structure.

The motivation to establish a conservancy varies. For some, it is the best land use, whereas for others it is to preserve special cultural sites and traditions. In northern Kenya for example, communities have established conservancies as a form of security against Somali terrorists and cattle raiders. Bottom line, conservancy benefits must be determined by the communities and landowners, and designed in a way that meets their needs.

In Zimbabwe for example, private conservancies were established as landowners realized managing wildlife in arid zones was more profitable than managing livestock. In 2003, private wildlife conservancies comprised 1.9 percent of Zimbabwe’s total land base and 10.9 percent of the conservation land in Zimbabwe,24 playing a key role in the country’s wildlife conservation. Today, as a result of unplanned resettlement and irregular land allocations due to Zimbabwe’s land reform process and other associated legislation, there are less than approximately four viable private wildlife conservancies in the country. The 320,000-hectare (790,737-acre) Save Valley Conservancy is one of these last remaining conservancies in Zimbabwe. Located in the Lowveld (the lowlands) of southwestern Zimbabwe, the Save Valley Conservancy hosts significant populations of endangered rhino, elephant, lion, and wild dog and is at risk because of unplanned settlement and lack of clarity around wildlife user rights and land tenure.

Zimbabwe, like other countries in Africa, has an incredible opportunity to increase conservation land and engage communities in conservation by incorporating community land into existing conservancies to expand the conservation area and to support new landowners in the establishment of conservancies. Providing the technical and financial support to expand and launch new conservancies is critical.

There is substantial economic and ecological complementarity between parks and conservancies,25 which further demonstrates the need for both kinds of protected areas. For example, AWF helped establish community-owned conservancies outside Amboseli National Park. The park serves as a critical source of wildlife, without which the conservancies would not be ecologically viable on their own. Likewise, the park would not survive without the community conservancies as they protect a key wildlife corridor, dispersal area, and protective buffer to the park. The revenue that the conservancy members are generating has made them conservation supporters.

The term “national park” is well understood around the globe and draws tourists. While conservancies are becoming more recognized, tourists are still more inclined to visit landscapes with parks. Conservancies enjoy many of the same visitors as parks do by offering different experiences that cannot be undertaken in state-run protected areas, such as walking safaris, cultural experiences, horse-back riding, and night game-drives. Many tourists now spend time in parks and conservancies, bringing revenue to both protected area authorities and conservancy owners, as well as increasing revenue to the country since tourists stay longer to enjoy the diversity of activities offered.

Improve protected area management

For Africa to maintain its wildlife, protected areas—state, provincial, private, and community-owned and community-run—must be well managed. Africa’s protected areas range from well-supported and highly functioning, such as Kruger National Park in South Africa and Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda, to less well functioning, such as Bouba Ndjida National Park in Cameroon and Comoe National Park in Ivory Coast. Protected area management in Africa is faced with a diversity of challenges: restricted funding, limited capacity, and lack of political prioritization. Park management is generally more successful in countries having autonomous protected area authorities, robust tourism economies, and tourism and ecosystem services that are valued as important parts of the economy, such as in South Africa, Namibia, Kenya, and Botswana. Autonomous protected area authorities have the ability to manage protected areas with limited political interference, collect and spend revenue, and make management decisions without the requirement of going through a central government.

Another key aspect of successful protected area management is where revenue is shared between parks. For example, in Tanzania significant revenue comes from Kilimanjaro and Serengeti National Parks. This revenue in turn subsidizes less frequently visited, yet ecologically significant parks, such as Ruaha and Kitulo National Parks in southern Tanzania. Despite revenue from tourism driving sound operations of protected areas, most countries still receive some level of additional financial support from central government for protected area management.

In less developed countries, such as Ethiopia, Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon, the challenges of park management are significant. In Ethiopia for example, the country’s wildlife authority is not autonomous. All revenue generated from parks goes to the central government and the wildlife authority receives an annual budget that is generally below its required operational budget. In DRC, Africa’s largest country—host to globally significant forests and endangered species, such as the mountain gorilla and the bonobo—the annual operating budget of the protected area authority is far from adequate to support the country’s network of protected areas. In West Africa, Parc W (the “W” National Park) is a tri-national park, 11,283 square kilometers comprising parts of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Benin. The park is one of the last major expanses of intact Sudanese-Sahelian savannah in West Africa, provides large tracts of habitat for species that require extensive areas for seasonal migrations, and is on the frontline against the advance of the Sahara Desert. Given the park’s low visitor numbers, park authorities lack the necessary income to manage the park. As a result, the park is used extensively as a grazing zone by migrant pastoralists.

Protected area authorities are seeking management partners to help support and transform struggling parks and sustain key areas of biodiversity. Providing sustained support to wildlife authorities, and doing so in a way that builds up the capacity of the protected area authority and sustainability of parks, is vital for the long-term sustainability of Africa’s protected areas.

Similarly, private conservancies and community conservation areas must be well managed. Support should be provided to ensure that these areas are managed optimally and are economically viable, to ensure their long-term sustainability.

Some protected areas will be able to support the majority of operations through tourism; some, however, although having significant ecological value, are located in countries that for one reason or another do not attract tourists, and so they struggle to become self-sustaining. These include protected areas in countries with high levels of conflict or which are perceived as politically unstable, such as South Sudan, Central African Republic, DRC, and Chad. These countries host globally significant wildlife. If not supported, their governments are likely to allocate protected areas for different types of land use as pressure on habitat increases. Biodiversity offsets and credits, as well as carbon credits, offer potential market solutions to sustaining parks, but for now support for these areas is driven by philanthropy as the markets are not fully established.

While certain countries are supporting conservation successfully through tourism, it is important that this not be the only source of revenue. For example, because of the impact of terrorism activities in Kenya, tourism over the past two years has declined. With fewer people visiting Kenya’s protected areas, there is less revenue. As a result, wildlife rangers and scouts have been laid off, thereby increasing the vulnerability of wildlife and habitat and hampering conservation management. In addition, staff members who have lost their jobs may seek alternative income through poaching. Economic diversification is thus fundamental in supporting Africa’s conservation areas.

Engage communities in conservation

Conservation must matter to the local landowners and communities living with wildlife. If they do not benefit from conservation, it will not work—it is that simple. There are numerous examples across Africa whereby people from surrounding communities invade conservation areas, kill wildlife, or bring down fences because they are not benefiting from conservation. Living with wildlife can be challenging and it places an additional burden on already stressed lives. Communities lose livestock due to predation, and crops due to elephant raids. There are, however, many ways to enlist communities in long-term conservation and to incentivize and motivate them to protect wildlife. As discussed previously, one of the best ways of doing so, wherever feasible, is by supporting community conservancies.

There is debate in conservation circles about the success of community conservation. The challenge is not how we replace community-driven approaches with other models, but how we design and implement community-based nature protection programs to maximize their ecological and economic benefits and to stand the test of time. Most community-based projects are focused around incentivizing communities to protect a particular area or wildlife in return for incentives that range from money to social benefits or employment. However, many community-based projects are flawed because of poor structure, lack of good governance, unsustainability, and top-down approach. In addition, Africa is riddled with small community projects that generate revenue that is too little, unreliable, or both for the community’s benefit; thus, they fail to have a meaningful impact on people’s lives and to support a conservation outcome.

For community-based programs to work, the following factors must be met:
  • ► Community engagement must be voluntary.

  • ► Communities must be engaged from the beginning of the project and their participation should be institutionalized so they play meaningful roles in governance and management.

  • ► There must be clear conservation targets, such as the protection of specific lands or the conservation of certain species.

  • ► Conservation benefits must be tied to conservation responsibility in a quid pro quo scenario making communities responsible for conservation outcomes.

  • ► Conservation benefits must be at a scale that deters nonconservation behavior. If a community can make more money from farming as opposed to keeping wildlife, they will do so.

  • ► Community benefits should be reliable. If a community is uncertain as to if and when benefits will be derived, they may resort to nonconservation activities.

  • ► Handouts do not work, and communities need to both assume a reasonable level of risk and bring something to the project, such as land, wildlife, money, or skills.

  • ► Project structures must be transparent and set up to ensure equitable distribution of benefits and avoid elite capture.

Many community-based projects are set up on the assumption that communities will automatically engage in positive conservation behavior if provided with certain benefits. This kind of wishful thinking does not work. For example, one may speculate that if a high-yield crop is introduced into an agricultural intensification program, the farmer will grow more food in a smaller area and will not expand the farm into the local forest—the conservation target. However, if this has not been codified through an agreement or a land use plan, the farmer will most certainly expand the farm area to grow more crops for market.

The African Wildlife Foundation utilizes a suite of conservation covenants in its programs to protect a particular natural asset, such as a forest, conservation area, or wildlife. In exchange for meeting these covenants, certain economic or societal benefits are derived—such as revenue from a business, help with access to a market, support for business development, educational support, or a combination of these. These conservation-derived benefits must be at a scale to have a meaningful impact on the communities. If, however, these covenants are not met, benefits are withheld. It is a quid pro quo arrangement that is secured through a legal agreement with the community. Communities are part of the process from the beginning and have the full freedom to choose not to be part of a program.

AWF’s conservation enterprise program has succeeded in establishing community tourism programs that incentivize conservation and improve people’s lives, because the community benefits are substantial, reliable, and institutionalized with community equity. AWF has successfully helped communities that own land, customary and legal tenure, to establish conservation lodges in Botswana, Zambia, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya. With AWF’s model, the community owns the fixed assets and the lodges while agreeing to set aside land for conservation, subscribe to a set of conservation covenants, and partner with a private sector operator who manages the facility on their behalf. The revenue goes back to the community and is tied to conservation performance, making nature conservation an incentive for communities. The engagement of the private sector in these models is important to ensure the long-term economic sustainability of the operation.

AWF also requires that a percentage of the individuals employed at the lodge be from the local community, thus generating more revenue to and increasing the skill base of the community. I met a young Maasai man five years ago at one of the AWF-supported lodges in southern Kenya. He initially had been hired as a busboy, earning money for his extended family. Place settings, tablecloths, and napkins were foreign to him, but he learned quickly. He had a special knack for birding, which was recognized by the lodge management. They provided him with guide and natural history training, and today he is one of their lead guides. He has a driver’s license, is certified as a guide, and is currently enjoying a sought-after job in Kenya. He is a local champion for wildlife and his family appreciates the direct benefits they enjoy from wildlife.

This model can also be applied to communities who, although they do not own land, can—through loan and grant arrangements—acquire equity in existing lodges in conservation areas, thus incentivizing conservation of that resource. AWF conducted interviews with communities around Zimbabwe’s largest and arguably one of its most important parks, Hwange National Park. All communities complained that they were not benefiting from the park. This dynamic is not unique to Zimbabwe. Imagine if these communities had equity in some of the lodges in the park— their attitude would be radically different. Meaningful community equity is the direction community-based natural resource programs must go.

Governments can play a central role in incentivizing conservation for communities and private landowners. Many African countries, for example, provide economic and legislative benefits for agricultural land use. If governments provided similar incentives for wildlife and conservation land management, it would result in more land being managed for conservation purposes.

Make conservation a priority

Expanding protected areas is and will continue to be difficult in Africa until conservation of wildlife and wildlands becomes a priority. Conservation in Africa competes for attention and resources with other key issues such as poverty, infrastructure, health, and employment. However, conservationists are demonstrating that healthy ecosystems are vital to poverty alleviation, sustainable agriculture, and livelihood enhancement and that thriving ecosystems make countries stronger and more resilient in the face of climate change.

In order for senior government officials to prioritize conservation their constituents must support and advocate for conservation. Even as I write this essay, pastoralists in northern Kenya’s Laikipia region have taken to the streets and are protesting against wildlife. Laikipia is one region in Kenya with an increasing wildlife population, which has resulted in an increase in human-wildlife conflict. After a number of people there were killed by elephants, the local communities gave the district government one week to deal with “their elephants.” (Reference to “their elephants” rather than “our elephants” demonstrates how few members of the population view their country’s wildlife as their own.) If the local community felt that they were benefiting from conservation—through wildlife-based tourism, for example—and if these benefits outweighed the losses resulting from humanwildlife conflict, the situation undoubtedly would be different.

For conservation to become a priority there must be greater awareness of the overall value brought to countries and communities by protected areas and wildlife. There is an increasing appreciation for the role protected areas play in safeguarding ecosystem services. Ecosystem services support every aspect of human life and a majority of Africans are directly dependent on these services for their daily survival. As African governments work to address poverty and food security, the protection of ecosystem services through protected areas should be a key strategy.

African governments are also starting to recognize the important economic value of ecosystem services. Historically, the economic value of protected landscapes was determined by calculating park entry fees or lodge revenue, both of which are mere portions of the benefits derived from conservation. An assessment done on Ethiopia’s protected areas took into consideration the “indirect benefits” of nature preservation such as watershed management, flooding reduction, natural water treatment, ground water recharge, soil erosion reduction, air filtration, and carbon sequestration. The economic value of protected areas was valued at approximately US$432 million annually.26 This is in a country with little wildlife-based tourism. Figures like these, which underscore the economic value of healthy ecosystems, can help change the discussion with policy makers as they make decisions about land and habitat.


Walking through an East African savannah woodland, I quietly follow my guide. It is early morning. The sun is rising and the mourning doves greet us with their common call. I am relishing the sounds of the savannah, the stillness, and the birdsong. My guide is passionate about this landscape. He knows its natural history, inhabitants, and rhythms. He explains that as a senior guide he supports his children in good schools, and provides them with clothing, a nice home, and ample food. Wildlife conservation changed his life.

We are walking in a community conservancy. My entry fee goes toward the community, and the luxury lodge where I stayed the night before is owned by the community. This landscape was once degraded; however, now this conservancy is flourishing with wildlife—cheetah, lion, elephant, hyena, aardwolf, and more. Before the creation of the conservancy, this community fought wildlife—the people were not benefiting and wildlife was perceived as a nuisance. They now support wildlife and conservation. As we move deliberately between the whistling acacia, we see a group of ten elegant Maasai giraffe browsing. They watch us, determine that we are not a threat, and continue eating. We sit together on a fallen tree branch and watch the giraffes in silence, letting the morning unfold.

This conservancy demonstrates what is possible.

Africa is endowed with vast and varied wild nature. Its wildlife is unparalleled and its landscape diversity exceptional. The alarming trends of habitat and wildlife loss can be reversed. Across Africa, governments, nongovernmental organizations, communities, landowners, and the private sector are joining together to create sustainable and viable protected areas. These creative partnerships are crucial now more than ever. For Africa’s wildlife and wild lands to survive, more well-managed protected areas and community and private conservation areas are needed, and communities must be meaningfully engaged in conservation. The value of conservation must be recognized at all levels. Africa has a unique opportunity to develop in a way that preserves its natural heritage for generations to come. Africa has a chance to show the world that economic development does not need to come at the expense of its precious wildlife and natural environment


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    For more on Julius K. Nyerere, his views on wildlife conservation, and this quote from the Arusha Manifesto, see the Julius Nyerere website,

  2. 2.

    In 2007, 13 rhino were killed in South Africa. Over 1,000 rhino were killed in South Africa in 2013. This represents a 7,692 percent increase. The total rhino population in Africa is less than 25,000. African Wildlife Foundation: Elephant, Rhino Strategies document, 2014. See also rhino poaching statistics from Save the Rhino,, accessed 24 November 2014.

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    African Wildlife Foundation: African Ape Initiative Strategy, 2013. Campbell, G., J. Junker, C. Boesch and H. Kuhl. 2012. Global A.P.E.S. status report: A report with information from the A.P.E.S. Project. UNEP/UNESCO/GRASP/Council 2/7.

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    See the website for Congo Basin Forest Partnership,

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    See the website of the Namibian Association of CBNRM (Community-Based Natural Resource Management) Support Organisations,

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© by the Foundation for Deep Ecology 2015

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  • Kathleen H. Fitzgerald

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