Conservation is an industry, and like any industry, it has its problems. For my post this week I’m doing a review of a number of different types of organisation, with a few examples which are not exhaustive, but representative of some of the best and some of the worst of the different organisations I have come across. I’ve given conservationists a hard time in some of my posts, but there are a lot of dedicated people out there and it’s not fair to paint them all with the same brush. In fact, I don’t doubt the commitment of most conservationists. Most people who work in conservation have their hearts in the right place, but they don’t always have their heads in the right place – and that is the problem.
The good conservation organisations, in my opinion, are the ones that operate at the grassroots level and focus on education. There is a growing worldwide environmental awareness that is encouraging to see and represents the highest hope for sustainable development in Africa and in other parts of the world. If people demand sustainable behaviour from themselves, their communities and their governments then nothing can stop the world from building a sustainable society. Sometimes that means doing small things in a community that builds awareness. An organisation like Greenpop. which plants trees in Livingstone, Zambia and many other locations does some excellent work. Greenpop have come in for some criticism from people who say they are never going to solve the problem of deforestation by planting trees – but these critics are missing the point. By planting trees in schools, and making children aware of the issue of deforestation, you make the link between trees and climate change and environmentally sustainable behaviour. Influencing children has been shown to be one of the best ways of influencing adults. When these children become adults, they form a part of the growing band of environmentalists who are insisting on change in our governance structures, economic practices and social awareness that underpins the changes towards sustainability. I’d also include among the good conservation organisations any facility that cares for injured animals. These facilities do a lot of good work and often have a strong education role to play. Organisations like Mohololo in South Africa, or Chipangali in Zimbabwe are doing good work. They are never going to save any species, but treating injured animals is a basic compassionate requirement for ethical treatment of animals and educating people about wildlife often has a lot of impact when the species can be seen at close quarters. I include among these the various elephant riding operations in Africa, which often use rescued animals. I know there have been scandals about cruel methods used to train these animals, but this is the exception rather than the rule. The experience of interacting with an elephant at close quarters is amazing and the educational advantages are enormous.
What I consider the bad conservation organisations may come as a surprise. I include among these some of the biggest organisations. Conservation International and the World Wide Fund for Wildlife are bad because they don’t deal with the realities of conservation. They both pander to a view of African conservation that is based on the fantasy of an Eden in which animals roam free and habitats are untouched by humans. Indeed, humans have no part to play in the landscapes that these organisations seek to preserve. This doesn’t fit in with the historical reality of how African landscapes came to be structured, nor does it fit with the requirements of rural African populations today. The animal rights agenda that is advanced by these organisations is also problematic. They attract funding by pandering to the bleeding hearts and convince people to sponsor a species with a monthly donation, and yet never seem to succeed in delivering on what this monthly donation is supposed to achieve. They never save any species from extinction. Has Save the Rhino ever saved any rhino from extinction? The black rhino is extinct from the Luangwa valley and the Zambezi valley and that happened under the watch of this organisation. They failed. Their vision, their economic model and their ethical assumptions didn’t work, and it’s is still not working while white rhino in South Africa are being killed in their hundreds every year. They never seem to achieve their objectives and yet never have to account for this. I wish I had a job where I could never achieve my objectives and still get paid every year. I include an organisation like CITES among the bad too. Which animal placed on the CITES list has ever recovered? It seems like placing animals on the CITES list is almost a guarantee that the species will disappear.
The ugly conservation organisations are thankfully few and far between, but they exist nevertheless. Among these I include petting and breeding facilities for lions. Among the worst of these is Lion Encounter, which operates in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe and Livingstone, Zambia. The story is that they breed lions for release into the wild – the reality is that this has never been achieved successfully. It is a practice which has been condemned by every major lion researcher in the world. Recognised authorities from Oxford University, the University of California and several other European and African institutions like Panthera have written a joint paper entitled “Walking with lions: why there is no role for captive-origin lions Panthera leo in species restoration.” It hasn’t made any impact on the Lion Encounter folk who still insist they are breeding lions for conservation. It’s a big lie, but they make a lot of money out of people who want a picture of themselves cuddling a lion cub or walking with a group of young lion, George Adamson-style, with an African sunset behind them. There is evidence that these organisations are supplying the hunting industry with captive bred lions for hunting. In a strange paradox, this is actually one of the best things they could do to take pressure off hunting wild lion populations. Personally I have no objection to hunting captive bred lions, as long as ethical hunting practices are strictly adhered to and there is no cruelty involved. There are many game ranches in southern Africa that breed animals for hunting, so why not lions? The reason I place these organisations in the ugly category is that they are selling a lie, and making a lot of money in the process.
There is a lot of emotion around conservation and I’m afraid a lot of it is misplaced. We need a realistic assessment of what works for conservation and sustainable development. Most of us seem happy with whatever makes us feel better as we sit at home, eating chicken and pork that is the product of armageddon-like cruelty, consuming ever more things that we don’t need or make us unhealthy and feeling smug just because we click on a Facebook page and call people who hunt wildlife ‘murderers’. Our delusions are supporting a lot of big organisations that are not achieving anything for conservation.