Conservation in Africa isn’t working. Elephant, rhinoceros, lion and many other species are declining. The overwhelming outcome of the campaign minded, single species, animal rights centred conservation organisations is the failure to conserve wildlife. The outcome of banning the trade in ivory, rhino horn or other wildlife products has been failure. It’s harsh criticism but when a plan isn’t working you need to change what you are doing. If you do nothing, then nothing changes. Incidents like the killing of Cecil the Lion don’t account for the massive decline in numbers. Habitat loss, large scale commercial poaching and, ultimately, poor governance are to blame. In addition to the decline in large mammals, entire landscapes are being deforested in Zambia and Moçambique. The reliance of the urban poor on charcoal for cooking and heating, and aggressive Chinese timber traders are mostly to blame. The solutions that conservationists produce simply don’t have any effect. There are small successes, and I don’t doubt that conservationists are a dedicated and passionate group of people, but they are barking up the wrong tree. CITES banned the trade in rhino horn in 1972 when there were about 65,000 rhino in Africa. There are now only about 25,000 left. What are they doing? Save the Rhino has been in existence since 1994 – I think it’s fair to say they have failed. If you work for Save the Rhino and you don’t save rhino, you have failed. It’s time to try something different. Conservation needs to be disrupted.
So what is the solution? Anti-poaching doesn’t achieve much in isolation from broader approaches to change the relationship people have with wildlife. Studies from the Luangwa valley in Zambia have shown that investigative detective work in local communities is far more successful in stopping poaching than fresh new camouflage uniforms and military style tactics. When poaching is happening on a huge scale then you have another, underlying problem on your hands that killing poachers will never solve. The problem is that the relationship between people and natural resources is drastically altered by failed conservation strategies and poor governance almost everywhere in Africa. Kicking people out of national parks to create a Western myth of pristine African wilderness has created poverty and resentment. State ownership of forests and wildlife and the failure to allow local communities to benefit from the harvest of these resources has created a de facto open access commons. This means that everyone takes whatever they can get from a common resource because if they don’t they will lose out to other people who are doing the same. Although the state claims ownership, they often don’t have the capacity to police that claim. The failure to provide an affordable source of energy for the urban poor has led to charcoal being used as a fuel source and not electricity or paraffin/kerosene. These are problems of governance. They are problems that can be solved my making laws and by enforcing these laws and by measuring the outcome of this process. A possible outcome could be increasing numbers of wildlife or expanding areas of forest cover. In order for the effort to be successful in the long term, there needs to be a fundamental adjustment in the attitude of rural African people to natural resources. This can only be achieved by devolving ownership of the resource to the people so they look after it and make it their own. Making more national parks by moving people out of their homes is not something I would consider a successful outcome for conservation. Opening the national parks for sustainable use by local communities will do more for conservation than any anti-poaching gung-ho nonsense that gets touted as a solution. It sounds radical, but when traditional conservation is failing, we need to try something new, innovative and disruptive.
The Mo Ibrahim Foundation awards a prize of US$5 million to a retired African leader who had excelled at the governance of his country. It provides an incentive to African leaders to govern their country according to a wide range of acceptable standards. It provides an income for African leaders to live in the stye they have become accustomed to so that pilfering from the state does not become a retirement strategy. Of course, the conduct of a leader is determined by a many factors and since the award often does not get given out in a particular year because there are no suitable candidates, it would be an exaggeration to suggest that this prize is a solution to the problem of poor governance. Nevertheless, it has become prestigious and provides a strong incentive to African leaders. We need a Mo Ibrahim prize for African conservation. I’m starting one today. I’ll call it the Musgrave Prize for Sustainable Natural Resource Governance in Africa. Since I don’t have the money to fund the prize I’m asking all the people who give money to save African wildlife to hit the donate button on this page. We need to make the incentives big enough to be attractive so I’ll copy Mo Ibrahim and offer US$5 million to any retired African leader who succeeds in conserving the wildlife and natural resources of his country for the benefit and use of his people. It will be far less than the hundreds of millions spent on failing wildlife conservation NGOs so it shouldn’t be too difficult to get the money together.
My foundation will be looking for a renewed relationship between people and wildlife that places value on wildlife where there is currently none. We are looking for living landscapes, peopled by rural communities who live side by side with wildlife. We are looking for African leaders who will start farming rhino on an industrial scale (just like we currently do with crocodiles and ostriches) so that we take advantage of the value of rhino horn, not let its value become our Achilles heel. We are looking for a perpetual harvest of ivory from vast herds of elephant that become like an investment from which we draw interest in the form of a sustainable yield. We are looking for hides and skins from thundering herds of zebra and other antelope to become sought after fashion items all over the world so that people in Africa get revenue from these animals and value them. We are looking for a situation where rural African people prefer to look after wild animals than cattle because they are more valuable and generate more income. We are looking for tourists to come in their tens of thousands to photograph, hunt or eat wildlife in a sustainable way so that the herds continue to produce maximum value in many different ways and so African communities do not only depend on one source of revenue generation. We are looking for well managed forests that produce timber forever. We are looking for agricultural practices that increase the fertility of the soil and not decrease it over time. We are looking for an Africa that is true to its past, where people and wildlife lived together, not a carefully sanitised Western myth of Africa that excludes people from conservation.
You may have raged against the killing of Cecil the Lion. You may care passionately about wildlife. You may have participated in the lie that is walking with lions. You may think that donating money to save African wildlife is going to help when it hasn’t done much for nearly 50 years. You may support banning the trade in wildlife products. But I challenge you to adopt a new vision for conserving African wildlife that I have sketched for the Musgrave Prize for Sustainable Natural Resource Governance in Africa. Lets give African leaders the incentive to get this done. Lets measure the effects of their governance around natural resources and wildlife and see populations of elephant grow instead of continually decline. We need to change the way African conservation achieves it’s objectives. Unfortunately, I suspect I won’t get one cent in donations. The donations all go towards funding failure, which makes you (my dear reader) as much part of the problem as the poachers.