In our lifetime wildlife numbers in Africa, and mostly worldwide, have plummeted by a disturbing 90 percent. You can put it down to one overriding factor – the increased human footprint.
Since the fall of colonial systems African pastoralists mainly, but also wheat and maize farmers (as the locals say, 'mealie' farmers), have expanded across previously natural landscapes and bumped up against nature and game reserves established by their former colonial masters. Hardly surprising, therefore, that there has not been an overwhelming buy-in to conservation
Imagine Africa with no elephants and no lions, let alone all the other predators, or the rhinos, giraffe and antelope! It seems to be an untenable idea. However, as is the case with climate change, it will come to pass unless we do something about it – and quick.
On the climate change front, luckily there are scientists and schoolchildren doing their damnedest to make sure the worst-case scenario does not befall our lovely planet. On the conservation front also, things are not all lost.
For starters, the many game reserves, whether of colonial origin or not, remain stronghols of wildlife and ecosystem preservation. Outside of them and looking in are indigenous people of Africa with little material wealth. Without their buy-in though, the fences will fall as surely as sea levels are going to rise over the next few decades.
“The key,” according to conservation-safari pioneer Colin Bell, co-founder of Wilderness Safaris, Great Plains Conservation and more recently Natural Selection, “is to make a wild animal worth more alive to a subsistence community than dead. And this means sharing the spoils of the entire safari industry equitably.”
The answer is, as it always has been, conservation-community partnerships. Many early attempts by conservation and safari organizations were doomed to fail because they merely threw out a few bones (bed-night levies paid to local communities, as one example), but took all the meat for themselves.
The gamechanger was probably CAMPFIRE, Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources, program that was introduced in Zimbabwe in 1975 while that country was still in the grip of a calamitous civil war (it ended only in 1980). For the first time there was a framework for the owners of conservation areas, be they private game reserves or national parks, and rural communities to work together in managing wildlife.
Namibia followed about a decade later. Far-sighted conservation-minded safari operators pioneered partnerships where the community was the landlord and the safari operator the tenant. While not always perfect, they paved the way for the others to follow.
Today in both southern and eastern Africa there is just about as much safari land within formal game reserves as outside in wildlife conservancies that are fully owned by the indigenous communities. Farming is not wholly compatible with free-roaming lions, leopards, cheetahs, elephants and those masters of the long road trip, African wild dogs.
Stepping into this human-wildlife minefield are numerous privately funded organizations and other NGOs dedicated to finding solutions to these conflicts with – as examples – initiatives that pay communities for any livestock losses in order to deter the farmers involved from exacting their revenge on the free-roaming perpetrators.
They might not have been first, but there is probably no one who would dispute that the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) was there if not at the start of this movement, then very shortly thereafter. Its support and funding efforts began in 1967, backing the Serengeti Research Institute (established by maverick German conservationist Professor Bernard Grzimek) and the following year stepping in to support Dian Fossey in her research and protection efforts for the Rwandan mountain gorillas.
If you are planning on visiting Africa you should make sure that your dollars will go towards ensuring there will still be free roaming wildlife for your children, and their children, to see. This journey begins by choosing your travel outfitter wisely, and making sure that they are in turn aligned with operations that support both wildlife and community sustainability. The Bushtracks safari partnership with AWF is about as good as it gets.