By the time you are reading this, the outrage will likely have died down, and the world’s twitterati will have moved on to some other outrage. Anyway, for a brief moment, the death of Cecil the Lion, an icon of wildlife conservation and documentaries drew the attention of pretty much the world towards Zimbabwe’s wildlife management policies.
I come from Laikipia County, a part of the Kenya where there is persistent, and unresolved tension between the conservationists (and their tourism related activities) and locals who for the most part are subsistence farmers or livestock farmers. The region also has its problems with poaching, and smuggling of animal products (horns, skins game meat etc).
While the slick, and ubiquitous mass appeal of wildlife conservation programming has certainly sold me on the importance of wildlife conservation as a whole, it has struck me, especially of late, just how absent the concerns locals, who also have to share the land, are in the noble attempts of the enlightened park managers attempts to resolve human wildlife conflict.
One particular sentiment that I found especially odd is that because the animals were there before the natives (humans), the protection of the animals must take precedence over the needs of the natives.
When I take the logic of that sentiment to its natural conclusion, then ultimately all human settlements ought to be shut down because some animal was using that space first, right?
But I digress. The sudden and concentrated outrage over the killing of one particular lion, by one particular hunter (this one armed with a legal hunting license to boot), in a continent where loads of other endangered animals are being murdered by poachers, without so much as a comment being made, I feel points to a weakness in the approach to environmental conservation approach on the continent.
That is to say that rather than being a project that is inclusive, broad based and reconciled to the needs and priorities of the continent on within which it is based, wildlife conservation appears to be driven by the very specific desires of a ‘jet set’ of conservationists. the debate is driven by image rather than substance
Considering that ultimately wildlife conservation is one aspect of the much wider question of sustainable use of resources, it doesn’t add up that in the public domain, the debate pivots mainly on the input of a small group of animal conservationists’ efforts to preserve a certain types of animals.
National parks, game reserves, and privately owned wildlife conservancies are a valuable component of the tourism industry of several sub-Saharan African countries, but they by no means the only way the land they take up can be used.
Recently, even Kenya Wildlife Service Director, (and globally renowned conservationist) Dr Richard Leakey noted that the need to conserve wildlife cannot be a reason to simply veto other forms of development.
Ultimately African nations also have a responsibility to the citizens who desire to make a living in as wide variety of ways as they can. This means that in addition to wildlife tourism, there has to be accommodation for agriculture, industry, services, and all those other sectors of the economy that
This means that there has to be a balance between securing enough space, and resources to protect all the animals and plant life which make Africa such a big draw for the tourists, while allowing the people to build diverse and flexible economies in their nations.
That is not going to happen in an environment where the ‘recognizability’ of a handful of animals (and people) is the determining factor over whether or not one’s views on wildlife management matter or not.