Back to the drawing board

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At this year’s We Are Africa Conservation Lab, some of the world’s top environmentalists, tour operators and journalists came together to find solutions for some of nature’s biggest challenges. Graham Boynton reports

Does wildlife tourism have a significant role in the conservation of Africa’s wildlife, or is it, as some hardcore sceptics claim, nothing more than an extractive industry that panders to a wealthy western elite and leaves nothing behind?

This was one of the key questions addressed at this year’s We Are Africa Conservation Lab, which was held in the exquisite surrounds of Stellenbosch’s Spier Wine Farm. This year, the event attracted some of the big names in wildlife preservation, including Zimbabwe’s Clive Stockil, Kenya’s Ian Craig, Kruger National Park’s anti-poaching enforcer Major General Johan Jooste and, the principal speaker, Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) chairman Dr Richard Leakey.

Over two days of debate and discussion, environmentalists and wildlife tourism executives argued their cases, making the key points that without the involvement of local communities in the chain and without the cooperation and commitment of the relevant governments, conservation was little more than conversation. Although sloganeering was used in overdrive — “fighting our way back”, “fighting our way forward” et al, one had a sense that substance and common ground were both the order of the day.

In a joint presentation, Stockil and Craig emphasised the crucial role of rural communities. According to the former, “The trick is how we ensure that they buy into the concept because if they don’t, conservation is going to be on board the Titanic sailing into a beautiful sunset.”

Both offered examples of how positive grass-roots cooperation had over the past decades reaped measurable rewards. In Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou 30 years ago, Stockil said, “We had a community that was displaced out of the national park — all they wanted to do was move back. Any thought of expanding wildlife areas then was heresy. Today, the same people have put 7000 hectares of their land into a conservancy next to the park… We’re achieving conservation goals by creating a different form of land use, which relates back to improving livelihoods… and that gets people to buy in to protecting wildlife.”

Tusk Trust’s CEO Charlie Mayhew cited similar successes with Ian Craig’s Northern Rangelands Trust, which now supports well over 300,000 people. In the 1990s, this was lawless territory, the heart of northern Kenya’s killing fields poaching era. “Today it’s an extraordinary success story,” said Mayhew. “There are extraordinary developments outside the national parks… We need to get the tourism industry and the travel media to get behind and promote the benefits of community involvement.”

For all the success in these two areas, elephant and rhino poaching remains a serious concern across the continent, as does habitat loss, much of it ascribed to the exponential growth of the human population. It was agreed in many of the discussion sessions that African governments, the tourist industry and rural communities need to work more closely together to combat these issues.

To that end, next year’s fifth Conservation Lab clearly needs to bring in government ministers from across the continent (only Botswana has been present over the past four years) and community leaders from all the range states (there were but a few this year) to join in the debate.

As the conference shut up shop, Keith Madders, chairman of Resource Africa, echoed the thoughts of many of the attending conservationists. “The common ground we are all seeking,” he said, “depends on all these parties being present and participating meaningfully. Without that, we’re going nowhere.”

Graham Boynton has written for numerous newspapers and magazines, including Vanity Fair, Esquire and Condé Nast Traveller, and was the travel editor of The Daily and Sunday Telegraph between 1998 and 2012. A regular visitor to Africa, where he grew up, his current consultancies include work as media director for the African Travel & Tourism Association (Atta). The views expressed in this column are his own.

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