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2.4: Ongoing Conservation Challenges

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  • Despite many examples of progress, conservation challenges and conflicts persist across Africa. As a result, the region lags in several aspects with regards to safeguarding our natural heritage (Table 2.1). The causes are many and vary by region. Below is a discussion of some of the more prominent impediments to effective conservation action in Africa.

    2.4.1 Persistent poverty

    Poverty can drive desperate people to illegal actions, even though they understand the detriment these actions may have on society at large and their own futures.

    There is a direct link between poverty and conservation failure (Oldekop et al., 2016; Hauenstein et al., 2019). This is a problem particularly in Africa, where millions of people live in extreme poverty that is difficult to escape. Faced with hard choices to ensure there is food on the table, poverty can drive desperate people to illegally collect natural products from protected areas, even though they likely understand the detriment these actions may have on society at large and their own futures. Other vulnerable peoples that live close to the land, such as traditional hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, are increasingly pushed into wildlife sanctuaries by mining, deforestation, agricultural expansion, and development that encroach on their traditional lands. Lacking the resources to defend their land and/or support to transition to new lifestyles, these marginalised communities are often left desolate, with few if any legal options to support their livelihoods.

    Table 2.1 A comparison between the number of species and number of threatened species for several major groups of animals and plants present in Sub-Saharan Africa.


    Species assessed by IUCNa

    Species threatened with extinction

    Data deficient species





    Vertebrate animals






























    Birds of preyc




















    Ray-finned fishes























































    Source: IUCN, 2019, current as of April-2019

    a Low species richness generally reflects inadequate data because only a few species were evaluated. For example, 100% of ants are listed as threatened, but only eight species have been evaluated; there are more ant species in many African towns and villages.

    b Categories included: Extinct in the Wild, Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable

    c Includes raptors, falcons, and owls

    Further complicating matters, many well-intentioned citizens and organizations from western countries continue to have overly simplistic views of Africa. By imposing their outsider views on rare species management in Africa, these groups exacerbate the impacts of poverty, by cutting off funding sources of well-functioning conservation programs. A good example comes from regulating trophy hunting of rare animals. Some African mammals, such as lions and elephants, are globally rare, but locally common in well-managed private game reserves and community conserved areas. Due to their global rarity, land managers of such well-managed populations can earn large fees from foreign hunters targeting these sought-after trophy species; the money earned supports local communities by boosting the local economy and conservation efforts (Lindsey et al., 2007; IUCN/PACO, 2009; Cooney et al., 2017). Unfortunately, the hunting of rare species remains controversial because many people dislike seeing charismatic animals killed. Consequently, campaigns from western countries (e.g. Hance, 2018) have significantly impeding the African trophy hunting industry, with no exemption for effective self-supporting land managers. By limiting and threatening the benefits regulated trophy hunting can bring to well-managed conservation areas and poor communities (Mbaiwa, 2018), there is fear that these campaigns will achieve the opposite of their intended purposes, by removing the incentive to protect those rare and/or charismatic species. Conservation requires all parties involved to weigh the benefits as well as unintended consequences of wildlife trade—i.e. overharvesting and black markets (Lenzen et al., 2012; Hsiang and Sekar, 2016), land grabbing (see Section 5.2), corruption, and terrorism (Christy and Stirton, 2015) and adapt as and when needed. Section 14.3 provides some solutions on how to link conservation with development.

    2.4.2 Obstructive mindsets

    Colonial Africa has provided many examples showing that conservation activities implemented in an authoritarian manner are bound to fail. Yet, authoritarian mindsets continue to impede conservation efforts throughout the region. Work from Guinea-Bissau has shown that authoritarian conservation actions that disempower or displace local communities are more likely to worsen than overcome conservation challenges in post-colonial Africa (Cross, 2015). Conservation in Africa is as much about people as it is about wildlife; this book provides many examples to show how human welfare and conservation are tied to one another.

    At the same time, integrating diverging cultural beliefs about the natural environment into conservation practices also remains an obstacle (Dickman et al., 2015). Many Africans continue to fixate on cultural justifications (“We have been hunting for many generations”, Figure 2.8) without acknowledging that human population growth, more sophisticated weapons, and increased levels of consumption are putting unsustainable pressure on natural landscapes. Others believe that the destruction of nature is simply not possible because their ancestors will intervene before this happens, effectively removing individual or community responsibility from conservation management and planning. Breaking down such barriers is hard, frustrating, and takes a long time to achieve. It requires an interdisciplinary approach (Section 1.1) bringing together aspects of conservation science and the social sciences to find common ground. Despite the challenges to putting effective conservation into practice, it is important to remember that fortress conservation models—telling people how they should act, with little to no local input—are more likely to produce enduring counter-productive results.

    Figure 2.8 A group of hunters carry a western lowland gorilla (Gorilla gorilla gorilla, CR) that was shot while raiding crops in southern Cameroon. While retaliatory killings is the traditional method for dealing with problem animals (but see Section 14.4), killing rare species such as gorillas is generally forbidden by customary and statutory laws. Photograph by Edmond Dounias/CIFOR, CC BY 4.0.

    2.4.3 Weak governance/institutional structures

    Africa’s natural environment and its people often fall victim to weak governance and institutional structures. It is well-known that weak policies, failing governments, and civil conflict hamper conservation efforts and drive biodiversity declines (Nackoney et al., 2014; Brito et al., 2018; Daskin and Pringle, 2018). But even in well-functioning countries, government officials turning a blind eye (either willingly, or because they lack capacity) may enable corporations to cut corners for increased profits at the cost of the environment. Corruption and greed also fuel land grabbing (Section 5.2), black markets (Hauenstein et al., 2019), and unwarranted protected area degazettement (Section 13.7.3). There is broad interest to challenge these behaviors which benefit only a handful of people at the cost of thousands of others (Box 2.4). Fixing these issues will rely on strengthening institutional capacity on multiple levels (Amano et al., 2018).

    Weak policies, failing governments, and civil conflict hamper conservation efforts and drive biodiversity declines.

    Box 2.4 Malawi: No Longer a Weak Link in the Elephant Ivory Trafficking Chain?

    Jonathan Vaughan

    Lilongwe Wildlife Trust,

    Lilongwe, Malawi.

    International efforts to combat illegal wildlife trade—now the fourth largest transnational crime in the world (Nellemann et al., 2016)—have intensified in recent years, but Malawi has escaped public scrutiny due to its small size and relatively small wildlife numbers. Despite these factors, Malawi’s wildlife populations have been decimated by poaching in the last few decades. For example, Kasungu National Park’s wildlife was so abundant in the 1980s that animals were translocated to the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Back then, elephants numbered as high as 2,000. Today, there are no more than 60.

    Southern Africa’s principle transit hub for wildlife trafficking

    In 2016, CITES identified Malawi as a “country of primary concern”, and Southern Africa’s principle transit hub for ivory trafficking. Malawi’s own Illegal Wildlife Trade Review (Waterland et al., 2015), published a year earlier, had come to similar conclusions, uncovering evidence of large-scale international trafficking of bushmeat, carnivore pelts, tortoises, pangolins, orchids, ivory, and rhino horn. The revelations served a wake-up call for urgent action to protect not just Malawi’s own wildlife but also wild populations throughout Southern Africa.

    Central to region’s poaching hotspots

    Why is Malawi such a significant link in the trafficking chain? The first clue is geography. Malawi is surrounded by Africa’s biggest elephant poaching hotspots. Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania reportedly lost 25,000 elephants between 2009 and 2013, while 1,000 elephants were killed in Mozambique’s Niassa Province in 2011, alone (Booth and Dunham, 2016). Poaching in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is well above the CITES average (Nyirenda et al., 2015). Wasser et al. (2015) found that all the study samples of ivory seized from consignments weighing more than half a tonne between 2006 and 2014 originated from ecosystems immediately bordering Malawi.

    Malawi has already been implicated in some of the largest ivory seizures in the world. The biggest impoundment ever—at 7.5 tonnes, equivalent to over 1,500 elephants—was made in Singapore in 2002 and had been shipped from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe (Wasser et al., 2007, 2015). In 2013, 2.6 tonnes of ivory were confiscated from a container within Malawi’s borders at Mzuzu. Fifty cases were recorded between 2010 and 2014, including numerous smaller examples of ivory trafficking. With an estimated 10% interception rate, the true scale of ivory trafficking was evidently much larger than previously thought (Waterland et al., 2015).

    Risk-reward ratio in favour of criminals

    Malawi’s weak wildlife legislation was another significant factor. Coupled with under-resourced law enforcement and high levels of corruption, this offered an attractive risk-to-reward ratio for wildlife criminals. The individuals convicted of trafficking in the 2013 Mzuzu case escaped with a fine of just US $5,000 for a 2.6-tonne haul. This paled in comparison to the penalties handed out in other countries. For example, during the same period, a Zambian man was sent to prison for five years for trafficking 12.5 kg of ivory, a South African man received 10 years and a US $392,000 fine for trafficking one tonne of ivory and, in Kenya, a man was fined US $233,000 for trafficking a single tusk weighing 3.4 kg.

    While sentencing in the Mzuzu case was hampered to some extent by limitations of the law, it was also indicative of the fact that, historically, trafficking was not treated as a serious crime in Malawi. Most wildlife prosecutions had taken place in lower courts and have been prosecuted by lower-ranked officials. The average fine for ivory trafficking was found to be just US $40 between 2011 and 2014. This is an extremely low amount given the potential profits from the trade of ivory and, thus, provides virtually no deterrent to traffickers. Awareness, motivation, and cooperation within and between departments like the police and border forces were found to be severely lacking. Government resources to combat wildlife crime are also limited, with many other causes competing for funding and attention.

    Management of wildlife crime data also made life easier for wildlife criminals. Take the case of a Chinese national who was arrested and prosecuted for an ivory trafficking offence under one name, deported under a second name, and reported by the INTERPOL country office to INTERPOL headquarters under a third. This shows the ease with which criminals are circumventing the weak systems currently in place.

    Turning the Tide

    Today, however, things are changing. Recommendations from the 2015 Illegal Wildlife Trade Review were swiftly executed, strengthening the process from investigations and arrest right through to prosecution and sentencing. As a result, in just four years, over 1.5 tonnes of ivory were confiscated, average monthly arrests for wildlife crime jumped from 0.7 to 9.5, and custodial sentence rates rose to over 90%, with judgments passed of up to 18 years. Remember that, in comparison, no-one convicted of a wildlife crime between 2010 and 2015 had been put behind bars and the average fine was just $40.

    Other initiatives included improving protected area management, launching the country’s first wildlife crime investigations unit, and establishing an Inter-Agency Committee to Combat Wildlife Crime to improve cooperation and information sharing. Critical amendments to wildlife legislation were also passed in record time, and technical expertise from partners was harnessed to maximise impact. Lilongwe Wildlife Trust is currently the only NGO sanctioned to prosecute wildlife crime cases in partnership with an African government. In short, Malawi has strengthened each stage of the enforcement chain.

    These successes came about largely as a result of a collaborative, innovative, and holistic approach that moved beyond traditional wildlife conservation to incorporate practices used in combatting serious organised crime.

    Support from the very top

    Strengthened legislation and enforcement will continue to be a critical deterrent, but advocacy has also been a critical tool for securing high-level political will and turning it into action. The President of Malawi, himself, His Excellency Peter Mutharika, backed the nation’s “Stop Wildlife Crime” campaign (Figure 2.D) and the Malawi Parliamentary Conservation Caucus continues to raise awareness through the media, essentially holding stakeholders such as the police or judiciary to account by highlighting both successes and questionable outcomes.


    Figure 2.D Campaigners taking to the streets in support of Malawi’s “Stop Wildlife Crime” campaign, which the President of Malawi also supports. Photograph by Lilongwe Wildlife Trust, CC BY 4.0.

    Focus on trafficking

    Poaching has been a major focus of conservation efforts elsewhere in Africa, and local poachers can still expect to feel the full weight of the Malawian law. However, bringing traffickers to justice is proving a more effective use of limited resources. After all, it is members of organised international crime syndicates that ultimately exploit local communities, incite corruption, threaten our national security, and provide the routes to overseas markets.

    What’s next for Malawi?

    Sustaining Malawi’s astounding turnaround will be no easy feat. But with continued determination, as well as local and international cooperation and support, we believe that these criminal networks can be disrupted enough to halt the impending extinction of one of Africa’s most iconic species.

    The same tenacity and high-level commitment we have witnessed in the last five years must now be applied to other conservation challenges, as attention is being turned to the protection of Malawi’s wider biodiversity. In 2018, a further 216 species of animals, plants and trees were placed under legal protection, and lessons from combatting wildlife crime can now be applied to other illegal or unsustainable practices, such as trades in timber, charcoal, and fish.

    When it comes to pioneering conservation, Malawi is one to watch. Let’s hope that there are more achievements to celebrate in another five years’ time.

    2.4.4 Skills shortages

    Scientific advances depend on increased or updated knowledge. That is also true for conservation biology—effective conservation depends on local experts who can design and implement monitoring and research projects, apply adaptive management (Section 10.2.3) when needed, act as managers and advocates for conservation activities, and increase awareness of the importance of the environment (Laurance, 2013). It is thus of great concern that conservation in Africa continues to face an enduring skills shortage (Wilson et al., 2016). Illustrating the problem, a recent review found that, over the past three decades, only 129 of the scientific articles focussed on West African birds were produced in international journals by local authors. This productivity contrasts strongly with Europe, where 12,380 ornithological articles were produced over the same time (Cresswell, 2018). Another review, covering all of Africa, found that less than 30% of the continent’s birds received attention in international journals (Beale, 2018). While high-impact publications are not the only metric to estimate conservation success, they provide an accurate accounting of persistent knowledge gaps, as well as skills shortages further down the hierarchy, from researchers and teachers to rangers and other fieldworkers down to citizen scientists.

    There are many reasons for these skills shortages. Some of the most prominent foundational issues include a fragmented communication network that limits skills transfer, financial and other resources limitations, a shortage of quality training institutes, and overburdened teachers at existing educational facilities. Fortunately, many of these shortfalls are currently being addressed. For example, new people are being involved in conservation activities through citizen science projects (see Box 15.3), innovative funding mechanisms are being developed (Section 15.3), legal and organizational structures are being adapted to foster increased collaboration (Section 15.4) and freely-accessible resources such as this textbook are being made available.. It is important to continue to build on this progress by supporting such initiatives, and continuously highlighting to others the importance of nature to their own well-being.

    2.4.5 Competing interests

    Like stock market investments, the benefits to be gained from conservation may take years to materialise.

    Because of competing interests (for land, natural resources, etc.), there is always a risk that a wealthy business will threaten a conservation initiative with competing offers that typically include promises of jobs and development (Koohafkan et al., 2011). Local peoples, especially those in poverty, may find it hard to turn down such attractive counteroffers, even if they recognize that those offers rarely live up to the promises made. Conservation biologists should carefully consider what such offers on the table might look like and factor in how their conservation programs compete and bring better results for all.

    People concerned with the environment have worked hard to better highlight that conservation has the potential to be profitable and to spur sustainable development. These activities have seen the emergence of fields such as environmental economics, and methods to put a market value on ecosystem services (Section 4.5). Unfortunately, some conservation biologists have fallen into a trap of (over)emphasising the economic benefits that conservation can bring, without a realistic representation of the upfront investment required or the length of time required for a tangible return on investment. Like stock market investments, the benefits to be gained from conservation may take years to materialise, sometimes with very little to show for it in the meantime. Given that all investments require either expendable capital or credit, willing stakeholders with neither are essentially being asked to maintain a more restrictive livelihood over an unsustainable (and often undisclosed or unknown) period of time. It is crucial for conservation biologists to set realistic expectations and to offer a balanced approach that provides interim funding/credit options. Such options could perhaps include microloans, village savings and loan associations (, or community conservation banks ( such as those established by Frankfurt Zoological Society (FZS) in Tanzania. It is also important to incorporate benefits beyond immediate financial gain when starting or expanding conservation programs. Conservation actions should also aim to provide concrete benefits, whether financial or otherwise, to local communities from an early stage. In that way, if a project comes to a premature end, one can still point to the progress made, which will make it easier to engage with that community when future opportunities arise.

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