Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

2.2: History of Conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa

  • Page ID
  • Traditional communities have long held a belief that humans are physically and spiritually connected to nature, and that communal needs outweighed individual desires. This also extended to natural resources, which were considered communal property that must also be shared with the spirits of the ancestors and future generations. Managing natural resources this way required strict adherence to customary law systems that imposed controls on the collection of animal and plant products. Some animals and plants were also worshiped, which leads to mythical superstitions and taboos that prohibited the killing of culturally and spiritually important animals, as well as totem species that bond families and villages together. Customary laws also created Africa’s first protected areas, such as royal hunting grounds (areas where kings and traditional chiefs had exclusive hunting rights) and areas of spiritual significance (Box 2.1), where access and harvesting of natural resources were restricted.

    Traditional African communities have long shared the belief that humans are physically and spiritually connected to nature, and that communal needs outweigh individual desires.

    Box 2.1 Sacred Spaces: A Tradition of Forest Conservation in Benin

    Emile N. Houngbo

    School of Agribusiness and Agricultural Policies,

    National University of Agriculture,

    Cotonou, Republic of Benin.

    The importance of forests for human life has been recognized for millennia. That is why public approaches have historically been adopted for their protection. Today, some of the most effective programs are those that integrate local communities and their traditional knowledge with scientific forest management. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) recognizes the value of the cultural practices of traditional peoples for (a) practicing conservation and maintaining biodiversity and (b) promoting sustainable use. The sacred forests of Benin are recognized as a tangible heritage, both natural and cultural; their management by the local community is a major achievement in modern conservation.

    Forest protection, an ancient reality in Benin

    The life of traditional communities of Benin is closely linked to conservation of its forests, also known as Zoun in the local Goun language. Many social practices of Beninese communities rely on leaves, animals, water, stones, and other resources; the areas that provide these natural resources are called sacred forests because they are inhabited by deities or spirits, serve as spaces for rituals, or represent the seat of past kings. Monitoring of sacred forests is often entrusted to members of a certain lineage. For example, custody of the forest of the city of Abomey is the responsibility of traditional chief Dah Djagba, whose ancestors were installed near the sacred spring Didonou by King Houegbadja of Abomey in the 17th century. A sacred forest is a point of contact between a community and a spirit or deity, and between the visible and the invisible. The value and protection of the sacred forest is passed down from generation to generation, as are the rules and regulations. Typically hunting and setting fires in sacred forests are prohibited, while logging for timber and gathering plants for food and medicine are strictly regulated, with these products shared between priests and caretakers of the site (Juhe-Beaulaton and Roussel, 2002). The Aloe vera plant, for example, has long been used by vodun (spirit) priests during religious ceremonies to heal the wounds of new initiates.

    Sacred forests today

    Sacred forests have significant spiritual capital, or the power to influence the communities that revere them. They influence the collective consciousness regarding experiences as basic as rain, health, and the collection of spring water (in the case of the Abomey forest), or as complex as religious ceremonies, fertility, and overall happiness. Sacred sites also play an important role in cult practices (Roussel, 1994): funeral rites, ceremonies for dead infants, rites for accidental deaths (Laine, 1990; Sokpon et al., 1998), and healing ceremonies with medicinal plants. Meetings of secret societies such as the Zangbeto, Kuvito, and Oro, and religious or social ceremonies and ordeals are held in sacred forests. They also play an important role in the exercise of justice and social cohesion; disobeying the traditional rules and damaging the sacred forest can cause harm to the whole community (bad harvests, epidemics, drought, and mosquito infestations) or the person responsible (accidents, illness, or misfortune). The wrongdoer may need to perform a rite of reparation, such as an animal sacrifice or offering to repair the damage that they have caused.

    Figure 2.A Tomato farm on the periphery of the Gbevozoun sacred forest, Benin. Farming encroachment has reduced this sacred forest from 1.6 km2 to 0.5 km2 in recent years; other sacred forests face a similar fate. Photograph by Emile N. Houngbo, CC BY 4.0.

    Resistance to human pressures

    One difficulty of managing sacred forests today is that they are often not well delineated. Under the influence of population growth, the area occupied by a sacred forest sometimes diminishes to a minimum size under communal protection. Some sacred forests in Benin, such as the 32 km2 Birni forest, 11 km2 Tanekas forest, and 2 km2 Natitingou forest, have vanished due to human pressure on the land. The peripheral zone of Gbevozoun sacred forest in which the Gbevo deity is believed to dwell is currently encroached by agriculture (Figure 2.A), and only a central core of 0.5 km2 of the forest’s original 1.6 km2 is still protected. The Honhoue sacred forest, meanwhile, still retains an area of 0.04 km2 that has not shrunk over time. This is due the local community’s belief in the power of the Honhoue divinity and 40 other deities that dwell in the forest.

    Sacred forests are based on traditions of safeguarding religious ceremonies and nature for the future, and they continue to be a means of protecting biodiversity. They may be a resource for conservation of rare plant species for medicinal purposes, and even future improvement of agro-biodiversity. The preservation of sacred forests is crucial to community involvement in conservation.

    This culturally driven system of checks and balances was greatly disrupted with the arrival of European settlers in the 17th century. Armed with guns, and little thought given to sustainability, the earliest colonists killed thousands of animals for food, trophies, sport, and profit. Following concerns about declining wildlife populations, particularly at the southern tip of South Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa’s first formal environmental legislation was introduced in 1657, followed by the region’s first formal environmental law in 1684 (MacKenzie, 1997). Significantly, this first law separated protected species, such as the common hippopotamus (Hippopotamus amphibious, VU), from pest species (which at the time included lions). Unfortunately, these early laws and regulations were of little consequence as an increasing number of colonists, lured by the promise of unlimited hunting on unexplored lands, arrived in the region. Consequently, by 1700, populations of every animal over 50 kg within 200 km from Cape Town were extirpated (Rebelo, 1992). These developments also led to Africa’s first modern human-caused mammal extinctions. First to disappear was the bluebuck (Hippotragus leucophaeus, EX) around 1798. Nearly a century later, in 1871, the Cape warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus aethiopicus, EX)—more closely related to East Africa’s desert warthog (Phacochoerus aethiopicus delamerei LC) than the widespread common warthog (Phacochoerus africanus LC)—disappeared, followed by the quagga (Equus quagga quagga, EX) around 1878 (the last captive individual died in 1883). Elsewhere, bontebok (Damaliscus pygargus pygargus, NT), Cape mountain zebra (Equus zebra zebra, VU), southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum, NT), and black wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou, LC) were all reduced to about a dozen individuals at one or two locations.

    Ecosystems—forests in particular—near early European settlements similarly suffered as early colonists perceived them as an “inexhaustible” supply of fuel and timber. This widespread overharvesting prompted the Cape Colony’s Governor in 1778 to appoint its first professional nature conservator, Johann Fredrick Meeding, to exercise some control over deforestation. But, like controls on hunting large mammals, these efforts generally only had a local and temporary impact.

    The 1800s and launching of formal conservation efforts

    Interest in the formal protection of Africa’s biodiversity started to intensify during the 19th century. Most of the initial steps were taken in South Africa, which had the largest early colonial settlements and, hence, the most species threatened by human activities. First, in 1822, the Game Law Proclamation introduced hunting licence fees and closed seasons for selected species, followed by regulations to protect ‘open spaces’ in 1846 and forests in 1859. A major step towards ecosystem protection was taken in 1876 with the creation of the Cape Colony’s Department of Forests and Plantations, while the appointment of a Superintendent of Woods and Forests in 1881 led to initial efforts towards the scientific management of ecosystems. Then, in 1886, the British government passed the Cape Act for the Preservation of Game (in 1891 extended to other British South African Territories), followed by the Cape Forest Act of 1888. The Cape Forest Act played an instrumental role in the proclamation of the Cape Colony’s first formally protected areas, namely the Tsitsikamma and Knysna Forest Reserves, in 1888; today these lands are incorporated into South Africa’s Garden Route National Park (Figure 2.4). These were followed by the appointment of Southern Africa’s first formal game warden, H. F. van Oordt, in 1893, to manage Pongola Nature Reserve, proclaimed in 1894. (Pongola was degazetted and converted into agriculture land in 1921 but re-established in 1979). Thereafter, protected areas were established at regular intervals across South Africa, starting with Groenkloof Nature Reserve in February 1895, then Hluhluwe Valley and Umfolozi Junction Game Sanctuaries (today the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park) in April 1895. (St Lucia Game Reserve, today part of iSimangaliso Wetland Park, was also established sometime in 1895.)

    Figure 2.4 Sub-Saharan Africa’s first formally protected area was established to stop logging of the Tsitsikamma coastal forests, South Africa. Photograph by Androstachys,, CC BY 4.0.

    West and Central Africa saw its first steps towards formal conservation efforts in 1885, with the establishment of forest reserves to protect valuable timber products (Brugiere and Kormos, 2009). The region’s first game reserves were gazetted as early as 1889 in the DRC to protect elephants. Unfortunately, these efforts were of little consequence as ivory hunters continued to slaughter the region’s elephant populations. It was only after colonial governments raised concerns about declining ivory revenues that the region passed its first formal environmental law in 1892, with the ratification of the Congo Basin Convention to regulate the ivory trade in French, Portuguese, and Belgian territories (Cioc, 2009).

    In East Africa, colonial authorities passed its first formal environmental legislations in 1888. These initial laws called for game reserve establishment, hunting quotas for common species, strict protection for breeding females and immature animals, and hunting bans for rare species (Prendergast and Adams, 2003). While protected area establishment was initially slow, a circular from Lord Salisbury (the UK’s Prime Minister at the time) in which he called for protected areas and hunting restrictions to prevent large mammal extinctions, prompted the passing of the German East African Game Ordinance of 1896. That same year, East Africa saw the proclamation of its first modern protected areas, both in Tanzania: one along the Rufiji river (today included in Selous Game Reserve), and one west of Mount Kilimanjaro.

    Initial laws and regulations to protect Africa’s environment were greatly expanded in 1900, with the signing of the Convention on the Preservation of Wild Animals, Birds, and Fish in Africa, during the International Conference of the African Colonial Powers held in London, UK. The most innovative agreement of this treaty was the establishment of Schedules that afforded different species different levels of protection. Species on Schedule 1 included rare and valuable species for which all hunting was prohibited; Schedule 2 and 3 included species for which hunting of young animals and accompanying females was prohibited; Schedule 4 included species for which hunting was allowed ‘in limited numbers’; and Schedule 5 included ‘harmful’ species whose populations needed to be reduced. While this convention never went into force (because not enough parties ratified it), several signatories continued to follow the convention’s agreements by establishing wildlife reserves. Among the first to act were Ghana and Sierra Leone, which took their first formal steps towards conserving the environment in 1901. Soon afterwards, in 1903, Africa’s first conservation non-governmental organization (NGO) was established, namely the Society for the Preservation of Wild Fauna of the Empire (today known as Fauna & Flora International, or FFI).

    In 1925, Africa’s first national park, the Albertine Rift’s Albert National Park (today divided into the DRC’s Virunga and Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Parks) was proclaimed. The following year, South Africa’s Sabie Game Reserve (which was originally gazetted in 1898) was renamed and expanded as Kruger National Park. Although most early laws focused on protecting rare and ‘valuable’ mammals, birds, tortoises, and timber forests, the welwitschia (Welwitschia mirabilis) (Figure 2.5) was the first African plant to enjoy formal protection after colonial powers ratified the 1933 Convention Relative to the Preservation of Fauna and Flora in the Natural State (often referred to as the London Convention).

    Figure 2.5 The welwitschia, a primitive gymnosperm found only in the Namib Desert of Namibia and Angola, was the first African plant to enjoy formal protection. It is adapted to collect coastal fog on its single pair of leaves which appear as many, having been torn apart by harsh desert conditions. Considered a living fossil, some welwitschias may be over 2,000 years old. Photograph by nhelia,, CC0.

    From the outset however, colonial governments managed Africa’s earliest protected areas with policies more representative of Western values, which emphasised the need for nature to be shielded from human activities, and conservation management to be centralised. This top-down, protectionist “fines and fences” strategy, also known as “fortress conservation”, showed little regard for the rights and cultural practices of local communities. In fact, local peoples were more likely seen as a threat to the environment. Consequently, many of Africa’s first formally protected areas were established on land forcibly taken from communal ownership, and access to natural resources on which the local peoples previously relied upon was prohibited. Paradoxically, hunting privileges were reserved for wealthy elites on protected areas set aside for colonists’ enjoyment (Figure 2.6). These practices, termed eco-colonialism for the similarity to the abuses of native rights by colonial powers, caused a growing rift between conservation authorities and deeply offended local peoples.

    Figure 2.6 A photo from East Africa in the late 1800s, illustrating typical African conservation of the time: restricting hunting privileges and wildlife trade to rich colonists who shipped their bounties to Europe, with little if any benefit to Africa. From Wikipedia,, CC0.

    Conservation efforts after colonialism

    Following World War II (1939–1945), after which many African countries regained independence, there was an urgent need for new conservation treaties that also addressed the needs of local peoples. Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, most vividly expressed this at the 1961 Pan-African Symposium on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Modern African States (Watterson, 1963), in a speech that became known as the Arusha Manifesto:

    The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a source of wonder and inspiration, but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and well-being. In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grand-children will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance. The conservation of wildlife and wild places calls for specialist knowledge, trained manpower, and money, and we look to other nations to cooperate with us in this important task – the success or failure of which not only affects the continent of Africa but the rest of the world as well.

    Soon after the Arusha Manifesto, the African Charter for the Protection and Conservation of Nature was established in 1963. This was followed by the African Convention on the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (Algiers Convention in short), which was adopted by member states of the Organisation of African Unity (which preceded the African Union) in 1968. The Algiers Convention provided a major break from colonial conservation models by acknowledging the principle that environmental management is a common responsibility among all Africans, while it also called for conservation of soil and water, and for environmental research and conservation (IUCN, 2004).

    Despite the progress and extended scope of the Algiers Convention, conservation policies implemented by early post-colonial governments unfortunately continued to resemble those of colonial governments, notably the centralised and authoritarian style of decision-making. Similarly, the visions of well-funded international conservation organizations operating in the region generally reflected the perceptions and policies of developed nations, and thus lacked adequate consideration of local cultures (Abrams et al., 2009). Consequently, in the years following Africa’s decolonisation, conservation largely remained a polarising endeavour that continued to uproot the lives of tens of millions of conservation refugees over time (Geisler and de Sousa, 2001).

    • Was this article helpful?