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2.3: Conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa Today

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    Building on the environmental laws and protected areas system Africans have inherited from the tumultuous past has not been easy. The scars left in the collective psyche by forced relocations and exclusions have been difficult to mend, with many conservation initiatives still struggling to shake the unfortunate association. Nevertheless, Africa’s passionate conservation biologists and the broader public have shown tremendous fortitude and initiative in advancing the biodiversity conservation agenda over the last few decades. Much of this progress can be attributed to a growing realisation that conserving biodiversity is best achieved when combined with the social and economic upliftment of local people.

    Conservation initiatives continue to struggle to shake the unfortunate association from past actions taken with a centralised and authoritarian style of decision-making.

    Perhaps the first true step to conservation reform came at the 1975 World Parks Congress hosted in the DRC, when the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) adopted its first resolution that recognized the rights and needs of traditional peoples. Over the next few decades, conservation policies of national governments followed, many of which included local people in very explicit terms. One example is Namibia’s Constitution, passed in 1990, stating that:

    The State shall actively promote and maintain the welfare of the people by adopting, inter alia, policies aimed at the following: maintenance of ecosystems, essential ecological processes and biological diversity of Namibia and utilisation of living natural resources on a sustainable basis for the benefit of all Namibians, both present and future”.

    As the previous centralised and authoritarian style of conservation policy making has made way for more inclusive conservation activities (Abrams et al., 2009), an increasing number of local communities have become active participants in environmental programs and policy development inside and on the periphery of protected areas. Two notable examples are biosphere reserves (Section 13.5.2) and transfrontier conservation areas (TFCA, Box 2.2), both pioneering strategies in promoting human-wildlife coexistence. Several governments are also expanding their protected areas networks by experimenting with private ownership of protected areas (Box 2.3) and co-management partnerships (Section 13.1.4), a land tenure model in which local people share the decision-making and other responsibilities of protected areas management with public institutions (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2004). In recent years, integrated conservation and development projects (ICDPs, Section 14.3) have also emerged as viable options to link conservation and socio-economic development.

    Box 2.2 Why Go Transfrontier? (And Why Not?)

    Tamar Ron

    Biodiversity Conservation consultant.

    The past two decades have brought high praise and gaining momentum for TFCAs in Southern Africa, as in other parts of the world (e.g. Vasilijevic et al., 2015; Zunckel, 2014). While Africa’s first TFCA, the W National Park, was established already in 1954 by the governments of Benin, Burkina-Faso, and Niger, it was only after the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park was established in 1999 (between the governments of South Africa and Botswana) that TFCAs have become a prominent component of the concepts driving biodiversity conservation and tourism development in Southern Africa, and across the continent.

    TFCAs can support biodiversity conservation in several ways. They help protect large conservation areas and ecological corridors, facilitate cross-border knowledge exchange and cooperation in conservation and enforcement efforts, and promote mainstreaming conservation considerations into land-use planning. These benefits, in turn, offer socio-economic advantages through eco-tourism, sustainable use of natural resources, increased attraction for investors and donors, and, in some cases, supporting peace-building efforts.

    Establishing a TFCA, however, entails challenges and risks (Vasilijevic et al., 2015; Zunckel, 2014; Ron, 2007). These processes are often top-down in nature, involving long and costly high-level negotiations between governments with critical conservation funds being spent on multiple cross-border meetings of senior officials and coordination efforts. Due to financial and political considerations, too often the focus remains at the central governments’ level, with limited engagement with local stakeholders and on-the-ground impact. At times, many residents in the concerned area are not even aware that they live in a TFCA, or how this can change their lives.

    Political and financial challenges at the local, national and regional levels may hinder the establishment of TFCAs. National inter-agency competition, disagreements within and between local communities, and conflict between international agencies, NGOs, and supporting donors may all have negative consequences. Facilitated cross-border movement of people and goods can cause security challenges and other risks, such as disease transfer, spread of invasive species, increased human-wildlife conflict, and increased illegal wildlife traffic and other criminal activities. In establishing a TFCA, it is thus essential to consult and engage all key stakeholders, and especially local communities, beginning in the planning phase, as well as to prioritise investment in on-the-ground impact-generating activities, to achieve conservation, social and development goals.

    My experience in developing the Mayombe Transfrontier Initiative, between Angola, Republic of the Congo, DRC, and Gabon was most revealing (Ron, 2011a). In 2000, we initiated conservation efforts in the Angolan component of the Mayombe forest. From the start, it became clear that the striking difference in the level of degradation between the countries that share the Mayombe forest (Figure 2.B) could not be sustainable. Moreover, uncontrolled logging for timber and poaching of primates, elephants, parrots, pangolins, and other threatened species were driven, to a large extent, by illegal cross-border wildlife traffickers. It was evident that cooperation between the four countries that shared the forest was essential (Ron, 2003), so we solicited financial support from several international organizations. Initial support focused on high-level meetings and negotiations (Ijang et al. 2012). Unfortunately, local stakeholders perceived these mediation attempts as unbalanced. Finally, through governmental leadership, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the first three countries in 2009, with Gabon joining in 2013. A study was implemented through extensive consultation with stakeholders, and a strategic plan focusing on the most needed on-the-ground activities was adopted (Ron, 2011b). While conservation efforts have progressed at the national level, the same originally identified threats are still prominent throughout the TFCA, so it is now critical that substantial funding be allocated to the strategy’s actual on-the-ground implementation.

    Figure 2.B The Mayombe Forest; the tree line in the photo marks the border between Angola (top) and the Republic of the Congo. Efforts are currently underway to protect forest and surrounding area as a TFCA. Photograph by Tamar Ron, CC BY 4.0.

    So, what is the conclusion? Go transfrontier? The answer is yes—but not in every case—and very carefully. Perspective must be kept through long term planning, while keeping the focus on local-level priorities.

    Box 2.3 Privately Owned Lands for African Conservation

    Graeme Cumming

    ARC Centre of Excellence in Coral Reef Studies,

    James Cook University,

    Townsville, Australia.

    With rates of species loss increasing and natural communities under pressure worldwide from human demands, the creation and maintenance of protected areas continues to be a vitally important conservation strategy. At the 2014 World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia, there was widespread recognition of the need to increase the total amount of land and ocean under protection. However, this cannot be achieved by governments simply setting aside more land. Protected areas are ultimately created by people for people, and if they are to be successful, they must be created and managed in a way that is socially acceptable and sustainable.

    Committing more land to biodiversity conservation means achieving a consensus between political, economic, societal, and ecological forces. This is particularly important in heavily populated landscapes, especially in Africa where local communities still bear the scars of a history of colonialism and top-down decision-making. One possible solution is to provide incentives that encourage private landowners to engage voluntarily in conservation. The area of land in private nature reserves in South Africa (both individually- and community-owned) is already estimated to be nearly twice the extent of government-owned protected areas (de Vos et al., 2019). The dynamics of privately protected areas and their overall contributions to biodiversity are, however, largely undocumented and poorly understood.

    The number of privately protected areas in South Africa has increased rapidly since the end of apartheid in 1994 (de Vos et al., 2019). This increase can be partly attributed to increased tourism in South Africa and partly to the removal of perverse subsidies that kept marginal agricultural land in production (see also Section 4.5.3). Unlike statutory reserves, privately protected areas receive little or no financial support from the government and must ensure their own survival by generating revenue. They can be economically self-sufficient only if they can generate enough income from tourism. Two models appear to be particularly effective: either offering a high-cost, high-investment Big Five game viewing experience (i.e. staying in a comfortable bungalow, being guided by knowledgeable individuals), or providing a cheaper, lower-investment experience that focuses on affordable accommodation with access to hiking trails, striking scenery, and outdoor recreational opportunities (Clements et al., 2016). These models may be particularly effective in areas adjacent to national parks. For example, Shamwari Private Game Reserve, one of the more successful upper-end privately protected areas (Figure 2.C), is adjacent to Addo Elephant National Park in the Eastern Cape.

    Figure 2.C A group of tourists watching two young giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis, VU) play-fighting on Shamwari Private Game Reserve, South Africa. Shamwari successfully linked luxurious accommodation with wildlife safari activities to tap into the profitable conservation industry on private lands. Photograph by Iky’s Photographic,, CC BY-SA 4.0.

    The conservation value of private lands, and particularly those that stock large herbivores, has been questioned in South Africa because of concerns about economic influences on their management. For example, tourist demand for wildlife viewing experiences can drive the overstocking of large animals, such as elephants, in small Southern African protected areas, even though higher densities of elephants do not necessarily provide a better tourism experience (Maciejewski and Kerley, 2014). Overstocking of large mammals can also lead to the conversion of woodlands to thickets, decreasing both conservation and tourism value (Cumming et al., 1997). Conversely, many private lands in the Western and Eastern Cape of South Africa have high conservation potential; many private lands in the Cape sit lower in the landscape than parks, which, in water-scarce South Africa, have been focused on mountainous water catchment areas, and many harbours threatened lowland vegetation (Winter et al., 2007). Lowland ecosystems with their richer soils are under higher pressure from agriculture and settlement, meaning that well-managed private areas may make a disproportionately large contribution to the conservation of globally rare and endemic fynbos plants and animals (e.g. proteas, heathers, reptiles, and birds). Several governmentally supported programs, such as the stewardship program of the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI), have been created to foster biodiversity conservation on private lands by providing information and encouraging good management practices (Rouget et al., 2014).

    The owners and managers of privately protected areas could potentially interact with one another, and with the leadership of provincial and national parks, on a wide range of issues. But the managers of private lands are often poorly connected in these networks and may not benefit from knowledge sharing in the same way as managers of established reserves (Maciejewski and Cumming, 2015). In addition, many privately protected areas are not profitable, with the result that financial demands may push managers to make short-term decisions that attract revenue (e.g. overstocking large herbivores or suppressing wildfires) but have harmful long-term ecological consequences. Possible measures to ensure that private conservation efforts are both sustainable and effective include governmental interventions through tax breaks and support, and improved integration of private lands with national and provincial parks and their managers. Private conservation has considerable promise as a strategy for Africa, but its full potential will only be realised if it is achieved equitably with secure land tenure and supportive governments.

    Through these different conservation partnerships models (see also Chapter 13), Africans have surpassed expectations in how rapidly they have expanded their conservation areas network. Illustrating the progress, Cameroon has augmented its existing protected areas system with nine new national parks between 2000 and 2015, with an additional nine in the proposal phase (UNEP-WCMC, 2019). The new parks include Takamanda National Park, which connects with Nigeria’s Cross River National Park to form one of West Africa’s largest continuous formally protected areas; it also plays a critical role in protecting the world’s last remaining Cross River gorillas (Gorilla gorilla diehli, CR), of which fewer than 300 remain. As of mid-2019, protected areas covered over 38% of Tanzania’s land area (more than 361,000 km2, an area larger than Germany or Côte d’Ivoire [UNEP-WCMC, 2019])!

    Sub-Saharan Africa’s marine protected areas (MPA, Section 13.4.1) are similarly also expanding. For example, in 2017, Gabon declared 26% of its territorial waters protected, offering a haven to at least 20 species of whales and dolphins, and 20 species of sharks and rays (Parker, 2017). More recently, the Seychelles created two new MPAs that cover an area of 210,000 km2—an area the size of Great Britain. The South African government, in collaboration with World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), has taken the addition step by creating a forum ( to improve MPA governance, and a website ( to teach the public more about South Africa’s rapidly expanding MPA system.

    Many of Africa’s protected areas are nothing more than paper parks, areas that are protected on paper but not in reality.

    It is important, however, to keep in mind that protecting a certain area of land and water should not in itself be the only goal in conservation. Even when a country has numerous protected areas, certain unique ecosystems may remain unprotected. Being safeguarded in name is not enough, protected areas must also be maintained and managed to achieve meaningful conservation success. Too many protected areas are nothing more than paper parks, areas that are protected on paper but not in reality. Two of the most important causes of protected area failure are lack of buy-in from local people, and lack of investment, financially or otherwise, from local and national governments (Watson et al., 2014; McClanahan et al., 2016; Gill et al., 2017).

    Fortunately, African conservation biologists regularly employ a can-do attitude, shown in a long history of resourcefulness in the face of resource constraints. For example, conservationists from all over the region have established, and are partnering with, non-profit NGOs to facilitate a variety of innovative mechanisms to advance biodiversity conservation (see also Section 15.3). One notable example is the African Parks Network; as of mid-2019, African Parks, in partnership with its host governments, are managing 15 national parks in nine countries, covering 10.5 million hectares. Through this collaboration, which includes extensive community engagement and law enforcement, several once-declining parks are now seeing their wildlife prospering. For example, lions were reintroduced to Rwanda in 2016 after a 20-year absence, elephant strongholds in Chad and the DRC are been secured, and populations of threatened large mammals on Zambia’s Liuwa Plains have increased by 50% to over 100% in just a few years (African Parks, 2016). Not only do recovering wildlife populations here and elsewhere attract more tourists, they also provide opportunities to attract new people to conservation, through environmental education (Figure 2.7), public health services, and other community upliftment programs that improve the well-being of local peoples (see Box 1.2). These benefits then provide additional positive feedback towards wildlife conservation, for example by encouraging an increasing number of poachers to transition into new fulfilling lives as conservation professionals (Cooney et al., 2017).

    Figure 2.7 Environmental education plays an important role in teaching people about the importance of their natural heritage and conservation. Here a group of school children releases a ringed yellow-fronted tinkerbird (Pogoniulus chrysoconus, LC) in Wondo Genet, Ethiopia, as part of a project that combines citizen science with long-term wildlife monitoring. Photograph by Çağan Şekercioğlu, CC BY 4.0.

    By seeing and being exposed to all the social and economic benefits biodiversity conservation efforts offer, many local communities have been inspired to take the lead in protecting wildlife on their own lands. For example, community efforts have successfully safeguarded Mali’s savannah elephants (Canney and Ganamé, 2015) and Rwanda’s mountain gorillas (Gorilla beringei beringei, EN) (Kalpers et al., 2003) through periods of conflict. Locally managed forest reserves now protect more than 36,000 km2 of land in Tanzania (Roe et al., 2009), while conservation efforts on community conserved areas in Kenya have renewed hope for the future of the world’s rarest antelope, the hirola (Beatragus hunter, CR) (King et al., 2016). These examples have set a positive, enterprising tone that has enabled conservation to play in increasingly prominent role in multiple economies through the creation of job opportunities while also improving Africans’ overall quality of life.

    This page titled 2.3: Conservation in Sub-Saharan Africa Today is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.