Wildlife conservation that uses community partnerships is working for people and threatened species across Africa, write Fred Nelson and Rosie Cooney of IUCN’s Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group

Conservancy in Kenya

Conservation efforts in Africa today face huge challenges. Africa’s human population is forecast to quadruple by the end of the century, and already intensifying pressures around the use of land, water, and natural resources are having an impact on the region’s extraordinary wildlife. The high-level statistics on wildlife decline are now familiar: elephant numbers across Africa declined by a third in the past decade, while lion populations have dropped by 50% over the past 30 years.

Against this backdrop, conservationists have been gathering in London in mid-October, at a conference convened by the UK government, to again discuss how to stop poaching and better safeguard elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife.

While most attention is focused on illegal wildlife trade and wildlife security, on the ground evidence is demonstrating the importance of community-level action.

In order to respond effectively to current challenges, conservationists – including funders and patrons based in northern countries – need to urgently promote and invest in approaches that are delivering conservation impact. Despite the impression created by many media headlines, there are strong grounds for hope that Africa’s wildlife can recover lost ground. Indeed, even while most attention is focused on illegal wildlife trade and wildlife security, on the ground a growing body of evidence is demonstrating the importance of community-level action. An expanding array of local conservancies and other community-based models are delivering results and showing the potential to integrate conservation with local livelihoods and national economic interests.

No country embodies these tenets better than Namibia, where innovative models for conservation developed over the past 30 years have restored wildlife on a remarkable scale. Namibia’s wildlife laws enable local communities to create conservancies, which give communities rights over wildlife use and management in their area. This provides the basis for these conservancies to enter into agreements with tourism or trophy hunting operators, which pay the conservancies directly through joint ventures or concession lease arrangements.

Over 80 such conservancies have been created, covering about 16 million hectares – an area larger than all of Greece. These conservancies now earn nearly $10 million annually from tourism and hunting, making wildlife a growing component of the country’s rural economy and creating incentives for rural communities to tolerate wildlife. Elephant numbers nationwide in Namibia have tripled since 1990 and the country has Africa’s largest population of black rhinos on community lands.

Black rhino in Etosha National Park

In Kenya, a diverse range of conservancies created by ranchers and local communities are spreading rapidly, now covering over six million hectares – about 11% of the country’s surface and more than the total land area contained in Kenya’s national parks. These conservancies help communities protect and manage their lands and generate opportunities from the country’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry. For example, in the Maasai Mara, conservancies now cover an area roughly equivalent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve (about 140,000 hectares), and deliver about $3.7 million in annual lease payment to thousands of local landowners.

In northern Kenya, recent aerial surveys recorded a 12% increase in the country’s second-largest elephant population between 2012 and 2017, attributed in part to the proliferation of conservancies in that part of the country. In the Maasai Mara, lions are now found at higher densities on some of these private conservancies than in the adjacent national reserve. Private and community conservancies contain nearly all the key habitat of Grevy’s zebra and the hirola antelope, two of East Africa’s most endangered large mammals.

Conservancies help communities protect their lands and generate opportunities from the country’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

Across Kenya’s southern border in Tanzania, evidence is also growing of positive conservation impacts linked to local stewardship. Tanzania’s version of conservancies are called Wildlife Management Areas –WMAs – and 19 of these areas cover a total of about 6 million hectares around the country, often bordering national parks and other reserves. These areas have not been as successful as local conservation models in Namibia or Kenya, partly because of ambiguities in government policy regarding the level of local control, and high levels of effective taxation on community revenues earned from tourism and hunting. But even WMAs are now starting to deliver after nearly 20 years of investment.

For example, recent research provides evidence of wildlife recoveries in two WMAs adjacent to Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. The most recent paper finds that one of these WMAs “has had positive ecological outcomes in the form of higher wildlife densities and higher giraffe population growth” since it became operational.

Pride of lions

Conservancies and similar community-driven conservation areas are now at the forefront of making conservation work for people and wildlife. In both Namibia and Kenya, conservancies have more than doubled the total conservation estate beyond what is included within state protected areas. Namibia now has about 43% of its total land area under some form of conservation management, with more than half that total covered by private and communal conservancies.

While many conservationists, and leading scientists such as E.O. Wilson, are calling for countries to dramatically increase their conservation ambitions, including aiming for conservation measures on up to half of their land area, it is the growth of community-based models and action that is actually making this scaled up impact possible in Africa.

Conservancies and similar community-driven conservation areas are now at the forefront of making conservation work for people and wildlife.

Importantly, this progress is being spearheaded by a rising cadre of African conservation organizations that have the skills, local roots and determination to make conservation deliver for both people and wildlife. These include groups such as Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) in Namibia; Honeyguide and Ujamaa Community Resource Team – the latter a 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient – in Tanzania; and the Northern Rangelands Trust and Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association in Kenya.

Supporting the growth and development of these spreading community-based models, including their long-term financial sustainability, and investing in the local organizations that are facilitating them, will be a key to preserving and recovering Africa’s wildlife in the face of growing threats.