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WILDLIFE

Last year Cambridge University zoologist Dr Ian Craigie and his colleagues released a report called ‘Large mammal population declines in Africa’s protected areas’. The paper, published in Biological Conservation, analysed 78 protected areas from southern, East and West Africa and concluded that Africa’s large mammal populations had declined by 59 per cent over the past 40 years. Large primates are the big losers, as are lions, African wild dogs and cheetahs. That’s hardly news - a growing number of studies have highlighted these trends - but these figures also apply to many ungulate species we may regard as common. Wildebeest, zebra, buffalo, hartebeest, eland and giraffe - they are all there too. Moreover, as the survey excluded national parks and reserves in remote locations, as well as wilderness areas falling outside formal protection, the wider situation is likely to be far worse.

the last century, when the boundaries of parks like Kruger and Amboseli were established, ecology - the study of how living organisms relate to each other and their environment - was in its infancy. Administrators split wet and dry season ranges, and gave little thought to weather patterns and their impact on migratory movements. The fences, roads and agriculture that sprang from these decisions have had disastrous consequences for adult

“In many African states,

the environment is ranked as the least important portfolio and as a result, conservation tends to be treated with indifference and,

in some instances, outright neglect.”

mortality and the calving success of many ungulate species. Equally disastrous have been the independence struggles and protracted civil wars that have characterised much of the continent’s history. Many wilderness areas served as bases (and pantries) for armed forces,

often for decades at a time, with the true extent of wildlife losses going largely undocumented.

These declines have occurred despite the endeavours of an entire industry, comprising private sector, government and NGO groups dedicated to conservation, environmental sustainability and social justice, working to avoid precisely this scenario. The first protected areas on the continent were declared as long ago as the late 1800s, yet despite more than 100 years of (admittedly sporadic) awareness of Africa’s wilderness areas, habitat and wildlife have been lost across most regions. It is time we took a critical look at our conservation models. Are we missing something, or are they fatally flawed?

The scars of the past Protected areas, which encompass any category of land given some form of official protection, have been and remain the foundation of Africa’s conservation initiatives. However, the way in which many of them came into existence is proving central to the challenges and problems facing conservationists today. At the turn of

There have been human costs as well. The rural communities living in and around most protected areas were not consulted when they were established, and researchers suggest as many as 15 million people were directly affected by forced removals. The injustice was aggravated when traditional lifestyles were either curtailed or prohibited, and the people were generally excluded from any financial benefits accruing to the new landowners. Alienated and marginalised, communities have been left to eke out a living on the outskirts of the continent’s iconic parks and reserves. It is no wonder that hostility and apathy towards present-day conservation goals remain. Human pressures such as slash-and-burn agriculture, poaching, wood collection and overgrazing by domestic livestock, compounded by in-creasing populations, are some of the largest contributors to biodiversity loss. These, then, are the protected areas that the conservation community is desperately trying to keep intact.

Who’s in charge anyway? According to IUCN UNEP’s World

Database on Protected Areas (2011), subSaharan Africa has 11.8 per cent of its land under formal national protection, whereas North Africa has only four per cent. (Within these regions, however, there are wide disparities between countries. Botswana conserves 30.93 per cent of its land; South Africa just 6.9 per cent.) The management of these protected areas takes various forms, and where it’s a joint operation between government and private operators, NGOs often provide the link. Given the severity of the declines, it is pertinent to ask: are all custodians failing in their mandates, or are some more effective than others?

Governments, as owners of national parks, bear the ultimate responsibility. Although they can justifiably point to the conflicts they inherited as mitigating factors, their record in the post-colonial era is patchy at best. In many African states, the environment is ranked as the least important portfolio and as a result, conservation tends to be treated with indifference and, in some instances, outright neglect. Where active management is in place, it is often characterised by a pattern of extremes. The iconic protected areas, like the Masai Mara National Reserve, Ngorongoro Crater Conservation Area and Kruger National Park are given a high profile and used extensively, whereas those in remote locations receive little support. In countries such as Gabon and Angola, government leaders trumpet impressive visions, but little materialises on the ground.

These operational concerns are exacerbated by two other factors. Firstly, regulations and law enforcement systems are outdated or inadequate. The appropriate legal infrastructure is often absent, as is the will to follow the prosecutorial route to its conclusion, leaving governments unable to counter the organised crime syndicates that are currently targeting wildlife. Secondly, weak monitoring and enforcement systems provide fertile ground for corruption, a scourge that, whether manifest in outright theft or in more insidious bribery, has become a major inhibition to successful conservation.

Peter Fearnhead, the chief executive officer of the African Parks Network, believes that mitigating factors must be considered. ‘Governments have committed huge areas to the conservation of biodiversity, at

12 Number 30 December 2011

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