Community wildlife conservation does not always benefit everyone

Community wildlife conservation is often promoted as a win-win solution. The idea behind this approach is that people who live near wildlife can participate in its protection and have a stake in doing so.

The result is that wildlife is protected (a win for global biodiversity) and local people benefit from conservation through tourism revenue, jobs, or new infrastructure like schools, clinics, and water supplies. .

However, the reality of community wildlife conservation is sometimes less straightforward, as the Kenyan experience shows.

Kenya is home to spectacular natural, scenic and cultural resources that boost the safari tourism industry. This attracts millions of visitors and billions of US dollars to the country every year. However, tourist attractions in Kenya face significant threats.

These include climate change, illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss due to deforestation, and human-wildlife conflict. To address some of these risks, community conservatories have been established across the country.


community conservation

Community conservancies are protected wildlife areas established on land owned or occupied by the community. They form an important part of the wildlife protection landscape in Kenya, with implications for thousands of people.

There are currently 76 such spaces, covering tens of thousands of square kilometers. They date back to the 1980s, but have accelerated in number and extent over the past 20 years.

In northern Kenya, characterized by vast grasslands, most conservation areas are supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust. It is a national NGO funded by global donors and international conservation agencies.

It is difficult to establish how much funding goes to community conservatories. However, in 2020, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Association, an umbrella body, reported that the country’s reserves incur some US$25 million in annual operating costs. This is funded mainly by donors and, to some extent, by the government.

In more than 30 years of anthropological fieldwork in the Samburu communities of northern Kenya, I have noticed that community conservation is growing in popularity, but there is little evidence of its workings or effects. I conducted a study to explore the subject further. This research resulted in a book, which outlines the impact of conservatories on cooperation and conflict in communities.

The amount of wildlife in Kenya is declining, but more wildlife is found on conservation land than in unprotected areas. While promising, my research found that reserves increased human-wildlife conflict, with communities bearing the brunt of wildlife loss and injury.

Moreover, the economic benefits of community conservatories for members were minimal.

The Roots of Community Conservation

Community conservation is rooted in the understanding that the “fortress” model of conservation, which is the creation of parks and reserves that exclude all human use, is unsustainable. Wild animals need vast landscapes to thrive. They cannot be contained within park boundaries.

Similarly, when local people are excluded from parks, they are denied access to the resources they need to survive. Treating people as less important than wildlife makes them less likely to protect wildlife.

This is especially true in a place like northern Kenya, where cattle herding societies like the Samburu have lived in close proximity to wildlife for centuries.

Understanding that the success of conservation depends on the participation of local people in its success has led Kenya to involve communities directly in conservation activities. In this approach, the community sets aside a portion of their land for conservation activities in exchange for the anticipated benefits that will accrue from conservation.

In the case of Samburu, communities have set aside around 10-25% of their land for wildlife and, in some cases, for tourism infrastructure. These reserves are managed by paid staff overseen by boards made up of community members and supported by conservation NGOs.

Livestock grazing is prohibited or severely restricted on these lands.

Community conservation creates boundaries, which are patrolled by wildlife scouts who are often armed. Although their stated role is wildlife protection, these rangers are tasked with protecting pastures from outsiders and livestock from theft.

heightened tensions

My research involved spending a year in various conservation areas in Samburu. I watched the conservancies work and talked to the members about what they thought of them. Carrying out surveys to measure the costs and benefits incurred.

The study revealed a number of impacts of conservancies on local communities that mainly have to do with security and funding.

I discovered that the reservations actually increased the tensions between the Samburu communities. Creating land use zones and restricting grazing requires maintaining boundaries and prohibiting access to non-members. This goes against Samburu rules which allow cattle access to pasture, especially during dry seasons and droughts. Conservationists, on the other hand, see grazing enforcement as a benefit.

Several times during my research, I have heard people refer to their Samburu neighbors outside the reservation boundaries as “outsiders” or “invaders” who need to be kept away. Conservation areas are like islands around which pastoralists must navigate to find pasture. As long as they landed on these islands, conflict often ensued.

In addition, the amount of funds channeled to conservatories by donor organizations was relatively large compared to other sources of support. Conservatories that have tourist facilities also derive revenue from hotel contracts, overnight fees and curatorial fees.

Members perceived that there was a lot of money flowing into the reserves, controlled by the boards and staff. They reported minimal economic benefits to themselves, mostly in the form of student tuition and sometimes an annual dividend. This fueled suspicion among members that the money was being misappropriated by conservation boards and staff.

Suspicions of embezzlement have led to bitter disputes within the community over leadership, demands for greater public accountability and legal action.

These unintended consequences of community conservation call for more effective models. Conservation that places less emphasis on who can and cannot use a piece of land, and that improves accountability, could lead to better outcomes for people and wildlife.

The path to follow

The intentions behind community conservation are laudable. Its aim is to correct past failures, including the isolation of wildlife in parks and the exclusion of people from important survival resources.

However, this approach comes with its own set of challenges. There is a risk that if members do not receive the kind of benefits they have been promised, their support for conservation could wane, undermining the approach.

Greater member participation and accountability for funding and its uses would build trust and ownership among members.

This article was written by Carolyn K. Lesorogol, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Articles in English

Leave a Comment