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Conservation works if nature’s owners are compensated

An ingenious land-lease system is working wonders for conservation in Kenya and there is no reason why similar arrangements can not work in other African countries. It only requires a committed organisation to run the administration of such a scheme, and to serve as a reliable conduit between donors and the owners of the land.
This week the African Wildlife Foundation announced it is on track to sign more than 700 new land leases with landowners in southern Kenya to protect more than 7,000 acres of land for wildlife in the Amboseli ecosystem. The foundation said it launched the land lease programme more than five years ago to ensure that both wildlife and people benefit from conservation.
The concept is relatively simple: Compensate the indigenous population for any loss of income as a result of formal conservation, and they turn out to be more than willing to support the scheme.
Locally we have made many strides in promoting a new conservation paradigm that attains the same objective. Under the old, dare I say colonial concept of conservation, specific areas were allocated for conservation with a huge fence separating wildlife and human communities. Nobody was allowed to live inside the protected areas, especially if these achieved the dubious classification of National Park. Inside a park was holy ground and only the well-heeled and the political influential enjoyed the privilege of entrance.
In Namibia, this outdated concept changed dramatically after Independence. I think what drove the new view initially was the common sense observation that humans and animals have co-existed in Africa for millennia before the white man arrived. In other words, the most drastic impact on the environment followed in the wake of the enlightenment. And one does not need a survey or a review of history to plot the changes that swept over the continent, as European culture entered and dominated one territory after another.
What eventually remained as conservation areas under the old paradigm, were usually the last remnants or pockets of wildlife, and in most cases not entirely unaffected by the broader changes that covered the landscape. Putting it bluntly, rezoning certain areas as national parks and conservation zones happened only after the wildlife has reached such a critical stage of depletion that only the most severe forms of conservation were able to protect what was left.
In Namibia this situation was exacerbated by the liberation struggle which turned the northern borders of the country into a war zone for the better part of twenty years. During this time, the South African Defence Force was the law of the land, and the excesses perpetrated under many of its senior officers decimating the elephant, rhino and predator populations, are well documented. True, the SA Defence Force also protected some wildlife areas but this was not official. It usually depended on the goodwill and responsible approach of specific individuals, many of whom viewed themselves as conservation pioneers.
But beginning with the success of protecting the resident black rhino population in what today is the Kunene Region, the organisations that took conservation seriously demonstrated convincingly that the only way to stop poaching, is to make the indigenous residents, the custodians of such animals. For this to work and to enjoy the support of local communities, it meant they had to be compensated for their efforts and they had to share in the commercial benefit derived from protecting the rhinos. Hence tourism, in all its forms, became an enormously important component of ensuring the long-term survival of our wildlife.
I think there are very few thinking people who will not admit that our model of integrated conservation works much better than the previous one of big fence, people this side, animals that side, and God help you if we catch you inside the conservation area. There was no ownership and consequently, no appreciation for the need to conserve.
What I like most about the African Wildlife Foundation’s approach in Kenya is the fact that it holds a possible solution for our and our neighbour’s intention to create the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, or the so-called KAZA park.
Although the notion is grand I have previously pointed out that it will not work unless land ownership and utilisation are taken seriously and compensation forms a very definite element of the package.
I still think some minds behind the KAZA concept suffer to a lesser extent from the old paradigm but I love the idea for its promotion of conservation principles. Ultimately I am a wildlife freak but I am also a realist. If we can get the powers to be to include a land-lease programme in their funding, then I think KAZA will eventually get the support it lacks on grassroots level.

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