Let others not dictate future of our unique natural heritage



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There is growing talk about ‘decolonisation of conservation’ in Africa. The swanky topic today is the place of Africa and Africans in conservation. And rightly so.

For many years, the conservation sector has depended on the images and narratives of white conservationists and the pristine nature that we watch on wildlife documentaries and blockbuster movies such as the dramatisation of Kuki Gallman’s memoir, I Dreamed of Africa, for sustenance. Our benefactors seldom see the dispossessed communities in marginalised existence on the periphery of these habitats.

But Africa is changing rapidly. And governments, donors and conservationists are taking note. It is doubtful that this extractive model can survive the political and socio-economic change that is under way. Democracy is taking root, eroding the stranglehold of pro-Western elites on political power and amplifying the voices of communities.

A new breed of conservationists has arisen and pressed the pause button on the conservation juggernaut to put people at the heart of conservation efforts: Why are we conserving wildlife and wildlands? How, where and for whose benefit? What is the place and role of the men and women who live and interact with wildlife daily?

Historical grievances are coming to the fore, and some of these relate to ancestral claims to land, as well as racism and human rights abuses. This has framed the growing disenchantment with the Western animal-centric conservation model that is preoccupied with saving animals from Africans.

Africa has the world’s youngest and fastest-growing population. In less than 6,000 days, it will have the largest labour force. Providing shelter, food, jobs and decent incomes is the continent’s most pressing challenge. What will be the fate of conserving nature?

To respond to these challenges and still achieve conservation gains, we, conservationists, must reframe the logic and the lens through which we have adjudicated and managed conservation over the years.

Without tilting at windmills, we must stop flogging the dead horse of conservation — that is, race — and stare the growing storm in the eye: Much of Africa’s wildlife and wildlands are in a crisis, threatening both nature and the natural resource base for much of the continent’s, and world’s, population.

The recently released UN biodiversity report said millions of species have become extinct in our generation. By the time you finish reading this article, the world tree cover will have fallen by more than 1,000 football pitches.

I am all for the Africanisation of conservation. I want to see more African faces and youthful voices in the sector. More African solutions and innovations to enable people to live harmoniously with wildlife. I want wildlife numbers to grow and see people in Hwange, Tsavo, Kruger, Kidepo and Selous earn a healthy livelihood from living with wildlife.

But I fear this cannot be achieved if our efforts are heavily trained on the rear-view mirror, nursing and obsessing over past injustices. Instead of spending too much energy on who has done what, who has had the power and whom to get rid of, we should be more concerned about who we should bring in to amplify our voices.

We have an opportunity to build new constituencies, businesses and alliances that work for conservation. This is our window to tap into the energy and passion of African youth, vibrancy for technological advancement and renewed hope for the continent. Let us view our prospects not through a rear view mirror but the windscreen of a new, inclusive conservation logic.

Engendering African voices in conservation does not mean excluding expertise and support from the West. African wildlife and wildlands are local resources with global appeal and it is everyone’s responsibility to sustainably protect them.

Decolonisation of conservation should entail changing the tone and substance of messaging. There cannot be true African ownership of wildlife when the messaging shows desperation, people are commoditised as tourist attractions alongside the wildlife and tourism is promoted as the principal socio-economic benefit from the wildlife ecology.

The immediate dividend from the drive to Africanise conservation is that it has blown the door off the echo chamber of exclusion that informed the conservation logic for close to seven decades. The worst mistake we can make for biodiversity is to repeat the old ones. We cannot afford to be spectators and let others dictate the future of our unique natural heritage.

Mr Tambara is the strategy and impact analysis manager, African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). [email protected]


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