Tourism and conservation in Africa

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Graeme Green speaks with local experts about why wildlife protection must not just rely on international visitors and foreign professionals. It must be sustainable and local.


Tourists and photographers at the Mara river watching wildebeest migrate, Maasai Mara National Reserve, Kenya. ERIC BACCEGA/ALAMY

Africa has suffered a lot from the Covid-19 crisis, especially the national parks, reserves and wildlife areas. There is no tourism, jobs have gone. Poverty has increased. More people are killing animals illegally because they need the food, or the money. And there is less money for very important conservation work. It was a shock to see how much tourism supports conservation.

Around the world, there are 21.8 million jobs in wildlife tourism. Before the crisis, it contributed $29.3 billion a year to the African economy. Gorilla tourism in Uganda earns about $34.3 million and brings in 60 per cent of the money of Uganda Wildlife Authority. But Africa had 99 per cent less visitors last summer.

Ebola outbreaks, terrorist attacks, conflicts and the global financial crisis had all also stopped people travelling before, so jobs in tourism were not stable before Covid-19. But now, change is more urgent.

For years, many wildlife charities have paid local people to do conservation work, from planting trees to monitoring wildlife. But this needs a lot of money from outside.

People need jobs that are more sustainable. In Uganda’s gorilla areas, CTPH (Conservation Through Public Health) started Gorilla Conservation Coffee, a social enterprise where farmers get higher prices for coffee. Money from the coffee supports communities and conservation work. Now they’re selling it in the US, Europe, New Zealand and South Africa, so even in the pandemic, people can earn money.

They now have beehives in Kenya, Tanzania and other countries. This is to stop elephants coming into villages, and to provide food and create jobs producing and selling honey. They do the same with chillies – the elephants stay away, and they get food and money.

From Indonesia to Peru, conservationists are helping to develop sustainable agriculture in wildlife areas. Small businesses, not just food but textiles, jewellery, clothing and soap, for example, can create sustainable incomes and cut the need to kills wildlife illegally or destroy natural resources. But it’s difficult now to earn as much as from international tourism in wildlife areas.


There’s another more basic question about relying on international tourism and creating big areas mainly for foreign travellers. Kenyans now see wildlife as something only for tourists. But the national parks are also very good as outdoor classrooms, and places to relax or earn money.

Tourism is an economic activity. Wildlife is not just tourism – it’s a basic right. Kenyans don’t even have the basic right to go and enjoy the wildlife. It is very expensive because the wildlife parks were planned to get money.

Also, people don’t think it’s their problem if there’s a threat to wildlife. Local people don’t feel part of the national parks, and this has a long history. When many African national parks opened, local people were forced to leave the area, for example the San people from Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana and the Makuleke from Kruger in South Africa in the 1960s. Local people are still suffering from effects of colonialism. People lost access to water and land. It seems that people are not part of the natural environment. There’s a lot of injustice, so many Kenyans are not interested in conservation.

In films and on TV, white people usually do the conservation: white vets and scientists and black local people killing animals illegally. They do not often tell black stories. People are not interested. So they need to change this image. It is not someone from England or America or Belgium who will decide the future of Africa’s wildlife, but African leaders.


Bee keepers in Vanga, near Mombasa, Kenya. This helps earn money and keeps elephants away. JOERG BOETHLING/ALAM


There are international charities and Western conservationists who work very hard to help protect threatened wildlife and habitats, but almost all NGOs now know that they will fail if they don’t include local people. There are still some conservation areas like military forts, with fences, dogs and guns. But many people see that it is more likely to have long-term success if they create safe spaces for animals without forcing local people to leave.

Local people need to be help make decisions, not just do the hard work to make outsiders' plans work. And they need to share the benefits. People have been getting very rich from tourism. But they need to share this money with local people for conservation to be successful.

Tourism is a good example of wealth inequality. In Africa, travellers can spend $2,000 a night in a lodge in places where some local people can’t afford to eat. The killing of Rafiki, a silverback gorilla in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, shocked the world in 2020. The poacher who killed Rafiki was very poor. He needed to eat and would have sold some of the meat. We need to solve the problem of hunger.

Africa has its own inequality, too. The three richest billionaires in Africa have more money than the poorest 50 per cent of the population, about 650 million people. This is because of land distribution, lack of opportunity and education, corruption and tax avoidance. Getting local people to protect wildlife in these bad, unfair circumstances is always likely to be difficult.


A Maasai man at a tourist lodge, Kenya. Maasai people are becoming participants in the tourist economy on their community-managed lands. TON KOENE/ALAMY.


One good idea now in Africa is creating ‘conservancies’ (community-managed areas where land-owners, often Maasai, lease their land for the use of tourism). Community associations are often very important in making decisions. It’s difficult to balance this, but it protects the wildlife and the Maasai can still raise their cattle. Local people benefit, and tourism and conservation provide additional jobs.

Conservancies have suffered from less tourism, but the Maasai can still earn money from cattle, so the effect is not so serious as in other places.

We need more ideas like this in future. Everyone needs to work together: international organizations, local NGOs, politicians and communities. We need the biggest change in leaders. At African wildlife conferences, there are only one or two Africans.

If African leaders and local NGOs manage the conservation in Africa (and Asian leaders in Asia, and Latin American leaders in Latin America…) there will be better understanding and communication, and more trust. The big international NGOs should support local ideas, not do all the work.

Graeme Green is a wildlife photographer, journalist and founder of the New Big 5 Project, an international wildlife conservation initiative.


(This article is in easier English so it is possible that we changed the words, the text structure, and the quotes.)