Conservation conundrum – animal rights, single species/attributes of interest and how to fix it

Conservation, as a sector, is in trouble.  Not from lack of funding or interested personnel to do the work or information (in general).  It’s not because of the most commonly cited problems – it’s because of the philosophy either ingrained in, or accepted by, the people working in the sector and the people injecting much needed resources into conservation.  If the philosophy of something is not sound, it will not work.  That’s our problem and we need to start accepting that, discussing it, thinking about how to change it and start applying those changes.  We need to be as adaptive as the organisms we are trying to protect.

Theory of knowledge: to understand where our knowledge comes from, why we accept some views and not others, why we should question everything and, above all, why we should be able to change our opinions when presented with evidence that conflicts with our existing opinions.

That last point is what we need more of in conservation – starting with an opinion, being shown evidence to the contrary, analysing both sides of the argument and being able to change the opinion based on the new evidence.  By evidence, of course, I mean that which has been accumulated using the scientific method, i.e. is replicable and does not prove anything but provides evidence to support one theory more than others.

Conservation started out with hunting – protect the wildlife from commoners so that it may be hunted for sport by the wealthy (origins aside) – which is not something the animal rights movement likes to admit.  That is how and why many wildlife reserves, conservation areas, etc. were set up, and remain that way today in some cases; there is nothing wrong with acknowledging that.  This approach was, for all its faults, quite effective at keeping human influence out of these areas, except that associated with hunting, and allowing the animals safe habitats in which to thrive.  This could be called a landscape-scale conservation model as it provided for conservation of habitat and all the organisms that habitat could house, regardless of their trophy value.

There was a shift from this landscape-scale conservation thinking in the mid- to late-1900’s towards a conservation philosophy that centred on a specific attribute or species.  Elephant, rhino, lions, trees and anti-poaching even.  I say aggressive because this philosophy tends to be rather extremist and conservative in that those who agree with this philosophy won’t be convinced to change their opinions even when presented with a mountain of empirical evidence supporting a different philosophy compiled by the most respected and experienced personnel on the subject matter.  We shall call this the foci conservation model.

Many blame the emergence of the foci model on George and Joy Adamson who hand-reared Elsa the lion in Kenya, released her and wrote a book about it.  Not well known about the Adamson’s is why George was removed from the Kenya wildlife service – allegedly due to him shooting wild lions because they were a threat to his hand-reared lions to whom he was very attached.  Call this iconoclastic but that’s absolutely not acceptable behaviour for a conservation hero and therefore all philosophy based on their emotional attachment to wild animals should be thrown as far out the window as possible.

The foci conservation model

Choose a focus that appeals to the general public or that they can relate to.  Cute lion cubs, elephants, gnarled old trees.  The cuter, fluffier, prettier, rarer, more endangered or more eccentric the species/attribute the better.  This is the focus of the campaign – it pulls at heart strings, brings in money and makes projects possible if they include one or more of the foci in their work.  It is argued that, in using one sexy species to raise money, it provides funding for the less attractive species; like using elephant conservation money to protect an entire area which is host to, say, 15 antelope species.  I suppose this would be called effective marketing and fund raising.  This is great for projects that incorporate those foci in their work.

Some problems with this approach

  1. This limits to funding to projects that include these foci in their work. Contrary to popular opinion, conservation and the protection of natural resources is about managing the people who exploit those resources.  Funding anti-poaching is all good and well but it only addresses a symptom (poaching) and not the root cause (poverty, demand and greed).  If you want to have an impact on conservation support rural development projects not anti-poaching projects.  Conservation donors are only now waking up to this and even still prefer to support animal-related projects because, well, they’re sexier and they don’t understand/acknowledge the real dynamics that lead to resource exploitation.
  2. It provides for projects that waste money on things that will have little conservation impact in the bigger picture. Wildlife orphanages are classic examples of this, particularly those focused on a specific species (note: this does not include rehabilitation centres that focus on healing adult wildlife).  It would be better if the funding went directly into securing the population’s habitat so no orphans would be created in the future.  This would have an actual conservation impact as opposed to rearing individual animals that may become problematic because they’ve lost their fear of humans and don’t know what their species’ behavioural norms are, and who will actually have little effect on the success or sustained presence of that species in terms of genetics and reproductive capacity anyway.
  3. It detracts from the importance of species and attributes that the general public does not deem to be special or endearing. A good example of this is the world’s obsession with trees and the “devastating effect” of late fires on trees in Africa leading to the ingrained belief that fire must either be completely excluded from a system or the system must be religiously burnt annually just after the rains to prevent late fires (something we can thank the colonial powers for).  No one thinks about the open grassy plains and how a lot of Africa’s vegetation is adapted for, and depends on, fire albeit at lower frequencies than have been experienced in the past 50 or so years.  Now we are faced with changes in soil chemistry and receptibility to seedlings, woody encroachment of once-open grassy areas which will change wildlife species composition in the area and shift grass communities towards fire-hardy but less-nutritious species all the while giving off a carbon emission footprint so large it’s difficult to comprehend.
  4. Once you are emotionally invested in an individual it’s hard to see the bigger picture and how your opinion could actually be doing more harm than good. Removing trophy hunting from Africa because people are interested in the right of an individual animal not to be shot is directly ignoring the right of all non-trophy animals in that area to live.  In addition to this, it ignores the rural communities’ right to benefit from the wildlife they live with in the way that community sees fit.  In Zambia it is a legal requirement of hunting concession holders to distribute venison from trophy animals to adjacent communities (the meat, legally, belongs to the hunting client who bought the license for the animal); safari lodges have no similar legal obligation required of on them to participate in community-related projects.  In Zambia, again, 2/3 of the government wildlife estate are hunting concessions; in a country where National Parks (1/3 government wildlife estate) are underfunded and struggling, it would make little sense to remove the only management strategy that provides a) funding the area and b) keeps the habitat intact for the day when wildlife numbers increase.
  5. People who subscribe to this philosophy generally will not change their views or management strategies when provided with evidence suggesting their model is ineffective and/or damaging. Kenya has reportedly lost up to 70% of its wildlife since the ban on hunting was imposed in the 1970s and human-wildlife conflict has apparently also increased exponentially in the same time period.  Yet IFAW and other such organisations hail it as a conservation success – even though they pretty much signed the death warrants for those 70% and local opinion of wildlife has regressed into “we [rural communities] live with it [the wildlife] but they [wealthy land owners] benefit from it at our [rural communities] cost and they [NGOs and government] think it’s a success.”  In light of such evidence, the government and NGO’s should realise that they need to rethink their wildlife management strategy to, for example, allowing venison hunting as a protein source at the very least.


The way forward

A more holistic, adaptive management approach needs to be adapted if conservation sustainability is to be achieved in Africa.  This includes incorporating the following things into conservation strategy and philosophy:

  1. Decentralized ownership of wildlife. The community who lives with the wildlife should own it, not a government who has proved time and again not to have the villagers’ best interests at heart and who take the majority of the money generated by the wildlife.  Private wildlife ownership may be another model worth incorporating, but that is essentially removing the natural heritage of the local communities who are the ones that should benefit from their
  2. Utilisation of wildlife and other natural resources, provided monitoring is place. Honey, fish, timber, forest foods, venison, all of this needs to be harvested by the local communities in order for them to place an economic value on the natural resources the West places emotional value on.  If you cannot afford to feed, house or educate your family adequately then you will not be able to afford an appreciation of nature without being able to utilise it to increase your standard of living.
  3. Demilitarization of conservation. Law enforcement and resource protection is necessary, I’m not arguing against it, but the arms race needs to stop.  Conservation is not about keeping poachers out, it’s about making sure the people don’t become poachers.  The exception of course is in conflict-torn areas such as Virunga in DRC, Chad, Sudan, etc., places like Zambia do not need a shoot-on-site policy when government-induced poverty is the rationale for sanctioning murder.
  4. Addressing the root causes of natural resource exploitation and degradation, not the symptoms. Propensity to illegally harvest timber, bush meat, honey, fish, skins, etc is a symptom of poverty.  Poaching will not stop until the people doing the poaching have no reason to poach or are not in a circumstance that would tempt them to poach.  Hiring more scouts will only increase the number of poachers apprehended which will only increase the number of households who have no bread-winner which will only increase the number of people (children) pushed into illegal activities such as poaching, theft and prostitution.
  5. Adaptive management based on scientific and social science evidence. We live in a dynamic world and nature itself is dynamic, so why would we then impose static management strategies and philosophies on conservation?  (Answer: ego).  We need to start being as adaptive and changing as the environments and animals we are working to conserve.  Annual rainfall varies so fire fuel load varies so fire management should also vary.  What works in Tanzania may not work in Zambia because we have different cultures, different governing systems, different environments, different infrastructure, different religions, etc.  One size does not fit all, one model can be adapted to fit another area but it should never be homogeneous. It’s really quite simple.
  6. Landscapes need to be the focus of attention, not individual species or areas or attributes. If you protect a landscape properly, including all of its ecosystem services and functions, you will successfully conserve every natural process and organism occurring in that landscape.  If you conserve a species, you only conserve that one species and things directly associated with it.
  7. Conservation strategy needs to be dictated by the people living next to the conservation project/area. Not by the donors on another continent who think they know best because they have a fancy degree, did some field work back in the 80s, were part of the peace corps, or any other such bollocks.  They have no idea what’s going on en situ, they don’t know the people, the pressures, the problems, the solutions; they generally only know what we tell them or what they see on tv or read in books.  So why are we letting them still dictate who, what, where, why, when and how we do conservation in Africa?
  8. Emotions need to be removed from conservation. You see lion kills on a safari and no one stops to think twice about the brutality of nature.  Death is part of what we’re conserving – the natural cycle of things – this means accepting that wildlife is a source of protein for humans, wildlife body parts (trophies, skins) are a source of income for humans, wildlife alive is a source of income for humans, trees dead and alive are a source of income for humans.  We need to stop ourselves from being pulled into the Disney scenario where a lion [Simba/rural communities adjacent to wildlife] befriends a warthog [Pumba/wildlife the community doesn’t benefit from] instead of eating it.
  9. We need to stop importing expertise from abroad to do jobs that locals can do. Why employ a foreign employee do to a job there are plenty of locals qualified to do?  Instead of giving jobs to foreigners because they’ll work for little financial compensation, we should be investing in the locals who are far better equipped to be the job in the first place and who aren’t planning on leaving anytime soon.   The reason our conservation strategies are so messed up is because of the foreign influence over conservation in Africa – so maybe we should consider reducing said influence in the work force.  This will also add to the sustainability of nature conservation in Africa when people start seeing it as a local job market and not one only open to foreign personnel. [I see how some might take this as xenophobic, it’s not.  I’m trying to address a problem I noticed with a certain NGO with high staff turnover due to their foreign employees/volunteers and how certain projects failed because they kept bringing in foreign qualified persons who couldn’t get government approval for the job instead of employing a local who’s already set up to go.  Their local image was also not healthy because of their employment strategy.]
  10. We need to stop corruption and misinformation in the government, NGO and donor sectors. Corruption is one of the biggest battles we all fight, it determines who gets a certain job, how easy it will be to make legislative changes, it even dictates whether a certain group of people will make your life hell or will work with you.  Corruption is also a major source of funding leakage, as are donor overheads and salaries.  Misinformation in the NGO-donor sector is another huge problem, NGOs will tell their donors that they’re successful when actually they’re not and donors will tell the general public that their money is going to a good cause – like their child’s private schooling costs or the fancy car they just bought.  Lying and stealing are as ingrained in the conservation NGO, government and donor sectors as breathing is in every mammal.  It needs to stop.


For such intelligent beings, us humans are allowing ourselves to be conned into an age of rights, emotions and nonsensical ideals that are not as kind and gentle as they first appear to be.  And we’re sure as hell ignoring Darwin’s theories of adaptation by continuing to implement conservation programmes with static, non-changing philosophies at their core.

It’s time to adapt.  There’s no weakness in admitting something didn’t work, unless you’re not prepared to make the necessary changes to ensure it does work in the future.



I read a bit so thought it would be a nice idea to share some of my favourite texts from which I have, hopefully correctly, absorbed proposed ideas, historical context, philosophy, science, community related diplomacy, etc.

If you have any texts to add please share the citation(s) in the comments below.

The Myth of Wild Africa: conservation without illusion.  Jonathon S. Adams & Thomas O. McShane.  1992.  University of California Press.

Against Extinction: the story of conservation.  William M. Adams.  2013. Earthscan.

Ivory, Apes & Peacocks: animals, adventure and discovery in the wild places of Africa.  Alan Root.  2012.  Vintage Books, London.

Thank you, Madagascar.  Alison Jolly.  2015.  Zed Books, London.

An African Love Story: love, life and elephants. Daphne Sheldrick.  2012.  Penguin Books.