Insights

Wildlife conservation in Africa, like elsewhere, is vast and complex, as many people are just starting to learn. For those of us who reside outside of the continent it can be confusing, frustrating and at times devastating. The intense scrutiny it has come under lately has exposed us to some of the challenges that must be overcome, as well as showing us we still have lots to learn.

Awareness, with regards to the status of lions and all Africa’s wildlife, has been steadily building and the call to action has never been stronger but, how do we continue to move forward and, what is it we are not seeing? Even though the movement to change the system is getting stronger it sometimes can feel like it’s one step forward and three steps back. Recent events this year have forced all us to face the demons behind wildlife conservation and by this I mean the corruption, the ties to trophy hunting, the fact that money trumps science and ethics, and, the realization that even though we want the killing to stop it doesn’t look like there is an immediate end in sight which for most, including myself, is one of the toughest pills to swallow. While I have and will always be against sport hunting I have come to understand that it is going to take a collective shift in our way of thinking about wildlife in general and a massive effort by everyone to back that shift up. This also means we will need to get a better grasp of the complexities involved in conservation in Africa by looking more closely at the way it is viewed and operates from the inside. Along with what we are already doing, this could be a useful approach that may help us better understand how to help. Of course it doesn’t mean we are always going to like what we see, or that we will necessarily always agree with the ideologies, but if it enables us to get a better handle on the underlying issues to ultimately do better for lions, for wildlife (and put a stop the the killing) then maybe it’s something we embrace rather than ignore.

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So with more questions, than answers, floating around in my head I reached out to Safari Guide, Naturalist and Zimbabwe resident Rob Janisch to obtain his insights and opinions on conservation in Zimbabwe and Africa, in a post Cecil world. There are many sentiments you will find familiar, points you may agree with and others you may strongly oppose, either way this is intended to provoke thought by demonstrating that the solutions we are searching for are more complicated than we think.

From the perspective of a resident and Safari Guide, what is the state of wildlife conservation presently like in Zimbabwe and has it changed much over the years? 

RJ Firstly, it is important to give you a bit of background to Zimbabwe.  Whilst the country has hit the headlines in the past 15 years largely as a politically unstable, unsafe and ‘unfriendly’ country, the reality on the ground is very different to the picture portrayed by the media.

Zimbabwe has had some very challenging years since 2000, and has suffered some major economic and political turns. However, as with many aspects of life in Zimbabwe, the results of many decades worth of sound management, excellent legislation, good infrastructural development, and high levels of education prior to 2000, has left the state of wildlife conservation in the country today in a much better state than it could have been given the circumstances.

So, has the state of wildlife conservation in Zimbabwe changed since the heydays in the early 1990s?  The answer is yes, unfortunately, somewhat towards the negative in much the same way as is being witnessed across other countries in Africa, often on a much bigger scale elsewhere. For example the dark cloud of corruption at all levels that is leading to what-once-were good environmental controls, governance and legislation being flouted for ‘the quick solution’ with immediate financial returns.

Having said this, Zimbabwe’s parks and wildlife estate land (protected areas managed by a state-governed authority) is still relatively well-managed on the whole, especially in areas where innovative co-management plans with independent conservation agencies have been put in place such as Gonarezhou National Park, in partnership with Frankfurt Zoological Society.

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Gonarezhou National Park – Image Frankfurt Zoological Society

The main issue facing conservation in Zimbabwe is exactly the same number one issue facing the state of conservation on the continent of Africa as a whole: widespread corruption and poor governance with respect to wildlife and ecological crime, both in the public and the private sector.  However, there is still a semblance of order, legislation and control that exists under the layer of corruption and, if ways were found to eliminate or drastically reduce the corruption it would bode well for Zimbabwe and its wildlife in the long run.

Was the news of Cecil the lions death really news considering hunters from the US have been taking lion trophies long before this story broke?

RJ Cecil’s story is an interesting one and, he was just one of the many illegal, unethical and ‘dodgy’ hunts carried out in Africa this season by the sports hunting fraternity. U.S. hunters as well as others from across the world, are involved in this sort of thing on a daily, weekly, monthly basis in many different countries all the way from the U.S. to Mozambique.

In Cecil’s case corruption and bad governance of an industry, which had allowed for an unethical hunt to be carried out in an area where such a hunt is in theory illegal, is directly to blame. Who was responsible in terms of the actual hunters both in the U.S. and in Zimbabwe is not really the issue here, despite social media’s best attempts to point fingers at Palmer or the Zimbabwe professional hunter or whoever else is villain of the month.

Unlike the trade in illegal ivory or rhino horn, the sport hunting world is not a case of demand driving supply. For example, the total number of lions that the sports hunting trade puts on quota (i.e. allowed to be hunted, whether the permit was attained legally or not) across Africa per year is not a very significant number when compared to the number of lions lost through habitat destruction due to land turned to agriculture, or the number lost to snares aimed at more appealing bush-meat (protein) source, or even the number of lions lost to diseases linked to human interference, such as domestic dogs and cattle-borne diseases.

Bottom line is the news of Cecil’s death due to an unethical sports hunt was not the real issue.  Neither was the hatred and vitriol that arose due to the ‘crime’ being committed by an American dentist.  No, the issue really doesn’t even extend just to the sports hunting fraternity although, obviously the system there does need some serious re-structuring as we are seeing in countries like Botswana and Kenya to great effect.

The issue that should be raised and shouted from the rooftops as a result of Cecil-gate, is that lions in Africa, and almost all other species within the continent, are under huge threat from the impacts and negative effects of too many people; poor education programs; not enough governance and control; and, unchecked corruption at almost every level of the ‘protected areas’ authority in Africa – an authority that also happens to include the sports hunting trade as one of its constituents.

The death of Cecil seemed to be a wake up call for many people around the world, in terms of local reaction was it business as usual?

I think locally it might have actually had an opposite effect, I think people in Africa were perplexed that so much energy and noise was created in the naming and shaming of the dentist for his role in the Cecil killing with little regard for the bigger conservation picture that a story like this could have helped focus our collective lenses on.  In Africa, we don’t get to see mass consciousness at work that often, like we saw with the social and mainstream media response to Cecil.  It’s a pity that this mass-energy could not have unlocked the message that really did need to get out.  Instead of the ‘hang the lion killer from our own backyard’ response, I guess we were hoping more for a headline that read “Cecil’s death is just the beginning of a universal movement towards better understanding of and, action against conservation issues across Africa”. Business as usual will continue with respect of wildlife crime and ecological degradation in Africa as well as across the world, as long as the world is not actively aware of it and, vehemently and incorruptibly against it.

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Cecil and his pride in Hwange National Park in November 2012 – Image The Telegraph

What do you see as some of the key issues facing wildlife in reserves/parks in Zimbabwe and Africa?

RJ Some of the key issues facing wildlife in Zimbabwe and other areas of Africa are mostly not very new or different from those we have seen in the past. This includes the massive slaughter and trade in both wildlife parts of species alive or dead, unchecked bush fires, over-fishing and illegal logging. The weather, in the form of climate change, is another factor damaging ecosystems across Africa, and off its shores, in the form of unscheduled periods of drought, floods and rising temperatures.  Areas we used to know as very wet are now semi-arid, and many of the exquisite coral reefs off Africa’s east coast are showing signs of ‘over-heating’ due to higher sea temperatures. The human species, who gives very little back to the planet we rely on for our entire existence, has a hand in contributing  to all of the above by way of our ever growing population. I will refer to a few examples of this:

  • Early on the demand for Ivory and rhino horn in China and SE Asia was still high, but not at the levels it is now with more people ascending to the middle class wanting items of status such as ivory in their homes.
  • In the 1800s and early 1900s when European hunters traipsed through Africa killing anything that moved but, we were still only talking about a couple of hundred people, at most, with basic muzzle-loaded weapons leading the sharp-end of the species slaughter wedge.
  • Rising populations later meant a need for more meat for protein to feed everyone, more space required for agriculture to grow crops, more water required, more fires, more fishing, more mining, more of everything that directly affects wildlife conservation in the continent.
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A government official picks up an ivory tusk to crush it at a confiscated ivory destruction ceremony in Beijing, China, May 29, 2015. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

  • Before a reserve like Hwange, Cecil’s home ground, was first set aside and protected not 100 years ago, there were very few people living in the immediate area and so wildlife was free to move from neighboring Botswana to the waterways of the Zambezi during the dry season, pretty much as they pleased.  Huge herds of elephants for example made the migratory journey of several hundreds of miles every year to find water and food which helped to reduce the impact the huge populations had in the region.
  • Interestingly, as human population grew around the area in the first half of the 20th Century, the Hwange reserve was proclaimed and the wardens went with a system of artificial water wells to try to entice the animals, especially the elephants, to stay in the reserve. This was done to encourage the elephants not to wander out towards the Zambezi looking for water or to graze and risk being killed or bumping into the ever-expanding communities of people and their crops nearby. In time, all the animals, including thousands of elephants, made the reserve their home but, over 50 to 60 years we have seen massive devastation of vegetation around these artificial water points due to an overpopulation of mega-herbivores. Basically one area is having to cope with the density and impacts that was previously spread over an area four or five times the size.
  • As communities grew, reserves and parks were now having to be set aside to keep wild animals safe from humans complete with the myriad of challenges that this creates in itself like access to water, anti-poaching, fire, etc…Any of those ‘protected’ animals who wandered out of the park boundaries faced the risk of either being illegally poached for meat and the likelihood of bumping into a ‘legitimate’ sports hunter who wanted a trophy.

So it is a double-edged sword all borne from the fact that there are too many people and not enough wild spaces to cope with them all. Ironically, these same communities surrounding the national parks and reserves like Hwange, were subsequently given hunting quotas, to benefit from (mostly), as part of an innovative natural resource management program named CAMPFIRE. Unfortunately it was the unethical trading of such quotas that resulted in the unlikely scenario that a lion could be hunted where it was when Dr. Palmer arranged his hunt earlier in the year.

Tourism has been proven to bring in more money than trophy hunting, however there are many organizations and individuals that still support it as a means of managing land and helping local communities. Why do you think this is still the case?

RJ Sports/trophy hunting is an incredible tool for managing large areas of land that are not as appealing or attractive to tourism… IF it is carried out ethically and under strict management and monitoring. An example of this is in one of the bigger conservancies in south-central Zimbabwe which has one of the highest wildlife densities, including rare and endangered animals such as rhino and sable, in Africa.  The area is operated by a handful of professional hunters with decades of experience and who seem to have a sound conservation and land management ethic.  Due to its high wildlife numbers, such an area could also be used for non-hunting (photographic) tourism. However this is generally the exception to the rule.

Most hunting blocks are large areas of mostly low-density wildlife and, if hunting were to stop on these (by legislation, public pressure, low demand), it is doubtful the areas would be suitable as tourism areas as, access to pretty scenery and good relaxed wildlife is essential for the latter.

There are good examples of former hunting areas turned to tourism and eventually paying for themselves and doing a great job at creating a sustainable conservation management system such as Great Plains’ Selinda Concession in northern Botswana, and Lugenda Wilderness in northern Mozambique but again, these are sadly the exceptions as they require massive investment and a long time frame before the tourism is able to cover the operating costs of the block.

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Just encouraging more and more people to travel for photos, not hunting trophies, to Africa is not going to cut it sadly. There needs to be a healthy, long-term and significant investment in the land if it is to be transferred from hunting to tourism, AND THEN the need for a higher demand in tourists traveling to these places.

As an example, Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe itself does not receive enough tourists annually to fill all its tourism camps, let alone raise enough money, as a national park body, to support the ongoing operations within the park.  So the neighboring hunting blocks (like the one Cecil was hunted on) are never going to be able to attract the tourism required or raise the funds necessary to manage these areas as tourism conservation areas without hunting currently. Until that time the funds and governance are in place to move more hunting blocks away from hunting and towards tourism, sports hunting – if well-managed, controlled and ethically conducted – is one of the better options still available to manage these blocks.

So the focus should not be on removing all hunting, but rather on cutting out all corruption and bad-ethics from the industry to promote a cleaner, fairer, more sustainable system where special animals, like the large tusked old elephant bull recently shot in southern Zimbabwe by a German sports hunter, and other species like Lions or black rhino for example, can be awarded specially protected species status and not be able to be hunted.

The theory behind cleaning up and making the sports hunting industry more sustainable with better conservation practices is not as difficult as it seems.  Certainly not as difficult as the thought of stopping or removing hunting all together and then watching as these large tracts of wild land are invaded by people for farming, tree cutting, burning, poaching of wild animals that are then replaced with domestic ones, etc… If there was enough money and demand, I would be all in favor of turning all these areas to tourism or just plain conservation areas, but that simply is not viable or possible at this stage.

Predators like lions have proven benefits to ecosystems so losing them can have major consequences ecologically speaking. How do Safari guides like yourself engage and educate people about the value of protecting wildlife like Lions?

RJ You’re so right about lions – they are a keystone species in the ecosystem that hold significance if removed, would have major and devastating impacts on the rest of the ecosystem.  The same can be said of most of the apex predators such as sharks, lions, tigers, jaguars, hyenas and polar bears. As a guide and naturalist, the issue of engaging people and educating them about the importance and value of protecting Lions, and other wildlife, has to be a 3-pronged approach.

Firstly, we have to engage with the people on the ground, the communities, those most likely to come into contact with lions as well as other wildlife, in conflict and in fear.  They need to be educated on the importance of lions in the greater system, secondly we need to engage with the people of influence in the world – tourists, hunters, anyone who is able to use their money to influence lion conservation for the greater good. The key here is tourists who take guided safaris with me whose visit to see the lions, and to take photos of them, will fund the ongoing protection of the land and species themselves.

Finally we have to engage with the local authorities which include the government, and parks bodies, and chiefs and all who have influence over decision-making regarding land use, management of wild lands and wildlife.

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What do you think guides and tour companies based in Africa can do better to support wildlife and help local communities who are directly linked to the survival of the animals?

RJ Educate. Educate.  Educate.  It’s the old adage: give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day.  TEACH a man to fish sustainability, and in line with the planetary limits, and to reduce the number of mouths to feed in his family through careful family planning, and his kids’ kids will eat forever. Also, they need to lobby more as a unified group against the corruption and bad governance at the higher authority level. After all, it is taxes and revenue from these tourism streams that is paying those same authorities’ salaries.

What organizations in Africa stand out to you as helping by encouraging local communities to co-exist with wildlife?

RJ There are a couple here, but the best community-based conservation project I have come across in all my travels across Africa is the Niassa Lion Project or Mariri Education Centre in Niassa Reserve, northern Mozambique.  The Kenyan conservancy approach is a brilliant and proved method of combing indigenous practices, socio-economic support and wildlife conservation.  Great Plains Conservation have a very interesting model and one that seems to be getting good results, especially in Botswana.  Finally, African Parks and its various partners such as WCS and Frankfurt Zoological Society, are doing a brilliant job at bringing back wild places and trying to conserve those few remaining biological hot spots.

The face of tourism, along with Africa is likely to change in the coming decades, how do you see your role as a guide changing?

RJ I already have seen it change in the past 15 years as the world moves along at an exponentially rapid pace. Social media and the internet has driven this into a new realm. Safari camps and lodges must look at, and in many cases are, changing their approach from one of high profit business for the benefit of the principals of that particular business, to a conservation tourism model that sees any and all funds raised through tourism or donations being put back into conservation projects and initiatives.

So too, the safari guides of today are not just “jeep jockeys” showing folks from overseas local wildlife to get photos, and hopefully a good tip at the end. No, the safari guide of today is the ambassador, a role model, who can influence and inspire. Often guides are also the conservators themselves, as in the Kenyan conservancy model, within the world of wildlife conservation.

I already see more of guides these days presenting talks to influential audiences across the globe on important conservation topics – not simply to attract people to travel with us, but because I think we realize that we have to be a major part of the conservation revolution that seeks motivation, funds and support to protect and conserve all wild places, for without these places there will be no “we” to worry about.

What are your personal recommendations to help first time or return visitors to Africa get the most out of their trip while still contributing in a good way?

RJ This question is a little like the topical “green” question.  Sure you can use local guides, places, products and travel less to countries that have unethical conservation practices and corruption, however, if we are to make a REAL difference in wildlife conservation ultimately we have to somehow be part of the greater movement that attacks the root causes of the problem and not just fights the symptoms with seemingly quick and easy wins.

If that visitor is planning a safari to Africa – book with someone who will at least expose you to the realities of conservation in Africa, amazing and tragic. Make sure you visit innovative projects and operations that are trying to address the bigger picture and not just ‘green-washing’ with a few Facebook posts and empty promises.  Most of all, expose and inspire your kids and young people to the natural world as it should be, not as it is heading.

What do you hope for the future of wildlife in Zimbabwe and the rest of Africa?

RJ That it survives… seriously.  But also that people might soon discover, on mass, that they are not the top-dog in a human centric hierarchy in Nature, but are in fact a rather fragile primate that is hanging out on a very wobbly branch in the greater tree of life. Only then will wildlife anywhere be able to continue along its way up the branches of the same tree of life.

As a father what values are you trying to instill in your children for wildlife and places?

RJ If my little girls are a) exposed to wonderful wild places and things, b) brought up to care for, respect and be passionate about them, c) understand the bigger picture of the genius of Nature with her cycles, life lessons and inspiration, and, d) able to inspire others around them to have the same passion and care for their planet… then I will feel we’ve done a good job at instilling conservation and planet-friendly values in them.

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Any Final thoughts on lions or other wildlife that you would like to address?

RJ I think what is critical with all these sorts of things is to not focus on individual species like Lions or rhinos, or individual conservation cases only like Cecil.  We will never get anywhere like this. Activism demands a holistic approach to exposing the masses and the authorities to the issues at hand.  I think it is key for us all to realize that the concept of cause and effect is huge here, like a small butterfly wing flutter that can have huge ripple effects down the activism chain.

As such, I really would encourage anyone who cares deeply for the planet to think carefully before diving into this or that petition, social media frenzy or similar response to any one conservation issue. Fundamentalism has yet to work as a system. Tipping mass consciousness is what is required, and this requires lots of hands involved in the bigger picture – reducing human impact on the environment through cutting back on our population and the methods we employ to live on this planet.

The current models we use will not see us surviving much beyond the Lions and elephants on this planet, we all need to change our ways. That is more important than chasing down oddball dentists from Minnesota.

A huge thank you to Rob Janisch for contributing to this piece and sharing his insight and thoughts on wildlife conservation in Africa. Rob is a specialist nature guide, a co-trainer with biomimicrySA and he operates private guided Safaris in Africa, Into the Wild with Rob Janisch. Rob can be contacted directly at www.robjanisch.com.

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