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Innovative idea: wildlife income may help people withstand drought in Africa

Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.
Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe.

Getting local people to become invested in wildlife conservation is not always easy, especially in parts of the world where protected areas are seen as taking away natural resources from local communities. This tension lies around Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, where a growing population of livestock herders competes with wildlife. Enter: wildlife conservation payments, in exchange for foregoing poaching and supporting the parks, locals communities are paid either in direct funds or development funds. Now a first-of-its-kind study in’s open access journal Tropical Conservation Science examines whether or not “wildlife income” could help local communities survive in times of drought.

“Wildlife benefits can be a more stable source of income than agriculture,” the researchers write in the paper. “In many of the arid and semi-arid environments, rural farmers’ production activities are characterized by uncertainty due to unpredictable climatic conditions. Under such conditions wildlife utilization becomes a highly competitive form of land use and could diversify and consequently reduce drought risk.”

Using computer modeling of Gonarezhou National Park and surrounding areas the researchers found that, indeed, direct income from conservation of wildlife income “has the potential to compensate for some of the losses in expected income from livestock during droughts.” Yet, the situation changes in regions with highly-fluctuating rainfall, here irrigated agriculture would be a better form of land-use economically than wildlife protection.

“Possible reasons for this include high costs of exploiting the wildlife resource, and the small fraction of wildlife revenues received by households and communities,” the researchers write. Locals stood to gain little individually from wildlife payments, however since the income was assured it was better at providing an economic cushion, even if small, against drought impacts.

The scientists also looked at sustainable sizes of livestock and people in Zimbabwe’s southeastern low veld. According to their modeling, livestock populations are currently five times above the sustainable number, while the human population in the region is eight times above sustainability.

“The current human population and livestock densities are far above current sustainable levels,” the scientists write, adding that “our results therefore suggest that current and future efforts to conserve biodiversity are doomed to fail if no efforts are made to decongest areas surrounding parks with high densities of human and herbivore populations, and to let local households earn more revenues from wildlife.”

CITATION: Poshiwa, X., Groeneveld, R.A., Heitkönig, I.M.A., Prins H.H.T., and van Ierland, E. C. 2013. Wildlife as insurance against rainfall fluctuations in a semi-arid savanna setting of southeastern Zimbabwe. Tropical Conservation Science Vol. 6(1):108-125.

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