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Protecting African wildlife: A defense of conservation territories (commentary)

West African giraffe herd. Image courtesy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

  • W National Park, so named for its shape, spans Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso, and has been called a ‘paper park.’
  • Along with the adjacent Pendjari National Park, it represents one of the last best refuges for wildlife in western Africa.
  • African Parks Network recently announced it would formally take over the management of the Benin side of W. To succeed, it must learn from the past and consider deploying fences and fines.
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

African Parks Network (APN) recently announced it would formally take over the management of the Benin side of W National Park, which comprises a major portion of the largest intact ecosystem in West Africa.

Such transfers are often criticized as de facto privatization by critics of territorial conservation strategies but I have seen first hand the benefits that professional managers can bring and the damage caused by negligent or under-funded public agencies. The most important question remains: will wildlife be protected and will local people be able to pursue their livelihoods at the same time?

W National Park, which spans Benin, Niger, and Burkina Faso, was once a “paper park” that had essentially been abandoned by the conservation community. Yet now it, along with the adjacent Pendjari National Park, represents one of the last hopes for wildlife in western Africa.

Nearly 20 years ago, I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in a community adjacent to W National Park  and was fortunate enough to work closely with the ECOPAS Project, which played a major role in getting the protected area back on its feet from 2001 to 2008.

One of its major initiatives was to establish a buffer zone for sustainable resource use by local communities along the boundary of the park.  During my two years of service, I worked closely with the farmers and livestock herdsmen in the zone and felt a great deal of optimism that I was seeing a “win-win” for parks and people. But it was not to be, as the European Union-funded project ended and its buffer zone management dissipated or disappeared altogether.

Fast forward 18 years and APN is essentially trying to pick up where ECOPAS left off.  The park buffer zone has been all but forgotten in many places as agriculture – the most destructive form of land use for biodiversity – has expanded right up to the park boundary. Once hoped-for tourism has failed to materialize as my recent trip to a now dilapidated elephant viewing station revealed.

Elephants inside the park. Image courtesy of W National Park.

Creating yet another buffer zone would likely lead to the same outcome given that local people and Benin’s economy remain dependent on agriculture and especially cotton, which contributes 40% to the country’s gross domestic product.  To the chagrin of conservation critics, the only strategy that seems to have worked for W National Park is old-school enforcement of its boundaries.

As someone who cares about and tries to work towards both conservation and rural development goals in Africa, I have been frustrated by critics who remain overly dismissive of the necessary role that protected areas play in the preservation of Africa’s imperiled species. Such territories require some level of security and, yes, surveillance in order to serve their purpose.

One tragic example, the Boucle du Baoule National Park in Mali is a vast, intact stretch of woody savanna that is almost entirely devoid of wildlife due to the history of rampant poaching in the area; not by local people but well-armed and organized groups coming from afar.

This is not a unique story. When I recently asked a former park director in the Central African Republic how many of his rangers had been killed by poachers, he grew visibly upset and angry that I wished to discuss the matter. The answer was 25 people.

They were not killed by locals – who comprised the bulk of the anti-poaching brigade and retained the right to hunt – but heavily armed hunting parties supplying the ivory market in Khartoum, which has served world markets for over a century.

The Central African Republic is another story of disappearing wildlife but the country also illustrates the problematic past and present of African conservation. Parks are the vestiges of a violent colonial era in the region and park rangers still behave badly.

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: African Leadership University’s Fred Swaniker discusses conservation as an economic growth opportunity for Africa:

This does not, however, delegitimize protected areas, but instead reveals the need to remain vigilant about their management and accountability to local people.

Conservationists struggle to provide social benefits across sub-Saharan Africa. Organizations such as African Parks Network and the Wildlife Conservation Society should therefore rethink conventional approaches to community engagement as they invest in moribund reserves in Central Africa as a well-justified means to protect biodiversity.

In Chad, poaching caused the sizable elephant population in Zakouma National Park to drop by 90 percent during the 2000s but a concerted management effort by APN has led to an astonishing recovery.

One gets a visceral sense of the price paid when looking at the portraits in the park’s field headquarters of rangers killed in the line of duty. On the other hand, cattle breeders and others living just outside of Zakouma struggle, as they do outside of W Park, to access the natural resources they need. This is the crux challenge for conservation across sub-Saharan Africa but especially in places like Chad, where the boundaries of once forgotten parks are being revived.

Africa Parks’ announcement about W National Park describes the same “win-win” scenario that I had hoped to see in the early 2000s. It even discusses the same activities – notably, beekeeping – that were deployed to support local livelihoods back then.

They need to succeed. If that means deploying “fences and fines” so be it, but it will clearly require some fresh thinking about the people living around the park. Why didn’t it work the first time?

See related: For the world’s rarest gorillas, a troubled sanctuary on the Nigeria-Cameroon border

West African giraffe herd. Image courtesy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

In 2019, I returned to a village on W Park’s boundary for the first time in 13 years, and people there told me they knew nothing about the buffer zone where, on paper, their homes and fields were located. Local authorities told me the buffer zone was part of the park, not territory they were responsible for.

The forgotten W Park buffer zone, with all its legal, territorial, and even moral ambiguities, reflects how not to achieve buy-in from people – the locals – in whose hands “win-win” conservation scenarios ultimately lie.

And therein lies the fatal problem that Africa Parks must address if it is to avoid the fate of ECOPAS.

Leif Brottem is Assistant Professor of Global Development Studies, Grinnell College (Iowa, USA).  He currently conducts academic field research on resource use outside of Park W in Benin and Niger and Zakouma National Park in Chad. 

Banner image: West African giraffe herd. Image courtesy of Giraffe Conservation Foundation.

View all of Mongabay’s coverage of conservation issues in Africa here.


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