- Worldwide concern about injustice and inequity, the impacts of the pandemic, and the worsening effects of global environmental degradation has accelerated change in the conservation sector, a field that has historically been relatively slow to evolve.
- But for the shifts underway to be more than just a passing fad, many would argue that conservation requires fundamental structural changes that put more decision-making power in the hands of people who’ve been traditionally sidelined or ignored and recognize the importance of contributions from a wide range of stakeholders in achieving conservation outcomes.
- African People & Wildlife, a Tanzania-based NGO, has been working on these issues since its founding in 2005 by Laly Lichtenfeld and Charles Trout. Lichtenfeld says that conservation now must take “concrete action” to move forward.
- “Currently, there are big questions out there as to whether organizations and the global conservation culture will truly change or whether things will revert to the status quo,” she told Mongabay during a recent interview. “If the much-needed challenge is really taken on, well then again, we have a lot of work ahead on this—particularly in terms of scrutinizing who is in the room when conservation decisions are made, understanding and overcoming the power dynamics at play, and considering how we can better communicate with and listen to one another.”
The past 18 months have been a time of upheaval around the world, prompting a wide range of companies, institutions, and organizations to re-evaluate how they operate. The conservation sector has been no exception: Worldwide concern about injustice and inequity, the impacts of the pandemic, and the worsening effects of global environmental degradation has accelerated change in a field that has historically been relatively slow to evolve.
But for the shifts underway to be more than just a passing fad, many would argue that conservation requires fundamental structural changes that put more decision-making power in the hands of people who’ve been traditionally sidelined or ignored and recognize the importance of contributions from a wide range of stakeholders in achieving conservation outcomes.
One of the organizations working on both of these fronts is African People & Wildlife, a Tanzania-based NGO founded by Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld and Charles Trout that is headquartered on land donated by a local Maasai community. African People & Wildlife works across six landscapes in Northern Tanzania that are famed for their wildlife populations. The group runs several programs that range from supporting sustainable livelihoods in local communities to reducing human-wildlife conflict to empowering women conservation leaders.
Lichtenfeld told Mongabay in a recent interview that she’s seen significant changes in the conservation since she started African People & Wildlife in 2005, including recognition that “communities are essential partners in creating sustainable change” and “that we need to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in our work.” But the field still has further to go, she noted.
“While it’s encouraging to see these shifts happening across the conservation field, the hard part comes with taking concrete action and not turning back,” she said. “Currently, there are big questions out there as to whether organizations and the global conservation culture will truly change or whether things will revert to the status quo.”
“If the much-needed challenge is really taken on, well then again, we have a lot of work ahead on this—particularly in terms of scrutinizing who is in the room when conservation decisions are made, understanding and overcoming the power dynamics at play, and considering how we can better communicate with and listen to one another.”
“Real inclusivity begins with being able to access, participate in, and also lead the conversation, whether that means having a physical presence, addressing issues of language accessibility, or adherence to cultural norms,” she continued. “Local communities whose lives are impacted by conservation work must be at that table from the very beginning and serve as co-creators and co-implementers of programs. In fact, in many cases, the table is actually theirs to invite us to—isn’t it? This is the only way to ensure sustainable, win-win outcomes for people and nature.”
Part of overcoming the status quo is breaking down barriers between groups that have often been at odds with each other despite sharing some common goals, said Lichtenfeld.
“Historically, governments and Indigenous communities have often viewed one another as being on opposing sides of the conservation conversation. But if we can break down that barrier and help find common ground, conservation gains can be intensified,” she said. “We’re already seeing positive changes on this front in Tanzania, where we are facilitating partnerships in sustainable rangeland management between local communities and government leaders from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, the Tanzania National Parks Authority, and district and regional governments.”
Lichtenfeld spoke about these issues and more during an August 2021 conversation with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
AN INTERVIEW WITH LALY LICHTENFELD
Mongabay: What inspired your interest in conservation?
Laly Lichtenfeld: I grew up with a passion for everything wild – the outdoors, animals, and the sheer wonder that comes from deep immersion in nature. As a little girl growing up in New Jersey, I just loved being outside and spent most of my time exploring the woods with my dogs. This led me in my teenage years to consider different occupations from veterinary medicine to wildlife conservation to environmental law. However, a semester in East Africa with the National Outdoor Leadership School nearly 30 years ago illuminated and sharpened the path for me, and my goal of working in African wildlife conservation was born.
I returned several years later as a Fulbright Scholar and lived in the Kimana Community Wildlife Sanctuary in southern Kenya. Working with a wildlife ranger, community member, and long-time friend, I learned how residents of Kimana felt about the sanctuary at that time—disenfranchised and somewhat less important than the wildlife they had agreed to protect. In particular, I remember witnessing the grief a family felt when they lost a cow in a brazen attack by lions and then also watching the lioness suffer, trying to raise her cubs while recovering from the ensuing spearing.
After a year and a half immersed in Kimana, I had experienced many other challenges facing conservation firsthand—for both people and wildlife—and immediately recognized the need for more inclusive and collaborative approaches to protecting nature. From that point on, there was no turning back.
While conducting research in Kenya and later in Tanzania, my interests broadened from wildlife to the fascinating interrelationships and interactions between people and wild animals. Interdisciplinary studies were not prevalent back then in the late ‘90s. Rolling directly from my master’s into my Ph.D., Yale was the only school at the time that encouraged my desire to pursue equally the disciplines of wildlife ecology and social ecology for my doctorate. By bringing these disciplines together, I now work to find the balance for people and wildlife in unique and innovative ways.
Mongabay: What led you to co-found African People & Wildlife?
Laly Lichtenfeld: While conducting research in northern Tanzania, I was struck not only by the incredible wildlife and landscapes but by the resilience and fortitude of the local people in the midst of the many challenges facing the region. During this period, I grew very impatient with research—watching the landscape transform in front of my eyes without the means to help directly—and I began to feel more aligned as a conservation practitioner.
I knew I wanted to dedicate my life and skills to helping make a difference in this extraordinary place while also developing a fresh approach to conservation that can be embraced and taken to scale in many landscapes. So with the Ph.D. hot off the press and with an incredible team of Maasai people whom we had befriended while doing my research: my husband, Charles Trout—a fourth-generation, DRC-born, salt of the earth kind of man—and I built the Noloholo Environmental Center on land donated by the local community. Our first team members—who are still with us today—are from that community.
We wanted to demonstrate the magic that happens when conservation ideas come from within and when true collaboration occurs. So often, we see conservationists or development experts roll in with projects they want to implement “in partnership” with people. That’s not real collaboration or deep engagement in my mind. True engagement happens when people are at the drawing board from the very beginning and when their goals and aspirations are respected and embraced; when they drive the programming.
While our initial efforts focused on human-wildlife coexistence and saving big cats, our Tanzanian team has developed a holistic approach to conservation over the past 15 years that positively impacts many other vulnerable species, landscapes, and peoples.
Mongabay: You’ve been working in conservation for more than 20 years. What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in that time?
Laly Lichtenfeld: I’ve seen a slow and gradual shift in the understanding among conservationists that communities are essential partners in creating sustainable change. There are a lot more people talking about this now and some practitioners who are doing it very well.
I’m very encouraged when I see more engaged communities both in Tanzania and other parts of Africa participating in and benefiting from conservation. But we still have a long way to go. When conservationists recognize and deeply internalize that the process of how we engage with people is as important as what we do with them, then I think we will have significantly shifted the conservation paradigm.
Along with that dynamic, there is a growing recognition that we need to embrace diversity, equity, and inclusion in our work—not just externally but internally. Looking around 15 to 20 years ago, there were very few women working out in the field and far fewer who had achieved leadership positions. I used to get so many questions about how I managed as a young woman alone in the bush. And to be honest, while the questions have since gone away—for one reason or another—I look around me and there still aren’t enough women. Even within African People & Wildlife, we don’t have enough female voices participating, and we are working hard to create that gender equity.
While it’s encouraging to see these shifts happening across the conservation field, the hard part comes with taking concrete action and not turning back. Currently, there are big questions out there as to whether organizations and the global conservation culture will truly change or whether things will revert to the status quo. If the much-needed challenge is really taken on, well then again, we have a lot of work ahead on this—particularly in terms of scrutinizing who is in the room when conservation decisions are made, understanding and overcoming the power dynamics at play, and considering how we can better communicate with and listen to one another.
Over the past 20 years of working in the field, I’ve also witnessed the power of nature’s resilience. Lands that used to be degraded from overgrazing just five years ago are now recovering because of the dedicated efforts of our community partners. In addition to lions, our team is also seeing increased numbers of wildlife like elephants, Maasai giraffes, and a rare population of southern fringe-eared oryx near our environmental center. Nature has a remarkable ability to recover when we provide the right conditions for this to happen. Now we need to rapidly increase this trend across the globe, particularly since we can’t deny that the impacts of climate change, invasive species, and habitat loss and fragmentation are also increasing, well and far beyond nipping at our heels. We need to support nature in her resilience—faster and better.
Mongabay: What are the biggest challenges for wildlife and communities where you operate?
Laly Lichtenfeld: In northern Tanzania, people and wildlife share 92% of the available wildlife habitat. Many of the communities raise livestock as a way of life, so they depend on the same pastures that big cats and other vulnerable wildlife species do. As human populations expand and climate change threatens natural resources, our greatest challenge is to maintain land connectivity across the region and find creative ways to preserve critical grasslands for the mutual benefit and long-term resilience of both people and wildlife—all the while, reducing conflicts that emerge, whether they be between different groups of people or people and wild animals. At African People & Wildlife, we focus on priorities that deliver win-win, sustainable solutions for people and nature.
Mongabay: Could you share an example of a project or initiative you feel best exemplifies the impact of your work?
Laly Lichtenfeld: Our flagship initiative, Living Walls, is a great example of what can be achieved when we co-create and co-implement projects in partnership with local people.
Living Walls are nature-friendly corrals that prevent conflict between livestock owners and large carnivores. The idea for Living Walls emerged from conversations between our local team and a Maasai community (many of whom were and are an integral part of our team). By combining their traditional knowledge about the regrowth of Commiphora trees with modern chain-link fencing, we sparked a very innovative solution to human-wildlife conflict that remains highly effective today.
Living Walls create a triple win for people and nature—conserving big cats, adding trees to the landscape, and improving peace and prosperity for rural families. In African People & Wildlife’s program areas with a high number of Living Walls, human-wildlife conflict levels have dropped dramatically, and lion populations are on the rise after many years of decline.
Mongabay: The past year has put a spotlight on discrimination, colonial legacy, inequity, and lack of inclusivity in the conservation sector globally. Have you seen any impact of this international awareness in areas where you work or in your interactions with the conservation sector?
Laly Lichtenfeld: These global conversations are definitely resonating within the field of African conservation. I think Africans are feeling empowered to speak out more and to take control of the narrative to ensure the world recognizes that solutions must come from within. Members of our Tanzanian team like Catherine Nchimbi (“Why we need more black African women in conservation”) are having more candid conversations about their personal experiences with discrimination and expressing a desire to see more people who look like them working in the conservation field.
But of course, it will take changes across the entire system. And I think a lot more needs to be done to make opportunities in leadership and advancement more accessible and possible for African conservationists.
From my own experience, as a woman who grew up in the US and has now resided in Tanzania for more than 20 years—and hopefully forever—I know the issues are deep and engrained. I’ve experienced both the privilege that comes with being a white American and the sexism and misogyny that come with being a woman conservationist and scientist. From an international perspective, I’ve had to fight hard to get a seat at the conservation table, which has been historically dominated by white men. There are not many female CEOs in conservation today, and I’ve faced the ‘old boys club’ time and time again in terms of inclusivity in decision-making, access to valuable networks and support, and much more—and that’s coming from someone who had the privilege of going to Yale! I’ve gratefully had many doors opened for me as a result; imagine how much more challenging it is for other women, people of color, and especially women of color, who don’t have access to those networks. My experience has inspired me to use my privilege to open those same doors for them. And the interesting paradox is that I don’t feel the same exclusion when I’m participating in national or regional meetings in East Africa with East Africans—where internally, I believe the value of your conservation contribution and your authenticity can be paramount to the color of your skin or your gender. But obviously, this is also where privilege plays out. I try to balance that privilege with a strong degree of humility and a recognition that I must put my influence to its best possible use.
Indeed, my innate response to any challenge has always been to fight harder. Right now, the door is ajar. But if people truly want the conservation sector to change—to become more diverse, inclusive, and equitable—then they will have to fight harder, now more than ever. Because we risk any and all advancements we make to complacency and a false sense of progress.
Mongabay: What does real inclusivity look like?
Laly Lichtenfeld: Real inclusivity begins with being able to access, participate in, and also lead the conversation, whether that means having a physical presence, addressing issues of language accessibility, or adherence to cultural norms. By reducing barriers to participation and encouraging meaningful contributions, we develop a shared dialogue among everyone involved in a conservation project — the local people, NGOs, businesses, and local or national authorities — to ensure the expression of a diversity of viewpoints. Local communities whose lives are impacted by conservation work must be at that table from the very beginning and serve as co-creators and co-implementers of programs. In fact, in many cases, the table is actually theirs to invite us to—isn’t it? This is the only way to ensure sustainable, win-win outcomes for people and nature.
We also need to include all voices in society in conservation decision-making and programs. Women and youth are often left out of the conversation, but they are powerful and critical forces for transformative change.
Mongabay: One of the pillars of your work is a focus on empowering women and girls. How are you going about this?
Laly Lichtenfeld: The lives of women and girls in the landscapes where we work are completely intertwined with nature. Women and girls are often responsible for raising and protecting livestock, collecting water, and caring for the land. But in Tanzania, we still see a largely male-dominated society—particularly in rural areas—and women have less of a say in the decisions that impact their lives. African People & Wildlife has seen that when women and girls raise their voices, they are powerful messengers for conservation and drivers of positive social change.
For example, we found through our Women’s Beekeeping Initiative that women who earn their own income are more likely to send their children to school, pay for their family’s health care, and even help strengthen the local economy by starting additional businesses. African People & Wildlife is building on the momentum of this program through a new African Women in Conservation Initiative designed to amplify the voices of more women and girls through conservation internships, girls programs, nature-based opportunities for female entrepreneurs, and leadership advancement. I believe the tide is turning for women in Tanzania, and our government recognizes this too. They have committed to achieving greater gender parity across all levels of public policy, and African People & Wildlife is excited to contribute to this effort by researching and addressing barriers to the participation of women in leadership positions within the wildlife sector.
Mongabay: What has been the impact of COVID on your work and the communities you serve?
Laly Lichtenfeld: Tourism is a huge part of the local economy in northern Tanzania, and some communities have been impacted by the steep drop in revenue. While this puts local wildlife at increased risk of poaching and retaliation killing, the animals and their habitats have continued to thrive during this challenging time. I think this is due in large part to the incredible tolerance people have in northern Tanzania for living with wildlife—in many places, it is part of the historical fabric of the society and cultures. Keeping this tolerance and stewardship alive—as the world changes and new challenges arise—is a key priority. African People & Wildlife’s holistic approach empowers our partner communities to benefit from conservation in so many ways. For example, local livelihoods and food security are improving, and conflict between people and big cats has fallen dramatically because of our Living Walls.
From an organizational point of view, we kept working right through the pandemic and actually had one of our most impactful years—in terms of on-the-ground outcomes; for example, more Living Walls installed, more honey harvested, and more pastures managed than ever before. 2020 was the ninth consecutive year of stable or increasing herbivore populations in our monitoring area. I spent the year at our environmental center, where we had wonderful sightings of lions and elephants.
Despite the financial challenges of 2020, many generous supporters reached out to help and our core field teams remained at work—rapidly responding to conflict events, helping to manage grasslands, and also raising awareness about Covid-19. Again, this speaks to the incredible value of locally managed and staffed teams—over 98% of our team is Tanzanian and many of them are community members who hail from the areas where we work. All we needed was to shift our tactics slightly and to rely on greater communication over phone and WhatsApp. And in cases where it would have been unsafe to run the full suite of our programming, for example with schoolchildren, the team pivoted and filmed a safari to Tarangire National park, soon to be released. With deeply embedded team members in the communities where we work and a work ethic built around innovation, like nature, we were resilient.
Mongabay: Do you see any lessons or opportunities arising out of the pandemic in terms of sustainability and building resilient systems?
Laly Lichtenfeld: When rural communities have limited economic opportunities and do not experience the positive impacts of conservation in their daily lives, they are more likely to take part in activities that harm the environment like poaching and charcoaling. After all, everyone needs to survive. The pandemic has really underscored the need for local people to benefit from conservation in multiple ways if we are to create systems that are truly sustainable and resilient to economic shocks. In this regard, I think we in the conservation community need to push ourselves, even more than before, to go beyond tourism and to think of the full suite of benefits communities can derive from strong conservation programming—not all of which needs to be financially motivated.
So overall, I feel that one positive outcome of the pandemic is that it has clearly demonstrated the urgent need for conservationists to think bigger and bolder. At African People & Wildlife, one way we are doing this is by evolving our field-based headquarters, the Noloholo Environmental Center, into a regional center of excellence for holistic conservation. As a premier conservation innovation and learning hub for Tanzanians and practitioners from across the continent, Noloholo will spark the types of ideas, discoveries, and solutions that are only possible when we harness the knowledge and power of multiple stakeholders—including the people who live in the landscapes we work to protect. By focusing on inclusive collaboration and knowledge sharing, our goal for Noloholo is to catalyze connections that ultimately lead to deeper, more sustainable outcomes for human well-being, wildlife abundance, and environmental protection.
What can international conservation organizations and funders do better to support grassroots leaders and initiatives in Africa?
Laly Lichtenfeld: We need to open up more direct communication channels between international conservation organizations, funders, AND local leaders, rather than relying on emissaries to tell people what the communities want to see and do. I’ve seen so much confusion created this way. A real and direct two-way dialogue that increases understanding and transparency, while challenging to pull off, would bring so much more legitimacy to these efforts. Part of building these relationships will obviously involve finding new and creative ways to communicate across language and technology barriers.
Transformative change in conservation takes time. And when working with a community, it’s important to move at a pace they are comfortable with. So, we also need to revisit funding expectations and timelines. By deepening donor engagement in the overall process of moving from project conceptualization to implementation and outcomes, we can also help increase understanding of the challenging nature of this work and better utilize funders’ skills and networks to help build local capacity.
Mongabay: Beyond what we’ve already covered, are there other major gaps you see in the conservation sector? What does conservation need to do better?
Laly Lichtenfeld: African conservation has historically focused heavily on megafauna, but we need to embrace systems-based, landscape-scale approaches that address both conservation and development challenges across large areas in a holistic way. And because funders often want to see results quickly, impact reporting has trended toward numbers and simple statistics as opposed to meaningful, sustainable outcomes that may not result in an immediate and tangible number. This is something we are working on with our Monitoring, Evaluation, Learning and Adaptation (MELA) team, but it also requires significant resources to do effectively.
Conservationists also need to do a better job at putting data collection and analyses into the hands of communities so they can be empowered to make informed and timely decisions about managing their natural resources. At African People & Wildlife, we use Esri’s Conservation Solutions for Protected Area Management—a suite of technological tools—to help partner communities gather and visualize real-time data they can share with their local leaders. This is extremely powerful.
Mongabay: Wildlife populations and the extent of good habitat is trending downward in much of the world. What do you see as the key levers for scaling successful conservation efforts to the point where they can start to reverse these trends?
Laly Lichtenfeld: To really scale up successful conservation, conservationists need to join forces with local and national government authorities, other NGOs, businesses, and local communities to identify common goals, respect and listen deeply to one another, and work together to develop effective and meaningful conservation programming that acknowledges the individuality of communities and nuanced conditions on the ground.
Historically, governments and Indigenous communities have often viewed one another as being on opposing sides of the conservation conversation. But if we can break down that barrier and help find common ground, conservation gains can be intensified. We’re already seeing positive changes on this front in Tanzania, where we are facilitating partnerships in sustainable rangeland management between local communities and government leaders from the Ngorongoro Conservation Area Authority, the Tanzania National Parks Authority, and district and regional governments. I’m excited to see these partnerships continue to grow in new areas.
And of course, we need to significantly step up the global investment in conservation to support the massive, holistic actions needed on the ground. It will take more than just a reallocation of existing funds; at the very least, we need to double conservation budgets to meaningfully advance and scale the kind of collaborative, inclusive, and sustainable solutions needed to protect the lands humanity depends on over the long term.
Mongabay: What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in conservation?
Laly Lichtenfeld: I think there is a growing understanding in the conservation field that our work needs to focus on the social dynamics of conservation as well as environmental ones. Young people may join the field out of a love of wildlife and wildlands, but most of the time the actual game-changing work on the ground involves people. So, for young conservationists entering the field, I would encourage them to look through this lens and seek holistic solutions to the tremendous challenges facing our planet right now. For conservation work to be sustainable over the long term, we need to involve the people whose lives are impacted by the work we do and to understand what their needs and motivations are for protecting nature.
Mongabay: What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
Laly Lichtenfeld: We hear a lot of bad news when it comes to climate change and the extinction crisis, but it’s important to recognize that some incredible conservation gains are happening all over the world.
Personally, I remain a realistic optimist. We may not be able to save everything, but we can still save a lot. The world seems more open to this right now, so we need to seize the moment—as I have said before.
I would encourage young people to look at both the wins and the losses and to focus on understanding the conditions that inspire transformative change.
We also need to celebrate, share, and learn from conservation success stories. For example, because of African People & Wildlife’s partnerships with communities in Tanzania, a local lion population once on the brink of extinction is now thriving. Tiger numbers in India are increasing after many years of decline thanks to the work of Dr. Krithi Karanth and her organization, the Centre for Wildlife Studies, and its many partners. And Dr. Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka and her team at Conservation Through Public Health are making remarkable progress protecting endangered mountain gorillas in Uganda while enhancing local livelihoods.
We’re also seeing more youth getting involved in conservation both in Tanzania and across the world, which is very encouraging. Young people have so much potential to develop new, creative solutions to conservation challenges—we welcome their innovation!