Saving the world’s wildlife is not just ‘a white person thing’


Kaddu Sebunya, The Guardian

Date Published

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In a few days it will be the 18th anniversary of the death of Michael Werikhe, the enigmatic African conservationist. You don’t hear or read much of him these days.

Nicknamed “the Rhino Man” because his work and campaigns focused on the critically endangered black rhino, Werikhe’s main campaign tactic of choice was walking to raise awareness. His first walk, starting on Christmas Day 1982, took him from Mombasa to the Kenyan capital Nairobi – a distance of 484 kilometres – and lasted for 27 days. He later walked in East Africa, Europe and North America to raise awareness and money, raising nearly $1m and covering nearly 5,000km.

Were Werikhe alive now, he would be shattered by the state of the African rhino. Of Africa’s five subspecies of rhinos, one has been declared extinct in the last two years. Of the four remaining subspecies, total numbers are around 24,000, with an estimated four individuals lost to poaching daily.

Other species are doing just as badly across the continent. Economic and population activities, combined with climate change, are hitting Africa’s wildlife and wildlands hard, and the continent is seeing devastating losses of its unique wildlife heritage.

There are all sorts of reasons for this – including a lack of alternative livelihoods for poor people and bad governance. But perhaps none of them is more damaging than the widespread view in Africa that conservation is a “white thing”.

Many Africans see a line of continuity in conservation between the colonial period and the last six decades of independence. All Africa’s wildlife reserves were created in the colonial period, with local populations often being pushed off their lands. What were once traditional hunting grounds became prohibited areas, and Africans would be jailed if they were caught hunting on them.

Independence came, the colonialists left, and the African big men came in, some greedier and more ruthless than the departing European enforcer. In an ironic twist, the external forces in the west, which set the foundation for the clash over wildlife, re-emerged as the leading face of conservation in Africa.

This has brought much-needed funding to support conservation, and kept the spotlight on wildlife trafficking and other crimes. But it has had its downside, as protecting wildlife and reporting about it is today probably more deeply considered by most people in Africa a hobby for celebrity champions from Hollywood, TV personalities, and western politicians and activists.

It’s for David Attenborough to tackle in Africa, and to explore in episodes of his rather remarkable Planet Earth series, and something that Hollywood star Forest Whitaker narrates. And one of the great photo and happy story moments of President Bill Clinton’s visit to Africa in 1998 was his and Hillary’s wildlife safari in Botswana.

In many African countries, the people themselves then approach wildlife with benign indifference. On Easter they head in their tens of thousands to the beaches, leaving the wildlife tent camps and resorts to foreign tourists and local western expatriates.

Which brings us to the current situation. The result of years of working on conservation, by existing African and international voices? For the money spent, it has been a spectacular failure. Take Africa’s elephants. They numbered 1.3m in 1970. Today their numbers have plunged to around 415,000 and are still tumbling. An elephant is killed every 15 minutes. It is very clear that conservation in Africa needs a philosophical remake.

For some years, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) has been convinced that for conservation to succeed in Africa, the agenda must be owned and be led from within, and must be seen to be led from within.

The industry depends on the images and narratives of white conservationists, a point argued powerfully by the media, and controversially by John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada in their book The Big Conservation Lie. Michael Werikhe was a rare African face in a sector heavily dominated by westerners – albeit westerners with the best possible intentions.

British primatologist Jane Goodall remains the most influential voice on the African chimpanzee, and Dian Fossey, who studied the mountain gorilla for over a decade in mountain forests of Rwanda, did peerless work on the animals. Her 1983 book, Gorillas in the Mist, was later adapted into a film. Despite her passion, the film and the fact that Fossey was murdered in 1985 gave the impression that Africans were hostile to wildlife. Goodall also, in many ways, has sucked the oxygen out of primates for any African scholars.

But this is not to say that Africans do not value wildlife. Far from it. Africans love and respect nature. In Kenya, campaigns like Hands Off Our Elephants have been successful in drawing many people to campaign against poaching. In 2007, a militant campaign called Save Mabira Crusade resulted in the arrest of some leaders and led to the reversal of the Ugandan government’s decision to give away Mabira forest for development by a sugar cane company.

But this is not enough. By far, the biggest conservation activity by the African elite is railing and blogging against foreign domination of the sector. You are far more likely to have an African director making a film on an evil stepmother who bewitches her stepchildren than a documentary investigating the local ivory smuggling networks.

Even when it comes to the popular practice of adopting a chimpanzee, baby elephant, or one of several endangered species for even as low as $100 a year, most African elite would rather splash $50,000 on a Range Rover. Yet it is this very same elite that is making economic and development decisions that have serious consequences on wildlife and wildlands in Africa.

The time has come for conservationists to engage this elite, politicians, communities and young Africans in new, even uncomfortable, ways. 

The sole reason for wildlife existence cannot be tourism or money. Animals are more important as custodians of our wildlands. Cities such as Nairobi and Cape Town depend on protected areas for their water supply. Wildlands support Africa’s agriculture in many ways – supplying water, pollination, soil protection and pest control. 
These are the deeper existential stories we should emphasise. And many more people in Africa are likely to pay attention.

Kaddu Sebunya is president of the African Wildlife Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter here.