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Family Planning and the Links to Conservation

  • Wednesday, September 1, 1999

By R. Michael Wright, President, AWF

Dust billows in through the open top of the battered Land Rover as we slowly squeeze between two gnarled acacia thorn trees. We drive for hours through an empty landscape, searching for signs of the pack of wild dogs that had reportedly reappeared in Melepo Hills west of Namanga, the border crossing between Kenya and Tanzania.

We are near Elangata Wuas on the far western border of AWF's Amboseli West Kilimanjaro Heartland. Suddenly the pure soprano voices of children drift through the windows. Startled, we stare at each other. Is this possible in the middle of nowhere? We work our way through the brush to discover about 15 youngsters, 5 or 6 years of age, singing and clapping with an innocent beauty and enthusiasm.

These are the children of Masai herders, who continue to make a living in this dry and wild land as they have for centuries. The Oloo Lainyiamut preschool is being held outside, because the school building was destroyed in a recent storm. I admire the dedication of the young teacher and his charges, thirsting for knowledge with nothing but a blackboard and one piece of chalk. The drive to know, to understand, to learn is universal.

As we leave, however, I cannot help pondering the future. Can this remote and inhospitable land sustain so many eager youngsters? Will there still be room for wild dogs as each child grows old enough to tend a herd of goats and eventually cattle? The experience raises the question I am so often asked here at home: Won't the growing human population ultimately overwhelm all the wildlife living outside of Africa's national parks?

Because AWF's mission is the long-term survival of wildlife, we recognize the crucial link between conservation and the growth in human population. Without a doubt, a lower birth rate is fundamental to both an improved quality of life for the people of Africa and to the survival of its ecological systems. If wildlife and other natural resources are to endure, we need to look beyond numbers and technological fixes to the complex social dynamics driving population growth.

Birth rates have fallen in many parts of the world in response to changing economic conditions and as population organizations have learned to address the underlying reasons for why people have numerous children. A substantial portion of Africa's still high rate stems from the unavailability of contraceptives, particularly in rural areas where most of the population resides. But many families still desire offspring to work the land and provide security for their elders; the need is especially acute among women farmers who have few other means of accumulating wealth in a world where they can neither own nor inherit land.

Family planning organizations have identified several helpful measures. Greater access to health care and family planning services is, of course, basic. Increasing the spacing between children, already a traditional cultural practice in much of Africa, can limit birth rates as well as curb infant mortality. Perhaps the most important single step to slow population growth is improving the education of women. A study in Kenya a few years ago indicated that education of girls accounted for over 80 percent of the drop in infant mortality during the last two decades. Significantly, easing fears about child survival reduced the pressure to procreate. African women with 10 or more years of education want 3.3 fewer children than women with no education. Over the long term, greater economic opportunities and expanded legal rights for women are expected to lead to further declines in birth rates.

From the preschool, we find our way to a dusty track. As we head north, we pass slender Masai women laboring under jerry cans of water strapped on their backs with a head thong. Improving these women's lives and livelihood is the key to lower birth rates, and perhaps even to the survival of the wild dogs that still elude us. Because the fate of these women and that of the wildlife are so closely intertwined, AWF recently hired a conservation intern in Tanzania to focus particularly on the role of women in managing natural resources. By recognizing human concerns and their preeminent role in conservation science, AWF will continue to make unique and effective contributions in Africa. At the same time, I encourage AWF members to support a family planning organization consistent with your personal beliefs. It can make a difference.

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