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Working with Communities

  • Wednesday, August 7, 2002

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, communities and wildlife in Africa coexisted in a fairly harmonious manner. Although people used wildlife to sustain themselves, species were not seriously threatened. The human population was small, and land remained abundant.

But in the late 19th century, wildlife began to disappear under the more efficient and better-armed colonial hunters. Some animals were simply exterminated as pests. In response, hunting by local people was restricted, and strictly protected parks were established. Law enforcement and preservation became the dominant approaches to conservation.

When AWF was founded 40 years ago, training park wardens to manage these protected areas was a top priority. As conservation thinking has evolved, AWF has supported traditional approaches while taking the lead in implementing some new approaches to conservation that attempt to rethink the relationship between people and wildlife.

What is now called community conservation is not simply a matter of righting past wrongs, but recognizing that virtually none of the parks of East Africa (with the possible exception of Tsavo) is sufficiently large to include intact ecosystems. Vast numbers of wildlife, and certainly large predators and herbivores, spend substantial time outside the strict confines of parks.

The bottom line? If Africa's wildlife species are to be maintained in areas other than large fenced zoos, communities must tolerate the presence of great numbers of wild animals on their land.

AWF's African Heartlands program is designed to conserve large, wildlife-rich landscapes in the context of human development. Under this program, AWF works closely with local communities to encourage support for conservation among the people who depend most on natural resources. But developing the Heartlands approach has required time and a spirit of innovation.

Rethinking traditional conservation began during the early 1960s in Zimbabwe with the work of Raymond Dasmann, which eventually evolved into the pioneer CAMPFIRE (Communal Areas Management Program for Indigenous Resources). Inspired by Dasmann's efforts to domesticate wildlife as a less ecologically destructive alternative to cattle, for a decade beginning in 1970 AWF supported the Galana Game Ranch Research Project in Kenya and later the Botswana Gemsbok Domestication Project. AWF began directly working on community conservation in 1988 to test the viability of dialogue between park authorities and pastoral communities around Tsavo National Park in Kenya.

Building on AWF's pioneering work in Kenya, the Protected Areas: Neighbors as Partners program expanded to include development of a community conservation service in TANAPA (Tanzania National Parks) by Patrick Bergin (then freshly out of the Peace Corps, now AWF president), the innovative work of Mark Infield at Lake Mburo Park in Uganda and the creation of a community-run tourist facility adjacent to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to half the remaining mountain gorillas in the world. The Tanzania and Bwindi programs involved benefit sharing: Tourist revenues from the parks paid for community projects, such as schools and village wells.

Traditional law enforcement in protected areas is relatively straightforward compared to the complexities of community conservation, which has been a trial-and-error process even for AWF. In Kenya, Richard Leakey introduced an innovative plan to share 25 percent of park revenues with surrounding communities. The program later failed, however, due to insufficient revenue and relatively unsophisticated application. Now in its second generation of community conservation, AWF increasingly looks to partnerships between private businesses such as SERENA and Wilderness Safaris to generate benefits to communities.

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