As building blocks for protecting critical wildlife habitats, national parks, reserves, and other protected areas are ecological havens and recognized for their contributions to poverty alleviation, water security, and carbon sequestration. They also provide opportunities for economic development and disaster risk reduction as well as a means of delivering nature-based solutions to climate change. And while recent reports from Africa highlight the strides that African governments have made in designating protected areas, there remain challenges.
Recent studies have found that nearly 90 percent of protected areas lack the funding necessary to protect keystone species, like lions. Parks across the continent are isolated and do not encompass the vast wildlife rangelands that are essential for protecting key species — particularly as wildlife travels in and out of park boundaries and, in doing so, find themselves in conflict with human uses of land, water, and other resources.
These conflicts are on the rise. As Africa’s population grows to 1.7 billion by 2030, space for wildlife comes under threat from the competing needs of development, resource extraction, agricultural, and other human activity.
Conservancies link sustainable land and wildlife management practice to deliver long-term conservation and community benefits
There is another way forward. Biodiversity and ecosystem services underpin every aspect of human life, including food security, livelihoods, health, ethnic diversity, and cultural enrichment. A quarter of the total wealth of low-income countries comes from natural capital, compared to only 2 percent in wealthier nations. To continue to give Africa’s wildlife safe room to roam while improving human livelihoods, we must not only improve and increase the number of state-owned protected areas, but these areas must be complemented by “conservancies.”
Conservancies are community and/or privately-owned lands are set aside for conservation that provide unique benefits and safeguards not only to wildlife but also to the land owners. Community ownership of and access to natural resources is key for sustainable natural resource management and, by extension, wildlife conservation. Not only does the creation of conservancies buffer the network of protected areas by giving wildlife safe space as they roam outside of park boundaries, but it also provides a wildlife-focused development option that enables communities to adapt to the socioeconomic impacts of climate change. In places where animal husbandry and agriculture are failing to deliver reliable returns due to shifting weather patterns, conservancies are part of an alternative land-use model can reduce rural poverty and generate alternative revenue streams.
Depending on national legislation and rights over wildlife ownership, communal and private landowners can develop enterprises on the land they have set aside for protection based on a benefit-sharing model. For tourism-based ventures like ecolodges, conservancy entrance fees, bed night charges, and other services direct benefits to owners in the form of revenues, jobs, and economic empowerment. But conservancies deliver even more, by providing equitable and inclusive governance over resources so that the ecological systems underpinning human wellbeing remain healthy.
African Wildlife Foundation’s experience working with community conservation shows that creating space for innovation driven by passion and leadership from the ground up is critical to developing pragmatic conservation solutions that work for the long term. By testing different ways of organizing to govern better and manage natural resources and increase benefits, early innovations then lead to scalable solutions. Taking conservation enterprises as an example, AWF’s early investments used grants to build community-run facilities, but over time, we moved towards a model of investment where communities themselves have ownership over the core asset, such as Sabyinyo Silverback Lodge in Rwanda, owned by the Sabyinyo Community Livelihood Association. Ownership builds incentives to maintain the core resource base and gives power to the community in negotiating with operators and decision-makers.
Conservancies create a significant benefit by securing natural resource utilization rights for landowners and communities. While ownership and management models vary across the continent, conservancies always tie back to a sustainable land and wildlife management practice. For example, a land lease program developed by AWF to create community conservancies surrounding the Amboseli National Park in Kenya secures an important wildlife linkage and has enabled the community to invest in schools, health dispensaries, and microfinance enterprises that significantly increase the resilience of communities from whom the land is leased.
Community-owned conservation enterprises support mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda's Volcanoes National Park
To take successful approaches to scale, the right policies are key. Successful community ownership and management regimes depend on communities working together with local government under a shared vision, which is empowered by enabling national frameworks. Policies either provide enabling structures for or barriers to the rights of communities to access resources. AWF works with African governments to shape enabling policy frameworks for community conservation such as wildlife conservancies, while simultaneously working with communities to implement these approaches on the ground in wildlife-rich landscapes. AWF was among a coalition of conservation organizations that supported the Tanzanian government to create a framework for empowering communities to manage wildlife through Wildlife Management Areas and we are working in Ugandan government to create enabling policy frameworks for community conservancies and demonstrating how these frameworks empower local action key the wildlife dispersal areas around Murchison Falls and Kidepo National Park.
Governance and tenure are the foundation stones for communities to have access to resources and rights to benefits. Good governance is one of the African Union’s core aspirations and entails accountability and transparency as well as informed and organized participation and the inclusion of diverse viewpoints in decision-making. Good governance — at every level — takes time to build and needs to be sustained through strong and visionary leadership and can only meaningfully be sustained from within. Our work with creating a trust for managing wildlife-rich productive areas such as Manyara Ranch shows the importance of local ownership of the governance structures. Tenure over resources gives communities legal rights to access and use, incentivizing sustainable natural resource management. AWF knows that when communities benefit from these resources, they stand a better chance of being protected in the long term.
Conservancies help safeguard important wildlife rangelands needed to secure viable populations of species like the lion
Apart from creating the policy frameworks, well-structured governance systems, and ensuring benefits flow to communities, conservation practitioners and governments must focus on adopting science-based habitat and wildlife management plans, investing in professional management and solid business plans, and supporting a vibrant national tourism economy.
When governance and tenure regimes line up, then communities can receive the tangible benefits that are essential for successful and sustained community engagement in natural resources management. While most think of economic benefits — from tourism or payments for ecosystem services, for example — cultural value, a spiritual connection to nature, and a sense of pride can be equally powerful incentives for protecting biodiversity. Developing inclusive frameworks to protect natural capital can improve community cohesion, reduce conflicts, and ultimately build resilience for people, wildlife, and landscapes in the face of climate impacts.
Andrea Athanas is African Wildlife Foundation’s Program Design Director, Europe. Building on her background in economics, she has experience developing business practices for biodiversity conservation and advising companies such as Shell, Nestle Nespresso, and Rio Tinto on managing their environmental footprints. She has also worked at the International Union for Conservation of Nature, implementing the Business and Biodiversity Program integrate economic thinking and tools into conservation. She remains committed to advancing inclusive development strategies, bringing wildlife conservation into the transformation of African economies with a focus on agriculture and energy. Andrea is based in AWF’s Switzerland office and focuses on building strategic partnerships in Europe for AWF in her current portfolio.
AWF Blogs bring you to the critical landscapes we work in, where conservation benefits both wildlife and people alike. The blogs are written by our staff - men and women who have dedicated their lives to Africa's wildlife, people and wild lands.