Community wildlife conservation is often promoted as a win-win solution. The idea behind this approach is that people who live near wildlife can be involved in its protection and have a stake in doing so.
The result is that wildlife is protected (a win for global biodiversity) and local people benefit from conservation through tourism revenue, jobs, or new infrastructure like schools, clinics, and water supplies. .
However, the reality of community wildlife conservation is sometimes less straightforward, as the experience of Kenya shows.
Kenya is home to spectacular wildlife, landscape and cultural resources that boost the safari tourism industry. This attracts millions of visitors – and billions of US dollars – to the country every year. Yet Kenya’s tourist attractions face significant threats. These include climate change, illegal wildlife trade, habitat loss due to deforestation, and human-wildlife conflict. To address some of these risks, community conservatories have been established across the country.
Community reserves are wildlife protected areas established on land owned or occupied by the community. They form an important part of the wildlife protection landscape in Kenya, with implications for thousands of people.
There are currently 76 such spaces, covering tens of thousands of square kilometers. They date back to the 1980s, but have accelerated in number and extent over the past 20 years.
In northern Kenya, characterized by a vast expanse of grassland, most reserves are supported by the Northern Rangelands Trust. It is a national NGO funded by global donors and international conservation agencies.
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It is difficult to establish how much funding is directed to community conservatories. However, in 2020, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, an umbrella body, reported that the country’s reserves incur around US$25 million in annual operating costs. This is mainly funded by donors and, to a lesser extent, by the government.
After more than 30 years of anthropological fieldwork in Samburu communities in northern Kenya, I noticed that community conservation was growing in popularity, but there was little evidence that it worked or had any effect. I conducted a study to investigate the matter further. This research resulted in a book, which outlines the impact of conservatories on cooperation and conflict in communities.
The number of wildlife in Kenya is declining, but more wildlife is found on conservation land than in unprotected areas. While promising, my research found that reserves increased human-wildlife conflict, with communities bearing the brunt of loss and injury from wildlife. Moreover, the economic benefits of community conservatories for members were minimal.
The Roots of Community Conservation
Community conservation has its roots in the realization that the “fortress” model of conservation – which is the creation of parks and reserves that exclude all human use – is untenable. Wild animals need vast landscapes to thrive. They cannot be confined within park boundaries.
Similarly, when local people are excluded from parks, they are denied access to the resources they need to survive. Treating people as less important than wildlife makes them less likely to protect wildlife. This is especially true in a place like northern Kenya, where cattle herding societies like the Samburu have lived in close proximity to wildlife for centuries.
Understanding that the success of conservation depends on local people having a stake in its success has led Kenya to engage communities directly in conservation activities. In this approach, the community sets aside a portion of their land for conservation activities in exchange for the anticipated benefits that will accrue from conservation.
In the case of Samburu, communities have set aside around 10-25% of their land for wildlife and, in some cases, for tourism infrastructure. These reserves are managed by paid staff overseen by boards made up of community members and supported by conservation NGOs.
Livestock grazing is prohibited or severely restricted on these lands.
Community conservation creates boundaries, which are patrolled by wildlife scouts who are often armed. Although their stated role is wildlife protection, these scouts are actually tasked with protecting pastures from strangers and livestock from theft.
My research consisted of spending a year in several conservatories in Samburu. I watched how conservatories worked and talked to members about what they thought of them. I conducted surveys to measure the costs and benefits incurred.
The study revealed a number of impacts of conservancies on local communities that mainly have to do with security and funding.
I discovered that conservatories actually increased tensions between Samburu communities. Creating land use zones and restricting grazing requires maintaining boundaries and denying access to non-members. This goes against Samburu norms which allow livestock access to pasture, especially during dry seasons and droughts. On the other hand, members of conservancies see the policing of grazing as a benefit.
Several times during my research, I have heard people refer to their Samburu neighbors outside the reservation boundaries as “outsiders” or “encroachments” who need to be kept away. Conservatories are like islands around which herders must navigate to find pasture. If and when they landed on these islands, conflicts often arose.
In addition, the amount of funding channeled to conservatories by donor organizations was relatively large compared to other sources of support. Conservatories that have tourist facilities also derive revenue from hotel contracts, overnight fees and curatorial fees.
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Members perceived that there was a lot of money flowing through the conservatories, controlled by boards and staff. They reported minimal economic benefits to themselves, mostly in the form of student tuition and sometimes an annual dividend. This fueled suspicions among members that the money was being misused by conservation councils and staff.
Suspicions of embezzlement have led to bitter disputes within the community over leadership, demands for greater public accountability and legal action.
These unintended consequences of community conservation call for more effective models. Conservation that places less emphasis on who can or cannot use a piece of land, and that improves accountability, could result in better outcomes for people and wildlife.
The path to follow
The intentions behind community conservation are laudable. It aims to correct past failures, including the isolation of wildlife in parks and the exclusion of people from important survival resources. However, this approach brings its own set of challenges. There is a risk that if members do not receive the kinds of benefits they have been promised, their support for conservation could diminish, undermining the approach.
Greater member engagement and accountability for funding and its uses would build trust and ownership among members.
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