Contemporary policies and practices of conservation in Africa through isolated national parks and reserves is a relic of the colonial romanticism. With the rapid population growth and the concomitant land use change, the paradox at the heart of contemporary conservation is unraveling.
The chickens are coming home to roost. Long-term data for 69 large mammal species from 78 protected areas in Africa revealed a 59% decline in large mammal population between 1970 and 2005. Closer home, large mammal populations in Masai Mara National reserve have declined by over one third between 1977 and 2009.
Agriculture, settlement, roads and urbanization have chocked migration corridors that hitherto enabled seasonal dispersal of wildlife across contiguous requisite habitats. Today wildlife is sequestered and trapped in parks and reserves, which lack the requisite habitat resources to support viable populations, especially of large mammals and associated predators.
In the face of irrevocable anthropogenic landscape transformation and inexorable wildlife extinctions, conservation based on the purist pre-human wilderness model is antiquated. Conservationists must renounce romantic notions of nature as separate from humans – notions that have no basis in ecosystems science – and embrace a whole landscape based approach in which diverse species and natural habitats co-exist with modern human landscapes.
The dualism of conservation – development or biodiversity – has estranged it in a crowded world where livelihood resources are scarce and dwindling. In Kenya where over 20 million people live on less than two dollars a day, efforts to prohibit compatible subsistence use of parks and reserves and privilege tourism seem unfair, if not immoral.
The notion that nature without people is more valuable than nature with people is an untenable colonial absurdity. People are a part of nature. One does not need to be a postmodern ecologist to understand that the concept of “Nature” has always been an idyllic human construct, shaped and contrived for human needs.
A curious contradiction of nature untrammeled is the logic of using parks and reserves for some things and not others. By excluding long-established human use such as livestock grazing to build hotels and resorts, excavating dams to water wildlife, and imposing fire to manage vegetation quality, we create parks that are no less human constructions than glorified zoos.
Perfunctory arguments around the intrinsic essence of biodiversity and economic benefits of tourism receipts are not enough when the vast majority of poor rural folk who underwrite the enormous credit of conservation enjoyed by the wealthy global urban class are mostly poor.
Any justification for conservation in the 21st century, locally or globally, must stringently demonstrate how the fates of nature and of people are inextricably bound together.
Conservationist cannot promise a return to pristine, pre-human landscapes. The real challenge for 21st century conservation is maintaining and enhancing biodiversity and ecosystem service value of functional landscapes; urban areas, forest plantations, agricultural monocultures, wetlands and marginal drylands.
A new vision of conservation must embrace marginalized and demonized cultivators and herders, and to embrace benefit sharing, an imperative which conservationists find repugnant. To succeed, conservation must be a broad-based coalition supported in corporate boardrooms and corridors of political power, as well as the village council.
When recent declines in wildlife populations are examined in the context of patterns of human settlement, the natural dynamics of ecosystems and climate change, it becomes imperative that we must rethink the design and management of existing parks and reserves.
Parks and reserves need not be isolated, stand alone of biodiversity storehouses. There is a need for a paradigm shift toward spatially connected, interdependent parks and reserves if they are to hold viable wildlife populations and resilient habitats.
Connectivity will enable dynamic interactions among species and utilization of ecological resources across space and time. The bigger challenge lies in negotiating access to or acquiring portions of wildlife migration corridors currently under private ownership.
However, there is a great opportunity here to create the largest and most lucrative ecosystem service markets in Africa. For instance landowners in Kenya and Tanzania could be persuaded using financial incentives such as ecosystem service payments to lease their land for use as wildlife migration corridors. The ecosystem service market could be developed further to enable trading of such leases in the region's stock markets.
Implementing trans-boundary management of wildlife resources will require novel policy, legal and institutional regimes to co-ordinate multiple stakeholders, including national governments, local authorities, and private/community interests such as pastoralists, agriculturalists and game ranchers.
The East African integration process through the Arusha Secretariat provides a legitimate platform for an earnest negotiation of a protocol for joint management of trans-boundary wildlife corridors.
The future of wildlife conservation will remain tenuous as long as it is narrowly focused on the creation of parks and protected areas, and assumes often without evidence, that local people cannot be entrusted with the stewardship of nature.