Rumble in the jungle

2019-03-08 01:16:13

By Fred Pearce THE white man in shorts, enduring symbol of conservation in Africa, is making his final retreat. The largest environmental group working in the continent, the World Wide Fund for Nature, is pulling out of the region’s game reserves and national parks. Senior WWF officials have admitted to New Scientist that the organisation’s traditional role in wildlife preservation is no longer tenable. They say that in order to achieve sustainable conservation, more responsibility will have to be placed with local populations, even though this will mean “taking risks”. Without such changes the WWF fears it will antagonise locals, undermine national governments and threaten the long-term survival of the continent’s rhino, elephant, lion and buffalo. When WWF International holds its annual meeting in Switzerland next week, its officers will report that the withdrawal is gathering pace. But the new strategy is leaving some of the WWF’s most respected scientists and conservationists out in the cold, and opening the organisation to the charge of abandoning endangered species to likely extinction. The latest human victims are Kes and Fraser Smith, who this summer were forced out from their 14-year tenure in charge of the Garamba National Park. The remote and lawless rainforest park, covering 500 000 hectares of northeast Congo, is the last wild refuge of the northern white rhino. Until recently, the WWF portrayed Kes Smith, an English zoologist, and her Zimbabwean game-warden husband as conservation heroes: a doughty defence against armed gangs of poachers. But the wind of change in African conservation has swept them from their posts. WWF International’s director-general Claude Martin told New Scientist: “The survival of a species cannot simply hinge on the presence of two individuals.” He admitted that in the past the WWF and others have “created the unfortunate impression that an organisation or, worse even, an individual, could be a sole guarantor…of a species”. The WWF’s idea, shared by many other conservation groups, is to integrate wildlife management back into the community and stop it being seen as the sole preserve of white men. The New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society now lists its prime activity as supporting Africa-based field scientists and works to tear down the fences between people and animals. In Zambia, for instance, it aims to “help communities make informed decisions about the sustainable use of wildlife”. In Kenya, it is switching its attention to easing conflicts between farmers and animals outside its parks, where the country’s herds of elephants, zebras, giraffes and the rest spend most of their time. Adopting a pragmatic approach that involves the local population in wildlife conservation won’t necessarily deter poachers—particularly those from outside the area—from seeking lucrative skins or rhino horns. But the WWF hopes it will encourage locals to take advantage of government initiatives such as free fencing to protect their crops from marauding animals. In this way the animals are less likely to be shot. A good relationship with conservationists may also encourage locals to report poachers. However, John Watkin of the Africa Conservation Centre in Nairobi says that throwing out the Smiths in the name of people-centred conservation may spell the end for the northern white rhino. He says: “The achievements of the [Garamba] project are enormous and due solely to these two individuals.” The surviving wild population of the subspecies has risen from 13 to 30 during their tenure. Watkin puts this down to the Smiths’ skilled management and uncompromising policing of the park. He is well aware of the trend towards involving local communities in preserving wildlife. But in some areas he thinks this “politically correct” approach is simply not appropriate. “Garamba sticks out as a situation where an iron-fist protectionist approach is still required,” he says. He would like to see a “military-style force” impose order and eliminate poaching in this lawless region. But earlier this year WWF conservation director Chris Hails ruled that for ethical reasons its funds could no longer buy arms or recruit security firms. The new approach to conservation in Congo was agreed between Martin and the new Congolese President Laurent Kabila in Kinshasa last February. “The idea is now that the Congolese run things in Garamba and elsewhere,” says Sheila O’Connor, the head of WWF’s Africa programme. “We provide them with policy and technical expertise—for instance on how to draw up biodiversity action plans. We are spending more on policy as opposed to isolated field activity.” The bottom line is that WWF leaders think that more diplomacy and less direct intervention is the conservationists’ only hope of keeping the countries they work with on board in the long term. In effect, the WWF is moving out of the jungle and into offices in the capital. Not just in Congo, but across the continent. Newer projects in Rwanda, the Central African Republic and southern Africa also reflect the change. It is a strategy that Martin has pursued since taking over in 1994 as director-general from the more traditionally minded South African Charles de Haes. The reasons are partly financial: “It is incredibly costly to take the place of government authority, paying for salaries, equipment and so on,” says O’Connor, who has recently completed a major reorganisation of WWF’s work in Madagascar. But there are also political and philosophical reasons. Madagascar, says O’Connor, illustrates what went wrong. The country has a huge amount of unique wildlife. But massive destruction of its forests by farmers and loggers brought pressure to intervene and save what was left. “We went from two experts there in 1986 to 600 local employees a decade later. We became a replacement for government authority. It wasn’t deliberate—it only happened because of the urgency of the conservation issues. But it wasn’t good. We should not take over from governments. Now we are handing over.” The policy is so new that the WWF’s website currently boasts of the big growth in “field projects and personnel” in Madagascar, and adds that: “To maintain the momentum which has made WWF the driving force for conservation in Madagascar, support for the programme must continue.” Inadvertently, this oversight hints at the strong differences in opinion within the WWF itself, which dissenting insiders are not keen to voice. But some outsiders are more openly sceptical. The rich and influential Washington DC-based Conservation International, which specialises in buying up and preserving rainforest, notes that traditional approaches to conservation are the only ones so far that have been shown to work. In an exchange of letters in a September issue of Science (vol 281, p 1455), Ian Bowles, its vice-president for conservation policy, called for “outright protection” of rainforests. He accused conservationists who backed a more pragmatic approach of being “coopted” by people opposed to conservation. He notes that there is little or no evidence that a form of “sustainable” rainforest logging exists that truly preserves either biodiversity or tree numbers. Conservation International recently spent $9 million on buying 1.6 million hectares of undisturbed and unpopulated rainforest in central Surinam, an area the size of New Jersey, as a “storehouse of biodiversity” in perpetuity. That forest, it claims, has no inhabitants. But this is very rare among protected areas in Africa. Hence WWF’s view that the fences have to come down and the poachers have to be befriended rather than shot at. “It is an experimental policy,