Skip to main content

My cattle, your rhinos: South Africa’s poverty-and-wildlife conundrum

UN Environment Programme | April 10, 2020

Read the original story here

The coronavirus pandemic is forcing us to think deeply about human beings’ relationship with the natural world on which we all depend for our survival.

Many commentators, including Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), say humans are putting too many pressures on the natural world. She has warned that failing to take care of the planet means not taking care of ourselves.

Sound and sustainable wildlife management is, therefore, likely to receive greater attention in the post-COVID-19 world. Here’s one example of an ongoing project in South Africa.

Kruger National Park, a flagship national park, is almost the same size as Belgium. It’s a haven for wildlife and a cornerstone of South Africa’s tourism economy but the park and the communities around its borders represent the global front line in the battle against rhino poaching: there are increasingly militarized clashes between park rangers and poachers.


Original image as posted by UN Environment Programme: A herder with his cattle in Utah village in the Eastern Cape. Cattle hold great cultural significance and can represent a family’s entire savings. Photo by Trond Larsen/Conservation International, 2017

One of the reasons for this is that rhino horn is worth more than its weight in gold, and for many impoverished people in rural South Africa and beyond, that’s an irresistible draw.

One Global Environment Facility-backed project, part of the Conservation Agreements Private Partnership Portfolio, sought to reboot the relationship between park administrators and local people. Led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and  Conservation International with partners Meat Naturally, Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Programme, South African National Parks, and the University of Pretoria, the project, The GEF Earth Fund: Conservation Agreement Private Partnership Platform, aimed to move towards a new model for combating poaching—one that works with the local community instead of against them, by  valuing cattle as well as rhino.

Before the project, marginalized cattle farming communities living around the park were understandably ambivalent about wildlife protection. They were focused on their cattle which is their livelihood, their job, their food source and their bank account. In fact, because wildlife and livestock coexist here, foot- and-mouth disease prevented any real cattle economy from taking hold. Communities could not easily sell livestock in the Kruger landscape, so wildlife itself was perceived as a threat to local livelihoods.

“The idea was that if we can help marginalized cattle farmers improve grazing conditions and earn decent incomes, they would become more active conservation partners and potentially be less likely to turn a blind eye to, facilitate or participate in rhino poaching,” says Zachary Wells of Conservation International.

“To help biodiversity, ecosystems and communities thrive we need to tackle wildlife crime and at the same time open up new opportunities for local communities,” he adds.

Michael Grover, Landscape Director at Conservation South Africa, recalls at the beginning of the programme a community elder being asked for assistance in countering the growing poaching threat. The elder said, “You don’t value what we have. Why should we value what you have?” His solution: “You look after our cattle and we’ll look after your rhinos.”

The resulting conservation agreements model has now been formally recognized by the Government of South Africa as a viable stewardship model for communal land management.

The Degraded Mnisi Rangelands

Among the project’s beneficiaries are the livestock-dependent Mnisi community adjacent to Kruger National Park.

Under the project, communities practice environmentally friendly ways of grazing their livestock and, in exchange, receive negotiated benefits such as education around market access, fodder, livestock branding and capacity-building.

The project negotiates with livestock owners to restore the ecosystem services of 9,000 hectares of degraded Mnisi rangelands (equivalent to around 13,000 football pitches).

Healthy Cattle, Healthy Grasslands

“Planned grazing helps restore vegetation cover, ensures adequate forage throughout the grazing season, increases infiltration and decreases erosion,” says UNEP biodiversity expert Ersin Esen.


“This results in improved quality and quantity of grazing for livestock—as well as improved ecosystem health for communal rangelands and the rivers that flow through them into Kruger National Park.”

In areas committed to planned grazing through the conservation agreements, the veld condition scores were substantially higher than areas not committed to planned grazing.

“The formation of grazing associations and regular farmer meetings are helping farmers become empowered stewards who make good decisions about their land,” says Rosanne Stanway, Director of Sustainable Agriculture at Conservation South Africa.

Rangeland Restoration Model to be Replicated in Other Countries

Conservation South Africa has made a long-term commitment to continue working with communities. The Kruger to Canyons Biosphere programme, in partnership with Conservation South Africa, have received five years of funding from the Flanders government in Belgium to expand conservation agreements to neighbouring villages, as a direct result of the successes they have seen through investment in Mnisi.

On a broader scale, Meat Naturally, Conservation South Africa and Herding 4 Health – Peace Parks Foundation have entered into a partnership to replicate this rangeland restoration model across four transboundary national parks spanning Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia. An anticipated 200,000 additional hectares will come under conservation agreements, with support from multiple donors.

“Finding solutions that promote restoration and conservation of healthy ecosystems whilst addressing societal inequities here in South Africa can be a model not only for the continent, but for the world,” says Sarah Frazee, climate project director for Herding 4 Health.

“As we continue to relentlessly encroach on nature and degrade ecosystems, we endanger human health,” says UNEP’s Inger Andersen. “In fact, 75 percent of all emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic, i.e. viruses originating from the transfer from animals, whether domesticated or wild, to humans.”

Nature is in crisis, threatened by biodiversity and habitat loss, global heating and toxic pollution. Failure to act is failing humanity. Addressing the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and protecting ourselves against future global threats requires sound management of hazardous medical and chemical waste; strong and global stewardship of nature and biodiversity; and a clear commitment to “building back better”, creating green jobs and facilitating the transition to carbon neutral economies. Humanity depends on action now for a resilient and sustainable future.

Material for this story was drawn from a four-part story series by Conservation International which was supported by the Global Environment Facility Earth Fund, in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) as implementing agency, as part of the Conservation Agreements Private Partnership Platform.