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Poaching and the problem with conservation in Africa (Commentary)

Richard Fynn & Oluwatoyin Kolawole, Mongabay | March 3, 2020

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Poaching is threatening wildlife conservation in Africa. Elephant (Loxodonta africana) and rhino (Ceratotherium simum and Diceros bicornis) populations have been devastated and the bushmeat trade is severely impacting wildlife populations. Who is to blame? Will international funding of anti-poaching forces help to solve the problem?

Crime syndicates may be fuelling the poaching of elephant and rhino but they are not the source of the problem. Rather than treat the symptoms by spending millions on weapons and anti-poaching forces, which experience has repeatedly shown does not stop poaching, there is a need to understand the underlying causes of the poaching problem if it is to be solved.

Original photo as published by Mongabay.

Kruger National Park in South Africa, which spends over $13.5 million annually on anti-poaching, has the most highly-trained and dedicated anti-poaching force in Africa, including dividing the park into 22 sections, each with its own section ranger and a team of field rangers, use of dog tracker packs, helicopter support, and the South African defense force to offer assistance.

Yet with all this money spent and all the manpower effort, 504, 421 and 327 rhino were poached in Kruger in 2017, 2018 and 2019, respectively. Although the number of poached rhinos is going down each year, it is partly because there are fewer and fewer rhinos left to poach, with their numbers having declined exponentially in Kruger since 2011.

This underscores our point that if all the money spent on the massive, highly coordinated anti-poaching effort in Kruger cannot prevent the poaching of rhino, how much more difficult will it be to save elephant and rhino populations in other African countries that do not have access to this sort of funding?

For example, in spite of all the efforts of national defence forces and wildlife departments, elephant numbers are in a catastrophic decline. The main mandate of the Botswana Defence Force is anti-poaching. Yet, they have been unable to curb rhino and bush meat poaching in Botswana. So why is poaching such a problem?

In his paper “Everyday Forms of Resistance,” Professor James Scott, a political scientist at Yale, outlined the reasons for poaching and why it is so difficult to control. Scott noted that poaching (as a form of resistance) metamorphoses into a form of class conflict between the local, rural disenfranchised class and the external, affluent class. We need to first understand that, local people across Africa were moved out to create protected areas (PAs).

Today, international tourism companies and national governments make millions from the resources (wildlife and scenery) within these PAs while local communities are pushed to the periphery and do not benefit from them. The disenfranchisement of the Maasai in both Kenya and Tanzania is a case in point and well known; a recent article on this issue was recently published right here on

Evidence of local communities’ displacement abound. For instance, the book Conservation and Mobile Indigenous Peoples: Displacement, Forced Settlement, and Sustainable Development provides many case studies, highlighting the devastating effects of displacement by PAs on peoples’ livelihoods through the ensuing loss of access to traditional resources and adaptive strategies, such as key forage resources for livestock in wetlands during drought years.

To make things worse, not only do local communities not benefit from conservation, but they are confronted with a serious challenge of having to contend with conflict with wildlife. Marauding elephants damage farmers’ crops and kill people. Lions and other carnivores kill people and their livestock, while wildlife-related diseases, such as foot and mouth disease, only translate to receiving a pittance for the sale of livestock as compared to regions where wildlife is absent. Thus, local communities are carrying a very heavy burden of conservation while elites carry very little of the burden, resulting in the cost-benefit ratio of conservation being strongly skewed in favor of tourism companies, national governments, and the international conservation community.

While this situation is not ethically and morally acceptable, it is also not in any way sustainable. A recent article in the Ngami Times, “Okavango Delta robbed to feed the rich” (January 17-24, 2020), lamented the fact that outside people and elites are getting rich from the Okavango Delta while the local people are kept in poverty. This is true across Africa.

Recently, the governor of Kajiado County in Kenya, Joseph ole Lenku, threatened to order his people to start killing wildlife unless they are given much better benefits from wildlife conservation. As local people continue to be disenfranchised by conservation policies and practice, they are angry because they see others benefiting from their resources, while they receive very little or nothing therefrom; they only witness the damage caused by wildlife on their livelihoods.

As James Scott noted:

To do so affirms the fact that class conflict is, first and foremost, a struggle over the appropriation of work, property, production, and taxes. Consumption, from this perspective, is both the goal and the outcome of resistance and counter-resistance. Petty thefts of grain or pilfering on the threshing floor may seem like trivial ‘coping’ mechanisms from one vantage point; but from a broader view of class relations, how the harvest is actually divided belongs at the center. [Our emphasis.]

Scott also provided some insights into why poaching becomes so difficult to control when rural people are disenfranchised by an inequitable conservation harvest:

The problems of enforcement, however, are not entirely attributable to geography and demography; they are due at least as much to tacit complicity, and, occasionally active cooperation among the population from which the poachers come. Consider the difficulties that poachers would face if local residents were actively hostile to them and willing to give evidence in court. Poaching as a systematic pattern of reappropriation is simply unimaginable without a normative consensus that encourages it or, at a minimum, tolerates it. Otherwise it would be a simple matter to apprehend offenders. The forms such coordination and cooperation might take are extremely difficult to bring to light. [Our emphasis.]

Given that local people are probably poaching mainly for socioeconomic benefits (selling of bush meat, ivory, or rhino horn), such acts would be extremely difficult to sustain without cooperation and complicity among the population from which the poachers come. This demonstrates that resistance of authorities is a key element sustaining the viability of poaching. Poaching, as an act of resistance, is achieved through informal rural social networks; they hide and even encourage poachers and the middlemen to hunt game and buy meat, ivory, and rhino horn.

Herein lies the answer to the poaching problem: Local communities, who are born and bred in the area, know the landscapes intimately, have well-developed local social networks in these areas, and, as such, are ultimately able to outwit government conservation agencies who don’t know the area and don’t have the local social networks and sufficient funding or manpower to operate at every local situation. Thus, the level of legal authority is mismatched with the level of management requirements (a scale mismatch). Local communities, with their social networks and local support, hide the middlemen buying the meat, ivory, and rhino horn. They have information through their networks on where government patrols are, and by that means find it easy to avoid them. If caught, they have the local police on their side, who are their own people and who sympathize with them, hence poachers, in many cases, are let off the hook and their weapons returned to them. Consequently, government conservation agencies are rarely able to effectively control poaching, as witnessed in the incessant rhino, elephant, and bush meat poaching occurring across Africa.

These same factors that enable local communities to outwit government conservation agencies also make them much more effective conservators, because they are better matched to the local scale than centralized, state-led institutions. For instance, the greater knowledge of local communities about their local landscapes, combined with the practicalities of living on site, resulted in wildlife scouts from a community wildlife management area (WMA) in the Luangwa Valley of Zambia to clock more working hours and arrest more poachers than government scouts.

These local communities were given ownership rights and decision-making power over wildlife in their area and derived benefits from wildlife conservation through tourism, trophy hunting, and meat from hunted animals. Soon the chief ordered his people to no longer poach and to report the presence of poachers. With their strong social networks, it became impossible for external poachers to remain undetected. This resulted in a tenfold reduction of rhino and elephant poaching. Similarly, Namibian conservancies, where local communities have been given ownership over wildlife, have seen a great reduction in poaching of rhino, with some having not lost a single rhino in the last two years.

The significance of the positive outcomes in these community conservation projects becomes clearly apparent when contrasted with the indelible flood of rhino poaching in Botswana and South Africa, where local communities neither have ownership and decision-making powers over wildlife nor derive any benefit from wildlife. Another example is the Rovuma elephant project, which is a community project in Tanzania. Here local communities are involved in decision-making and their village members engage in anti-poaching activities. While elephants are being devastated by poaching all around their area in the government-controlled PAs of the Selous Game Reserve, elephant poaching in their immediate local area has dropped dramatically.

These testaments are living proof. The reasons for conservation problems in Africa are not far-fetched. The problems are inextricably linked to government control of conservation and the associated moral and ethical problems of displacement and disenfranchisement of local communities by PAs while elites benefit from their resources — a colonial conservation mindset that is no longer acceptable. Thus, it is time to give local communities’ lands back to them and allow them to conserve and derive benefits from wildlife conservation in their local areas, where they have the decision-making rights over wildlife management. True and valid devolution of decision-making rights to local communities means that they, not governments, decide on who they will partner with in tourism and they, not consultants, decide on how they will manage their areas.

This also means that local communities must decide whether they want to have trophy hunting in their area. It is a direct violation of decision-making rights of local communities for governments to implement nation-wide hunting bans, as this greatly undermines the former’s ability to demonstrate ownership of and derive value from wildlife. The hunting ban in Botswana caused loss of access to game meat and collapsed income flows from wildlife to local communities, causing resentment of external control of conservation, implemented from the top down, against their wishes, which has resulted in increased poaching.

Community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) thrives when full decision-making rights and benefits from wildlife are devolved to local communities. Theory and factual evidence show that this is the only solution to ensuring that wildlife conservation is sustainable.

Science-based frameworks, such as the social-ecological systems framework (SESF), clearly articulate the governance principles for sustainable conservation, highlighting the importance of devolving autonomy of decision-making rights and benefits from wildlife to local communities. So successful has this framework been for community conservation worldwide that Elinor Ostrom, one of its key proponents, was awarded a Nobel Prize. Similarly, decades of research on CBNRM in Africa have confirmed the importance of local people’s decision-making rights and benefits from wildlife for promoting successful local community conservation projects. Ostrom and Nagendra reached similar conclusions in south Asia from studies of forest use by local communities under different governance regimes. They note:

If the formal rules limiting access and harvest levels are not known or considered legitimate by local resource users, substantial investment in fences and official guards to patrol boundaries are needed to prevent ‘illegal’ harvesting. Without these expensive inputs, government-owned, ‘protected’ forests may not be protected in practice… when the users themselves have a role in making local rules, or at least consider the rules to be legitimate, they are frequently willing to engage themselves in monitoring and sanctioning of uses considered illegal, even of public property.

By contrast, if these principles are overridden and centralized by government agencies, then local communities are likely to resist conservation objectives, even causing a collapse of conservation efforts.

Across Africa, national governments refuse to devolve decision-making power and benefits from wildlife to local communities. Thus, poaching is unsurprisingly out of control. African governments have, therefore, reaped, and are still reaping, the harvest of their bad policy decisions. So far, only the Namibian government has been brave enough to bring in proper science-based policies that devolve ownership, decision-making rights, and benefits from wildlife to local communities. The Namibian government now reaps the benefits as witnessed in very low poaching rates and growing rhino populations in their country. Wise and proper policies bring good results!

Indeed, it is now time to give local communities large concession areas in and around PAs, over which they have autonomy of decision-making rights, managed through their local institutions, and through which they could benefit from tourism, trophy hunting, fishing, collection of veldt products such as thatching grass, reeds, and wild food plants, and, importantly, access to key traditional grazing resources for their livestock (planned in a manner that facilitates co-existence with wildlife).

It must be emphasized that the role of national governments in conservation is not eclipsed by these community-centered approaches to conservation, but rather re-aligned from managing local scale problems, such as anti-poaching patrols, to playing overseeing, coordinating, and supporting roles at national scales. This could involve coordinating cross-scale conservation networks that include various government departments, parastatals, local and international NGOs, researchers, and private sector interests that support and promote the success of community conservation projects.

Tourist companies are not threatened by such an arrangement either. Instead of partnering with governments and paying government concession fees, they can now partner with local communities and pay them directly. This ensures that local communities get much better financial benefit from conservation — a critical ingredient for sustainability.

The proof of concept for giving back lands to local communities within PAs can be seen in the Makuleke example, where the Makuleke community were given back the northern section of Kruger from which they had been displaced. They have successfully run this section of Kruger in partnership with South African National Parks, with support from conservation NGOs.

Giving local communities land within PAs can also play a key role in negotiating for conserving important land for wildlife, such as migration corridors, in community areas outside PAs, which was observed when the Makuleke community added some of their land outside Kruger to their repatriated land within Kruger.

Devolving power and benefits to local communities will enable local communities to acquire full responsibility for anti-poaching operations, which they are much better positioned to do than external agencies who do not have the social networks and local knowledge needed to effectively perform oversight functions in the local area. As witnessed in the Luangwa Valley and Namibian conservancies, there is every likelihood that there will be a significant decline in poaching once community conservation is properly implemented.

Ultimately, the solution to significantly reduce poaching across Africa is not going to be about increasing state-led anti-poaching forces and their automatic weapons. As witnessed in Kruger, the cost of relying on government-controlled anti-poaching forces is immense and ineffective. These unnecessary costs could have been avoided under community conservation and the money more effectively invested into developing community conservation programs.

Richard Fynn is an Associate Professor of Rangeland Ecology and Oluwatoyin Kolawole is a Professor of Rural Development, both at the Okavango Research Institute, University of Botswana, Maun.