Who have we been conserving Africa for?

By November 10, 2021November 22nd, 2021Editorial

Leopard, Kruger National Park, South Africa. © Dave Pusey/Shutterstock.

I have just finished reading Jacob Dlamini’s Safari Nation: A social history of the Kruger National Park. A colleague recommended it to me when we were in Kruger National Park earlier this year and often embroiled in discussions around transformation and conservation. I couldn’t wait to get a copy, and the moment I had it, I dived straight in, highlighter poised.

My first time in the Kruger was in 2018, at an international conference. My memories of the experience are still vivid—the months leading up to it, the drive down to the Lowveld, the sights, the people, everything… I was both excited and apprehensive. It was two years since I had completed my undergraduate degree, and determined to forge a career in conservation, I now wanted to upskill myself to be eligible for jobs or participation in a meaningful postgraduate project. I had my eye on a master’s program, and although I had finally been accepted, I had no funding. So, encouraged by my supervisor, Professor Peter Mundy, I attended the conference armed with a stack of CVs and a hit list of people to approach for funding. It really was a blind leap of faith. I’d never been to such an event and had no idea of what I was going to find. What’s more, I was to present a poster without a clear idea of what scientific posters at that level ought to look like. But I was determined to participate, not just as a spectator but also as a biologist.

Kruger is famous and charismatic in a famous and charismatic African country. As a Zimbabwean, I am well aware of South Africa’s reputation of “big brothering”; casting a long cold shadow over its neighbors. While understandable, it can be much to the disadvantage of other countries, for often South Africa upstages them or assumes to represent what it is to be African on the international stage. It engenders resentment, and it made me determined not to be easily impressed by this vast conservation icon. After all, big, old, pristine African wildernesses also exist elsewhere on the continent, and they, too, are deserving of attention and respect. Therefore, visiting Kruger was not in itself “my dream come true”; it was merely going to be the stunning backdrop to the week I would become a true raptor biologist.

Of course, this resolve was all lost on me the moment we drove up to the Paul Kruger Gate. The facilities at Skukuza, the park’s “capital”, stunned me. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine that a national park in Africa could be like this. From its computer systems at the point of entry to the entertainment facilities on the ever-flowing Sabi River and the glorious Nombolo Mdluli conference center, Kruger was clearly world-class, and I was sold. I felt that this was Africa at its best and so well-represented to our predominantly North American guests. Africa’s most precious china was out of the display cabinet for all to see and wonder at. I was charmed and catapulted into an experience of a lifetime.

Two years later, in November 2020, I was back in Kruger, this time as a raptor biologist assisting my supervisor in trapping and fitting tracking devices on martial eagles, one of Africa’s most charismatic birds of prey. I felt fulfilled. All my efforts were yielding the results that had been a long time coming. On another level, however, I felt disquiet. Let me explain.

As we had driven towards the Phalaborwa entrance to the park, I was taken aback by protest action along the road. Community members thronged around the approach, while some had parked their cars and were in the parking area at the entrance gate. By the end of the week, the protest had turned into tire burning, and the bridge leading to the park had been barricaded. Then, back for further research a few months later, I had to drive five hours to a different gate as the road to the Phalaborwa gate was again blocked by violent protests due to the poor delivery of social services. Apparently, a government official had promised to make an appearance to address the long-standing issues but hadn’t pitched up, and tensions were high. I understood the frustration of anger, but the fact they were blocking the road into Kruger didn’t make sense to me. But soon, I was busy with my research, and it was all behind me, forgotten.

Kruger is truly beautiful, abounding in its diversity of wildlife, vegetation, landscapes, you name it. After the good rains this year, it was teeming with life and promise for every species I encountered, from the golden orb spiders everywhere to the regal leopards that can make your day if sighted. There were no protests when driving out in the south through the Numbi Gate after finishing my work. Yet, I was suddenly aware of the contrasting poverty and lack of prosperity in the surrounding community, staring me right in the face. I was back in Africa, where Africans live. This was not the serene drive into Skukuza that had so impressed me nearly four years before. Here were the communities we hear about, the communities that border our charismatic parks. So much abundance adjacent to such a stark lack of it. A lack of progress, prosperity, access, and ownership.

This, of course, is the general trend in most of Africa. It’s generally accepted because parks are adjacent to rural districts where there is minimal development. But that’s not the park’s problem, is it? It’s the government’s responsibility. Right? Clean running water, reliable electric power supply, good roads, hospitals, and schools… the lack of these basics of decent living is synonymous with rural Africa. So, here I was, after being immersed in Kruger’s greatness, its facilities, and the neat, tidy countryside fringing the main roads leading up to the main gate, being reminded yet again of the impoverished reality of rural Africa. Where once I wouldn’t have questioned the lack of everything, accepting it as the reality we expect in rural Africa, I suddenly felt the uneasiness of being part of the privileged other. Now I was the one getting to see and enjoy the beauty and prosperous side of this amazing wilderness without fighting to exist in its leeward, dry side.

Kruger’s contribution and value to the country as a brand and a commitment to conservation spanning a century and more is beyond question. Almost all the conservationists I have met in South Africa attribute their career choice to childhood trips with family to Kruger—it’s hard not to be inspired while you are there. However, I would suggest to everyone who loves the Kruger to read Safari Nation. History is science too; it is much a part of the present as it is of the past, and its “truths” must be rigorously challenged. Kruger’s real history is important for conservationists to know and appreciate even as they work in quiet solitude, undisturbed by the service delivery protests outside the big gates.

We have different motivations and values for conservation, and sometimes those differences are profound and divisive. However, we should be able to negotiate a reasonable middle ground, realizing that everything exists in landscapes, including our precious conservation subjects. Romantic notions of pristine, virgin landscapes suggesting otherwise should not be the basis of conservation interventions. Such approaches are not only elitist in nature; they are also unrealistic and, in part, have brought us to where we are today. Conservation owes its terrible history and reputation to this. The forced removals, disenfranchisement of indigenous communities, and the shameless exploitation of natural resources to develop wealth for the nations and people of other continents who had assumed the right to be here in Africa and make places like Kruger a part of their landscapes.

These things cannot be undone, but they can be better understood and managed into the future. Negotiating a middle ground for such a process must recognize the lived experiences of African people, individually and collectively. It requires conservation to be redefined and repurposed to ensure that it is considerate of and prioritizes their needs, which far exceed the community-based natural resources management inherent in current programs. Thatching grass, spoils from the carcasses of hunted beasts, access to burial or ritual sites, and service jobs, among other reforms, are simplistic and inadequate.

The future of wildlife research and conservation lies not in conventional, single-species-focused programs but in harnessing “landscape” thinking to better understand the full spectrum of the elements involved. The most important of these landscapes are temporal, political, and spatial.

Temporal landscapes speak to time: present, past, and yet to be. So, for future conservation planning to be effective, the time landscape in which the elements exist must be considered. For example, Kruger has a history. On the one hand, this history is about white colonialists setting aside land for the sake of conserving species that I, as a young black woman, now study and work with. On the other, this reality has come about because of an absolute disregard for the suffering of people moved off the land. This was done without negotiation or compensation to make way for conservation. One laughs at the irony while simultaneously raging at the racist audacity of it all. So, what does it mean to be black and in the Kruger, knowing the history, more so to be a black South African in conservation? Furthermore, what does this history tell us of those previous generations excluded and abused for the conservation “cause”? What do we as supporters and beneficiaries of the park owe them?

Moving forward, we ought to support long-term conservation initiatives over short-term, popular interventions. These initiatives must be autonomous and sustainable while having the interests of present and future generations of the people in the landscape designed into them. And while we plan for climate change and other critical ecological realities, let’s not neglect economic and tourism models. These must be relevant to the issues of today and, at the same time, pay homage to where we have been as a people. Unlike our convictions and behaviors, which are often static and deeply rooted in the past, the temporal landscape moves forward. We must keep up.

Regarding the political landscape, let’s face it, politics runs the world. It affects everything and everyone. So, being politically ignorant is the worst thing to be. History births the politics of the day. Conservation is deeply political, and we won’t make progress if we don’t confront this. The conservation dialogue must be robust and, where necessary, confrontational. If the platforms to do this don’t exist, we must create them, whether for private, academic, or public conversations. For example, during this past year, it has been disheartening to learn about an underlying racist culture of unfair hiring and payment of staff. Race-based rejection in some research areas and other equally offensive comments and prejudices are not new experiences. However, the real problem is the lack of suitable platforms in the conservation environment for safely reporting and raising these matters. As a result, everyone buries their head as long as the situation doesn’t affect them.

In the greater scheme of things, the political landscape also influences the socio-economic landscape of people within the systems we work in. We need to work towards an Africa that wholly understands the importance of conserving and managing natural resources. The protests at Phalaborwa gate remind us that we currently do not care for the socio-economic needs of the majority of those living outside the park. And if conservation is perceived as being uncaring towards people, what is the motivation for people to care about conservation? It is deplorable that citizens lacking clean water, waste collection, and other services that give a dignified existence should feel less worthy than the animals and sights inside the park.

Natural resources are the wealth of a country. If we want them protected, we have to develop models that show concern for the rising unemployment so skewed towards young black South Africans, models that open doors for them in the wildlife economy as owners and not just as menial workers. If we don’t, conservation will remain irrelevant to their political discussions or manifestos. If anything, in their eyes, conservationists are a hindrance to their economic empowerment. When we cease practicing conservation mainly for the entertainment of the privileged and as a source of charitable handouts for the poor and instead start tailoring action plans for people in all socio-economic classes, only then will biodiversity loss be a ballot box matter.

There is no doubt that we have harnessed spatial landscape knowledge. Indeed, we have come of age. From transfrontier conservation to advanced technological applications, we are only getting better. I dare say, however, that lasting success will depend on how well we read and act on the temporal and political landscapes.

That said, Kruger is a stunning landscape on which our collective histories are transcribed for us to read and inform our future. Its story is a window into the impact and complexity of conservation movements in Africa. We must confront past inequities honestly and address them meaningfully, and we must do this across the length and breadth of Africa. It is important for all in conservation today to hear all voices and open ourselves to learning from past mistakes. The investment required in time and money is worthwhile, for it would be a tragedy for Africa and its people, indeed the whole world, if our precious natural assets were to be lost.

Destruction happens fast, and it would be very hard, perhaps impossible, to rebuild treasures such as Kruger. Over a century of colonial legacies must be met with the serious and lengthy commitments to change they deserve.

*Merlyn Nomusa Nkomo is a Zimbabwean Ornithologist, conservation leader, and writer. She is also a Mandela Rhodes Foundation alumni with leading African youth and communities towards an environmentally just, sustainable, and equitable future at the center of her purpose. Merlyn is a science communicator using public seminar talks, social media, photography, and perspective articles to engage both scientists and the public in making conservation and natural resources management inclusive. She mentors other youth in ornithology and conservation in her home country and aspires towards a transformed, inclusive conservation industry in Africa at large. Merlyn believes in the regenerative power of nature not only as a recreational space but also as a career path for young people and a source of livelihood for local communities. Merlyn writes and consults for the Shannon Elizabeth Foundation and is part of the Youth Empowerment team developing the scholarship fund for African women in conservation.