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The value of wildlife resources to African people

It seems to be a fait accompli. African wildlife is up for sale to the highest (or most persuasive) bidders.

Putting aside the illegal practices that see rhinos and elephants and lions poached for financial gain, and bushmeat trade, this article is about wildlife utilization through tourism and hunting ventures. Tourism has been held up as the best “green” solution, and trophy hunting as a necessary concession to preserving land for wildlife as an alternative to rapacious agricultural expansion. Both camps claim to have wildlife conservation as key to their activities, but where does the truth lie?

It is clear that African governments have based their wildlife conservation policies on finance. If it does not pay, it must go. Few countries have actually adopted any conservation dedication – they will all say this is our national heritage, but at the end of the day they still see zebras and giraffes and lions and elephants as dollars and not as national obligations to conserve. The governments have been aided in this attitude of course – NGOs, western governments, private investments, and tourism and hunting companies have all donated to the national coffers in the name of wildlife. 


Wildlife is money. Big money in fact. But where does all this money end up? African politicians are an easy target to blame, and doubtless many have individually profited. There have been many calls to ensure that African communities benefit from wildlife, as the communities are seen to be key in terms of wildlife conservation. If the communities see wildlife as a better source of income than agriculture, then wildlife will remain according to the mantra. However, this attitude is based on a concept of tolerance aided by finance rather than an intrinsic conservation ethic. Pay us and you will keep it, say the communities, don’t pay us and we will eat it. Is that a harsh statement? Perhaps so, but it is realistic in terms of attitudes of people attempting to make ends meet under very difficult African conditions.

So in step the tourism and hunting companies. Both profess to conserve wildlife by acknowledging community needs and rights, and both, if I might be so bold, take a colonial attitude. Under colonial rule, the UK, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Portugal, etc took African resources to benefit their economies. Now, instead of governments, it is companies that do the same. Both tourism and hunting companies bank their profits overseas. Both tourism and hunting companies claim to benefit African wildlife conservation, and say they benefit communities by building schools, clinics, and establishing water supplies.
Very laudable and correct, but perhaps these should be government responsibilities, not the role of private companies seeking to gain community votes for future leases. How would the governments afford this? Perhaps by taxing the companies appropriately in terms of their local and foreign profits based on utilization of national wildlife resources.

A bit of explanation here – companies and taxes are like oil and water – they do not readily mix. The larger tourist and hunting companies generally run two operations – their booking and marketing overseas, and their local ventures at the destinations.
Let’s say you have a few thousand dollars in your bank account, and decide to spend it on an African vacation for four. Botswana is your destination, and you select an upmarket company. For ten days, you could spend $40,000 just on accommodation. That is paid into an overseas account, home of the booking arm. Let’s say you want to hunt an elephant in Botswana. You are going to pay for a 21-day safari whether you “bag” the elephant on the first day or the last. The money goes to the overseas account. The point here is this – the African resource is being utilized whether through photographic or hunting tourism, but the value of the money you paid does not accrue to Africa, as the local operations are kept on separate accounts. Oh, and the funding for the schools and clinics? Often donated by those visitors with disposable cash convinced to do good rather than the companies themselves.

An article in the Economist (September 4-10, 2010, Horns Claws and the Bottom Line) advocates privatisation as a possible answer to the overall failure of governmental conservation. Rich local and overseas investors could provide the break-through according to the Economist. But this does not address the basic issue. 


Who is winning hearts and minds in terms of conservation of wildlife in Africa? What business (tourism vs. hunting) is more effective? I would say neither.
As long as public opinion and resources in Africa can be bought, the highest bidder will prevail. As long as there is no recognition of the intrinsic value of wildlife in Africa by their citizens, it will remain open season. Both tourism and hunting exploit the resource, and they put far too little back. The will to change the formula needs to come from Africans themselves, and the financial handouts to politicians or the small profits that accrue to communities should not seduce them. It is their national resources that are being traded on the international market, and the sooner African nations realize the true value of wildlife resources for their common good, the better off they will be in terms of durable financial returns. And who knows – conservation awareness among African people not based purely on finance might yet grow? 

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Posted by Pieter Kat at 14:12

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