The following article was first published in The Southern Africa Trumpet, No.2, June, 1997, by the Southern Africa Forum for Communities and NGOs (SAFCAN), and is reproduced with the author's permission.

The End of Fortress Conservation?

It is now generally recognised that rural communities must play a role in conserving the world's biodiversity, but in what role are they to be cast? The old model of conservation, retroactively termed "protectionism", relegated communities to the wings, while outside experts, armed with fences, firearms and laws, became the official guardians of nature. Now there is a new model, based on the philosophy of "sustainable use", which places communities at centre stage by empowering them to manage their natural resources and derive direct benefits from them.

So is the old about to give way to the new? Not without a fight. In the last few years the protectionist model has undergone a radical facelift to dress it up as working both for wildlife and people. The Trumpet visits two initiatives on the cutting edge of contemporary protectionism to see how they shape up.

Boy Tarzan vs. Rambo of the Bush

MKOMAZI GAME RESERVE, NORTHERN TANZANIA: In the cool shade of his glass-fronted residence, a British man switches off the satellite TV. He turns and casts a satisfied gaze toward the horizon - master of all he surveys.

As field director of the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust, Tony Fitzjohn reigns over the 1,500 square miles of Tanzania's largest privately-managed wildlife sanctuary: Mkomazi Game Reserve.

In 1989, the government handed control of the reserve over to the Trust, set up by Fitzjohn and the late George Adamson (husband of Born Free author Joy). Today, it is held up as a model of wildlife conservation, while locals have reportedly renamed Fitzjohn after Africa's greatest ever wildlife advocate: "Boy Tarzan".

Says Trust spokesman Marshall Andrews to the Observer (Apr. 6, 1997), before Fitzjohn arrived the land "was badly overgrazed, there was serious soil erosion and there were no animals. It is now a completely different place and the vegetation has come back." Dirt roads have been laid for tourists, a 10-square-mile electrically fenced compound awaits a herd of South African rhinos costing £60,000 each, and the elephant population grew from two in 1988 to nearly 1,000 in 1993.

Keen to back a winner, the rich and famous have thrown money at the project. Two British royals have helped, as have Sylvester Stallone and Clint Eastwood. Actress Ali MacGraw is a director of the trust, while the Duke of Kent is a patron. Corporate benefactors include Tiffany's, Cartier, British Petroleum and British Airways.

But just as important as Fitzjohn's skills as a conservationist and fund-raiser was the vision and resolve of those who made the reserve possible in the first place. In 1988, the year before the Trust took over, 8,000 Maasai had to be coaxed into leaving their traditional grazing lands and taking 75,000 cattle with them.

According to press reports only now emerging, this was no simple undertaking. Many apparently needed persuading at the end of a gun, villages were torched, resisters were beaten, and those who came back were fined for trespassing. But the reserve's defenders were unswerving in their commitment to a greater cause: conserving the region's biodiversity for the benefit of mankind.

Sour Grapes

Some of the Maasai, however, have been slow to appreciate this magnanimity towards wildlife. The corridor of land to which they were moved, nestled between the reserve and the scenic Pare mountains, is now grazed out, and cattle-rustling and fights with local farmers are commonplace. Says the Observer, the vegetation is dying, the soil is parched, and malnutrition, tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia and dysentery are rampant. The land is "littered with fly-infested, stinking animal carcasses, children with distended bellies stand in glum groups."

The Trust says it has established outreach programmes for women and even built a school, but the Maasai want more. Still awaited nine years after their eviction are the pond, clean tap water and dispensary offered as compensation.

They also have trouble accepting the contrast between their own lifestyle and that of their new neighbour.

"He has a beautiful house where he can have a luxury sleep with a good fan, while we walk miles for water in the heat," observes Maasai spokesman William Swakei Sikikari. "We don't know where we will get the next meal from, while Tony Fitzjohn is throwing meat to his wild animals including a pack of dogs. Bit by bit, the Maasai are being deprived of their land in the name of conservation. If this is allowed to continue, I'm afraid that we will be a forgotten people."

Fueling this discontent are the Maasai's Western champions. Charles Lane of the International Institute of Environment and Development, for example, calls the reserve "a modern version of colonial imperialism ... throwing out natives and forcing them to live somewhere else." Lord Derek Avebury, chair of Britain's Parliamentary Human Rights Group, is another sympathiser. "Everybody loves the rhino and nobody loves people," he says. "In any area occupied by native people sponsors should explain what they are up to and gain consent of the people."

In time, however, Fitzjohn hopes the Maasai will accept the importance of the reserve for conserving biodiversity, and earn so much money sitting in the dust by the road selling baskets to ecotourists that malnutrition becomes a distant memory. Who knows, they might even be able to afford satellite TVs.

NORTH LUANGWA NATIONAL PARK, ZAMBIA: It is September 1996, and two American researchers are packing their bags for Idaho. They are saying goodbye - or is it just, "until next time"? - to the elephants they have spent a decade of their lives saving.

Since arriving in Zambia's North Luangwa National Park in 1986, Mark and Delia Owens have overseen one of the most successful protection efforts of African wildlife in modern times. With financial backing from the Frankfurt Zoological Society and wealthy philanthropists such as Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, the Owens Foundation for Wildlife Conservation has reduced the poaching of elephants in the 2,400-square-mile park from 1,000 a year to almost none.

The key to this success has been simple: stamp out poaching, and provide poachers with alternative ways to feed their families. In a statement issued this May, the Foundation stands proud before its achievements: "NLCP [the North Luangwa Conservation Project] has supplanted an illicit poaching economy with one based on improved subsistence agriculture, village micro-industries, community services and tourism development. It has virtually wiped out commercial poaching in an area once known as 'The Second Ivory Coast'."

And this is not just the Foundation blowing its own horn. The project has received a glowing endorsement from none other than the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which describes it as "a model program for combining wildlife conservation with development of rural African communities without resorting to consumptive use of wildlife for international markets."

Move over CAMPFIRE and ADMADE, make way for the Owenses!

Fool's Gold

Unfortunately, however, things are not always what they seem.

Poaching in North Luangwa has been dramatically reduced. That much is not in dispute. But how has this been achieved? And how much have the local people actually enjoyed the Owenses' company? Indeed, how much has Zambia enjoyed their company?

According to the Foundation's statement, the Owenses have returned to America to "write, raise funds, rest and seek medical attention for persistent parasite infections." But according to the Sunday Times (Apr. 13), their departure had less to do with parasite infections, and more to do with being "drummed out" because of their "Rambo-style activities in the bush".

For wealthy Western conservationists seeking to make allies of Africa's rural poor, sensitivity and humility are vital if the wounds of the colonial past are not to be reopened. Sensitivity and humility, however, do not seem to have been the Owenses' strong points.

Other local conservationists and safari operators have accused them of taking law and order into their own hands, running North Luangwa as a "private fiefdom". Poaching fishermen, for example, have allegedly been slung by their nets from a helicopter and dumped in the river. The evidence is largely anecdotal, but the Owenses' own writings have done them no favours. In the 1992 book The Eye of the Elephant, Mark describes the thrill of night-time air raids strafing poachers' camps with incendiary devices known as "cherry" bombs:

"'Happy Fourth of July, bastards!' I shout. Then, 'Reload!' I yell to Kasokola as I haul Zulu Sierra through a tight turn. This time we come in fifty feet higher, spreading our cherry bombs over a broader area, hoping to catch the scattering poachers. I jink and sideslip the plane, avoiding their tracers. Kasokola reloads four more times, shooting up the camp again and again until there is no more return fire."

And in a documentary produced by American TV station ABC, entitled "Deadly Game; The Mark and Delia Owens Story", Mark tells rangers: "If you see poachers ... with a firearm, you don't wait for them to shoot at you. You shoot at them first. That means that when you see the whites of his eyes, and if he has a firearm, you kill him before he kills you."

Worst of all, a scene in the documentary - first aired in March 1996 - shows a game scout shooting an apparently unarmed poacher in the back, prompting calls for the Owenses to be charged with manslaughter. The Foundation, however, is adamant that neither of the Owenses was involved in the incident, and that the documentary's producer spliced together selected scenes to create the impression that Mark "was a preservationist run amok, who had formed his own army to save elephants by killing people."

Is It Worth It?

Another rumour doing the rounds has it that in the process of running poachers out of business, the Owenses have been getting rich themselves.

The Foundation (i.e., the Owenses) states that "for more than nine years of their careers they made no salary at all. As recently as 1993 they took no salary from their Foundation because they felt that it was not financially positioned for them to do so." Touching stuff, but you can always make up for lost time.

According to the Foundation's financial returns for 1994, its "officers/directors" - presumably the Owenses themselves - pocketed a cool US$220,000. As critics have pointed out, this can go an awfully long way in Zambia, especially when you're cooking for two.

The Owenses, however, dismiss such talk as smoke without a fire - part of "an all out attack" by nasty people to discredit their work. States Mark: "Some of our detractors stand to gain huge sums from the sale of stockpiled and newly poached ivory if the CITES ivory ban is reversed; others fervently desire to shoot Endangered Species, and know that we oppose this; and still others feel that our Project's success is a threat to the survival of their own consumption based models of conservation."

Nasty People

Who could these nasty people be? The statement continues: "Mark and Delia are not attempting to undermine CAMPFIRE or ADMADE because they involve hunting. In fact, although the Owenses strongly oppose the hunting of endangered species, they support both the ADMADE and CAMPFIRE conservation programs, but merely point out that in areas of Africa too depleted of wildlife, including elephants, to support safari hunting, non-consumptive alternatives should be applied instead. No single approach should be treated as the sole and universal solution to all of Africa's wildlife conservation problems. If hunting should have a role in conservation, so should tourism."

A point is being made here, but is it made well? By running this article, the Trumpet - which shares the Owenses' support for CAMPFIRE and ADMADE - may be fanning the flames. But the fire was lit the day Mark decided it was all right to bomb other people, and tell the world about it in a best-selling book!

And the trigger finger is still itching. Though a source with the Zambian government thinks it highly unlikely the Owenses will be back, the Foundation is adamant that "Mark and Delia plan to return later in 1997 or early 1998."

They say that movie sequels never match up to the originals. Perhaps the people of North Luangwa can do without Rambo Returns.

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