Failed Saviors

Failed Saviors

Are ecotourism and wildlife conservation in Africa so sacrosanct in the minds of their supporters that they’ve dodged proper regulation or perhaps even swerved off moral pathways?

I obtained with pride a Conde Nast ecotourism award in 2004 for my client, Hoopoe Safaris of Tanzania. But in the decade since then my own ideas about ecotourism and NGO involvement in African conservation have changed.

There are two issues, here. The first is that “ecotourism” is no longer a legitimate marker for good tourism practices in Africa. The second is that wildlife NGOs have grown increasingly callous of the priorities of local populations. So the two are related. Both discount the preeminent interests of local people in the areas where they work.

The common thread that I’ve watch develop over the last decade is that western-driven “charity” or “aid” or “consultation” or “community based tourism” has grown increasingly detached from the people who theoretically will benefit from those efforts.

Even if there aren’t contextual conflicts, disputes about goals or methodology, the ignoring of the local populations’ interests spawns conflict. Imagine what you might feel if a Chinese NGO came into your suburban neighborhood and began research then implementation of plans to cultivate an herbal remedy … like garlic mustard… in the city parks. You would at least expect participation in the discussion, and you would become infuriated if you weren’t consulted.

In the last decade African populations have increased substantially, and their educational levels have grown exponentially. Most of Africa is well linked to the outside world through increased internet and cell phone access. This empowers the local communities to better scrutinize their so-called foreign benefactors.

ECOTOURISM IS A SHAM
The academic community has always been skeptical of ecotourism. A 2007 Harvard study of Tanzania ecotourism concluded that while most such projects seemed legitimate, there was a substantial percentage that weren’t. An analysis by Ohio State University in 2011 of Tanzania ecotourism was much more damning. The report actually named (accused) specific Tanzanian operators that were scamming tourists with the ploy of arguing their products were ecotouristic when they were anything but.

The above studies, and many more referenced within them, are convincing documents that ecotourism if not an outright scam is a very poorly formed idea. The initial theories might be good, but implementation seems impossible. And the Ohio State study in particular described why self-appointed certification authorities weren’t working, either, so that the notion of creating some universal standard is mute.

The UN initially thought otherwise. It promoted ecotourism but has since backed away from the idea. Almost a year ago exactly I posted several blogs citing the growing skepticism with ecotourism throughout the world. Nothing has changed; ecotourism as commonly applied in the marketing of travel is neither honest or good.

Khadija Sharife in the Africa Report summed it perfectly last week in the post’s title, “The Drunken Logic of Ecotourism.”

WILDLIFE NGO ARROGANCE
But in the year since I and many, many others pointed out the disservice that using the marketing ploy, “ecotourism,” does to local peoples, another foreign fixture of African life has emerged as equally unfair and misleading: wildlife NGOs.

It will be harder to convince you of this, I know. The loyalty that the world’s great animal savior organizations command is legend. It’s one thing to suggest that a tour company is scamming you while not serving the local populations well. It’s another to make this claim against the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) or the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

WWF’s long involvement in Africa stands mostly as a fabulous contribution to baseline research and good management of threatened and endangered species. But as with the morphing of the idea of ecotourism into a marketing scam, it could be that WWF’s longevity of success gave it an unwarranted sense of propriety.

Its most serious conflict is in the Rufiji delta, the outskirts of the great Selous game reserve in Tanzania, which has come under increasing scrutiny because of its enormous hydroelectric potential. A much greater controversy actually than the WWF one I describe below is the World Bank’s program for a hydroelectric dam that could seriously disrupt The Selous and Rufiji delta basin.

But the World Bank’s mission to help developing countries grow can quite plausibly include draining a game reserve for additional electricity. Discussions are heated and ongoing, and everyone accepts one important debate is who should make the decision? Professionals weighing the overall value to Tanzanian society, or local people immediately impacted?

Quite unlike the World Bank, WWF skipped this important debate when it began programs to inhibit rice farming on the outskirts of The Selous. Local rice farmers were obviously the first to be impacted, but they were allowed no input into the decisions regarding the project.

The project mission was always suspect to me, but the rapid implementation without adequate consultation with the local population reeks of arrogance. The entire project has now collapsed into all sorts of criminal and unethical consequences. Eight WWF employees have resigned, plus the Tanzania country director, Stephen Mariki.

WWF should be complemented for trying to right the wrong, but the culture that led to their presumption of determining the life ways of local Tanzanian people is the real problem. And that will be a much harder thing to remedy than just abandoning one project. An overhaul in staff is a good start.

The current most egregious wildlife NGO controversy, however, is on no path to reconciliation because the organization, the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), continues to defend its position.

AWF encapsulates its overall mission in the phrase “heartlands.” Over the last several decades AWF created heartland areas throughout sub-Saharan Africa in which to concentrate its research and assistance. An essential purpose is to create wildlife corridors between established nationally gazetted protected wildlife areas like national parks to increase the potential for biodiversity.

Noble. The problem for some time has been to create these corridors, land must be acquired from private holders. This may have something to do with AWF’s decision to form a close partnership with the Nature Conservancy in 2007.

But what happens when farmers or other landholders don’t want to sell? AWF’s response has been high-handed and infuriated local communities.

In and around their large Manyara ranch holding in Tanzania, AWF negotiated versions of eminent domain with the Tanzanian government that caused enormous friction locally. And now in Kenya their acquisition of land (which they subsequently tried to deed over to a new Kenyan Laikipia National Park) is on track to totally cripple all their good efforts in East Africa.

AWF insists it has been playing by the rules. But two thousand Samburu people don’t care if they were playing by the rules or not; they insist with credibility that they have been displaced against their will.

Unlike WWF, AWF seems to be digging in its heels for a fight that will emasculate it. And if it goes down as I expect it will, so will the reputation and memories of good work that wildlife NGOs have been undertaking for decades in Africa.

Why is AWF resisting an acceptable settlement? AWF is a much younger organization than WWF, and its donor base is much smaller than WWF, much less publicly than individually endowed.

Nature Conservancy is itself a less publicly endowed organization limited to wealthy landowners mostly in Illinois. It could be that these two closely held NGOs feel less vulnerable to public opinion than a more globally funded organization like WWF.

Both these situations — ecotourism as a sham and wildlife NGOs indifferent to local community needs — represent not just outside interference but patent indifference to the preeminent rights of local people. And because that indifference has been so arrogant – dare one say “racist”? – it led these otherwise exemplary organizations into believing they could discount local community interests.

Africa is developing so rapidly I can see incidents of polite refusal, so to speak, of tourist projects and foreign wildlife programs that are put to bed rather easily. The recent controversy in the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) involving the translocation of rhino is a good example of “local populations” politely indicting foreign organizations trying to tell them what to do.

But in heated political arenas, this politeness will be lost. WWF had to back down altogether, fire staff and refund grants. AWF should do the same. When sensibilities are exchanged for political control, foreign tour companies and foreign wildlife NGOs have no hope of prevailing.

Beware, guys. A lot of good has come from your work in the last half century. Don’t blow it.

Lions going extinct? Or Maasai?

Lions going extinct? Or Maasai?

Maasai cow laced with poison kills entire lion pride.
Richard Leakey’s excellent wildlife consortium, Wildlife Direct, said today that “Kenya’s lions are on the brink of extinction.” Exaggeration or real warning?

Probably both.

The organization’s warning followed an incident in late April where three lions were poisoned in Lemek, a private wildlife conservancy north of Kenya’s famed Maasai Mara game reserve.

Wildlife officials arrested the alleged killer, a Maasai herder, who admitted the poisoning and showed wildlife officials the powder he used. He explained that the lion had been killing his cattle.

Lion have been killing Maasai stock for aeons. And in the old days Maasai morani would spear the lion to death and that usually did the trick. Today, pesticides have replaced spears. In this case, pending chemical analysis, wildlife officials believe the poison was carbofuran – widely available in Kenya because it’s used in the cut-flower industry.

Unlike spearing the marauding lion, pesticides laid out for the intruder end up killing the whole pride, and that’s what seems to have happened in this case. In the old days, the speared (usually) male lion traumatized the pride enough that they left the area. Now, there are no lions left to leave.

Killing wildlife in Lemek is a violation of two laws: a federal law against killing lions (that allowed federal officials, the KWS, to become involved) and a business contract with tourist camps in the area.

So the alleged culprit was arrested and arraigned, but later released. Not on bail, but because “a local politician intervened on his behalf,” according to Wildlife Direct.

Don’t get too angry.

Wildlife/human conflicts are on the rise throughout Africa and I don’t believe they are being properly handled. In Kenya a number of initiatives are underway, including KWS programs to educate herders and farmers on the importance of wildlife; in Tanzania more aggressive actions are being funded by organizations like AWF to actually fence portions of farms against intruders as large as elephant.

But as human populations develop and their needs become greater, and particularly during an economic downturn and following a drought, these initiatives can actually exacerbate not solve the problem.

Lemek is an excellent example. This is too far away from the real wilderness of the Maasai Mara, an extension of a “private reserve” because of presumed tourist interests. Many of Africa’s best camps are in private reserves, but I think these private reserves have become too far out.

This is really an area that should be left to stock grazing, and what the Kenyan government and wildlife officials should realize is that trying to expand it for tourism is a bad idea. It should be developed for agriculture.

Lions should not be protected in this area. They should be confined to areas further towards and actually inside the reserve, and if motivated to move out into these areas, they should be picked up or shot by wildlife officials before such messy and uncontrollable acts of poisoning grow widespread.

Protecting them in areas like these just increases the problem.

The Monkey & The Butterfly

The Monkey & The Butterfly

Monkey & ButterlyThe 2009 “Year of the Gorilla” ended very beautifully and very sad. The butterflies will just have to wait.

It was a sad coincidence from the start that the YOG planned so long in advance occurred as the world tailspinned into economic collapse. The whole point of these sponsored years is to focus attention and funds into what has been essentially world organized successes.

The success of the mountain gorilla project is legendary. Its foundation rests not on celebrities like the poorly trained and personally dysfunctional Dian Fossey. (Indeed, I strongly believe after her initial success in publicizing the plight of gorillas, she was more responsible for inhibiting development of the project than any other individual.)

Rather, the remarkable success was with the people – kids at the time – who really sacrificed part of their young professional lives to the cause: they were willing to work in the super-nova umbra of Fosey under enormous difficulties.

George Shaller did the science. Bill Weber and Amy Vedder followed him and created this hall-of-fame project that merged gorilla conservation with local development including tourism. And this triad of science and society had no precedent.

It was an amazing beginning, and you can buy their dramatic story from Amazon by clicking here.

The next tier was the grunt field workers cum- or to become scientists and legions of social workers and volunteers and probably primary among them was Craig Sholley. Click here to visit the conservation organization Craig now works for.

So as the heydays of the last decade whirled by with more good news than bad on the conservation front, it made sense to top off the century with the Year of the Gorilla.

Not their fault, Goldman Sachs. So while the various organizations involved have yet to tally the proceeds, the talk on the street is not good. Maybe less than half what was hoped to have been raised was actually realized.

But there are good stories, nonetheless. Researchers, students and volunteers supported by the YOG in Bwindi national park have blazed new trails and new science, and along the way, have even discovered a few new … butterflies.
mass of butterflies
This picture was taken by the volunteer named Douglas Sheil last week in the Bwindi forest. In this montage of several photos are two new species of butterflies.

“We don’t know a huge amount about Bwindi’s butterfly fauna though it appears to be richer than other forests in Uganda,” be blogged.

He then went on to list a few species still lacking confirmation and English names, and basically, took the pictures and left the science.

For others, when funds become available.

Maasai Rebellion?!

Maasai Rebellion?!

A continuing struggle in the private game reserves of the Mara/Serengeti border area has been exacerbated by the drought and economic downturn and may turn violent.

A number of private reserves in the Loliondo area, which lies on the eastern border of the Serengeti and southern border of the Mara, risk growing civil disruption by the local Maasai as well as rapidly increased poaching.

This is a beautiful area that is normally big game rich, although it is quite seasonal. It includes &Beyond’s prestigious Klein’s Camp, as well as a number of less upmarket camps. Until recently it was a model for Community Based Tourism (CBT) projects.

But the Tanzanian government’s decision to forcibly evict thousands of Maasai from the area has provoked several violent encounters between rangers and Maasai. Moreover, the drought which is worse just over the border in Kenya, has motivated thousands more Kenyan Maasai to migrate into the Tanzanian area with their herds. And finally, the economic downturn has led to a serious increase in poaching in the area.

The area is a tinderbox. Maasai are legendary for their personal bravery, but as communities they are not wont to organize. But this time it might be different.

A coalition of 25 prestigious local Tanzanian organizations, including the Legal and Human Rights Centre (LHRC) and Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team delivered a letter on August 27 to the Tanzanian government, demanding that the forced evictions stop. Then on September 10 the coalition demanded a number of legislative and policy changes that would begin to remove some of the foreign businesses from the area.

The government’s response was brutal.

The Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism, Ms Shamsa Mwangunga, released a statement on September 14 slamming the coalition, threatening harsh sanctions against them, and almost as an aside, promising that the government would keep the area safe for tourists.

My take is that this is not going to get better, soon.

* * *

A decade ago Tanzania was in the forefront of CBT development and it was here in Loliondo that the model was working best. There were some truly outstanding individuals, such as Hoopoe Safaris’ Peter Lindstrom, who worked tirelessly not only to protect these wilderness areas from rampant development, but to fashion them into productive businesses for the Maasai who owned the land.

The idea was pretty simple and has been successful all over the world. Rather than farm wheat or grow cattle, camps and lodges would be built that would attract tourists who wanted to experience the natural, wild area.

The benefits to the Maasai ten years ago were substantial. Hoopoe’s small 8-tent camp at Olipiri generated as much as $35,000 annually for the otherwise impoverished local community. In the successful decade that followed a number of village Maasai became Hoopoe employees, were educated in the cities by Hoopoe, then started their own businesses.

In 2004 Conde Nast awarded Hoopoe the prestigious “Best EcoTourism Company in the World” award, in part for their efforts here.

Several other companies also became involved. &Beyond (formerly CCAfrica), and Dorobo Safaris all undertook similar arrangements to Hoopoe’s. Klein’s Camp (&Beyond) became one of the most prestigious camps in Tanzania.

But as I think back to those days, I suppose we should have known things would go awry. To begin with, there was an odd apple in the box: the OBC corporation. This United Emirates’ company was squeezed between the Klein’s and Hoopoe concessions. And guess what, they were hunters.

And not just your ordinary everyday quarter-million dollar tourist hunter. This is a corporation of the royal family of the Emirates. They don’t like commercial flights, so they built an airstrip on the concession that could take jumbo jets. And when they arrived each July and August to decimate the area game, they erected little cities. I remember when I would drive into Hoopoe’s camp, my cell phone would welcome me to “United Arab Emirates CellTel Company.”

Clearly most everything that OBC did was beyond the rules the government had set for CBT programs. Start with air waves and then add air routes. Everyone at the time knew that there was more involved than relationships with the Maasai. Royal money was exchanging hands.

From time to time guests at Klein’s would complain they would see zebra shot. But it was very infrequent and in the main the Arabs did their best to stay under the cover of their air waves. They were also there only two months every year.

But they were also weird bed fellows to the good souls like Hoopoe and Dorobo who were truly trying to build a sustainable Maasai project.

Enter drought and world economic decline.

Poaching has increased everywhere, of course, and serious local battles such as the one that left 30 people dead not far from the tourist camps in Kenya’s Samburu two weeks ago are much more serious right this moment than what is happening in Loliondo. But Loliondo’s history is more convoluted and may take much more than just the predicted rains to recover.