Saving Africa’s Wilderness Spaces – a New Paradigm

I had the privilege this year of attending the Conservation LAB, an important annual get together (referred to as an “un-conference”) on African conservation that focuses on tourism and its relationship with Africa’s wild spaces. Each year, this conference brings together professionals from tour operators and agents, to safari and game lodge operators, to scientists and park officials who operate across the African continent. All of these professionals are focused on a common goal: to help plot a path for the future of Africa’s wilderness habitats and the wild animals that live in them.

In this year’s conference, whilst many topics were covered and all of these are important to Africa’s conservation efforts, what came through for me was the foundational impact that habitat loss and habitat fragmentation is having on the future of Africa’s wildlife.

The human brain loves to categorise, insulate and separate. If you fly over the vastness of, in particular, the South African landscape, you will see the relics of this thinking imprinted on the earth below. You will see neat blocks, endless rectangular pieces scattered within a larger geographical puzzle. Fences of all shapes and sizes – and in various states of repair – separating towns from agricultural land, agricultural land from nature reserves, nature reserves from communal rangeland, and communal rangeland from mines and malls. What remains of the once thriving ecosystem is now cut up into discrete “pockets” of wilderness, disrupting the migration routes and corridors that kept the natural system healthy for millennia.

Every day across Africa, more wild spaces are fragmented as land is swallowed up by other uses and priorities, be they agricultural, human settlements or other industries. As a photographic tourism operation my own lodge, Tanda Tula,operates in the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve,where we are privileged to be surrounded by not only our own 50,000 hectares of pristine wilderness, but also by the vast wilderness which makes up the Greater Kruger National Park – now almost 4 million hectares in extent. Even so, in ecological terms, this vast wilderness is still only a tiny particle within a much larger and infinitely more complex system. Zooming out further, the overall African picture shows a vulnerable, shrinking system that does not know how to compartmentalise and isolate. One that, unlike us humans, wants to connect, and be connected.

So, with all this already on my mind, the discussions at the Conservation LAB emphasized to me how we all tend to fall back on our inclination for black-and-white thinking whenever we talk to each other about how to manage and look after this system that many of us call “home”. This tendency almost always shows up when we think about what may or may not happen in conservation spaces. The Conservation LAB hosted a very informative and civilised debate between the pro – and anti-hunting fraternity. Speakers on both sides were articulate and knowledgeable. Although I detected a new and more broad-minded ambiance around this debate, much of the back-and-forth discussions centred on the “pro” and “anti” arguments we have come to know so well.

Interestingly, an online version of this debate took place on the Africa Geographic and Daily Maverick websites around the same time. First came a passionate critique against hunting, and this was followed by an equally passionate narrative in support of it. I personally find that I have seen all of these arguments, from both sides of the debate, before – none of them offer any new insights and they are all quite frankly getting old. The challenges and opportunities embedded in our ecosystems are not static, one-dimensional or simple. So why is our thinking about these matters so simplistic, and intolerant? And why are we spending our precious time playing around with arguments that tend to divide the conservation community instead of uniting it?

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud the organizers of the Conservation LAB for being brave, and for getting players from polar opposite sides, for the first time, onto the same stage and talking to each other. Whilst this discussion, and the questions and answers session which followed, was a vital step in bringing these parties towards each other, I somehow still felt that the urgent need to come together and save Africa’s habitats was lost in arguments “for” and “against” – I am sure we can do better than this.

Suppose we start with this thought experiment. Let’s firstly accept that neither the trophy hunters, nor the anti-hunting animals rights groups can offer a solution that can be applied neatly across the whole of Africa, with all its 54 countries. Let’s go with the idea that whatever the “pro” and “anti” crowds prescribe, it is unlikely to work in all wilderness habitats across a continent that spans over 30 million square kilometers, and houses over 1.2 billion people.

Let us then temper our strong opinions for the sake of Africa’s remaining wild spaces and rather focus our collective efforts on collaboration and innovation. If we accept that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution, it follows that we need to think more deeply, and creatively, about what works in different contexts. We need to talk to each other, not to convince one another about whose method works best, but rather about how we can pool our collective efforts to address the fundamental challenge – saving Africa’s wilderness habitats from further fragmentation and possible eventual extinction.

This thought experiment becomes more agreeable if we understand a fundamental truth that is hidden away by blistering arguments and emotional appeals. At the heart of both opposing sides of the hunting debate lies the desire to conserve wilderness spaces for future generations. Everyone (“pro” and “anti”) knows that if we allow the wild animal populations in Africa to shrink to zero, both hunting and photo tourism would stop. There is also no question that if we allow Africa’s wildlife habitats to shrink to zero, there will also be no wild animals and therefore the same will apply.

It is obvious then that it is in everyone’s’ interest to behave ethically and responsibly, to ensure that these apocalyptic scenarios do not come to pass. And, whilst we all know that people have behaved badly in the past, I have no doubt that all of us can work responsibly, sustainably, and ethically. Whether you are practicing hunting or photographic tourism in a wilderness area, there needs to be a legislated framework with the necessary oversight to ensure that no-one goes rogue in the system. If the necessary controls are not in place, or are being abused to the detriment of that habitat and its people, then that activity should stop. Conversely, if controls are in place and working, with everyone observing the rules, then there should be every reason for those activities to continue.

We need to engage and understand each other’s worldviews and activities, and we all need to call out those engaged in unsustainable practices – whether you are a high-end lodge, a wildlife ranch, a national park or a safari outfitter. We are on the same team. A team that needs to focus on how our system is being fragmented by alternative land-uses and how wildlife declines accordingly.

There is a growing voice of younger, newer thinkers in the conservation community who are suggesting that we should shelve the black-and-white arguments and move on. A fine example of doing just that is the African Conservation Success Story that is the Greater Kruger National Park conservation area. Against a multitude of pressures, this system of connected reserves continues to grow every year, increasing the wilderness habitat footprint in Southern Africa by almost 2 million hectares in the last 25 years.

The success of this growing and integrated area is the fact that the stakeholders are willing to resist the pull of their most treasured – and subjective – values and beliefs. We are taking lessons from the ecosystem itself – integrating, not fragmenting. We are learning that in a vast multi-stakeholder environment, you cannot work towards a bigger picture unless you are willing to engage with multiple viewpoints.

Some of you may be wondering what possible opposing viewpoints I could be referring to here, so let me give you a concrete example. There are landowning stakeholders in the Greater Kruger (arguably these stakeholders have the greatest vested interest and therefore should have the biggest voice), who fear that my chosen tourism activity, photographic tourism, is a great modern evil that threatens to destroy the wilderness landscapes by slowly growing to a mass tourism model – we are all in agreement, I am sure, that wilderness spaces simply cannot sustain mass tourism numbers without those landscapes degrading.

On the other side, there are stakeholders in the same space who believe that the hunting of animals in the Greater Kruger is depleting a national asset and is unsustainable and must be stopped. Their argument is also valid in that unregulated and uncontrolled hunting would indeed be unsustainable and again we should all be able to agree with that. I have neighbours within the Greater Kruger who hold these opposing views, and yet they have been convinced to “park” their fears and to be good neighbours in a bigger system.

So, whilst there are many viewpoints about which activities should be allowed in the system, and which should not, stakeholders in the Greater Kruger continue to engage in their preferred activities, but with the necessary legislative framework, and continuous oversight, ensuring that the underlying principle of sustaining a healthy biodiversity is maintained. By doing this, the players in the Greater Kruger have done something remarkable – they have grown (and continue to grow) their wilderness landscapes from within, by attracting their neighbours to join the conservation effort.

In our own reserve, the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, we have found that the above principles have worked for the last 62 years and have allowed us to, not only be a part of the Greater Kruger, but also to maintain a true wilderness landscape in a reserve with a growing number of new stakeholders. The principle of allowing stakeholders the space for varied opinions, but harnessing their common interest, is one that continues to bear fruit for the conservation community in our area. We do not subscribe to the divisive arguments on either side of the hunting debate, but rather we apply well tested rules and regulations, as well as rigorous oversight to all tourism activities in our reserve – be they photo tourism or hunting.

According to the Conservation LAB website, “The challenges facing African conservation are complex, multiple and increasingly serious. As a result, it often feels as though conservation is losing the game 5-1 and the clock is ticking down to the final whistle!”. Let’s all accept the challenge. There is a growing consensus that we need to play the game that matters. This is a time when the African conservation community should urgently move to a new paradigm. That new paradigm must be one of accepting each other’s differences, recognizing our joint and collective goals and working together to save habitats. If we do this, we can grow and integrate our wilderness spaces to the benefit of all the animals that live in them.