One Solution Does Not Fit All Problems – Another wake-up call for African conservation


Fixed and polarized attitudes about African conservation remain a major impediment to robust solution-seeking debate. The disruption caused by the pandemic is our moment to re-frame the narrative.

A lifetime of wild experiences in the Zambezi Valley and a decade at the helm of The Zambezi Society—which practices a no-nonsense, hands-on, practical approach to protecting this magnificent wilderness—has given me many opportunities to reflect on the realities of conservation in Africa.

We are in danger of becoming bogged down in conventional and conservative thought. The COVID-19 crisis brings this into sharp focus. Our worlds, and our activities, have shrunk temporarily, but we must not lose sight of our commitment to the environment. It is clear that many opinion leaders, international conservation organizations and media see Africa’s conservation challenges as generic. We need to stop thinking about them in these terms. It’s time we opened our eyes to reality.

One-size-fits-all solutions lack local context. They can produce inappropriate interventions and lead to ill-advised lobbying and funding for initiatives that, while they might work in one place, may be totally ineffective, even destructive, in others. From a platform of research, professionalism and transparency, Africa must continue to challenge the idea that international organizations or donors have solutions to the continent’s conservation problems that are superior to our own.

That these internationals have political clout and financial resources does not mean they can solve our problems. Take elephants, for example: Some African countries have lost or are losing their elephants at an alarming rate; others have stable populations. But the specific circumstances of the latter are not discussed.


Elephants crossing the Zambezi River between Zimbabwe and Zambia at Mana Pools. Dick Pitman photo


In East Africa, elephant populations have declined dramatically due to decades of illegal activity, habitat loss and human encroachment. Some conservation voices in these countries demonized traditional elephant management techniques such as hunting (even in marginal habitats) or wildlife population control and preached that photo-tourism, conservation NGOs and government could provide all the solutions. Despite their shortcomings, their generic message has become gospel for elephant conservation across Africa.

But in southern Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe together are custodians of more than half our continent’s elephants. In these countries, as well as in Zambia and Namibia, hunting and wildlife population control measures have for decades been incorporated into a range of conservation policies aimed at discouraging illegal activity, human encroachment and habitat loss.

The elephant populations of these countries remain relatively healthy—a story not often told. Yet international pressure for southern Africa to adopt the one-size-fits-all conservation model is great.

In-country variables

Even within a country, conservation contexts vary. In Zimbabwe, for instance, there are four distinct elephant sub-populations, each with a different problem requiring a customized management solution. Each of these four areas in Zimbabwe now has its own Elephant Management Plan, devised by the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority and a group of stakeholders and subject to regular review and update.

When I first entered the conservation arena in Zimbabwe, I was shocked by the bloodletting between the players, driven by ego and the perception that funding is a scarce resource. In my former life in construction, we had a collaborative umbrella organization to take care of the industry as a whole. This allowed for robust debate and gave us a platform from which to lobby for enlightened policies with which we could stand together against unfair or inappropriate practices from new players.


The Zambezi River Valley Conservation Areas. The Zambezi Society


But Zimbabwe’s conservation “industry” has no such platform at a national level. A developing collaborative effort in the Lower Zambezi Valley is making some progress, but the future of the wildlife that conservation groups purport to protect is most often at the mercy of the loudest, most influential, best-funded or best-connected voices. These are not necessarily the most constructive or sensible voices. My participation in the 2017 African Conservation Lab in South Africa did little to reassure me that this problem is confined to my own country.

Fragmentation and rivalry in the conservation arena appears to be a common problem across elephant range states. In general, national conservation visions and strategies are not crafted by a collective of informed and pragmatic stakeholders. Zimbabwe’s Elephant Management Plans are laudable exceptions—with the Lower Zambezi Valley’s collaborative and dynamic plan often now acknowledged as a game changer that works.

The embryonic ZVCN (Zambezi Valley Conservation Network) model aims to demonstrate that significant results can be achieved with collaborative activity. A few such efforts in support of wildlife spaces are having a positive impact, but most lack synergies and are missing opportunities for optimization. With a few exceptions, donor organizations also do not often collaborate with each other, instead committing funds to fragmented initiatives. Donors are often driven by their own priorities or their own readings of country politics, which skews them towards activities that may be inappropriate.

Elephants cannot vote

Local conservation organizations are often muscled out by international and regional entities or tourism operations with money and connections. In this way, a country becomes vulnerable to “economic recolonization.” However, a collaborative approach that seeks genuine engagement with local stakeholders can harness the potential that exists amongst a country’s citizens and its own biodiversity resources.

Without engaging resident stakeholders, we miss opportunities to create strong, long-term, impactful partnerships with local authorities and other sectors (tourism, agriculture, hunting, communities, schools, etc.) and to set up carefully channeled funding mechanisms. Lacking such an approach, local conservation organizations are forced to march to the tune of international outfits such as CITES.

Conservation myths

There are several “community myths” that are problematic, too. The first is that “unless the buffer-zone community is persuaded into conservation by reaping the benefits of it, we will lose the battle to protect this area.”

Another myth is that tourism can help communities that live alongside protected areas. The reality is that the economic returns from tourism are rarely enough to save a community from poverty.

It is also claimed that job creation in the buffer zones around wildlife spaces will alleviate poaching. In fact, young people in the main want jobs in the cities, not handouts or the meagre pickings on offer in marginal areas. The reality is that we need alternative means of tackling the “communities versus wildlife” issue. Piecemeal inducements for conservation or handouts from a fickle tourism industry aren’t enough. Rural farmers will always see wild animals as threats to their crops.

Yet meaningful jobs for rural people can be created. An example is the My Trees Project in the Zambezi Valley, which seeks to become a major employer of women in wildlife buffer-zone areas by hiring them to replant and become guardians of indigenous forests by harnessing green climate funds or carbon credits.


Planting Trees – Miti Yangu (My Trees). Project Photo courtesy of The Zambezi Society


But this sort of thing won’t satisfy the young. The conservation industry needs to pressure governments to put Africa’s cities to rights so that they can provide the jobs the rural young need. Better still, the conservation industry should contribute, by lobbying and offering intellectual capital, to helping fix cities directly. (This could be a 10- to 20-year project if professional, public-private sector commissions—instead of the usual political councils—collaborated to manage cities.)

That whiff of green

Conservation is still tainted by the “greenie” image. Across Southern Africa, conservation must become an industry in its own right, albeit one with some philanthropic, not-for-profit support, and be recognized as such. Conservation can become a significant contributor to the economy directly and by supporting the service, transport and manufacturing sectors.

The conservation quest has been led for generations by qualified conservationists (often driven by ego-centric passions) and bureaucrats—and what is lacking is holistic vision, trans-sector thinking and commercial aptitude.

Park rangers in Zimbabwe. Author’s photo

I have been in the unique position of working between the bush and the boardroom. Top-down management approaches are out of place in the modern world. A Level-1 park ranger has valuable opinions! We need to move toward enlightened leadership and a vision-and-execution approach. Only then can we forge links between the global desire to protect wilderness, the rangers on the ground, local citizens and the wildlife under their stewardship.

Global value

Governments must enter the value of wild lands and wildlife on their balance sheets. In Zimbabwe, it is an asset as important as the national power utility. A commendable 13% of the country is legislated as public wildlife estate (and a similar percentage is set aside for wildlife protection under private custodianship). This significant item on the national balance sheet needs to be managed with appropriate care.

In an increasingly developed world, the value of wilderness areas as places for spiritual and physical healing (for those who can afford it) is underestimated. But to expect African governments to fully fund these wilderness sanctuaries on their own shows a poverty of thought and understanding. Africa’s governments may never be able to prioritize conservation above health, education or military needs. Hence there will always be a funding gap, which if not met (transparently) will result in globally important wild spaces being eroded rapidly and irrevocably.

It is also risky to rely on tourism income to save wild places. Not all wildernesses are suitable for tourism. Indeed, some three-quarters of the 13% of Zimbabwe that is set aside for wildlife is too rugged and hostile for conventional tourism—but it still needs custodianship.

Furthermore, even wild places that are accessible to tourism are vulnerable to crises—as the current pandemic demonstrates. It may take more than a decade for our national parks and other wildlife areas to recover from this setback. What future do wild spaces that depended on tourism now face? The world has a responsibility to assist in the conservation of these wild spaces with funding and expertise, coordinated with local accountability and capacity.

Only the best

We must bring the best minds and hearts to matters of conservation. Those with disguised motives should excuse themselves. We need robust discussion resulting in yet-unimagined outcomes. We need to listen. Fixed and polarized attitudes remain a major impediment to robust, solution-seeking debate. The Elephant Issue is not about elephant welfare or one elephant or its family; it is about finding the best ways to conserve discrete populations (of all species) in their distinct wilderness landscapes.

There is a global responsibility to fund, resource and “up-skill” each and every wilderness landscape. I encourage Africa’s conservation visionaries to use the space created by COVID-19 to shift out of the rut of present dogma and imagine beyond a 10-year horizon with a “looking back from the future” approach. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to conservation problems in Africa. Individuals, NGOs, governments and donors all must understand this and realize that diverse situations require their own unique solutions.

Richard Maasdorp has a deep love for the people, wildlife and wild places of Zimbabwe, his country of birth. A retired civil engineer, he has a Master’s in Business Leadership and a wealth of experience as head of major construction companies and chair of Zimbabwe’s power generation board. He now leads The Zambezi Society, helping to conserve the Zambezi River’s magnificent wildlife and wildernesses. This article reflects Richard’s own views, not necessarily those of The Zambezi Society. A version of this article appeared on Good Governance Africa.

Banner image: Planning—holistic, science-based and basin-wide—is essential to conserve the Zambezi Valley’s wildlife and wild places. The Zambezi Society photo