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Big Cats – The Hurdles Faced With Conservation

Every hurdle being faced by big cat conservation efforts in Africa is directly linked to human population growth.

That is slightly contradictory to say, but this is actually good news, as large portions of the continent that has long been troubled by death, disease, and impoverishment, are showing signs of improvement, in large part thanks to 21st century advancements. Along with the Western civilization having played a large role in this transformation having provided the means for people to engage in growing food.

However, it is somewhat ironic, though. In light of the progress being made, animal activists unfairly take Africans to task for their role in the defoliation of the wilderness and the steady disappearance of wildlife as a result.

With this said, the biggest forces in the way of feline conservation, is the expanding human populace in Africa, as well as the continent’s green revolution. And with bans on the sustainable use of wildlife it has taken away the incentive landowners (with their own property who don’t attract any tourists) had to invest in maintaining wildlife and their habitats.

The demand to growing and cultivating vegetables to build a stronger economy ultimately means less room for the beloved big cats.

The Changes

According to the Institute for Security Studies (ISS), the population size of Africa has grown to 9% of the world’s total populace in the 1960s to 15% of the world’s populace in 2010. In the 2050, this number will reach 23%, and might be larger by a considerable degree than either that of China or India. The ISS also observed that although these growth rates aren’t uniform East and West Africa have seen a rise in fertility rates.

Although, growth rates such as these could mean a rise in urban poverty, the most significant impact this has is on the lands that are home to Africa’s big cats.

Wildlife ecologist in Kenya, Mike Norton-Griffiths, notes that there are three factors that form part of these changes in land management.

  1. The growth in the human population creates the need for higher production, meaning that because there are more mouths to feed, requires more land.
  2. The growth of local markets in neighbouring towns as well as urban markets.
  3. The most important factor being the evolution of property rights.

Cultures of Population Growth

In terms of culture, the more important aspect to note is that polygamy isn’t widely practised anymore. The measure of married and unmarried couples throughout Africa, is still being weighed by the amount of children these couples have, and this means that the more children they have, the greater their social status, for both men and women.

This creates a problem whereby more and more children are born into impoverished communities, increasing poverty, and thus creating a scenario whereby the unsustainable harvest of natural resources to feed the many people leads to the human-wildlife conflict. This very sensitive issue is one that should addressed by conservationists, social workers, healthcare practitioners, and other experts who aren’t ethnically tied to the community.

Land Rights

Growth in the human population as well as land use are the biggest factors when looking at the decline of wildlife populations. When you say that they are mutually exclusive from the removal of wildlife’s economic viability, would be somewhat wrong. Before being outlawed, sustainable use of land in Kenya occurred on 60% of the total range on which wildlife roamed, with tourism covering only 5%. Today, this has dropped significantly.

According to Norton-Griffiths, in Kenya’s case, people do what they need to in response to economic incentives, however, for them to respond to these incentives efficiently all depends on the security of their property rights. The fact that wildlife belongs solely to the Kenyan government is a perfect example of the disastrous land use policies currently in place, showing the worst annual decline in wildlife on the continent. Now, even though Kenya’s elephant populations are fairing a bit better, the county’s lion populace have dropped significantly.

Kenya’s tourism sector is one example.

With 95% of all wildlife tourism located in national parks and reserves, which stands known as service revenues, less than 1% of these revenues go to landowners living with wildlife on their land. And, while sustainable use of land may work in countries like Namibia, reintroducing it into Kenya is a topic that’s off limits, due to the damage that it has caused by banning it in the first place. Another point of consideration is that not all methods of sustainable land use can be categorised as a true definition of conservation, since they do not promote biodiversity (or canned hunting, if you will).

Payment for ecosystem services

One idea to offset encroachment is through payment for ecosystem services (PES), means leasing the land from the rural poor to keep it in its natural state. Through regular payments, rural landowners receive a monetary benefits not normally seen from the flood of tourists that pay the state directly.

Calvin Cottar, a Kenyan conservationist reasons that lease payments on a regular basis (on a per hectare/year ratio for example) can reach values that are equal or higher than that from alternative land uses such as agriculture and monoculture domestic stock. In return, landowners give the PES lessee rights to the land use, thus allowing them to keep wildlife and the natural habitat intact.

Currently, there are roughly eight conservancies with a combined total of 227,949 acres near the Maasai Mara National Reserver that utilizes the PES system.

According to the Association for Strengthening Agricultural Research in Eastern and Central Africa, there are more than 800 families that benefit from this, earning more than US$3,6million annually, with these payments being made directly to households on a flat rate based on land holdings. However, despite what might seem like a win-win scenario for all, the PES system is still fragile.

There are some communities of landowners who live adjacent to protected areas who cannot reap the same rewards as those whose lands hold more wildlife, ultimately opening up the door that can lead to other, future wilderness encroachment. In addition to this, the PES model needs more investment from international private sectors to be able to secure wilderness that would be used and converted to cash crops or cattle pastures.

Progress inevitably destroys the natural world. This shouldn’t mean that Western civilizations should stop helping those in need, and neither should those whose only goal is the preservation of African wildlife be to ignore the fact that the poor who live beside them are only trying to survive. With many living in poverty, these communities have to use less than ideal methods of dealing with dangerous animals, methods that aren’t too popular in the public’s opinion.

This, however, doesn’t deter some activists who seem perfectly content on stereotyping impoverished Africans as a group of poachers, without so much as exploring the root of the conservation problem. They fail to acknowledge that economic survival is the main driving force for rural African communities, much the same way it dictates the lives of American suburbanites. The difference is that those who can live in the comfort of the developed don’t have to worry about competing with dangerous wildlife day in and day out, whereas many Africans do not have that luxury at all.

The loss of the remaining wilderness is a problem, as is the failing wildlife populations. They are symptoms, not sources, but finding the balance between these two opposing forces is the biggest challenge faced by conservationists in 21st century Africa. Poverty reduction strategies, population growth dilemmas, migrating competition for space, and redressing policies and laws to take away incentives for the safeguarding of wildlife all need to be dealt with and soon.

The rhetoric about saving Africa’s predators and other wildlife from humans oversimplifies everything that is actually involved to realistically preserve nature. Conservation requires as much compassion for the people as it does for the animals. They are in symbiosis and sacrifices must be made towards the greater goal. Someone needs to stand up, not for what FEELS good, but for what’s RIGHT.

This needs to become the cornerstone for conservation, and once it is, it will break the ongoing destruction of the natural world. When choosing compassion for humans, wildlife survival improves.