Across Africa, both private and public wildlife parks have bad reputations for forcing people off land to make way for animals and the money they generate through tourism. This has often resulted in resentment and even violence, as communities have sought to reclaim what they consider to be their traditional territory.
In South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, some game reserves are seeking to end this scenario. While they employ a few hundred local individuals in their lodges as cleaners, cooks, barmen and waiters, these parks are convinced that their social responsibility extends far further than this.
They’ve therefore established initiatives to prevent thousands of people from sliding into dire poverty, and to provide them with better opportunities in the future. The reserves are also involving their neighbors in their conservation efforts, and teaching them the value of preserving Africa’s natural heritage.
“That’s the way of the future. I don’t think that wildlife has a future if people have got to make way for wildlife,” said Angus Sholto-Douglas, director of Kwandwe Game Reserve. “We need new wildlife areas, we need new conservation areas; we need new green frontiers. And we can’t push people out the way (to do this). (Local) people have got to be included in that process. They probably play the most important role in modern day conservation,” he emphasized.
If wildlife parks exclude neighboring settlements from their work, and simply function as “playgrounds” for rich people, it will be to their ultimate detriment, insisted Lucy O’Keeffe, a human development specialist at Kwandwe.
“You have to recognize that you’re working alongside very poor communities, where the unemployment rate is about 80 percent. The value of what you’re doing must be seen and understood by those communities as well. So you need to make sure that the benefits of what you’re doing are spread beyond the boundaries of the reserve,” she explained.
Trying to build trust
Conservationist Alan Weyer said there was a “lot of mistrust” from local inhabitants when wildlife parks were initially established. To overcome this, the reserve that he manages, Kariega, set up an organization to support local schools.
Our rangers go out and talk to these kids about conservation. We also educate them about the tourism and hospitality industries. Hopefully this impacts on their lives and they strive towards careers in these fields,” Weyer said. “These sorts of efforts outside the reserve itself link us with communities surrounding us and they see value in our presence.”
A similar initiative is happening at Amakhala park. “A lot of the children who go to these schools presently have parents who work on game reserves and they will in all likelihood end up doing the same work in this area,” said Dr. Jennifer Gush, a zoologist who directs the reserve’s environmental education program. She added, “It was just a desire of mine to put some environmental education into their curriculum so that even if they’re a barman, or a housekeeping lady, they’ve got some idea of the environment in which they’re working and why we need to preserve it.”
Self help, not charity
Kwandwe is supporting initiatives to “economically empower” 11 “poorest of the poor” rural villages, said Sholto-Douglas. This it achieves through its Angus Gillis Foundation - named after the grandfather of its principal trustee, American businessman Carl De Santis.
“The Foundation doesn’t give handouts,” Sholto-Douglas insisted. “It is not an aid organization that walks in and says, ‘Right, you need a factory, so we’ll build one.’ It’s an organization that sits down and says, ‘What do you need and how are we going to achieve this together?’”
O’Keeffe, the Foundation’s director, said it did not take a “traditional development approach which is about seeing people as having problems and needs, and as deficient.” Instead, it sought to help locals “recognize the assets that they have, the skills and the talents that have perhaps never been recognized or valued before, and to help people to see how they can build on those assets and drive their own development process.”
A good example of this, O’Keeffee said, was a business established last year to generate income from local women’s doll-making skills. Some of the women pooled their money to set it up. The Foundation then guided them to run it effectively.
“We’re hugely proud of how far they’ve come. They’re now managing their own finances, they’re buying their materials; they’re starting to take over more and more of their marketing, which is great,” said O’Keeffe.
The dolls are now being sold across South Africa. Similar local businesses that have recently been established include a bakery, a transport firm and a child care enterprise operated by a woman who lives at Kwandwe, Nolovu Sedebe.
“All of her own initiative, Nolovu worked with a woman’s self help group and they built their own crèche. They found building materials from (abandoned) farm buildings on the reserve and they used those to build this structure themselves,” O’Keeffe explained.
Potential poachers transformed
If game parks treated the people who resided on or near them with respect, said Weyer, the locals were “far less likely” to commit crimes themselves, or to help other criminals, such as poachers, to target the reserves.
With poverty goes crime, but we find that when people begin to realize that crime is a direct threat (to) their livelihoods, people are more willing to help in combating crime. So slowly we’re getting more information about potential threats and that sort of thing (from community members and staff),” he said.
Weyer said that because there was now trust between his park and surrounding communities, people who in the past would possibly have helped criminals to commit crimes on the reserve instead now pass on information about such crimes to him and his staff before they happen.
Gush said for parks to have poor relations with locals “fuels” poaching. “We know the poachers like to use informers that either work on the reserves or are very familiar with what happens on the reserves. If the community feels like they have access to the place, like they belong to the place, then they’re not going to be an informant and we’re not going to generate a ‘them and us’ (scenario),” she said.
Weyer said the Eastern Cape game parks were providing a “great guideline” for how communities and conservationists could cooperate to protect Africa’s wildlife.