Community-based conservation is often promoted as one win-win solution. The idea behind this approach is that the people who live close to wildlife can be involved in protecting it and have an interest in it.
As a result, wildlife is protected (a win for global biodiversity) and local people benefit from conservation through tourism revenues, jobs or new infrastructure such as schools, clinics and water facilities.
However, the reality of community conservation is sometimes less straightforward, as Kenya’s experience shows.
Kenya is home to spectacular wildlife, scenery and cultural resources that fuel the safari tourism industry. This one brings in millions of visitors – and billions of dollars – to the country every year. Still, Kenya’s tourist attractions face significant threats. Among which climate change, illegal wildlife tradeloss of habitat deforestation and conflict between humans and animals. Community protection areas have been established across the country to address some of these risks.
Community nature reserves are protected areas created on land owned or occupied by the community. They form a significant part of Kenya’s conservation landscape, affecting thousands of people.
There are currently 76 such spaces, covering tens of thousands of square kilometers. They date back to the 1980s, but have accelerated in number and size over the last 20 years.
In northern Kenya, which is characterized by extensive grasslands, most nature reserves are supported by the Northern Rangeland Trust. This is a national NGO funded by global donors and international conservation organizations.
It is difficult to determine how much money goes to the municipality. However, in 2020, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association, an umbrella body, reported that the country’s conservation areas are approximately 25 million dollars in annual operating costs. This is largely financed by donors and to a limited extent by the government.
Over 30 years of anthropological fieldwork among Samburu communities in Northern Kenya, I noticed that community conservation was gaining popularity, but there was little evidence about its operation or effects. I conducted a study to examine the issue in more detail. This research led to a bookoutlining the impact of conservations on cooperation and conflict in communities.
Wildlife numbers in Kenya are decreasing, but more wildlife is found in protected areas than in unprotected areas. While promising, my research found that wildlife sanctuaries increased human-animal conflict, with communities suffering the most from loss and injury caused by wildlife. Further, the economic benefits of community conservations to members were minimal.
The roots of community preservation
Community-based conservation has its roots in the realization that the “fort” model of conservation – creating parks and reserves that exclude any human use – is unsustainable. Wild animals need vast landscapes to thrive. They cannot be kept within the boundaries of parks.
Similarly, when local people are barred from parks, they are denied access to the resources they need to survive. Treating humans as less important than wildlife makes them less inclined to protect wildlife. This is especially true in a place like Northern Kenya, where pastoralist communities such as the Samburu have lived in close proximity to wildlife for centuries.
Understanding that successful conservation depends on local populations having a stake in its success has led to efforts in Kenya to engage communities directly in conservation activities. In this approach, the community sets itself aside part of his country for conservation activities in exchange for expected benefits that will result from conservation.
In the case of Samburu, communities have set aside about 10% to 25% of their land for wildlife and in some cases for tourism infrastructure. These conservations are run by paid staff overseen by community member councils and supported by conservation NGOs.
Grazing of livestock is prohibited or severely restricted on this land.
Community conservation creates boundaries, which are guarded by wildlife scouts who are often armed. While their stated role is to protect wildlife, these scouts are actually tasked with protecting grassland from outsiders and livestock from theft.
My research involved spending a year in different Samburu wildlife sanctuaries. I observed how the conservancies worked and talked to members about how they felt about it. I conducted surveys to measure costs and benefits incurred.
The study revealed a number of impacts of conservation areas on local communities mainly related to security and funding.
I found that conservation actually increased tensions between Samburu communities. Creating zones of land use and limiting grazing makes it necessary to enforce boundaries and deny access to non-members. This goes against Samburu standards of allowing livestock access to pasture, especially during dry seasons and droughts. On the other hand, members of conservancies see grazing supervision as an advantage.
In the course of my research, I often heard people refer to their Samburu neighbors beyond the reservation’s boundaries as “outsiders” or “invaders” who need to be kept out. Wildlife areas resemble islands that herders must navigate around to find pasture. If and when they landed on these islands, conflict often arose.
In addition, the amount of money channeled to conservations by donor organizations was relatively large compared to other sources of support. Conservationists who own tourist facilities also earn income from hotel contracts, lodging allowances, and conservation fees.
Members noticed a lot of money circulating in conservations, controlled by the boards and staff. They reported minimal economic benefits to themselves, usually in the form of student tuition fees and sometimes an annual dividend. This fueled suspicions among members that the money was being misused by conservation councils and staff.
Suspicions of misuse of funds have led to bitter community conflict over leadership, demands for greater public accountability and legal action.
These unintended consequences of community conservation call for more effective models. Conservation that puts less emphasis on who can and cannot use a piece of land, and improves accountability, can lead to better outcomes for people and wildlife.
The way forward
The intentions behind community-based conservation are commendable. It aims to correct past failures, including isolating wildlife in parks and excluding humans from key sources of survival. However, this approach brings its own challenges. There is a risk that if members do not receive the kind of benefits promised, their support for conservation will diminish, undermining the approach.
Increased member involvement and accountability regarding funding and its use would increase trust and ownership among members.