Located in Western Uganda, the Queen Elizabeth National Park is a vast savanna landscape home to animals such as elephants, lions, leopards, and over 600 different species of birds. Efforts to preserve and protect the park’s biodiversity have caused tensions between locals and park rangers, indicating the very real discrepancies in the enforcement of conservation policies. These discrepancies serve as a stark reminder of the human cost when local people are not involved in policy-making.
The Benefits of Conservation
Around the world, rates of biodiversity loss are at an all-time high. Experts estimate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species – from 200 to 2,000 species – will become extinct each year, with their extinction being wholly attributable to human activity. An important strategy in addressing this rapid species loss is conservation, defined by the National Wildlife Federation as “the preservation and protection of animals, plants and their habitats.”
Conservation policies can be an incredibly effective tool when implemented properly, protecting plant and animal species from threats such as poaching, habitat loss, and climate change. For instance, wildlife corridors are a useful strategy in addressing habitat loss due to population expansion and agriculture. Corridors of land are preserved and protected, allowing animals to migrate and access resources such as food, water, and shelter. Wildlife corridors and other conservation strategies allow wildlife to move freely in their habitats and help to maintain genetic biodiversity among animals.
Conservation is also beneficial for addressing instances of poaching and the illegal trade of wildlife. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), wildlife trade is harmful when it involves poaching, which is “illegal and unsustainable—directly threatening the survival of many species in the wild.” This is important to note as wild animals and plants are regularly utilized in traditional medicines and for sustenance, therefore not all sectors of wildlife trade are necessarily criminal or destructive.
Uptick in the Illegal Trade of Wildlife
Despite reductions in economic and social activity due to the COVID-19 pandemic, poaching has not slowed in species-rich countries such as Uganda. In 2020, 14 Chinese animal traders were caught in Queen Elizabeth National Park with over US$4.5m worth of elephant, tortoise, and pangolin parts. The Chinese government banned the consumption of wildlife in February 2020 after suspicions that the COVID-19 virus was first spread due to the illegal wildlife trade. Despite action by the Chinese government, there is still a high demand for rare animal parts internationally. Notably, the U.S. is “second to China in its desire for illegal wildlife parts,” since the industry is incredibly profitable and thrives without proper safeguards in place.
A certain level of regulation and protection is required to limit habitat and species loss in Uganda. Yet, how will locals be impacted by these policies, and what initiatives can reduce the human cost of conservation?
Locals and Conservation
An article published by Foreign Policy, entitled “When Nature Conservation Goes Wrong,” confronts the impacts that conservation has on local people in Uganda. Specifically, the article describes life for villagers in the rural community of Kyambura, Uganda, who live on the outskirts of the renowned Queen Elizabeth National Park. While locals appreciate the revenue stream from tourist activity – and the overall importance of conservation – they have concerns regarding restricted access to resources and threats to their livelihood.
For example, crop-raiding can be a major issue for those living near conservation areas. This issue occurs when animals, such as elephants, trample over valuable crops, which then threatens food supplies for many families. Locals who turn to subsistence hunting due to food insecurity risk facing violence from rangers patrolling the national parks. While diverse wildlife is celebrated as a national symbol of pride in Uganda, there is a problem when the needs of local communities have not been integrated into conservation efforts, creating tensions between local villagers and park officials.
The Colonial History of Conservation
The idea that conservation can impede upon the livelihoods of local communities has a long history rooted in colonialism. In the 1920s, early conservation efforts were dedicated to limiting the destruction of peasants’ agricultural systems. In Uganda, British colonialists set up the Elephant Control Department, which oversaw the killing of over 1000 elephants each year. While the mass killing of animals is indeed the opposite of what comes to mind about conservation today, its purpose was to protect the environment, which aided the exploitation of exports and resources and was later used to economically benefit British colonialists. This history indicates the importance of acknowledging the colonial past of conservation in Uganda and adjusting policies accordingly.
An interesting way to observe and evaluate conservation is by understanding a concept called ‘fortress conservation.’ This phenomenon is described by Lara Domínguez, acting Head of Litigation at Minority Rights Group International (MRGI), and Colin Luoma, a Researcher for MRGI. Domínguez and Luoma explain that fortress conservation is when there is a “creation of a protected area from which local people dependent on the natural base must be excluded.” At its core, fortress conservation is based on a belief that “local people use natural resources in irrational and destructive ways, and as a result cause biodiversity loss and environmental degradation.” Working under the false assumption that locals are wasteful, or unable to properly handle the animal and plant species around them, fortress conservation swoops in to block off an area sheltered from local use.
As opposed to wastefulness or irrationality, locals turn to hunting in protected areas when their crops are destroyed by wild animals. As a result, they risk being injured or killed by armed park officials. This risk is another key feature of fortress conservation where “coercion and violence [are used] to ensure compliance,” namely by park officials.
In one tragic instance, a local named Bwambale from Kyambura, Uganda, hunted in the Queen Elizabeth National Park with a few neighbours in order to provide for his wife and daughter. His family was struggling as they were not compensated by the government for their crops, which had been destroyed by wild animals. After entering the park, Bwambale was shot and killed by park rangers. Bwambale’s death demonstrates a clear disconnect between local land-use rights and conservation in the national park. Ultimately, when violence is used against locals who hunt, families who need to feed their families are treated comparably to international smugglers who illegally trade animal parts, such as ivory.
Local Conservation Initiatives
In stark contrast to fortress conservation, there are successful examples of how locals can be included in conservation and environmental policy-making. In Namibia, 79 “communal conservancies” cover 19.5% of the land. Under this system, local inhabitants share the task of managing protected areas and receive income from wildlife tourism. These conservancies have detailed constitutions and management committees made up of community members. They manage hunting quotas and designate game guards who work with farmers and record wildlife and potential illegal poaching activity.
This approach is not foolproof, as experts find that in some areas where there is less capacity for tourism, community members will receive “little to no benefit” from conservancies. However, communal conservancies have largely benefited biodiversity and local people in Namibia, where there was an estimated USD$27.3m in revenue due to their inception and saving animal species, such as the black rhino, from extinction.
To respond to more colonial approaches to conservation, including fortress conservation, the first necessary step is to develop more conservancy frameworks which “[recognize] the rights of indigenous people to their lands.” Taking the example of Namibia, communal conservancies are an effective approach that can be further developed and modelled in Uganda. While wild animal species should be protected for years to come, communities in rural Uganda deserve the opportunity to thrive and grow, and to gain economically from conservation efforts located on their own land. It is possible to have biodiversity protection and economic gain, and the key to obtaining both is local decision-making.