Mar 13 2011

The Myth of “Wild Africa”: a critical appreciation

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:20 PM

I’m teaching a class on technology, development and sub-Saharan Africa this term at Arizona State University, and one of my students, Dustin Short, has written a penetrating appreciation of one of the classic texts on conservation and environmental protection in the region, The Myth of Wild Africa. The challenge of balancing “man and nature” in Africa is made considerably harder by a legacy of international interventions that both pathologically romanticize Africa’s environment while at the same time relentlessly diminishing the capacity for Africans to strike a satisfactory balance on their own accord. International environmental groups continue to advance arguments that confuse as much as clarify how, when and where to control and coordinate the interplay between humans and animals and the lands they co-inhabit. Short writes eloquently and with necessary detail about one of the great and neglected subjects of African affairs:

Jonathan Adams and Thomas McShane, in The Myth of Wild Africa, argue that the idea of an Africa unspoiled by human activity was a fabrication of early white explorers. This perception of “Africa as uninhabited wilderness” [35] has persisted through colonialism into the modern era of African conservation. According to the authors “the myth of Africa as a pristine wilderness, problematic from the outset, was an utter fallacy firmly in place by the mid-nineteenth century” [17] is the greatest hindrance to conservation in Africa today. Instead of the West dictating a strict conservation policy of preservation that stems from an emotional response created by advocacy groups, Myth posits that “simple justice demands that we recognize the primacy of Africans in conserving their natural heritage.” [251]

The legacy of colonialism has created a mentality within the Western conservation community of “primitive Africans” who are presented for European consumption as not far removed from the animals that inhabit the wilderness. “Science and technology are the most powerful tools that the West has at its disposal. The inhabitants of the primeval African wilderness cannot protect it, many people outside of Africa believe, so it follows that the West must take on this task, and must send in its finest troops, the scientific foot soldiers.” [90] While not explicitly stated, Myth subtly intimates that the West must avoid considering “Africans just another species” [28] “incapable of protecting their wildlife.” [60] Even the rhetoric used by some members of animal rights movement claim that “it is only a matter of time before African culture ‘evolves’ to the point where Africans will accept the value of strict preservationism” [167] indicates that some conservationists still view Africans living closer to the wild animals than the civilized West. Myth counters this regressive mindset with the concept that African conservation “will most certainly fail if Africans are not included in every level.” [108]

Adams and McShane provide a wealth of examples to dispel this illusion of uncaring and incapable Africans. In contrast, the inclusion of rural Africans has produced some surprising results where exclusionary methods of conservation experience little success if not outright failure. As the Owens experienced in Botswana “If you cannot operate within the bounds of government, whom you are a guest of in this country, to work these issues out, then work elsewhere.” [146]

Africans from the governmental to local level have little incentive to conserve their resources beyond a sense of economic gain or national pride. If efforts are not taken to appeal to these aspects of African life, the authors argue that very little traction will be gained in conserving the wildlife of Africa. Where rural communities have been involved great strides have been made. In the pilot program that led to the creation of ADMADE, Lupande saw poaching rates decrease at least ten fold as the villagers gained skills from the training program [165]. Much of this was due to the program receiving part of the revenue generated by commercial safari organizations. The villagers saw a direct monetary benefit to protecting their wildlife and developed a protectiveness of the animals. In Botswana, the democratic environment created by “kgotla” (public meeting, community council or traditional court of a Botswana village) allows the rural populace to use their voice when provided the opportunity. In 1991 seven hundred residents of the Okavango Delta spoke out against a proposed dredging program, citing fears of draining the delta dry [152]. Clearly the rural Africans, given the chance, are willing to protect the very land that has sustained them and their families for generations, if not much longer. It is these cases, where the rural communities are directly involved, and given custodianship that provide the most hope for conservation in Africa.

Most promising, rural Tanzanians complained to the state government that “the Wildlife Department had not created any game reserves” in their region, the first occurrence of Tanzanians volunteering their land for a game reserve [158]. The afterword explains it best: “Conservation in Africa, once the exclusive province of Europeans and Americans, increasingly carries an indelibly African stamp.” [251]

Unfortunately The Myth of Wild Africa has begun to show its age. Written nearly twenty years ago many recent developments in conservation have addressed the issues discussed. While the afterword, written in 1996, does a commendable job of acknowledging the changes that Africa has seen from political to environmental, that was still fifteen years ago and even more has changed. Many conservation programs have begun to incorporate rural communities into their scope.

One such program seeks to protect the wild African dog, which is the most endangered species of canid, and is threatened by rabies contracted from domestic dogs. The wild dogs are elusive however and vaccinating them was not feasible. So a program was designed to vaccinate domestic dogs kept by the Maasai. The Maasai were enthusiastic at the prospect of protecting their pets from a grisly death as well as villagers bit by infected dogs and in the process a rabies free quarantine zone was established around Tanzania’s wild dog populations. This is a clear example of conservation efforts providing tangible benefits to rural Africans while simultaneously protecting threatened wildlife.

Adams and McShane consistently portray American conservation policy as synonymous with American and European conservation advocacy groups. The authors mention that ”a fenced park plays on a Western Ideal of wild Africa by making the mistaken claim that a fence is a barrier against both man and nature, creating in effect a time capsule; the land inside the fence shall endure, untainted by man, regardless of what happens beyond.” [56] However look at the National Parks of the United States where few, if any, parks have a fence surrounding them. Some have border fences to counter illegal immigration, like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, but those are roundly criticized by conservationists as preventing animal migrations. This is exactly the same criticism that African parks face. Adams and McShane frequently mention safari hunting as a source of revenue to fund conservation efforts but the position is unpopular with advocacy groups [169]. While many advocacy groups do not support this route, the sale of hunting licenses in the United States is a major source of conservation funds. In a similar vein, the authors frequently make a distinction between conservation tactics of the West and methods that will work for Africa. This implies that the West operates differently from Africa as far as conservation. However when recently reintroduced California Condors were dying of lead poisoning, hunters were educated about the problem and many subsequently switched to using non-lead ammunition to preserve the species.

While the “march of civilization destroyed has destroyed or tamed the wilderness of North America and Europe.” [xii] The West still faces the same conservation challenges as Africa. Both must balance short term economic needs with long term environmental considerations. If Africa can find ways to develop economically without destroying the charismatic megafauna that charms the international community, maybe there is hope that one day America can find ways to coexist with bison, grizzlies and wolves throughout the American West.

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