by Danielle Nierenberg
Wildlife conservation and sustainable farming practices are becoming increasing prevalent across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet efforts to preserve elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife are difficult in countries plagued by political unrest and conflict.
In Zimbabwe, for example, "it's pretty hard to get anything done," says Raol du Toit, director of the Rhino Conservation Trust. Although a new president, Morgan Tsvangirai, was elected in 2008, Zimbabwe's 86-year-old dictator Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the country for more than 30 years, refused to cede power. A "power-sharing agreement" between the two leaders allows the country to function, but just barely. Unemployment rates are over 90 percent, and people who voice public opposition to Mugabe are often jailed and even tortured.
Despite these obstacles, du Toit is helping farming communities benefit economically from efforts to save dwindling populations of rhinos and other wildlife. While many conservation groups seek to protect wildlife from farmers, the Rhino Conservation Trust has a very different approach. Rather than telling farmers not to farm in areas where wildlife are present, they help communities realize that protecting wildlife can be in their own best interest.
"Wildlife is like a herd of cattle," says du Toit, and farmers "will get benefits" if they manage and conserve local wildlife species. This "horns and thorns" approach gives farmers an opportunity to be paid for the ecosystem services they provide through more sustainable farming practices-including protecting wildlife, conserving water, preventing deforestation, and sequestering carbon in the soil. The solution is to help farmers practice agriculture "in appropriate areas, using appropriate practices."
What's needed, according to du Toit, is more "landscape-level planning" that takes into account the needs of wildlife, the environment, and farming communities. Rather than relying on development agencies and governments to decide where cattle fences should go or where farmers should plant their crops, local communities and stakeholders need to be part of the process. Development aid, says du Toit, should follow what local stakeholders need and perceive, not the other way around. "We need to trust people on the ground, rather than just planning for them."
More locally based partnership arrangements, such as the Laikipia Wildlife Forum developed in Kenya, can help both farmers and wildlife survive. The Forum has united the community, from smallholder farmers to tourism ventures, in the fight to preserve wildlife and manage natural resources, helping to improve local livelihoods.
Educating children early about the benefits of wildlife is also important. The Rhino Conservation Trust has developed a school materials project that teaches children the importance of conserving rhinos.
And despite the political turmoil in Zimbabwe, the country still has wildlife resources that other countries don't have, giving it the opportunity to both protect these assets and profit from their conservation.
Danielle Nierenberg is a senior researcher with the Worldwatch Institute and co-director of the Institute's Nourishing the Planet project.
This article originally appeared on the Worldwatch Institute.
Image of black rhino in Zimbabwe courtesy of Flickr photographer Arno & Louise.