East Africa must reject the colonial model of conserving wildlife

The recent violent evictions of Maasai in Loliondo, Tanzania, to make way for a luxury game reserve is the latest in a long list of examples of community owners of land suffering under a “fortress conservation” model adopted in the heyday of colonialism. And what for? So that others, be they wealthy tourists or royalty, can use swathes of land as their playgrounds.

Tanzanian authorities, and other African governments, shoulder the unenviable “duty” of seeing to it that the pursuit of such fun is not jeopardized or hindered by the desire of thousands, if not millions, of people to reclaim their land rights and to survive on that land.

Tanzania is not alone in enforcing this obscenity. Neighboring Kenya may not pursue an outright pro-sport hunting policy, but it is adept at ensuring that the rights and needs of those with ancestral claims to wildlife corridors and dispersal areas do not interfere with the enjoyment of mainly foreign tourists. In addition, Kenya is known to use violence against pastoralists and their livestock when they encroach on white-owned game ranches.

Few people in east Africa are willing to point out that Tanzania and Kenya were created by the British and, partly, the Germans, and that minimal effort has ever been made to reconfigure these geographical entities in the interests of most citizens.

When they landed on our shores, white settlers brought from their home notions and practices that had little to do with the reality (natural or otherwise) of the places they colonized. None of them would have claimed to be conservationists in the modern sense of the term; they were hunters. Some also held romantic notions of nature. They reconciled the contending visions of wildlife killers, on the one hand, and romanticists, on the other, by designating former hunting grounds as game parks and reserves. In Kenya, this began in the mid-1940s. The Nairobi national park was set up in 1946.

“Setting up” game parks and reserves meant ushering in what Mordecai Ogada and I call in our book The Big Conservation Lie “apartheid in conservation”, where the organically developed model of mixed-use of land was replaced by an attempt to separate animals from the people. This was enforced through laws that local people knew nothing about – and by the barrel of a gun.

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