The Myth of Wild Africa

For nearly 100 years, the land that is today the Bubye Valley Conservancy (BVC) of Zimbabwe was not wilderness. The land was a cattle ranch. Wild animals were intentionally wiped out, for fear of disease transmission, and to eliminate predators that would kill cattle. For nearly a century, the land hosted a cattle monoculture, devoid of wildlife; and elephants, rhinos, leopards and lions were completely wiped out. For a century this land was the furthest thing in the world from wilderness. 

Then, in the 1990’s, after a few very bad droughts that devastated the cattle ranching economy, a few visionary Zimbabweans realized that native species could outcompete cattle in arid areas, as the native wildlife had evolved and adapted to those environments. A drought that would cause a cow to whither and die would barely affect a zebra at all. These conservation visionaries converted a massive cattle ranch into the Bubye Valley Conservancy, and worked hard to restore wild species upon the land.

From a small founder population of just 17 lions introduced in 1999, the lion population today has grown to somewhere near 550. Where else in the world can we find a lion population that has increased by over 3000% in just 17 years? What a remarkable conservation success! Yet this land is not a wilderness, and perhaps it never was.

The lions of BVC consume meat worth an estimated $2.4 million each year, meaning that a large population of native wild prey is required to sustain this exponentially-increasing lion population. BVC is also home to the world’s third largest black rhino population; which, in light of the ever-increasing demand for rhino horn, simply costs a fortune to protect in the form of anti-poaching operations.

In just 22 years time, BVC has converted what was once a cattle monoculture devoid of native species into an ecological paradise hosting a diverse array of native species. The BVC lions are the largest contiguous population of lions in Zimbabwe, and are the most densely-populated lions on earth.

For 22 years, the only economic model that has kept BVC afloat has been revenue from hunting. For a variety of reasons, photographic tourism has just never paid dividends. Zimbabwe has suffered a large variety of setbacks in recent years, from economic collapse, to instability caused by land reform, to political instability, and most recently, widespread civil strikes.

In recent years the calls to end lion hunting have grown ever louder. Despite the 3000% population growth in BVC, people would have us believe that lions are on the brink of extinction, and that hunting is the cause.

But let’s examine this question in more detail. In the absence of the ability to make money from hunting lions (a small quota of only 13-15 post-breeding males annually, out of a population of 550 lions), what incentive would the owners of BVC have to keep lions on their property? Remember that BVC is a privately owned business. Its owners are under no obligation whatsoever to keep their land under conservation management. The moment conservation fails to pay for itself, the land would be returned to cattle ranching.

The truth is, many parts of Africa are not, and have never been “wilderness,” devoid of human presence, despite what Disney’s animated features would have us believe. Africa is the cradle of mankind, after all. Man has literally made a footprint on the African continent since our very first emergence as a species.

For a long time the western conservation movement has viewed Africans as a problem, rather than a solution. They pushed the myth of “wilderness” upon us. How many nature films have ever featured people? Even today, Nat Geo and the Discovery networks feature numerous shows that give lions names, but fail to name a single African who lives or works among them. They would have us believe that Africa is all a large unpopulated national park and that people are the enemy of conservation. We hear all the time that Africa’s growing population represents one of the largest “threats” to conservation.

But Africans are not a threat. People are part of the solution. Involving people in conservation is an opportunity, not a threat. We simply cannot kick people out of areas, fence them like high-security prisons, and protect rhinos and elephants with a fortress mentality. It just won’t work.

The best hope for the future of conservation in Africa is a community-based solution. A solution that devolves power and ownership to the local level. A system in which local people directly benefit from the wild animals that they live with. This is the system that Bubye Valley Conservancy has put in place. While their land is privately owned, and not communal, the benefits derived from wildlife greatly benefit the surrounding communities. BVC donates 45 tons of wild meat to local communities each year. The conservancy invests over $100,000 annually in aid to communities.

Some people find the idea of hunting lions abhorrent. But the simple truth is that if it weren’t for lion hunting, a population of 550 lions in the Bubye Valley Conservancy would not exist. Nor would the third largest black rhino population in the world. The land would be a cattle monoculture. Local people would not receive meat or $100,000 in education and development assistance. Or, in an even bigger tragedy, the land reform movement would turn the entire landscape into small scale subsistence agriculture, a sure-fire poverty trap for rural communities.

So let me pose the question this way. Is it better to sacrifice 13 lions a year, lions which have outlived their breeding productivity, in order to save a population of 550? Can we agree that conservation works better when we concentrate on managing populations rather than individuals? We can never wrap each individual animal in a warm fuzzy blanket of love and protect if from harm, no matter how much a lion appeals to the inner cat lover in all of us. Nature doesn’t work that way.

Lions, elephants and other wild animals are hard to live with. Without some incentive, people simply won’t tolerate them. Would New Yorkers happily tolerate a pride of lions in Central Park who occasionally munch on a picnicker? Would DC residents shrug their shoulders every time a jogger was eaten alive by lions in Rock Creek Park? Or if a family of visiting tourists were trampled to death by elephants on the National Mall? If we won’t tolerate our own large predators, why on earth would we ever expect Africans to do the same?

Until some other system is identified that provides all the economic incentives that hunting does, it remains our best land use option in many parts of Africa. The myth of wilderness Africa, the myth of the Disney Lion King Africa, is a dangerous myth.

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