Wildlife conservation evokes varied opinions depending on who you talk to. These are some of my initial thoughts and learnings regarding the conservation model in S.Africa. I dont want to pretend to be a wildlife expert. So these are just my first thoughts. I am certain my future experiences will further refine my impression

This is part-2 of my experience at Shamwari Wildlife Reserve. While the previous one was more about my actual experience, this is more about what i learnt about wildlife conservation and my initial thoughts.

Before i reveal my thoughts i think it is better to list out some facts i learnt so you can form yours without prejudice. (I guess the title sort of gives away my thoughts already!)

So here is what I have learnt so far about the African model of wildlife conservation.

  1. In South Africa (and increasingly in most of Africa) there isn’t a “wild area” in the truest sense of the word. All land is owned either by govt or private owners, fenced and actively managed.
  2. The land ownership also means owning the wildlife on that land, with some exceptions.
  3. The reserves actively manage the population of the wildlife to make sure there is a sustainable wildlife population in each reserve (not necessarily as a whole but in each reserve independently). In this way each reserve by itself can attract sufficient tourism to sustain themselves.
  4. The number of predators within each reserve is determined by the size of the reserve – big enough to accommodate the territorial boundary of each of the big predator.  The exception appears to be leopards and cheetahs which require large territories and hence are managed across reserves.
  5. The reserves also manage their population to maximize diversity of animals and the genetic “purity” of the big 5. All again with the primary motive of attracting tourists.
  6. The animals are also bartered between reserves to achieve the above point – there is an animal fair may be once 2 yrs for this.
  7. The conservation efforts mainly focus on the big predators – Not only does this automatically regulate the prey population but that’s also where they get funding for due to their tourism value. So although there are many other species becoming extinct (apparently around 80% of all species according to a BBC program by David Attenborough), there is limited focus on most of them unless there is some personal interest from some reserves that are willing to shell their own money.
  8. Unfortunately some private reserves cross-over the ethical lines to drive tourism, by creating cub-petting or canned hunting opportunities to attract unwitting rich tourists. Thankfully Shamwari appears to be clean in this regard (why i chose them in the first place after lots of research).
  9. The reserves like Kruger, Maasai Mara and Serengeti are govt owned and many times bigger than the private reserves in S.Africa – this means the population of animals largely self-regulate themselves with limited human intervention. However they presumably suffer more from poaching than the private ones which have strong anti-poaching units working round the clock.
  10. The fenced-out private reserves also prevent animals from wandering into private farms and hurting livestock or humans.  The large growth in human population means there is a strong need to manage this wildlife-human relationship – otherwise there is a good chance the wildlife will be killed by the farmers to protect themselves and their livelihood (reminds me of the tiger situation in India).

Ok – now onto my thoughts.

The fact that there are no real “wild” areas was my first bubble that was burst.  Basically they (atleast the private reserves), know pretty well where most animals are. This by itself does not seem so bad until i realized the amount of power this gives humans to manipulate them. Although most people working here are well-intentioned, i just somehow believe this interference and active management can neither be sustainable nor be a good thing. The power of natural self-regulation has created this diverse wildlife that we get to enjoy – i think that should be left that way.  To leave it that way, the animals should not be confined within the fences. Division and ownership of land should not automatically imply ownership of the animals within. In fact i had a great conversation with one of the rangers who even went so far to say that  ownership of anything natural, including land does not make sense. The more i thought about it, the more i tend to agree – we don’t own the air or water – so why land? What would the model be without land-ownership? This is an interesting topic i would love to explore at a later stage.

Having said this, there is a clear counter-argument. The sad reality of human population explosion.  Given the land scarcity, it is but natural for human beings to encroach upon any “wild” areas for living/agriculture etc…, resulting in a clear conflict between man and animal. Thanks to modern weaponry, man always wins this battle if left to itself.  This is clearly driving many species to extinction in places like Amazon, India etc… So the south african model was created specifically to tackle this – creating a fenced region for animals to live.  With this lens, i am tempted to believe it is better to have fenced areas (practically large zoos) than letting all the predators die.  Recently also saw Attenborough’s program which explained how the tiger population has started coming back in India due to the efforts of the govt to protect them. That ought to be a good thing isn’t? Though my jury is still out on this model, it seems to be working atleast in the short-term and appears to be the best option if we believe we want to save the big cats actively.

While i was getting to terms with the efficacy of the conservation model, a second bubble was burst – that of the profit motive of these reserves.  I am personally a big fan of capitalism, but i do believe there are certain aspects that cannot be driven by the goal maximizing profits.  In my head, protecting nature’s gifts is one of them. However, gradually i began to the see the implicit profitability push at various decision points.  For eg, in the born-free reserve (which acts as a retirement home for injured/abused animals that can no longer survive in the wild) there were 2 cheetahs from Sudan, where they were caged for entertainment. Even though they are potentially healthy enough to be out in the wild, they were being kept separate to avoid “contaminating” the genetic pool in the reserve.  Likewise the African wild buffaloes were also preserved for “genetic purity” to maximize their value (potentially during any future trade). The focus of conservation is almost entirely only on the big 5 as they are the biggest attractions for the rich tourists, though there are many other species under threat of extinction.

Although i understand the reserves need to survive if they want to continue their conservation efforts, I cannot help but think these profit motives will have some sort of unintended long-term impact and come in the way of actual conservation.

Anyways, like many other issues, these questions in my head dont have clear-cut answers. Humans must just do the best they can and hope that any unintended consequences will be self-regulated by nature (naive much?)