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Book review: The Big Conservation Lie.

“Hero worship in conservation is as old as wildlife conservation itself. The subjects of this worship are invariably white men and women who are lionized for taking to a life of selfless service of the wilderness and its residents.”

This comes from John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada’s book “The Big Conservation Lie”. The book is a must read for anyone interested in conservation. It raises serious questions about the way conservation is currently carried out in Kenya and in the rest of Africa.

Mbaria and Ogada describe a small cabal of exclusively white conservationists and conservation thinkers in Kenya. They don’t hesitate to name these conservation heroes in exposing the role they have played in creating “the mess the country faces today in regard to wildlife conservation”.

The wildlife conservation narrative in Kenya, as well as much of Africa, is thoroughly intertwined with colonialism, virulent racism, deliberate exclusion of the natives, veiled bribery, unsurpassed deceit, a conservation cult subscribed to by huge numbers of people in the West, and severe exploitation of the same wilderness conservationists have constantly claimed they are out to preserve. 

Mbaria is a journalist. He has written about conservation since 2000. Ogada has worked in conservation for 16 years in Kenya and other parts of Africa. He focusses on human-wildlife conflict mitigation and carnivore conservation.

The two men met when Ogada was director of the Laikipia Wildlife Forum. Ogada tells the story in an interview with Eli Weiss on Our Wild World:

“We had built a fence to separate wildlife habitats from farmlands, as a way of mitigating conflict between people and elephants. Mbaria was an environmental journalist and he wrote an article calling the fence, ‘a fence to separate the haves and the have nots’. Which was certainly not the intention of building it, but a further examination of the maps showed that the people on one side of it were the haves and the people on the other side of it were the have nots. So this started a conversation between us, and that’s how we eventually met, through this dialogue. It was through the written word, really.”

Ogada is clearly an unusual conservationist. Mbaria wrote an article criticising the action of his NGO. Instead of ignoring the article, or attacking the author, Ogada started a discussion with Mbaria that several years later led to a book.

Conservation’s colonial roots


The roots of conservation in Kenya are colonialism. The role of game keepers in Victorian Britain was to prevent commoners from using wildlife. Commoners were prevented from killing wildlife for survival, so that nobles could kill it for recreation. This is the conservation model that was exported to the colonies.

Conservation separates wildlife from people, and disenfranchises local communities.

Mixing oil and conservation


After many years of criticism of fortress conservation, the 2003 World Parks Congress in Durban announced a “new paradigm for protected areas”. Protected areas were to be managed in compliance with indigenous peoples’ and local communities’ rights, and managed with their involvement.

Mbaria and Ogada note that the Northern Rangelands Trust was founded the following year, “in the heady community conservation atmosphere that pervaded the worldwide conservation sector” as a result of the 2003 World Parks Congress.

The founder of the Northern Rangelands Trust, Ian Craig, converted his family’s ranch to the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Craig is close friends with Prince William. In 2010, Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton at Lewa. Last year Craig was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Craig is on the board of the Kenya Wildlife Service.

The Northern Rangelands Trust community conservancies now cover an area of 44,000 square kilometres in Kenya. That’s about 8% of the country’s land area. Funders of Northern Rangelands Trust include USAID, The Nature Conservancy, Danida, and Agence Française de Développement.

Mbaria and Ogada ask whether it’s a coincidence that many recent oil discoveries are in areas controlled by the Northern Rangelands Trust.

In October 2015, a press release announced a five-year partnership between Tullow Oil, Africa Oil and the Northern Rangelands Trust. Six new conservancies were to be set up.

But in early 2016, the Governor of Turkana County, Josphat Nanok, declared the conservancies illegal.

Northern Rangelands Trust’s response to criticism


 In February 2017, Mbaria wrote a critical piece about Northern Rangelands Trust in New African magazine. He spoke to local communities in several of the community conservancies. One of their concerns was that even during droughts, they cannot access parts of their lands that are now set aside for wildlife and tourism. As a result their cattle die. Often the land set aside is that best land in the conservancy.

Northern Rangelands Trust got its PR agent, Elodie Sampere, to leave a comment from the CEO, Board Chairman and Chairman of the Council of Elders of the Northern Rangelands Trust. It stated,

Perhaps not surprising in this era of fake news, but I have rarely read a more ill-informed piece of journalism, full of conspiracy theory and with out a strand of truth in its message.

It’s worth contrasting Northern Rangelands Trust’s response with that of Ogada, when Mbaria wrote about the fence separating the haves and have-nots, back when Ogada was director of Laikipia Wildlife Forum.

By: Chris Lang