Home The Washington Diplomat October 2008

Sportswoman's Big Game: Protecting Africa's Wildlife

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A visitor to the modest D.C. offices of the African Wildlife Federation is greeted by the expected safari shots of a roaring tiger, a gorilla, etc. But it’s a different picture that captures the eye: A native African is shown in an elaborate headdress, his face encircled by gigantic bird feathers and seashells. In the center, the man’s inscrutable expression is what draws your attention — is it a look of confusion, fear or simply surprise at being photographed?

That uncertain expression could symbolize the conflicted relationship between man and beast in Africa. The continent’s civil wars, ethnic conflict, black markets and clearing of land for agriculture to feed a perpetually starving continent have put increasing strain on both Africa’s people and its wildlife.

Helen Gichohi, president of the African Wildlife Federation (AWF), understands that conflict. Born into an agricultural community in central Kenya, Gichohi “grew up on the other side of the wildlife divide,” in a community that largely saw animals as something to be exploited rather than protected.

Despite living among wildlife and witnessing their majesty in national parks, Gichohi wasn’t initially inspired to work in conservation. Yet studying zoology, biology and ecology led to a doctorate — and unappealing work in a lab.

“I didn’t like working in enclosed spaces, so I ended up in conservation sort of through the process of elimination,” she said with a smile. “I’m a sportsperson and saw the outdoors as where my calling was.”

Gichohi eventually joined AWF, which focuses on critical wildlife “heartlands” in central and southern Africa. To boost flagging U.S. support for AWF’s work, Gichohi recently traveled from her Nairobi home to Washington, D.C., to lobby members of Congress for greater policy and financial aid.

Although U.S. support has waned in recent years, Europe’s has waxed, and Gichohi said Europeans have now become AWF’s primary financial backers, with the Dutch and Swiss governments supplementing aid from the European Union. She noted that the EU’s stringent controls on food and animal imports have also benefited AWF’s mission by encouraging sustainable farming and discouraging poachers who would sell illicit animal goods to European consumers.

Yet Gichohi expects the United States to once again shoulder the load. “I’m hopeful that the [U.S.] presidential candidates are more sympathetic and more aware of climate change and biodiversity conservation,” she told The Washington Diplomat. “I think these issues will become much more critical in the coming years, and I’m hopeful that the U.S. will take more leadership on this issue than the last regime. If America doesn’t lead, we are standing on a knife’s edge.”

Gichohi cited such examples as the disappearing snows of Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Kenya as worrisome evidence of climate change’s impact on Africa. Most Americans know about the snows from Ernest Hemingway’s books, but they may not know that it’s actually the melting of those snows that provides critical life support to wildlife in an otherwise arid region. And because such situations appear inevitable, Gichohi said AWF is working with communities to adapt to ecological changes while pressing for more conservation as a means to combat global warming.

Another challenge is Africa’s persistent political and ethnic conflict. “We work in fairly challenged areas — Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zimbabwe,” Gichohi said, listing some of the continent’s worst humanitarian nightmares. “Our work in each depends on the local situation.”

One trouble spot where AWF works is Kenya, which faced a crisis over disputed national elections and related tribal violence earlier this year. Fortunately, the impact on AWF operations was slight, and areas where the group operates weren’t directly affected, other than for some travel restrictions. Furthermore, the local tourism industry, which depends on Kenya’s wildlife to bring in visitors, has begun to recover.

In contrast, Gichohi understatedly called AWF’s work in Zimbabwe “challenging.” She said the country’s ongoing political turmoil has caused donors to withdraw funds for projects there, forcing AWF to shifts efforts toward more promising endeavors in Zambia and Mozambique. Yet because two of AWF’s priority conservation areas cross into Zimbabwe, the group hasn’t abandoned the troubled country, continuing to provide supplies for local rangers who seek to protect rhinos from poaching.

AWF is also working to protect mountain gorillas in the strife-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and in an area encompassed by the border zones of three countries — Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi — which Gichohi said has seen the most conflict anywhere.

In addition, AWF will soon head into Sudan. So far, AWF is helping the country craft national programs to address the critical shortage of capacity and skill in the conservation field, including plans to train Sudanese students at Kenyan universities to become park rangers and conservation managers. The final step will be the establishment of AWF field sites in the country.

Even in the midst of warfare in countries such as Sudan and Zimbabwe, AWF is partnering with other conservation organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund as well as local governments to demonstrate to communities — including feuding rebel groups — the global and local value of their indigenous species, even in the midst of human conflict.

Indeed, Gichohi’s work seems focused as much on diplomacy as it is on conservation. AWF works in 11 African countries and eight “heartlands,” five of which cross national borders. These areas encompass national parks, local villages, and both government-owned and private land, forming an overlapping competition for precious resources.

“African governments are struggling with the challenges of economic development and food shortages,” said Gichohi. “The dominant paradigm for these governments is food development. That’s a major challenge to conservation — we’re trying to avoid our priority areas being put under the plow.”

Gichohi stressed that each of these areas contains “unmatched” wildlife concentrations with the potential to sustain local populations, but she admits that many African governments “often don’t see the connection between wildlife production, food production and tourism and investment, so there is a constant threat that land use will move from conservation to land development and food production.”

To that end, Gichohi and AWF are trying to show communities how to generate income through other means. “We’re trying to demonstrate that food security won’t come from land development, so the challenge is for us to present an alternative paradigm,” she explained, citing an example of AWF working with honey farmers and ranchers to achieve higher returns on their livestock to reduce demand for wildlife poaching and land development.

Gichohi said that awareness of environmental issues and related government action is growing in Africa, even though Africa’s economy has far less impact than more developed regions. She pointed to tourism lodges that are substituting solar energy for burning wood and improving their waste and water management. Gichohi also noted that some airlines are beginning to pay for forest conservation to mitigate the impact of flying tourists in and out of Africa.

AWF too is doing its part, building its own “green” tourism lodge to help shape sustainable tourism to the continent. And AWF proves that even in Africa, tourists can’t avoid Starbucks: The organization even works with the Seattle giant to run eco-friendly coffee farms in Kenya.

About the Author

Mark Hilpert is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999

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