The 2015 Conservation Lab is a forum for the forging and sharing of powerful ideas to help win the battle for conservation. 2015 speaker and founder of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation, Damien Mander, reminds us in a single sentence of the importance of these kinds of discussions: “Without a backyard, we will cease to exist as a species”.

To give us a sneak peek of what to expect from this year’s Lab, we questioned 2015 speaker and the founder and CEO of African Parks, Peter Fearnhead, about the challenges and successes facing both conservationists and the safari industry.

What specific subjects are you most eager to discuss in this year’s Conservation Lab?
The African safari tourism industry is entirely dependent on a product that has appeal – parks and reserves with intact landscapes and wildlife. Many of these areas are facing a crisis impacting on existing enterprises and limiting the opportunity for expansion into different destinations. New tourism developments tend to concentrate on those areas which are reasonably well maintained, increasing the environmental impact and often impacting on the visitor experience. At the same time there is a lot of talk about ‘Responsible Tourism’ and with it the expectations that somehow tourism will be the solution to all environmental and social needs. These operations can be part of a solution, but the question is: to what extent? What are the realistic expectations? Similarly, what of the areas that do not have an inherent tourism appeal, yet are essential for the ecosystem services that they render to society? How can the safari industry mobilise itself to play a more meaningful role in engaging with governments and stressing the need for proper protection and management of these areas on which the industry depends?

Why is a forum like the Conservation Lab so important for the future of Africa?
The challenge for conservationists is that the bulk of the goods and services provided by nature are not traded in marketplaces and therefore tend not to have individuals and companies with strongly vested interests promoting their cause. This is left largely to the NGO world. The one notable exception is nature-based tourism, which in Africa is considerable, but made up of a plethora of mostly small operators focused on their day-to-day survival. The Conservation Lab represents an opportunity for individual players to share their experiences, understand the challenges faced by peers and mobilise as a sector so that they can be an effective force for conservation in Africa.


What is the biggest challenge facing African conservation?
Many people believe that stopping rhino poaching or elephant poaching will solve the conservation crisis. This is an important and highly publicised part of the issue, but by no means a solution in itself. There are thousands of other species facing extinction across Africa that are confined to increasingly small habitats. Local and global demographic trends mean that demands on natural resources are escalating for high value commodities like rhino horn and ivory; for bush-meat and charcoal; and for grazing lands and agriculture. Where governance is poor, these resources are extracted to the point of extinction. To ensure these areas survive, management solutions simply have to be implemented. Without proper management there is little prospect of them surviving.

Give us an example of a conservation effort that has worked well in the past.
There are numerous dedicated conservation organisations, many of which do excellent work. Some focus on demand reduction of wildlife products in Asia, others focus on ensuring mining companies abide by environmental and social standards, some provide technical support to governments in the management of their wildlife. The one I am most familiar with is African Parks, which enters into long-term (25+ years) agreements with governments to manage and finance one or more of their national parks. By management we mean taking direct day-to-day responsibility for the area and all activities in it and managing all threats to it. This includes ecological rehabilitation, engagement with local communities to ensure they benefit from such areas, implementation of effective law enforcement and facilitating the development of tourism and other commercial enterprises to fund these efforts. In short, African Parks is the “boots on the ground”. Today African Parks is responsible for 5.9m hectares in eight different countries. Some of these are in the most difficult parts of Africa, yet all, with the possible exception of one, are flourishing.


What conservation efforts are most promising for the upcoming year?
Conservation is a 100-year business and it is important to think and plan with this timeframe in mind, yet it is also important that every year every one of the parks we are responsible for progresses across the various disciplines of ecology and wildlife, community, tourism and income generation. To this effect each park has a business plan that defines these expectations and what is necessary to achieve them. From an institutional perspective we expect to expand our footprint in Malawi from one to three parks and we also hope to conclude an agreement for two important parks in Kenya. There are further parks in the pipeline in Chad, Ethiopia and Nigeria.

At a conceptual level, the growing appreciation by the international community that effective conservation interventions are as good for people as they are for wildlife bodes well for future support to the sector. Conservation can bring about law and order, safety and security in a region that is as important for rural economic development as it is for the protection of elephants. An example is Zakouma National Park in Chad, where the effective protection of 450 elephants in a 350,000-hectare national park required securing an area in excess of 2 million hectares to benefit both people and elephants. Now this intervention will be expanded to include additional reserves and community areas up to 5 million hectares.

Out of the other Conservation Lab speakers, whose thoughts are you most excited to hear and why?

Unfortunately, in the conservation world, we tend to think that our specific effort is the primary solution to the entire crisis and therefore we deserve the attention of donors and stakeholders. However, the problems are complex and we need to coordinate efforts to maximise the impact of our individual interventions. Given that at African Parks we are very focused on our narrow responsibilities, I look forward to the opportunity to listen to the other perspectives provided by each of the speakers, which will almost certainly shape or refine my own thinking.

This year’s Conservation Lab will take place from 9am – 1pm on Monday 4 May at the Bay Hotel, open to We Are Africa delegates only. For more information and to register your attendance, visit the Conservation Lab page.

John Segar

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