Game Over in Africa? I. Empty Forests, Silent Plains

Studying UN projections on population trends a few weeks ago, my world view on the future of African wildlife took a severe dent from which, I fear, it may never recover. What the dry numbers indicated were that the number of people in Africa today will double by 2050 and double again by 2100 to reach 4 billion people – that’s more than half of today’s global population. To say that the pressure on land and natural resources will rise does not do these statistics justice. With nowhere else to go, the pressure on land is going to be immense. Will there be any room for wildlife in that crowded continent?

Andre Benamour’s award-winning photo of Libyan migrants.

“Arrival in Agadès” – Andre Benamour’s award-winning photo of Libyan migrants.

The squeeze on the wild is already evident. There used to be wild animals on view along many African roads, even the main ones – spotting giraffe, warthog or antelope was part of the fun of a drive – but no longer. Only baboons and nocturnal hyaenas seem to hang on outside the parks and reserves through a combination of boldness and ingenuity. At least we can take comfort that wildlife will persist inside the great African parks, right? Wrong! One of the authors of Limits to Growth (a generation-awakening book about the consequences of exponential growth in our demand for finite resources) looked again into his computer-enhanced crystal ball to see what was coming our way. What he had to say felt like a punch to the stomach.

graph by Jorgen Randers

Remaining Area of Wilderness (proportion of unused productive land).
Randers, J. (2012) 2052: A Global Forecast for the next forty years. Chelsea Green Publishing.

In Africa and other developing regions, the unused productive land (wilderness) is rapidly being converted to farmland. So much so that by 2035, all that will remain unused is some 15% of productive land. That’s about the area occupied by the current network of protected areas. There is not going to be much wilderness left after that – even inside the parks.

 Spread of farms south of Lake Kariba

Rise in the number of small farms on the south side of Lake Kariba.
Source: Cumming, D.H.M. 2008. Large Scale Conservation Planning and Priorities for the KAZA TFCA.

Conservationists want to believe that wildlife can provide livelihoods as well as inspiration, that it can earn its place in the crowded landscapes of the future. It would certainly make a difference if it did, and it should be possible in practice, except that one obstacle gets squarely in the way. Study after study reveals that people do not look after wildlife, fish, forests and other natural resources unless they have ownership, or at least long-term resource rights, on which to build sustainable management. Ownership is seldom on offer in rural Africa. Even under the trend-setting project ‘CAMPFIRE’ , ownership of wildlife in rural Zimbabwe was never devolved beyond the level of local government. There are successful exceptions in  Namibia and South Africa (which I will come back to in a later blog) but across most of the continent, central government keeps a tight grip on natural resources.

Rural Africans have an added burden to carry. They don’t have rights to enter parks and reserves, nor legal access to their wildlife, even when the parks are established on their own lands. So it is hardly surprising that the great majority of rural Africans don’t support protected areas or wildlife conservation.


Classic Africa – even Papa Hemingway might have been stirred by the sight of this elephant bull under Kilimanjaro and the goddamn perfect exultation of it all. Photo by Nick Ashley.

Whilst researching animal migrations across a famous African park in the 1980s, I lived a wild dream in the midst of magnificent beauty. I was hardly aware at the time that all 9 MPs from surrounding constituencies were voted in on an anti-parks ticket. In the words of social anthropologist, Marshall Murphree: “For generations, conservation policy in Africa has been socially illegitimate in the eyes of the continent’s rural people…” When there was lots of unoccupied space, it didn’t matter quite so much but today the rural population has filled the surrounding areas of many parks. It does matter to them.

Try as we might as conservationists, the problem for wildlife in Africa is hardening into an inescapable  syllogism:

Parks have no legitimacy in Africa
Wildlife is confined to Parks
Wildlife has no legitimacy in Africa

If their grievancies are not addressed, there is one inescapable consequence: people will move into the parks to graze their cattle and farm the land. They will kill the wild animals. In doing so the farmers will not be denying the wild, simply making a wise choice for themselves and their families given the constraints placed upon them.


On the other side of Kilimanjaro, farms are spreading across the landscape . Photo by Martyn Murray

It is not just rural people who don’t see the value of parks but senior government officials. If the Minister in charge doesn’t value a park, he or she won’t fight for greater investment in its management and development. In most African countries, there is much lower government investment in parks today than there was 30 years ago. In these circumstances, uncontrolled poaching and park degradation are inevitable.


Carved elephant tusk from the collection in the Suzhou Museum, Jiangsu, China. Photo by Alan R Sheffield

Lack of park investment coincides with booming prices for wildlife products in markets round the world. Enormous efforts by campaigners such as IFAW have alerted the buying public and, to their great credit, the young people of China have responded by rejecting ivory. Yet still the finely-carved works are sought after by members of the wealthy business community as part of their deeply-rooted cultural tradition of exchanging expensive gifts. And still the wild slaughter continues.


Part of a haul of 259 elephant tusks found by Dubai customs on 1 May 2013 in a container shipped from Mombasa. Photo © IFAW/D. Willetts

There is one more driver behind the collapse of African wildlife – corruption. Whether it involves high profile embezzlement or low level bribes to petty bureaucrats, corruption is a major force that destroys wildlife and natural resources. In recent years, corruption-assisted trafficking of wildlife products has become organized within criminal networks that use revenue from illegal sales to fund private armies in central Africa and a host of other illegal activities round the world. One small NGO, the Last Great Ape Organization (LAGA), which began life in Cameroon not long ago has shown the wildlife community how to approach this problem more openly and effectively. I salute them for their bravery and do not underestimate their potential. But as of today, corruption remains a massive problem for wildlife conservation in Africa.

We now have all the toxic ingredients for concocting a witches’ brew of wildlife destruction:

  •   huge pressure on African land which is increasing rapidly;
  •   parks without legitimacy in the eyes of the people;
  •   lack of government investment in park management;
  •   booming prices in wildlife markets; and
  •   bribery and corruption.

There are enough photos of mutilated elephants and other creatures as witness to the potency of this concoction and I don’t intend to post any more here.

In the wasteland world lies a bleached bone
All that remains of a forested home.
The seeds he once planted lie on the stem,
The wells that he dug dry in the sun.
No bugle, no rumble, no smell of sweet dung
The heavy wise bearer of ivory’s gone.
No cloud in the sky, no hint of the rains
Just empty dead forests and silent parch’d plains.

All the fine planning by conservationists, all the beautiful films made about Serengeti, will not change this ending unless the people of Africa wish it. There may be one chance to begin again – with the EU acting as midwife – which I will discuss in my next blog.



About Martyn Murray

I fell in love with nature when I turned twenty-one camping under Acacias in East Africa, surrounded by giraffe and zebra with my nape hair raised by the distant roaring of lions. I went on to work for fifty years in Africa, Europe and Asia as an ecologist and conservation consultant. A few years ago I moved to the Isle of Lismore to pursue my passion for reconnecting people with the natural world. My first book, The Storm Leopard, is a journey across Africa and into the heart of the environmental crisis. My second, Origin of Species: Bite-Sized, contains the essence of Charles Darwin's greatest work – his theory of evolution by natural selection – in a text that is 15% the length of the original. The third, Beyond the Hebrides, is the story of a sea voyage in an old leaking boat and on how to keep personal freedom alive. I am currently working on a fourth which is about the global collapse of the natural world. Its working title is, In This Together. It challenges us all over our current connections with nature. More details are on my website,
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4 Responses to Game Over in Africa? I. Empty Forests, Silent Plains

  1. This seems very depressing but is almost inevitable unless we all realise what we will lose. Hope the EU can give birth to something but will blog soon about a problem on the Ria Alvor on the Algarve.

  2. Pingback: Call for a Parks Red List | The Wild Nature Blog

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