A Comeback for African National Parks

As wildlife authorities on the continent work with nonprofit organizations to secure ecologically valuable landscapes, populations of large mammals have grown.

The earth’s sixth mass extinction, scientists warn, is now well underway. 

Worldwide, wildlife populations are plummeting at astonishing rates, and the trend is perhaps most starkly evident in Africa’s protected areas — the parks, game reserves and sanctuaries home to many of the world’s most charismatic species.

Between 1970 and 2005, national parks in Africa saw an average decline of 59 percent in the populations of dozens of large mammals, among them lions, zebras, elephants and giraffes. In at least a dozen parks, the losses exceeded 85 percent.

One of those was Gorongosa National Park, an area roughly the size of Rhode Island, in central Mozambique.

Once a premier safari destination, Gorongosa suffered through a brutal 16-year civil war. When the fighting finally ended in 1992, the park was a shambles: More than 95 percent of its large mammals had been wiped out — slaughtered for food and the purchase of arms. Abandoned for another decade, it might well have gone the way of so many other protected areas: downgraded and downsized, converted to cropland or opened to mining. 

But now the numbers tell a different story, and it’s one with lessons for the world.

In Gorongosa, African wildlife is making a comeback. On a visit last fall, I saw vast herds of antelope, lion prides lazing in the shade, pods of hippos, a pangolin, a fish eagle weighed down with a fresh catch and families of elephants lumbering through a forest of fever trees. And much more.

In October, researchers in the park counted more than 100,000 large mammals, an increase of more than 700 percent over figures from a decade ago. And with that resurgence, Gorongosa has emerged as a rare success story — a case study in nature's renewal and proof that with adequate funding and committed leadership, conservation is possible in even the poorest corners of the world.

To be sure, Gorongosa is a special case. Since 2004, Gregory Carr, an American philanthropist, has spent tens of millions of dollars on the park and in the buffer zone that surrounds it, some 1,300 square miles that are home to an estimated 200,000 people.

Few protected areas in Africa enjoy anything close to that kind of support. Reliant on paltry tax revenues in countries with pressing social needs, most struggle to cover their basic operating costs. And while African countries have some of the world’s largest tracts of land under protection, many have languished for lack of funding. According to research by Peter Lindsey and colleagues in the Wildlife Conservation Network, roughly 90 percent of protected areas within lion range face severe budget shortfalls. Some, known as “paper parks,” serve as little more than lines on a map.

“The assumption has long been that African wildlife will ‘pay its own way,’ primarily through activities like photo-tourism and trophy hunting,” Craig Packer, a veteran lion researcher at the University of Minnesota, said. “Well, I can tell you, the data are in, and that isn’t happening.”

For decades, Dr. Packer ran the Serengeti Lion Project in Tanzania and lobbied for greater oversight of the country’s hunting industry. His tenure ended in 2014 when Tanzanian wildlife officials barred him from the country, citing derogatory statements he made about the industry in an email. Months later, the killing of a beloved lion named Cecil by an American tourist in Zimbabwe set off a firestorm over the ethics of big-game hunting. But while the debate that ensued attracted global attention, it failed to address a fundamental challenge: If African wildlife can’t pay its own way, who will?

The answer, increasingly, is what’s known as “collaborative management.” More and more, African wildlife authorities are partnering with nonprofit organizations to secure ecologically valuable landscapes. And as these public-private ventures have in recent years proliferated across the continent, they’ve channelled philanthropic capital to conservation efforts on an extraordinary scale.

Source: New York Times