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The challenges of conservation are more multi-faceted in Africa than perhaps anywhere else on earth. Poverty, wildlife trafficking, corruption and conflict are just a handful of the many forces to be contended with. It’s messy and there doesn’t appear to be a singular solution to them all.

Take development for instance, one of the biggest obstacles. Africa is modernising at breakneck speed as global players acquire buy-in for various infrastructure based operations. Like other conservation challenges, it is an enormously grey area of ethics, often igniting impassioned debate and disagreement. But while conservationists and the general public aren’t wrong to voice concern or express differing opinions, there remains a hidden point of contention, often overlooked amongst the obvious.

An unintended opposition to effective conservation is the perpetual assault of 24×7 social media, which can reinforce reactionary opinions with little regard for the facts. It’s evidenced by way of some media pundits, the political pulpit and even at times – though thankfully not as badly yet – the conservation community. It ultimately begs the question: do we truly understand the issues involving African conservation?

© Wikimedia/Sofiaperesoa
© Wikimedia/Sofiaperesoa

While not every online post is designed solely to elicit reaction, I argue that some beliefs are often predetermined by social media’s ability to tell us what to think rather than what we should be thinking about. It has effectively created a world where it’s convenient to choose a side predicated on short sound bites or brief summaries, which despite possibly containing truth, may severely lack in substance. The result is a loss of objective thinking and productive conversation.

For the sake of evidence, let’s revisit the concept of development in Tanzania’s fabled Serengeti National Park. Like so many, I was quick to condemn the proposed highway. My initial reactions to a brief, emotionally charged online slam against the government’s plans for the highway were shock and anger. But what I didn’t realise at the time was how cleverly those words aided me in jumping to conclusions. Fortunately, I took the time to pursue some research to better understand why this was happening.

Wildebeest migration from the air © Shankar Raman
Wildebeest migration seen from the air © Wikipedia/Shankar Raman

Tanzania is a poverty stricken country with over 90 percent of its citizens living on roughly a dollar per day. President Kikwete supported the construction of the highway in a pledge to assist those lacking access to basic services such as electricity and medical care. Accessibility to mining minerals would have also augmented employment. In short, the highway might have serviced the needs of those whose life situations created less of a concern over the wildebeest migration route.

However, it also would have come at the expense of the Maasai people, whose pastoral lives foster dependence on the land, not to mention a number of vehicle accidents involving wildlife that would have inevitably occurred. There was also the alleged high level government corruption, whose business relationship with China has been unsavoury at best. Lastly, the Serengeti exists between two of Tanzania’s most bitter political rivals – Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) and Chama cha Demokrasia na Maendeleo (CHADEMA). Considering Lake Victoria’s dense population of registered voters, it’s understandable that those who would benefit from a highway might opt to elect party members most in favour of it.

Ultimately, I remain supportive of the court’s ban on the highway, but only after I had gained more knowledge of the situation. It still, however, leaves the unanswered question of how to create a mutually beneficial scenario for the people and the wildlife in and around northern Tanzania.

Numerous wildebeest photographed after having crossed the river Mara from Serengeti to the Mara. © Uspn
Numerous wildebeest photographed after having crossed the river Mara from Serengeti to the Mara. © Wikipedia/Uspn

I’m by no means anti-social media, as I’ve witnessed the benefits it’s brought to the conservation table. Nor am I against the public cry to end atrocities such as poaching. But it remains vital that the issues not be truncated. A great quote taken from a study done on the damaging effects of social media stated that a healthy democracy is contingent on a healthy media ecosystem. And since that can’t be trusted nowadays, the onus is on us not only to do our homework, but likewise maintain our objectivity in order to facilitate healthy and civil dialogue, even and especially when we disagree. We would learn a lot from one another and hopefully originate new and innovative ways of protecting the wildlife, sustaining the wilderness and helping Africa’s people develop in ethical, eco-friendly ways.

Ndumu River Lodge
Michael Schwartz

Michael Schwartz is an American consultant currently living in upstate New York. It wasn't until the age of twenty one when he got the opportunity to pack his bags and visit a South African game reserve. What started as a hobby soon developed into a passion for the African continent. With advanced degrees in Journalism and African studies, he has since had the good fortune of exploring the breadth of Southern Africa from its scenic shores to the rugged hinterland, as well as assisting in regional humanitarian endeavors. He plans to continue his journey discovering Africa while seeking out new ways of using his freelance photography and writing to promote environmental conservation and to raise cultural awareness.