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Why conservation is failing

Free-roaming wildlife populations are crashing in many areas, and natural habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate. There is a war going on, and the other side is winning hands down – why is that?

For the sake of simplicity, I refer to the two sides in this war as the ‘Exploiters’ and the ‘Protectors’.  I do generalise enormously, please forgive me.

hunting debate conservation

Cartoon by ©Walter Pichler

The Exploiters have money, lots of it. They also have focus and the determination to do whatever it takes to achieve their goals – they will ruin entire ecosystems and communities in pursuit of a specific hardwood or mineral and kill animals in the most barbaric way to extract specific body parts. They will threaten, terrify and kill people and bribe whoever it takes. They research, plan and execute their extraction strategies with military precision and their leaders live in financial and legal twilight zones, protected by a ring of violence, corruption and morally bankrupt government officials, bankers, accountants and lawyers. They have hoovered up vast swathes of Earth’s bounty and they will continue to do so until there is nothing left.

Some of them live amongst you, although you may not recognise them in this light. Perhaps they are not involved in poaching (as you define it), or other obvious illegal exploitations, and so you don’t see them as exploiters. Perhaps they wear suits, and work in respected companies and governments.  Extraction industries such as mining, commercial fishing, hardwood logging and fossil fuel energy provide products that humans need, but many of them do so at massive cost to the environment – and leave taxpayers and rural communities to carry the cost. Great business model – bank the revenue and leave others to pay the bills.

The Protectors, on the other hand, are largely a ragtag, passionate bunch of do-gooders (myself included) all beavering away in various ways, driven by the strong belief that somehow, sometime, things will change.

Protectors are ALWAYS under-resourced. Try securing funding from banks, investment companies and the wealthy elite to save a species or wetland. On the other hand, go to the same places to fund a diamond mine or oil refinery – no problem. Why is that? In solving this riddle, perhaps you will come to better understand why we are in this mess and why the Exploiters are winning. Hands down.

Protectors often spend a good deal of time, energy and money passionately fighting each other in a glorious orgy of personal agendas. Social media has ramped up this phenomenon, providing a fertile breeding ground for Protectors to shout the odds, bicker and jockey for attention. Amongst the many committed and effective activists out there are a growing number of self-proclaimed online activists, some of whom extract precious donations to fund their lifestyles, many of whom have no clear strategy other than to pay their bills and feed their egos. At best these warriors preach to their close circle of disciples, at worst they confuse Joe Public with their emotional outbursts, and desensitize good people about the real conservation issues.

Some Protectors have organised themselves into groups and institutions – WWF, Conservation International and Greenpeace for example. Many of these do fine jobs, many on limited budgets, and are staffed by outstanding people – others have become bloated bureaucracies with high overheads. And again, these wildlife warriors fight tooth and nail for attention and funding, to feed personal careers and pay the overheads. And then there is CITES. For some reason, many Protectors don’t realise that CITES is an agreement between governments, politicians and businessmen about how much of nature can be consumed without completely destroying it. In other words, CITES represents the Exploiters, not the Protectors.

I could go on and on trying to summarise the chaotic world that is nature conservation. But I won’t. The industry is too wrapped up in personal agendas, lifestyle activists and destructive territorialism to ever be understood fully.

And therein lies the problem – Protectors operate in an underfunded environment with no industry cohesion or business model to speak of, driven largely by passion and dogged by infighting and personal agendas. Compare that to the focussed, ruthless Exploiter business model. In my experience, ruthless strategy trumps misguided passion hands down. And while Protectors run in circles, the Exploiters continue the massacre – all the time operating in the shadows, perfecting their extraction techniques and hoovering up the spoils.

Simon Espley

Simon Espley is an African of the digital tribe, a chartered accountant and CEO of Africa Geographic. He travels extensively in Africa, seeking wilderness, real people and elusive birds. The views expressed in his posts are his own. Connect with him on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter.

  • alexia

    Bang on the nail Simon. It is indeed becoming almost impossible to make an impact, (except via the ocassional petition that reaches its target, and delivered to policy makers) and the description is exactly what you have published here. Egos in the wildlife world, those who garner tremendous power on Fabebook, and who have become so power hungry that the normal person in the street, can be spat out with ease. Added to their support system are powerful business persons who are able to manipulate their own agenda, through the FB warrior system. Its quite horrific. And so the big organizations, watch this, and stragegise, and in the end, they are winning hands down. Great article and thank you for trying to make sense of it all.

    • Simon Espley

      Thanks Alexia. As a good friend often says to me when I stress about this planet, we should all try to be ‘on the right side of history’. Keep the passion.

  • Todd

    I think it’s important to add human population growth and human-wildlife conflict. These are, in my opinion, the two greatest threats on the continent. Everything else is just window dressing by comparison.

    • alexia

      I do agree. However, how does one go about this, given the sheer magnitude of the problem of over population? Wildlife – human conflict must be tackled and indeed it is. There have been reported success in Kenya and Tanzania. South Africa seems to be behind, and again, in my case, lack of funding. That is why Simons article is so profound.

      • Steve Ruff

        With human population growth, I’d say it starts with proper family planning. Conservation is a human issue as well as an animal one. Rwanda has actually seen a lot of success in this area because their leaders are working on advocating smaller families. Uganda needs desperately to go in this direction. As for HWC, I think the onus is on the media to report more of the situation. Conservation institutions also need to leverage donors like the Buffett Foundation in order that the money goes towards mitigating the issue. If the private sector wishes to get involved, then they need to help improve infrastructure in cities. Once that’s done, jobs will be more readily available, and you might even see rural communities migrating toward cities in search of better employment opportunities.

        • Todd

          Good stuff. I’ll add that promoting women’s rights would greatly help in family planning and reducing population growth. Women are considered second class citizens on many parts of the continent. The result is usually too many kids and the inability to support them. It’s an unsustainable way of life.

  • Stu

    In the face of an exploding human population (you’d be hard pressed to find a politician advocating no more than 2 kids per couple) and the competition for land and natural resources, we need to make geographic units economically feasible for the communities with direct interest. NGO funding is often temporary and misdirected, and is often only provided to promote personal agendas. There needs to be development of organic and sustainable income streams generated directly from these areas such as ecotourism, hunting and sustainable harvesting. Conservation costs money, and although policy is essential for isolated state-protected areas, we need a conservation economy to incentivize other custodians to broaden the areas under curatorship.

    • Simon Espley

      Thanks Stu, agreed in principle. All 3 of the activities you list are in place to various degrees and work well sometimes. The problem generally is when revenue becomes the sole purpose of the activity – that’s when it all goes pear-shaped. Your reference to “organic and sustainable” is the key. And by definition the local communities HAVE to be involved at a meaningful level.

  • Laurie

    I usually don’t comment or take part online, while I agree with this article there is something very important that is missing. Why do the exploiters do what they do? Because there is a market, fueled by all people. Mining for essentail parts for smart phones and I pads of which everyone wants is one example. Our unending appetite for more and more ‘stuff’ that is highly processed leaves huge environmental destruction, from the way ‘stuff’ is constructed to the way it is disposed. This is the same or food, clothes, building, technology etc. The more we chose to buy these things the more responsible we are for environmental destruction. It’s easy to point the finger and say it’s overpopulation that is the problem in africa, while it is an issue, it’s one that is avoiding issues that face us all directly. Our own impact on the planet, our own children who’s environmental impact counts for 10’s of people who live in rural africa. Children who each want new gadgets, new brands etc the effect is not visible when you go to the apple store, but trace the history and you will see all that is destroyed for one item to be constructed. It’s easy to point the finger at a person cutting trees to survive, how many trees have been cut for the production of the things you feel you need in your life!? We can inform ourselves and choose to buy ethically and buy a lot lot less. Then these profiteers would have to change their ways because the demand would be for ethical products.

    • Simon Espley

      Hi Laurie, I agree with you. When I was writing this post I started broadening the scope but then got to a point where I needed to economise on words. Your points about us as consumers are spot on.

    • James Moffett

      Bang on 100% Laurie. Every human is responsible. How to learn “responsibility” is the key to solving all negative human problems. I am of the opinion we don’t have enough time. The Next Round of Humanity may learn from this huge failed experiment…

  • Margot Stewart

    There are many stakeholders and interested partes involved with conservation in South Africa but only ONE has the power and the responsibility, namely the ANC government and in that regard in 1994 it was like handing a kid the keys to the candy shop…
    or candy factory.

  • CITES is one of the many mechanisms within the Natural Capital sector that is rapidly, with the help of WWF, Conservation International, The Nature Conservancy, and the Natural Capital Project collaterising swathes of nature for the sake of the green/new economy (forestry, mining, palm oil, water provisioning services, ecosystem services). Here’s my latest oped describing some of the big money players in this sector http://www.wrongkindofgreen.org/2017/01/26/the-bankers-at-the-helm-of-the-natural-capital-sector/

  • Louise Joubert

    Wonderful Simon Espley – you summed it up in a nutshell and unfortunately the only victim in all of this is our wildlife and the environment. Time to go back to the drawing board.

  • Margrit Harris

    The ‘bad guys’ are well organized, while the ‘good guys’ are random and often scattered like you mention. What I’ve learned too from those we interview and personally, that wildlife has a new enemy… the online hate culture.

    • Simon Espley

      So true

  • Louis Liebenberg

    The logical conclusion of this article is that conservation will fail – so we might as well give up. However, there is a third alternative, which requires that we look at the ecosystem and the global economy from a bigger perspective, and not be distracted by our narrow personal agendas. Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics may replace most human employment over the next 50 years. Some estimates suggest that within the next 10 to 20 years the USA will have an unemployment rate of about 50%. In developing countries the unemployment rate will be much higher, forcing many to migrate to developed countries. When most people are unemployed, there will not be enough consumers to buy goods and services, so markets will collapse. The free market system as we know it will no longer function – the world will need to create a fundamentally new economic system, which will require a living wage for all people. So “Exploiters” and “Protectors” will no longer operate under the current free market system. A critical part of the solution will be massive investment in Research & Development to create new technologies, including new forms of clean energy that is less expensive than fossil fuels to avert catastrophic climate change. With clean energy we can desalinate sea water and develop indoor farming. If indoor farming becomes more cost effective than conventional farming, large areas of conventional farming will revert back to wilderness. When AI has replaced most employment, we will need to create meaningful employment for the unemployed – such as “green jobs” to clean up the polluted environment and protect biodiversity. And with new forms of clean energy, food production and water will not be a major problem, so “overpopulation” will not be the real issue. When most people have migrated to cities, there will be abundant space for biodiversity. Of course this all depends on whether we can innovate and create new forms of clean energy. But if we fail to create clean energy, climate change may well result in human extinction, in which case conservation will be irrelevant.

    • Simon Espley

      “The logical conclusion of this article is that conservation will fail – so we might as well give up.” REALLY?

      • Louis Liebenberg

        Yes, really. I am not saying we should give up. What I am saying is that over the next few decades we will see massively disruptive changes at a global macro-economic level. Any conservation strategy that does not plan for these disruptions will fail. But if we plan for these disruptions there is no reason why conservation should not succeed. If you are interested in the potential impact of AI and robotics, have a look at “The Second Machine Age” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee and “The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of Mass Unemployment” by Martin Ford. Ford’s book received the Financial Times Business Book of the Year 2015. Bill Gates launched a $1bn fund for new energy technologies (Financial Times, Dec 13 2016) – this is the type of initiative that will make a real difference.

        • Simon Espley

          Thanks Louis, but your interpretation of ‘giving up’ is yours alone. IMHO conservation in its current form will indeed fail – hence my writing of this opinion piece. To solve a problem we need to first understand it. This makes for depressing reading for sure, but it is what it is. The rest of your points are valid and interesting (thanks) but ‘giving up’ is yours and probably speaks to your frame of mind?

          • Louis Liebenberg

            Actually, I am not someone who is inclined to ‘give up’ – I would not be doing what I am doing if that was the case. While I feel biodiversity conservation is a major challenge, I am actually quite optimistic that we can find solutions. The point I was making is that your article gives a very accurate description of the problems we face in the conservation NGO sector at present, but you are not providing any solutions. Anyone reading your article may feel that it is hopeless, so we might as well give up. Our challenge is to look at the bigger picture and see how we can overcome the problems that may seem to be quite daunting.

          • Simon Espley

            Good point, about not providing solutions. I started to do that, but it’s such a massive topic that I felt it would distract from my stark message. Hopefully this post will stimulate discussion along those lines? Ps am a fan of your work.

          • Louis Liebenberg

            I think all the points you make about the ‘Protectors’ are very valid – we really need to get our act together. But we need a bigger vision that will give people hope for the future. We should not underestimate the dangers of climate change, but there are some exciting new developments in clean energy research & development that could change everything. Citizen Science has grown phenomenally over the last 10 years. Technological innovation is accelerating at an astonishing pace. While the problems we need to overcome are daunting, I am optimistic that innovation can find viable solutions in the near future. There is a Chinese curse that says “May you live in interesting times” (the curse referring to times of war and instability). But “interesting times” can also motivate us to find innovative solutions.

      • Lee Jones

        I agree with Louis that the article – as you have written it – does have as its logical conclusion that the ‘Exploiters’ will be the eventual ‘winners’ and that conservation will fail. I also agree with Louis – and you – that giving up is not an option.

        Coordinated effort, as well as finding alternative manners of doing business is critical, as is the need to ensure as much as possible that Joe and Josephine public can understand why and how much we are thoroughly dependent on functional and functioning ecosystems. Education, information, coordination, collaboration and dropping the ivory towers – through citizen science, etc. – that are still clung to by some, are just some of the keys.

        Necessary article Simon!

        • Simon Espley

          Hi Lee, thanks. I do indeed believe that, unless we change how conservation works, we will lose the battle. Good points, thanks

  • The real danger is that there would be no rhino today in Afica if not for the determination of previous South Africans. Lions also are only living in four areas where British initiated conservation mentality. http://bit.ly/wyd-rhino

  • sljennings

    http://www.mng5.com/papers/EAtrust.pdf

    It is a curious fact that among the last of the state monopolies to survive in Africa are the state conservation monopolies – the rest have been killed off by structural adjustment programmes at their ilk. And it is the sad fact that the precarious condition of biodiversity and wildlife conservation in eastern Africa is the direct consequence of hopelessly inefficient and bloated state conservation monopolies aided and abetted by international conservation organisations who, with their seemingly limitless resources, lack of accountability and hidden agendas wield such power and influence over conservation policy. Together they have created an unholy alliance that perpetuates on the one hand inefficiency and misuse of conservation resources, and on the other a perverse policy environment that creates disincentives to invest in conservation.

  • sljennings

    You probably will have seen John Mackinnon’s Avenues of Futility paper (Old now but much still valid):
    http://www.sungura.co.uk/Library/Mackinnon%20Avenues%20of%20Futility.pdf

    How do we change course?
    ● Stop imagining the world is how we would like it to be and start seeing how it
    really is
    ● Forget all our preconceptions
    ● Get more devious, wily and secretive in the way we move towards our goals
    ● Learn economics so we can do battle with bigger numbers
    ● Force politicians to recognise the serious state of global biodiversity and the
    economic consequences of failing to act
    ● Recognise that there are real enemies out there and identify and counter the
    individuals, corporations, systems and policies that are taking the planet down
    the slope
    ● Forge strong alliances to combat those enemies (especially mass media and
    public opinion), pit our enemies against each other
    ● Stop diluting conservation objectives with secondary agenda of poverty and
    gender (there are enough other people fighting those wars).
    ● Learn by our mistakes and get ever more cunning
    ● Arm the public and NGOs with data to lobby against destructive programmes and
    policies
    ● Dismantle the stranglehold of powerful multinationals and unfair trade
    agreements that force developing countries to follow unsustainable development
    paths
    ● Combat corruption and urge aid programmes and international banks to avoid
    fuelling corruption

    • Simon Espley

      Thanks so much, had not seen this. Very powerful advice…

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