A new policy paper on the effectiveness of wildlife protection in Africa has just been published by the African Journal of Ecology. The papers authors – Tim Caro and Paul Scholte – argue that the national parks system is failing to prevent a decline in African wildlife numbers. They draw on several recent studies of game populations in Africa to argue that

‘even relatively well-organised protected areas cannot be relied on as long-lasting conservation tools, at least for antelopes and their predators’.

The authors are right to highlight some of the problems confronting national parks in Africa. However, they neglect several important issues and create the impression that the national park system is the last bastion of hope for Africa’s wildlife populations.

For example, most wildlife in African in fact continues to exist outside of national parks- much of it on privately-owned land. In Kenya and South Africa, an estimated 70-75% of wildlife lives on privately-owned farm land. Conservation measures in Africa have always had to balance the protection of wildlife in national parks with the continued utilisation of wildlife outside the parks. Moreover, the amount of farmland being used for wildlife-related activities is actually growing. Throughout the 1990s, the area surrounded by game fencing in South Africa – but excluding national parks and reserves – grew by 2.5% per year. (Justine Nofal, Business Report, June 2000).

Caro and Scholte also argue that one of the drivers of wildlife population decline in Africa is the consumption of bush-meat. While the consumption of illegal game meat is undoubtedly a major problem- not least because of its potentially negative implications for disease control – the demand for game meat can arguably be used to assist conservation efforts in Africa. If people are prepared to pay for game meat – which we know they are – then they will pay for it if it is produced under managed conditions. Most of the game meat in South Africa comes from game ranching where wildlife is managed under conditions not dissimilar to extensive cattle ranching.

In Southern Africa, where game ranching, game meat production, and wildlife utilisation are the most developed in Africa, wildlife populations are not declining, but are experiencing significant growth. Elephant over-population has become a problem in some areas.

So while it is important to ensure national parks receive the funding and assistance they need, they are not the only hope for Africa’s wildlife. We also need to look at ways of further developing the capacity of African farmers and rural communities to benefit from selling the wildlife on their land. And maybe we should be less squeamish about allowing the sale of some of the most lucrative features of wildlife – hides, tusks, horn, and meat. There’s a commonly-used refrain among game ranchers in southern Africa – ‘If it pays, it stays’.