Wildlife Conservation: State- Landowner Synergy Required

Published on 10th April 2007

Conservation will ultimately boil to rewarding the private land owner who conserves the public interest. Aldo Leopold

The state of wildlife and wildlife habitats in Kenya reflect the policies that have been used in the management and conservation of these resources. The state owns wildlife, but the wildlife habitats (land) that are not designated as National Parks or wildlife reserves are owned and managed by private landowners (individuals or communal tribal groups). Thus, while the government has the custodianship or ownership over wildlife, landowners reserve the right to host or allow wildlife on their land.

Local communities as well as individual land owners have thus always been legitimate partners in the success of the wildlife industry. They have continued to support this industry by indirectly subsidizing it by agreeing to allow wildlife access to pasture, water and breeding habitats even when such resources are clearly outside park boundaries. The success in managing and conserving wildlife in modern Africa, is therefore pegged on a reciprocal relationship between those who have authority to allocate rights for consumptive or non consumptive use of these free ranging resources, and those who own lands that are important habitats for wildlife survival.

Managing the commons on private land

Initially, little or no attention was given to the role that open tribal lands played in sustaining the wildlife sub sector. Wildlife requires open rangelands for their mobility and reproduction. Wildlife could migrate from wet season grazing areas to dry season areas without any barriers as land belonging to the government was not fenced. But things started to change when the government introduced agricultural policies aimed at increasing food security in the 1980s. These policies had far reaching consequences for land reform. To participate in the reform, people required secure rights over their land to engage in agricultural activities, which among other things, entail accessing credit facilities from banks for the improvement of their farms and produce. Credit facilities are usually obtained by using the land title deed as collateral.

In order to facilitate this process, the government started demarcating land and issuing title deeds to private as well as communal tribal landowners. Farmers immediately re discovered the value of their land. Subsistence farmers started getting economic rewards from their produce. A cash economy was introduced into their lives, but at the same time, wildlife became a liability and cost to their new farming occupation. A conflict between farmers and wildlife agency officials became inevitable. The cost of this was illustrated in a recent article in The Guardian, a British newspaper. In Kenya, a farmer near Amboseli National Park lost $ 1000 worth of his harvest after it was destroyed by elephants at night. The article implies that a new ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ is brewing across Africa everywhere that government resources like wildlife continue to live and depend on private  land.

There is, therefore, a mismatch in ownership when one set of property rights (land/habitat) is assured   but the resource that depends on this land is not owned by the person who must manage the property. This is a new twist of the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ paradigm. In this new tragedy, the owners of the land also become ‘owners’ of the costs of wildlife, without gaining the benefits, which are ‘owned’ by the state. The state is then indulging in predatory rent seeking, by owning the resource which depends on the land owned by someone else. At stake here are value-laden issues of economic equity and welfare.

Property right and Conservation

Once property rights are clearly defined as is the case in Kenya (land to individuals, wildlife to the state), two things happen: the owners of both sets of resources have independent, but opposing incentives to maximize their benefits. In a case where this maximization of benefits is in conflict, a decline in value of both sets of resources (deterioration of land, loss of land to other uses, or the decline of wildlife due to habitat change) becomes inevitable. In the African rangelands, this effect will be masked in the short term as the land owner may enjoy a ‘bubble’ of agricultural profits before the impacts of land degradation, loss of biodiversity, and human wildlife kick in.

For the state, the wildlife resource soon becomes a liability. Wildlife agencies begin to devote enormous amounts of resources to anti-poaching, conflict resolution, management, and compensation to private land owners, while losing critical wildlife populations and potential earnings through tourism or other forms of wildlife based revenue.

New incentives and a new ‘generation glow’

These changes in land laws are leading to fragmentation and subdivision of prime wildlife rangelands into privately owned parcels of land. Vast areas are being cleared for crop and livestock production as wildlife is driven back to the National Parks by hoes rather than guns or spears. Clearly, land use options are guided by economic incentives. More and more farmers are taking advantage of free market solutions to the husbandry of their property made possible by title deeds for demarcated pieces of land.

There is an old dictum that “fences make good neighbors” however, in Kenya’s rangelands, this is not the case. Traditionally, people in the rangelands depend on collaborative arrangements for resources use and management. This is because of the patchy distribution of the resources, and the unstable climatic regimes. Fences break up these collaborations and isolate key resources, denying many users access. Although fences are meant to demarcate resources, in rangeland environments, they suffocate them by disrupting mobility and causing overgrazing and degradation. In addition, there can be other socio-economic consequences to this break up of traditional social cohesion, and the introduction of new institutions that are not understood by all.

A new way of thinking must be brought to bear on the problem of conservation on subdivided rangelands. Economic incentives must be realigned by linking up key strands of the bundles of property rights in a way that rewards landowners for hosting wildlife on their property. This will put landowners and governments in a better position to to strike a deal through trade-offs.

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