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This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Reviewed by Mike Norton-Griffiths DPhil
What is frustrating about this book is that the authors actually have something very important to
say but their message is obscured by their Trump-like anger, or is it envy, focused on the motives
and actions of “corrupt and greedy” European conservationists, scientists and donors, and any
African unlucky enough to be associated with them.
I myself am subject to a character assassination in which my work on conservation economics is
ridiculed and derided. And to what avail, one wonders? To those who know me their accusations
are simply risible while to those who do not they are irrelevant. But since the authors rely solely on
innuendo and invective to repudiate not only my arguments but also those of fellow conservation
scientists then our work must be genuinely troubling to them.
That said, I do have to agree, albeit through gritted teeth, that the authors are in general correct in
their assertion that wildlife conservation in Kenya has been poorly served by conservation cartels
dominated by European and north American NGOs. But they make no comment on how these
cartels have been allowed to use their financial strength and their access to economic and political
elites to circumvent what should be representative democratic processes and insinuate their often
single-issue agendas into the body politic. This important issue should have been addressed, for
such power without accountability is a dangerous and heady mix.
The authors also fail to acknowledge or even recognise the full extent of the conservation crisis
facing Kenya today, a crisis exposed in a recent analysis of 45 years of rangeland monitoring
data by internationally recognised Kenyan scientists. Over this period Kenya has lost 80% of
her wildlife, a devastating indictment of both conservation policy and implementation. Here is the
crucial evidence that the authors should have used to censure the failure of the policies promoted
by these conservation cartels and their unwise and slavish adoption by the Kenyan Government.
However, closer examination of these data suggests why they might be uncomfortable for the
authors. While the rates of wildlife loss are ubiquitous across the vast rangelands managed by
Kenyan pastoralists the one area, Laikipia County, where wildlife have clearly flourished over
the last 45-years is largely managed by the very European conservationists they so denigrate
throughout this book.
Another overlooked aspect of the conservation tourism industry are the very one sided terms
of trade imposed on the pastoral custodians of Kenya’s wildlife which divert as much as 95%
of wildlife generated tourism revenues to the service side, rather than to the producer side, of
the industry. Indeed the contradiction of wildlife guardians living in shelters made of cow dung
while the conservationist elite live in Langata palaces is lost on the authors who furthermore quite
mistakenly deride the new conservancy movement in Kenya through which the custodians of
wildlife are at last getting a better financial deal.
The authors are obsessed by any suggestion that conservation benefits might be derived from the
consumptive use of wildlife. Yet the awkward facts, once again ignored by the authors, are there
for all to see. Across Africa, wildlife prospers where landowners and users have stronger rather
than weaker land tenure; where wildlife ownership rights are more rather than less devolved to
them; where the economic potential of wildlife is broader rather than narrower; where the costs
and benefits of wildlife production are shared more equitably between producers and consumers;
and where wildlife agencies adopt a more enabling approach rather than one of strict enforcement.
I do agree with the authors that both within Kenya and across Africa there is indeed a titanic clash
of ideologies between the “protectionist” model of wildlife conservation promoted by the animal
welfare lobby of European and north American NGOs, and the more homegrown “utilisation” model
adopted widely throughout southern Africa. Once again the data are clear: in contrast to most of
Africa, in southern Africa wildlife populations are in general flourishing and increasing.
Kenya and South Africa offer the most striking contrasts in wildlife conservation policy. In the early
70’s both countries had roughly the same number of wildlife, some 1.5 million head. 45 years later,
Kenya who had adopted the “protectionist” model of conservation had lost 80% of her wildlife. In
contrast, in South Africa where the “utilisation” model was adopted, wildlife numbers -- especially
of highly endangered iconic species -- had increased by more than 20 times.
This book presents a litany of lost opportunities. The authors had it in their grasp, in their gift,
to direct much needed attention towards complex and awkward problems, problems that have
undoubtedly lain too long in comfortable obscurity and which would have benefitted from objective,
critical analysis especially by such highly regarded Kenyan experts. And for this I will give them
grudging respect. But they have been irresponsible in allowing themselves to be so blinded by
their trivial prejudices that they have missed the opportunity either to open up any meaningful
discussion or to put forward any significant alternatives.
Comment from one of the authors Mbaria Wa Mbaria. This is a welcome critique by Bwana
Norton-Griffiths. However, ours was not a lost opportunity. We took the opportunity to re-tell the
conservation narrative as we, being members of 'the others', have interacted with it. We highly
welcome such criticisms, but as people do so, let us agree that we are not from the same socio-
cultural and ideological standpoints. Norton-Griffith's accusation that we're blinded by "trivial
prejudices" attracts laughter; we have a shared experience of over 39 years of close interaction
with the conservation model we adopted from the British and its main proponents and players.
We have sat at the feet of many of the main players eager to drink from their cups of experience.
We have weighed and re-weighed the inconsistencies between what is said and done; what is
believed to have been done and the prevailing status quo...Even if we were daft, the time it took
us was adequate to give us a fairly accurate assessment of why the entire conservation model,
its heroes and villains, was wrong for Kenya. But yes, let us have as many critiques as possible....
The Big Conservation Lie - A Book Review
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