Conservancies are areas of land in which the local communities take full responsibility for the conservation and general management of both their land and of the wildlife that live on it in order to generate an income independently from sustainable farming and tourism.
Namibia flies the African flag for the initial creation of conservancies, something you can read more about here
, and the model is also now being used for community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) policies
, which have been developed and implemented across southern Africa in countries including Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and South Africa.
Less secure in the model, but making rapid strides in terms of conservancies is Kenya. Tourism has been an important part of Kenya’s recent history – creating vast national parks and game reserves, outlawing hunting, and contributing to the country’s GDP – and an important shift is already taking place in the way that Kenya’s land is managed and protected. Traditionally, land was set aside as a national park, or wildlife reserve (such as the Masai Mara,) and local communities were evicted from the land, which could no longer be used for hunting, grazing, fishing, or harvesting food or firewood. In wildlife terms, this was seen as a success – and in tourism terms too, because the wildlife that tourists had paid to come and see was now protected. But when people are evicted without compensation, recognition, or any way to benefit from the new enterprises that are taking place on what many would argue is rightfully their land, conflict – naturally – occurs. Poverty increases, there is a migration to the cities – meaning a loss of tribal culture – and, desperate for food and money, communities may turn to newly illegal activities such as poaching or logging. Some wildlife may be hunted for food, others to sell – and others are killed due to human-wildlife conflict, where animals such as elephants, lions or even chimpanzees are destroying crops and threatening families.
In recent years, though, conservancies have emerged - permitting the coexistence of local people and wildlife. Springing up across the country, particularly in the buffer zones surrounding the Masai Mara Game Reserve, where wildlife is plentiful. Each conservancy is created when a group of landowners comes together to collectively manage their small parcels of land as one bigger area and make decisions democratically. Land use agreements maintain limited grazing rights, and – crucially – the landowners can lease their land to safari companies, who can establish lodges or camps on the land with agreed visitor fees.
Africa’s continued ability to adapt to this shift – moving the emphasis from wildlife to people – will determine the impact that tourism has on its future sustainability.
What you can do
There are an increasing number of tourism projects across Africa that support conservancies, and local communities who participate in tourism have benefitted over the years as they are able to maintain their lands, support themselves and their status as landowners gives them greater power to resist their lands being bought out for construction, development, farming or mining, for example.
Badly managed tourism can be even more damaging than no tourism, however, so before booking a tour, ask some questions of your operator: How much involvement does the community have in the tours? How are they compensated? Does your guide speak the local language? Does tourism support community projects?
Above all, ensure that your visit is not a one-way experience. Ask your hosts questions – and invite them to ask you questions back. Interact, rather than just standing behind your camera. This is not only respectful to the community; it's also guaranteed to give you a much more memorable trip.