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Wildebeest do not jump fences: Does African community based conservation remove these barriers?

By Dr. Kathleen Galvin

February 21st 2019

Do fences make good neighbors? The answer, not surprisingly, depends. We need to ask what is the goal of fence-building and what and whom is being kept in and out? Fences are going up all over the savannas of East Africa yet pastoralists need to move their livestock through the landscape to get at forage and water (unless there are huge subsidies). Most wildlife species, especially big animals like elephants and wildebeest (there are up towards 1.5 million wildebeest that seasonally move through the Greater Mara Ecosystem, for example) also need to move through these systems.

So, under these circumstances the outcomes of fence-building may be mixed – the neighbor’s cattle are no longer on your property but wildebeest and other wildlife can no longer cross the landscape (and you can’t move your livestock either). Maybe the goals of community based conservation are for some positive social/economic outcome (e.g., so you can grow crops or keep the neighbor’s cattle out) but this may result in negative outcomes for the wildlife/environment. It comes down to what we value. Do we want economic gains at the cost of wildlife conservation or the opposite? Or do we want win-win outcomes for both.

Most of us working in these systems would say ‘yes’ to the latter. Community based conservation is touted as an institution to enhance human social well-being and sustain biodiversity – thereby valuing a victory for both people and the environment. Are they working? We recently published a systematic review of community-based conservation in sub-Saharan Africa ( To our surprise there were few examples of any demonstrated ecological outcomes. Why so few? Why is no one measuring CBCs in relations to landscape fragmentation and fences? Most cases focused on social outcomes. Not surprisingly enhanced financial benefits from CBCs were important but not sufficient for positive outcomes. People connected to CBCs often reported unequal distribution of benefits except in the few instances where rights were in the hands of the local community. A lack of collaboration due to inequity in decision-making and participation and corruption continues to hinder CBC goals. If these barriers are overcome, will it contribute to keeping the land open for wildlife and people? We actually do not know.

This study made us realize that there is still much to learn. Both social and ecological science has a huge role here to play. But so do local communities and their knowledge. CBCs still seem an important tool to keep land open for people, livestock and wildlife under increasing pressures of land fragmentation due to population increases. Yet how to make them work? I remain excited about this, not just from the scientific view but because local communities are so invested in trying to keep lands open for their livestock while also benefiting wildlife. As a wise pastoralist noted, “really I think that there is always a saying where there’s a will there’s a way, and if people can go to the moon and come back I think that even land or this pastoral system can also be managed provided human selfishness and greed is taken care of”. Another stated, “I think these people have a wealth of knowledge about how to cope. If they have managed to cope over centuries, this is a lifestyle that has stood the test of time”. Enthusiasm like that spurs us/me to want to make a difference. What we need to ask is what is being valued in CBCs? How can communities of the sciences and other knowledges address conservation for people and wildlife? Are landscape level groups of conservancies becoming more important as projected trends in climate and environmental changes force different stresses on these systems? How these new questions affect social and ecological outcomes is unknown but needs investigation.

We all stand to lose from focusing on a single component of CBC or worse, not working on the issues at all. Maybe CBCs are just a stepping-stone to something better; I’m not sure. Regardless, wildebeest should not have to try and jump fences. People should thrive under conservation. Those are values to work towards.

Dr. Kathleen Galvin

Dr. Kathleen Galvin is the Director of the Africa Center and a Professor in Anthropology at CSU. She has conducted interdisciplinary social-ecological systems research in the savannas of east Africa for over 30 years. Galvin has addressed issues of land use change, conservation, climate variability, diet and nutrition of Africa pastoralists and, resilience and adaptation strategies throughout the world’s drylands. She works with ecologists, modelers, remote sensing, GIS experts and local communities to understand human-ecological problems and interactions. Her current research focuses on understanding the trade-offs of community-based conservation for people and the environment throughout the African continent. She is also working on a NASA funded grant on household decisions, ecosystem change and atmospheric water recycling in Kenya.

She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Colorado Nature Conservancy and is a member the Leopold Advisory Board, Leopold Leadership Program, Stanford University. She is currently a lead author on the global assessment of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).