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Trouble in Paradise’: An Exchange

In response to:

Trouble in Paradise from the February 18, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to John Terborgh for his generally favorable review of In the Dust of Kilimanjaro [NYR, February 18]. However, the book covers far more than Amboseli, the theme he elaborates. It includes elephant conservation controversies, a half-century of change in East Africa, lives of the Maasai, and shifting views in science and conservation. Furthermore, in advancing his view that only heavily protected parks can save wildlife, Terborgh paints Amboseli as a romantic appeal to a past harmony and an isolated case with little broader relevance to conservation.

Far from being an appeal for harmony between people and wildlife fixed in a past era, the book calls for coexistence anchored in contemporary realities with all the problems that entails. As much as anything, the book is about the rising intolerance of wildlife in Africa and elsewhere due to the population growth, land shortage, and the spread of democracy after decades of colonial servitude and dictatorship. Ironically, I go to great lengths to dispel the notion so prevalent in the West (and in Terborgh’s review title, “Trouble in Paradise”) of East Africa as some romantic Eden.

Terborgh also draws a false line between conservation within parks and beyond, and between bottom-up (local) as opposed to top-down (government) approaches. I favor a pluralistic approach, based on what works. I proposed a park as the only bulwark against the agricultural encroachment threatening Amboseli’s swamps and insisted on a strong government role. To that end I lobbied to replace the inept Wildlife Department with a strong Kenya Wildlife Service and later directed it for several years. But also I saw the need to go beyond the park boundaries and military enforcement to prevent sanctuaries from becoming extinction traps and foreign playgrounds surrounded by resentful neighbors.

That view is no longer unique, as I showed in the appendix by directing readers to Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based Conservation, which details case studies from around the world reflecting the new thinking. Even the veritable Yellowstone National Park, citing Amboseli, is attempting to provide the bison, elk, wolf, and grizzly access to the 13-million-acre ecosystem surrounding the 2.2-million-acre park. Clearly all is not well in America any more than Africa when it comes to insular federal conservation practices.

The chairman of the World Commission for Protected Areas, representing 1,300 experts from around the world, also makes it clear that Amboseli is not exceptional. Thus, where once parks were planned against, WCPA now advocates that they be planned with local people. Where once the emphasis was on setting these places aside, now we look for the many connections which linked protected areas to the world around. Fifty years of experience has taught us that protected areas cannot survive and flourish in isolation.

Finally, the donors did not pull out of Kenya Wildlife Service due to the efforts beyond parks that I promoted, as Terborgh implies. To the contrary, they are in the process of expanding their support for local conservation initiatives.

David Western

Nairobi, Kenya

John Terborgh: replies:

The migrations of grazing animals that once took place in many of the world’s great grasslands have become a vanishing phenomenon. In groping for ways to conserve one such migratory system in Kenya’s Amboseli National Park, David Western champions the benign coexistence of humans and wildlife in a traditional pastoral setting. While our views may differ on tactics, the goal is not in dispute. It is to conserve Amboseli’s wildlife, and, by extension, the wildlife of parks all over the world. What makes the issue difficult is that the goal itself is so in conflict with current global trends that it borders on the Quixotic.

That conservation can be achieved via the good will and active participation of local populations is a currently popular, but untestable, hypothesis. It is untestable because the world will not know for a hundred or a thousand years whether it is successful. Western and I differ in our faith in reliance on bottom-up (local incentive, local control) vs. top-down (legally mandated, government-enforced) processes to create the stability of conditions on the ground that conservation requires. The challenge is clear, but it amounts to a defiance of social entropy: how to engender stability of land and resource use in the face of exponential economic and social change. Nobody knows how to do it, so different points of view have their legitimacy. My skepticism for the bottom-up approach derives from the historical facts of shifting land-use patterns and kaleidoscopically changing societal attitudes. When staring into an opaque crystal ball, all anyone can do is place bets, and no two conservationists are going to place bets on the same number. Meanwhile, the dialogue is refreshing and constructive.

Western has more faith than I do in the potential for conservation outside of parks. What I see is an economically driven trend toward intensified use of natural resources of all kinds. Whether in North America or in developing countries, markets encourage humans to overexploit natural resources, often to exhaustion. We overgraze grasslands, clearcut forests, overharvest fisheries, and overdraw aquifers. Individuals, including corporations, driven by current aspirations rarely see an advantage in exercising restraint in the present for a vague promise of a more bountiful future. The future is too full of uncertainties, and its potential is diminished by the discount rate.

The battle over Pacific Northwest old growth is a prime example of the clash between focused interests and society. If left to its own devices, the timber industry would liquidate all remaining old growth on national forests, as it has on privately owned timberlands. Conservation outside of protected areas will not happen by itself because individuals predictably strive to optimize current advantage. The incentives perceived by local people only rarely favor conservation, even in the short run. Over the long run, what is certain is that incentives will change with the inevitable ups and downs of the global economy. In practice, the imposition of restraint for the better good of society is a function of government. In matters of conservation, I would therefore rather bet on the strongest institutions at hand, those that emanate from higher authority, than on the good will of local people to preserve habitats and their wildlife.

Western correctly points out the difficulties we have here in the US over two of the same issues that affect Amboseli—the tendency of large animals to ignore arbitrary boundaries and intolerance of the public for wildlife. Every winter, bison wander out of Yellowstone National Park onto adjoining private lands. The (bottom-up) political response has been to allay landowner fears of brucellosis (a disease of cattle carried by bison) by sending out teams of sharpshooters to slaughter hundreds of the animals, as much as 20 percent of the entire Yellowstone herd in one recent winter. Clearly this politically expedient practice does not represent a good long-term policy toward Yellowstone’s wandering bison. It would be much better to purchase the tracts most favored by bison and annex them to the park. That would be a long-term (and a top-down) solution. Perhaps it is not too heretical to think along similar lines with regard to Amboseli.

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