African Wildlife Foundation logo: four orange silhouettes of elephants of different sizes.

A Place Without People: The Aftermath of the African Wildlife Foundation’s Urge to Help

Cover image courtesy of African Wildlife Foundation. “2016 Annual Report.” ​African Wildlife Foundation​, 2017.

–by Sam Baschky and Maggie Martin–


The mission statement of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) espouses the need to “ensure wildlife and wild lands thrive in modern Africa.” Their projects include species conservation, wildlife protection and biodiversification, and the empowerment of local communities. Despite these noble designs, AWF has received increasing criticism from Africans that are directly affected by the organization’s policies and actions. Although AWF attempts to protect Africa and enable its peoples, these goals oftentimes conflict. In one instance, AWF acquired land in Kenya’s Laikipia district with the goal of maintaining it; however, this acquisition expelled the local Samburu of Kisargei from their homes. Other occasions where AWF’s desires have supplanted those of indigenous people have ignited recent criticisms of the conservation organization’s motives and methods. As has been seen before, the urge to help those less fortunate has led AWF to value their contribution above the voices of the people they claim to help. This podcast will investigate the public face of AWF’s conservation efforts, and compare their virtuous goals with the realities of their interactions with African people.


SAM: From the University of Oklahoma Honors College,

MAGGIE: This is the Urge to Help Podcast. I’m Maggie Martin, a senior Geophysics major,

SAM: And I’m Sam Baschky, a junior Meteorology major, and we’re students in Dr. Prichard’s honors class, “Africa and the Urge to Help.” Our podcast is titled “A Place Without People: The Aftermath of the African Wildlife Foundation’s Urge to Help.”

MAGGIE: The point of this podcast is to take a closer look at the consequences of Western aid in Africa, to observe the motives of those who give aid, and to open a conversation about what it means to “give” – to “aid” – to “help.”

SAM: It’s an important conversation! Knowing when and how to help is a difficult thing. There are certainly situations that are dire and require outside aid. But it’s hard to know what those situations are from a thousand miles away.

MAGGIE: Exactly. When there is a problem, our initial reaction is to want to fix the problem.

SAM: But our sympathies can be misplaced. As Americans, our understanding of Africa may not be in line with the reality in Africa. Africa may not need our help and our help may be harmful. We have a Western idea of Africa as a hopeless place. It’s a racist and paternalistic ideal that is rooted in a fraught history of colonialism. By trying to help in response to every instance of a “hopeless” Africa, we ignore Africa as a place with people.

MAGGIE: So we need to talk about our failings. We need to talk about when “helping” is hurtful and unnecessary. Harmful Western aid is a pervasive problem, and without a critical eye cast towards both aid agencies and our personal attitudes towards them, we’re complicit in the same dehumanizing behavior that has characterized the relationship between Africa and the Western world for centuries.

SAM: Today, we’re going to look a one instance of Western aid gone awry by taking a closer look at the African Wildlife Foundation.

MAGGIE: The African Wildlife Foundation, or AWF, is a name you might be familiar with. AWF’s extensive experience in nature conservation and biodiversification has given them an impressive international reputation. Their wildlife preservation efforts encompass 60 projects in species research and conservation and 12.3 million acres of land under conservation management3 . AWF is the fourth largest conservation NGO in Africa, and yields considerable power throughout the continent4 .

SAM: Impressive projects are part of AWF’s mission statement. According to their official website, their purpose is to “ensure wildlife and wild lands thrive in modern Africa”3 . Its ambitious, and it’s vague. Africa is a huge continent with a dozen different biomes and a vast array of cultures and people. This goal, with its broad scope, has required cooperation with many different local communities. AWF claims they want to create long-term, trusting relationships with Africans affected by their conservation efforts1 . And on the surface? It seems like a trustworthy claim.

MAGGIE: It absolutely does! An aid organization that fails to assess the human effect of their behavior seems counterintuitive.

SAM: I think it does seem counterintuitive. But AWF’s goals are to help wildlife thrive and work alongside local populations to help in that thriving. What happens when these goals conflict? When AWF’s conservation goals threaten the autonomy and power of local people, what is the outcome? In the case of AWF, the goal of working with people loses priority altogether.

SAM: Mordecai Ogada, the Director of Conservation Solutions Afrika, addresses this problem in his book The Big Conservation Lie . In its conservation efforts, AWF has evicted native people from their lands, and disrupted lives, communities, and history. Here is what Ogada had to say in a speech to the Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources at Colorado State University.

OGADA: The problem is that all these organizations that do a lot of reasonable conservation work all over the world, when they get to Africa, it’s about moving people out. To conserve anything, you must remove people from this place5 .

SAM: So that’s AWF’s solution: evict locals, and the land is yours.

MAGGIE: That’s awful. It makes the idea of “conserving nature” exclusively about the land. The land becomes more important than the people.

SAM: Absolutely; Western narratives about Africans are utterly dismissive, and that’s really clear in forced displacement of native people. To evict local populations is to assume a lot about them. that they don’t have rights to the land they’re on, that the way they tend to the land is insufficient to lay claim to the land, that interveners had an implicit claim to the land, and so on.

MAGGIE: And by removing the people, there is room to cast the depopulated land in a somewhat romantic light that’s more in line with Western convention. The new inhabitants become pioneers and conservationists.

SAM: The narrative of some new, uninhabited land is really a boon to the AWF cause. Any projects that are violent towards native populations can be reimagined as noble efforts for the sake of conservation. Everyone involved becomes heroic. Even when violence is publicized, it is secondary to conservation.

MAGGIE: One of the many publicized examples of the AWFs violent displacement of people is the eviction of Kenya’s Samburu people. In November 2010, the Samburu people of the Laikipia district – which is a 10,000 square mile district encompassing Mount Kenya2 – were violently removed from the land they had lived on for twenty years. This eviction followed the purchase of the land by the African Wildlife Foundation and one of its conservation partners, The Nature Conservancy. These two charities then gave the land back to Kenya with the intention that it become a national park1 2 .

SAM: AWF accomplished their laudable goal of establishing a protected area where wildlife could survive and flourish. However, they displaced around 2,000 local families in the process. And there was nothing even remotely human about their removal methods. There is significant evidence that the eviction was predicated on intimidation, violence, and torture. Livestock were seized, women were raped, property was destroyed. One elder Samburu was shot during the commotion. In one tragic, somewhat ironic case, a child was eaten by a lion1 2 . Ogada summarizes the eviction of the Samburu by AWF and TNC.

OGADA: There’s this video, it’s a feature by BBC channel 4, about conservation’s dirty secrets, about the piece of land that was purchased by AWF, African Wildlife Foundation, as a proxy of The Nature Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. And it had some pastoralists grazing animals on it. And they moved in to get people out, and in the process of doing that – it was a violent eviction. Houses were burnt, people were killed5 .

SAM: On AWF’s website, they have an informational page devoted to their Samburu Landscape project. It briefly mentions how population growth has caused new settlements to encroach on once-wild lands, causing conflict between humans and endangered species. This, they claim, requires land to be set aside for nature conservation, so that both humans and animals are protected. No mention is made of the acquisition of the Samburu land2 .

MAGGIE: The absence of an official record of the acquisition speaks to larger policy ideas at play here. AWF is just emulating a pattern of removal and acquisition that has been practiced for the better part of the 20th century. Much of the Laikipia district is composed of ranch lands owned in part or in full by rich Africans and white settlers9 . This hasn’t always been the case. Prior to colonization, the area was inhabited largely by a group of Maa-speaking pastoralists known as the Maasai. The Maasai are very mobile in lands that they inhabit and employ complex methods of cattle farming9 .

SAM: As colonial settlers moved into the region, the Maasai were displaced to make room for more “settled”, more “Western” styles of cattle farming that involved enormous swaths of lands owned by a few individuals. This style of living on the land was deemed a more effective use of the land, so land rights were assumed to belong to settlers. Incidentally, the style of farming in no way involved the Maasai continuing to live on their native lands9 .

MAGGIE: The Maasai still live in the Laikipia district, and they are mostly confined to densely populated reservations. They frequently call for reparations and restored land rights, but are met with deaf ears. Recent efforts by the Maasai to reclaim their land by force from the few dozen commercial ranchers have been met with violence. In 2004, a group of Maasai herded cattle onto a commercial ranchland settlement. They were dressed for war. In response, the Kenyan government dispatched a paramilitary group to the area. They killed a Maasai elder, wounded many others, and arrested 120 people in total9 .

SAM: There is a perception of the Maasai people as an unsettled people who are insufficiently able to tend to the land. In the mind of the settlers and in the minds of the westernized Kenyan government, that insufficiency disqualifies them from having any rights to the land as native peoples9 .

MAGGIE: The Western idea that African people groups are unable to properly care for the land they inhabit is an old, sinister idea that is based on racial and cultural myths that permeate all interaction between the Maasai people and the ranch-holders.

SAM: The Maasai have a personal connection to the land similar to the Samburu people and similar to any group with a cultural livelihood constructed in relation to the land. Though not identical to the settlement model preferred by Western civilization, their claim of the land is nonetheless based in generations of husbandry and local tradition that shouldn’t be disregarded9 . Violent removal of local populations is a dismissal of a non-Western system and is rooted in a lack of understanding. Western agents like AWF only perpetuate this lack of understanding for their own gain.

MAGGIE: Is there any official response to the allegations of violent eviction from the AWF?

SAM: Not at the moment. They seem to be ignoring it.

MAGGIE: So who is the beneficiary of AWF aid, then? In their attempts to help Africa through wildlife conservation, AWF ignored the people living in the Laikipia district. They’ve continued the pattern of denying land rights to inhabitants of the land. The so-called African wilderness is not a place without people, yet the people leading AWF proceed with their mission without taking into account the voices of Africans. This means that they are not working with and empowering local communities like the Samburu, and hints towards a somewhat implicit assumption on AWF’s part that their way of conservation is superior to that of Africans.

SAM: The superior attitude is clear here. There is no reason for AWF to take the Samburu people into account, especially in a broader context wherein Samburu voices are already deemed irrelevant to progress by nature of being African. AWF cites conservation as a primary goal, and their removal of the Samburu speaks to a lack of faith in the Samburu to understand and implement conservation policy on their own land. It doesn’t help local populations at all.

MAGGIE: They’re only helping themselves. Depopulation is a convenient means of gaining conservatory land, and it’s easy to justify depopulation when land rights of local populations are ignored. The eviction of the Samburu people is not an isolated incident either. There are lots of stories like this, stories where Western settlements are used to excuse violence and depopulation of local communities.

SAM: Another instance of the eviction of locals in the name of land conservation took place in 2014. Survival International, a global movement to protect tribals peoples’ rights, reported abuse

of the Baka “pygmies” in southeast Cameroon. The Baka people were removed from their ancestral homeland to create protected conservation areas for the World Wildlife Fund, or WWF1 3 .

MAGGIE: The Baka people hunt in the surrounding forest to feed their families. After the introduction of a WWF anti-poaching policy, the Baka practice of hunting constituted illegally taking animals from the land. In response to hunting, the WWF funded anti-poaching squads. Those anti-poaching squads targeted the Baka hunters using arrest, beatings, torture, and death1 3 .

SAM: Essentially, the Baka people were marked as criminals for implementing their standard method of finding food for themselves.

MAGGIE: To the Baka people, forest game was essential to sustaining a community. International aid policy had no impact on the local behavior because the WWF policy-makers, in the process of making the law, gave no suitable alternative for finding food. And the Baka people were going to continue to eat, in spite of a law that was deaf to their needs. That they were tortured for the act of continuing to search for food is unconscionable.

SAM: One member of the Baka community objects that all should have access to the food of the forest:

BAKA: speaking foreign language

SAM: His translated words are “I want to have the freedom to walk in the forest so I can set my traps and get my honey. I want to eat all the different kinds of food in the forest without being harassed. So that I can eat meat in the forest and grow and be healthy1 3 .”

MAGGIE: He’s not expressing some lofty goal here. The desire to grow and be healthy, the desire eat what you want, are sentiments most people can relate to. That he should be able to do so in the land he recognizes as home makes sense. It shouldn’t be considered a radical claim. The WWF is required by UN standards to prevent “adverse human rights impacts directly linked to its operations.”1 3 This requirement is obviously ignored. The global conservation groups have exercised indecent power in Cameroon. That international aid should dictate the diet of a local population based on vague desires to “help wild lands flourish” is dismissive of African ability to act on behalf of themselves and the land they inhabit. That international aid enforces punishment in response to ignored policy is heinous.

SAM: The attitudes displayed by Western aid organizations are gross, certainly, but not unsurprising in a larger historical context.

MAGGIE: We’ve talked about Western attitudes toward local populations. Do you mean Western attitudes towards the land itself?

SAM: Exactly. The idea that Africa is a beautiful, wild, empty place is not a new concept in the Western imagination. Even the earliest African expeditions were predicated on the idea of an unexplored Africa ready for conquering. At the time, attitudes towards Africans were overtly racist and cast indigenous Africans as sub-human. This lens helped explorers murder large populations and colonize lands that were already well-occupied. At the time, the goals of colonization were to set up Christian civilizations in Africa in order to begin using African resources for commercial success. Africa could be a place of wonder and of wealth, were it an empty place. A place where vast wildernesses could be harnessed to a glorious end for European states. So, the imagined Africa was an empty Africa. It’s been a century since these goals were in fashion, but based of the actions of the AWF, it’s seems like the general attitudes remain the same.

MAGGIE: It seems like the AWF are reaching for a much more noble goal, namely conservation instead colonization, while still ignoring native Africans inhabiting their native lands because their presence is antithetical to the idea of an empty Africa.

SAM: The idea of colonizing Africa seemed righteous at a time when mission work and commerce were noble. Now, conservation is noble. The goals of AWF are more abstract than those of European colonizers in the 19th century, but the moral status gained in either situation makes sense as motivation for the actions of both.

MAGGIE: So the AWF’s efforts to empty native lands for the purpose of conservancy? SAM: They seems pretty consistent with historical ideas of Africa as empty.

MAGGIE: So how does anything change for local populations after eviction? Is there some way for hardship caused by eviction to be alleviated?

SAM: That’s the big question for a lot of people. The AWF, as previously stated, does not acknowledge the Samburu eviction and is not likely to answer to the accusations since they still retain good NGO status with the Better Business Bureau4 . There is a growing idea of “community conservation” that is gaining notoriety in conservation circles, and is central to the mission statement of the African Wildlife Foundation. The idea is in the name: Conservation moving forward should be handled in part by local communities. The communities would work

alongside NGO operatives to create a conservation plan that increases the capital available to local communities8 .

MAGGIE: The hope is to alleviate the problems that arise from displacement of local communities by working with those communities to set up conservation efforts. Economies in communities decimated by prior displacement will grow from an increase in infrastructure, land, money, social programs, and trade relationships8 . There is incentive for the AWF to be involved in community conservation because economic income gives communities an incentive to conserve the wildlife and its habitat1 0 .

SAM: Theoretically, community conservation is an ideal model for the AWF. Sustainable environmental practices are notoriously lacking in impoverished communities8 . It is conceivably good to have such conservation models in place.

MAGGIE: But the African Wildlife Foundation has not been successful in implementing community conservation in the past. In practice, AWF has created a thorough mistrust of NGO conservation efforts. AWF has previously promoted policies that either disadvantaged rural villagers, supported poor local institutional performance, or both1 1 . As mistrust grew, difficulties with local communities grew in turn, leading to the events like the Samburu eviction. The AWF isn’t going anywhere. The organization has substantial, beneficial impacts on the global conservation efforts. In Africa, they do strive to combine sustainable development with a poverty reduction agenda, in a sense making conservation “pay its way” through cash flows back into local businesses and local economies; this method has had moderate success in increasing meaningful employment, especially through the creation of an AWF-supported tourism
industry7 . So we know the AWF can consider the plight of local people in their efforts if it fits their mission.

SAM: But it seems that this consideration of natives is viewed as a luxury. The AWF is still the primary actor in conservation, with locals as passive beneficiaries in the best of scenarios1 0 . When it is convenient to help local Africans, AWF will help, but in situations where it becomes too burdensome for AWF to acknowledge local populations, there is ample evidence that AWF regresses to violence towards its supposed beneficiaries8 . The Samburu people, being opposed to the conservation goals imposed on their native lands, were killed with impunity.

MAGGIE: AWF’s continual, willful ignorance of marginalized populations is an extremely harmful remnant from 19th and 20th century relations with the continent. A tentative solution for conservation efforts as a whole is a more complete understanding of African populations in areas of conservation interest. Such an understanding can be achieved through research that is equitable to all native populations. In defining the land, it is important to be aware of every

person inhabiting it – to be intentional in talking to both powerful and vulnerable populations8 and not to assign passive roles to impoverish, marginalized, or oppositional groups to ensure ease of operation. In order to begin to amend their removal of African people from their conservation narrative, AWF must begin to consider every local community in their efforts to conserve African nature.


SAM: One member of the Samburu, Nakuru Lemiruni, spoke on her experience of being evicted from the Laikipia district in 2014.

LEMIRUNI: speaking foreign language

SAM: Her words are: “Now I’m almost finished. I’ve lost loved ones, I’ve lost my livestock,

I’ve been kicked out. I want to be told, what is my future?”6 .

MAGGIE: And what is the future of a people without land? Nakuru’s question, what does her future look like, is a potent question that remains unanswered for the displaced Samburu people who have lost their lives, routines, and loved ones to the quest for conservancy. What AWF has gained in the Laikipia district is a place that’s vast, full of nature, and free of African life.

SAM: Thank you for listening. This was Maggie Martin and Sam Baschky with the Urge to Help Podcast. We’d like to thank Dr. Prichard for her thoughtful insights on our podcast script.

This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.

Works Cited

  1. African Wildlife Foundation. “Non-Governmental and Technical Partners.” African Wildlife Foundation, 2017.
  2. African Wildlife Foundation. “Samburu.” African Wildlife Foundation, 2017,
  3. African Wildlife Foundation. “2016 Annual Report.” African Wildlife Foundation, 2017.
  4. Better Business Bureau. “African Wildlife Foundation – Charity Report.”, Jan 2017.
  5. Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources. “Mordecai Ogada, Director of Conservation Solutions Afrika – The Big Conservation Lie.” YouTube, Mar 2017.
  6. Dowie, Mark. “Keep Off the Grasslands.” The Wrong Kind of Green, Aug 2013.
  7. Elliott, Joanna and Daudi Sumba. “Conservation Enterprise: What works, where and for whom?” A Poverty and Conservation Learning Group (PCLG) Discussion Paper. London: International Institute for Environment and Development, 2010.
  8. Igoe, Jim. “Measuring costs and benefits of conservation to local community.” Journal of Ecological Anthropology, vol. 10, no. 1, 2006,  pp. 72-77.
  9. McIntosh, Janet. Unsettled: Denial and Belonging Among White Kenyans. University of California Press, 2016.
  10. Nthiga, Rita, Ben Mwongela, and Katharina Zellmer. “Conservation Through Tourism: The Conservation Enterprise Model of the African Wildlife Foundation.” New alliances for tourism, conservation and development in Eastern and Southern Africa, 2011, pp. 107-126.
  11. Sachedina, Hassanali T. “Disconnected Nature: The Scaling Up of African Wildlife Foundation and Its Impacts on Biodiversity Conservation and Local Livelihoods.” Antipode, vol. 42, no. 3, 2010, pp. 603-623.
  12. Smith, David. “Kenya’s Samburu People ‘Violently Evicted’ After US Charities Buy Land.”The Guardian, 14 Dec 2011, people-evicted-land.
  13. Survival International. “Cameroon: WWF complicit in tribal people’s abuse.” Survival International, 6 Oct 2014,

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