Cover image courtesy of African Parks.
Written by Skyler Sprecker, The University of Oklahoma
By providing proper management to some of Africa’s national parks, African Parks is restoring their natural wonders and increasing economic opportunities for local communities.
African Parks is a South African NGO that contracts with various African governments to take over the management of national parks within these countries. Previously, the management of these parks was the responsibility of governments. However, the lack of resources and manpower provided by these governments led to problems with poaching and overgrazing from livestock, as the parks’ boundaries lacked enforcement. African Parks assumes control of these parks to ensure they remain protected from human threats, with now almost twenty parks across eleven countries in their care. To better protect the wildlife, African Parks has taken a proactive approach of patrolling its parks by increasing the number of rangers and the quality of their training. However, its financial ties to Europe and the West have raised concerns among journalists and politicians about African Parks’ intentions and whether it is a rebranded approach to Western intervention in African affairs. Additionally, its sometimes-heavy-handed approach has drawn criticisms from both locals and experts and raises questions about whether living close to these parks is beneficial for local communities. This article looks at African Parks’ current model of community engagement and development and how it can be improved to make the impact it is having in local communities even greater.
Founded in 2000, African Parks is a South African NGO that contracts with various African governments to take over the management of national parks within their respective countries . Before African Parks took over, many of these parks were ravaged by conflict, poaching, and resource depletion. The organization takes a proactive approach to park management, creating a larger and better-trained ranger force to carry out patrols. African Parks also works with local communities to increase economic activity and involvement in the management of the parks and their resources. This serves to reduce pressure on the national park to provide its resources for the usage of people while also developing trust between the communities and African Parks. Additionally, it serves to generate pride among the people so that they see the national park as something to be protected. However, there have been accusations that African Parks’ tough stance on park boundaries and resources is so that it can make money off foreign tourists while cutting off local communities from their traditional grounds and ritual sites . As it has gathered more experience with park management, African Parks has made progress with balancing the needs of the wildlife in its parks with the needs of the people living around them, but there are still lessons that can be learned and implemented to ensure the people living near the parks benefit from their proximity.
History of African Parks
African Parks was founded in 2000 by a group of South African conservationists with financial backing from the Dutch billionaire Paul van Vlissingen. Before his death in 2006, van Vlissingen was one of the richest men in Europe, having made his money as CEO and chairman of SHV, a coal, oil, and natural gas transporting company that, under his leadership, became the largest privately held company in Europe. He was also a staunch conservationist and philanthropist, owning an 80,000-acre estate in the highlands of Scotland and helping support African Parks, in addition to other philanthropic activities . The first parks to come under African Parks’ management were Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi and Liuwa Plain National Park in Zambia in 2003 . In the following 18 years, African Parks has added 17 more parks across 11 countries, covering 51,352 square miles. According to their 2019 annual report, “This is the largest and most ecologically diverse amount of land under protection for any one NGO on the continent” . Some of the major parks that African Parks manages include Garamba, in the far northeast of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Chinko, in the Central African Republic (CAR), Akagera, a wetland in Rwanda, and Pendjari, in northwest Benin. It employs over 2,600 staff full-time, 95% of which African Parks claims are locals to the parks they work at, with a ranger force almost 1,200 strong and a payroll pushing $14 million. Its 2019 operating budget was $74 million dollars, the large majority of which comes from private donors and foundations, though a few parks are close to being self-sufficient from revenue generated through tourism .
The African Parks Model
The African Parks model is a Public-Private Partnership, under which “African Parks maintains the full responsibility and execution of all management functions and is accountable to the government, who is the owner and who determines the policy” . While African Parks has full management responsibilities of the park and its wildlife, the government retains possession of the land and its resources. African Parks has no ownership of the land it controls. The organization strongly rejects claims that these parks are being privatized, saying in a press release “…privatization of protected areas involves the transfer of ownership of the park from the State to a private individual. African Parks does exactly the opposite – Governments and communities are the beneficiaries of professionally managed protected areas…” .
In negotiations with a government to assume management of a park, African Parks seeks long-term contracts, averaging 20 years in length. This allows them to develop a park and its infrastructure over time, ensuring the security of the park and its wildlife. Once a contract is agreed on, the organization secures funding for its operations and creates a Board of Directors “representing partner institutions, key stakeholders and African Parks, and is accountable to the Government” . It then begins implementing what it calls “the five key pillars of our work” . Three of these relate to the park itself, and two relate to the people living near, or sometimes in, the national park. Regarding the park itself, African Parks seeks to “secure and protect national parks and reserves” through law enforcement, ensure the biodiversity of the wildlife through “restoration, monitoring, and evaluation of critical landscapes”, and “develop infrastructure and governance structures” so the park can be properly managed and protected. Concerning those living in close proximity to the park, African Parks conducts community development through “engagement, education, and enterprise activities” and looks to generate tourism so that it can “accelerate economic development through income generating activities” to help lift those near the park out of poverty . The goal of all this is to create a long-term solution to both protecting the natural resources and wildlife while simultaneously benefiting the people living nearby. This is an admirable goal, and while African Parks does help stimulate local economies, these efforts can still leave something to be desired.
African Parks protects its parks through both ground patrols and surveillance from planes and helicopters that it owns. In 2017, rangers spent over 113,000 days, cumulatively on patrol, removing over 48,000 snares. The rangers are directly employed by African Parks, which increases accountability and ensures they are properly trained. All rangers receive shooting, firearms, and community sensitization training with some also receiving leadership and/or medical training. Over 90% of the rangers are from local communities, helping to increase local connections to the park . A typical ranger patrol in Zakouma National Park in Chad consists of six rangers on a team carefully following elephants through the bush for five days at a time. There are also what African Parks calls phantom teams made up of two rangers performing longer-range reconnaissance. These team’s locations are so secret that only the park manager and the park’s head of law enforcement know where these teams are. Not even the radio operator that communicates with them is aware of their location . These patrols ensure that the wildlife is protected, poachers are kept at bay, and people with the ability to use the park for sustainable resources are able to.
African Parks Success
From a wildlife perspective, African Parks is extremely successful at rehabilitating the parks it manages. Chad was home to almost 300,000 elephants in the 1980s but by 2010 the elephants had been poached down to only 400 surviving members living in Zakouma National Park in the southeastern part of the country. These poachers, called Janjaweed – roughly “devils on horseback” in Arabic, mainly came from Sudan to the east in search of ivory. In 2010 African Parks took command of Zakouma, and the poaching almost immediately stopped . In the eleven years African Parks has managed Zakouma, only 24 elephants have been poached, with the last incident occurring in 2016. The population has started to rebound as well, growing from only one calf under five years old in 2011 to over 125 calves among a total population of over 550 in 2018 .
Antelopes and spotted hyena were the only large animal species that hadn’t been poached into local extinction when African Parks began its management of the Majete Wildlife Reserve in 2003. Black rhinos were reintroduced that same year, and in the time since, “Elephants followed in 2006, lions in 2012, giraffe in 2018 and cheetahs in 2019. Overall, [African Parks] brought in more than 3,200 animals from 16 different species” . The reintroduction of elephants has been so successful, that by 2015, the over 400 elephants in the park were “placing immense pressure on the reserve’s habitat” and threatening to seriously damage the plant life in the park . In response, 150 elephants, along with 350 from Liwonde National Park – another Malawian park managed by African Parks, were moved from the park to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in the northern part of the country (African Parks manages four parks/reserves in Malawi). This relocation helped the vegetation in Majete rebound and reduced human-wildlife conflict around Liwonde .
In other measures, African Parks is just as successful. In 2019 their rangers removed 19,464 snares, made 658 arrests, and confiscated 660 tons of wildlife products, 51 tons of which was bushmeat. Regarding the wildlife in their care, African Parks is extremely effective at protecting them and providing them safe spaces to breed and grow their population.
Struggles and Criticism
While African Parks has had success protecting its parks, it hasn’t been without tragedy. On September 3rd, 2012, on a hilltop in Zakouma, six rangers were ambushed and killed by poachers. In 2009, the Ugandan militia the Lord’s Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, the same man featured in the viral Kony 2012 video, “attacked a village near [Garamba’s] headquarters, burning many of the buildings and stealing a large quantity of stolen ivory” in addition to killing 15 of the park rangers . A few years later “roughly a thousand rebels in retreat from the South Sudan war flooded over the border” . Things were so bad that the head of the DRC’s conservation agency, the Institut Congolais pour la Conservation de la Nature (ICCN), was afraid that African Parks would cut their losses and abandon Garamba. They did not, and the situation has improved since, however tourism around Garamba has been slow to develop. Other rangers have been lost as well, including two killed by poachers after arresting illegal fishermen on a lake in Matusadona National Park in Zimbabwe in late December 2019 . While African Parks takes measures to secure its parks and protect its rangers, it still is a dangerous job with threats from hostile intruders.
African Parks has also received criticism in the media, with articles published in the French newspaper Le Monde and the monthly Le Monde diplomatique during the first part of 2020 accusing African Parks of attempting to be a white savior for these parks and caring more about wealthy Western tourists than the people living near the parks. The first article, titled “Central African Republic: War in the Name of Nature”, alleges that African Parks is “part of a long history of forced and coercive conservation in Africa” because of its tough security position . Kenyan ecologist Mordecai Ogada agrees with this analysis, arguing that African Parks takes a white savior-like position and considers blacks as incapable of being “rescuers of nature” . The article, written by Joan Tilouine, says that the organization, supposedly founded after a gala van Vlissingen attended with Nelson Mandela, was forced to pull out from Omo and Nech Sar National Parks in Ethiopia in 2007 because of large relocations of indigenous populations from parklands caused uproar from both the locals and human rights organizations . In response, African Parks said that while it pulled out from these parks due to “complex reasons,” they “were never involved in any way with the relocation of a single individual”  It follows this up by saying that locals often have rights to use resources in the park, which are protected from “external syndicates” . The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, but it suggests that African Parks has work to do learning about local uses of the land. Tilouine argues that African Parks “has appealed to bankers, philanthropists and sometimes sulky businessmen, attracted by the returns on investment and the opportunity to heal their image” . Concerning a local perspective, a village chief says that while African Parks has provided a little security, it also “needs to provide work for our young people” because it has taken away their ability to hunt and fish in the park . The villages around Chinko feel that they have been unfairly treated and are reliant upon the good graces of African Parks, as the “the hunters of the village vegetate while waiting for AP … to recruit them as cooks, eco-monitors, or rangers” . So, while African Parks does try to create economic development and improve livelihoods, it can destroy the traditional economies that may already exist. It may also create a local economy that is dependent on the park, which, while it has potential, may create problems in the long-term if the park begins to struggle.
The second article, “Who is the land for?” is written by Jean-Christophe Servant and says that “[African Parks’] policy is to monetize nature while protecting it,” and that it seeks to profit from Africa’s natural resources. The article focuses on Pendjari National Park in northwest Benin and the impact of African Parks’ takeover in 2017. Jérome Sambini of a local radio station says that African Parks’ policies “strained relations” with at least some of the 200,000 people living around the park . These relations may already have been somewhat frayed from the park’s previous management, as an African Parks employee said that before 2017, “everything in Pendjari was based on mistrust and conflict” . It is possible, then, that the arrival of African Parks may have been viewed with suspicion based on past experiences. Regardless, in 2018, dozens of people “ransacked the [African Parks] office and burned vehicles” in response to traditional hunters being arrested within the park . It has also become harder to access fetish sites, used by locals for rituals, located within the park, and collected plants for thatch roofs and traditional medicine. Beninese politicians have levied attacks against African Parks, claiming that there was no transparency in the takeover of Pendjari and that an army officer lost his position as head of the Waters, Forests, and Hunting Union because he criticized what he called “the planned privatization of Pendjari” . While African Parks may have a contract to run Pendjari, there is a lot of work to be done garnering public support and earning the trust of local communities.
These articles raise serious concerns about African Parks’ priorities and practices and in response, the organization put out press releases in response to these two articles, countering some of the points made. One press release dismisses the claim that African Parks has attracted potentially seedy donors, saying “No individual providing funding to African Parks benefits financially in any way…all revenue generated…goes to the conservation of the parks and the communities they support” . African Parks also disputes the claim that it was founded after a meeting between van Vlissingen and Nelson Mandela, saying that meeting concerned work on a national park in South Africa and that this “initiative is separate and distinct from Paul van Vlissingen’s support to African Parks” . In response to Servant’s claim that African Parks is “keeping locals out, for the benefit of rich international tourists,” a press release claims that “four of the parks we manage have at least 93,000 people legally living within or moving through those landscapes” ; . The release also says that while foreign tourists do pay higher fees than locals and therefore carry a “disproportionate burden of maintaining the parks,” half of the tourists that visited an African Parks-managed park or reserve in 2019 were from the respective country of the park/reserve .
African Parks and Community Engagement
Community engagement and development are two of African Parks’ central pillars, saying that “The success or failure of a park is largely dependent on whether the local people, the communities that live on the periphery or within the park, support its protection and overall existence” . As such, the organization works to create opportunities for local people to benefit from the park through education, healthcare, and job opportunities. In 2017 African Parks claims to have funded healthcare access for 66,000 people, supported 271 teachers and education for 76,000 children, and worked with communities to establish fisheries, beehives, and other small business opportunities . However, as Servant and Tilouine talked about in their articles, there are still people and communities disgruntled with African Parks and their model. In a letter to the CAR government in 2018, civil associations around Chinko even described African Parks as a “predatory NGO” so there is obviously work to be done .
There have been programs in other countries to have community involvement in park management and looking at their successes and failures can help improve African Parks’ own policies. Botswana has introduced the idea of community-based natural resources management (CBNRM), which is the idea that local communities should form community-based organizations (CBOs) or community trusts to allow for “local participation and involvement in the management and utilization of protected areas, as well as community empowerment within and adjacent to them” . The goal is that by allowing locals to participate in the management of the parks, they will both have a better attitude toward and also benefit from them. What happened, however, is that because many of the major villages are upwards of twenty miles from the parks, it has been hard to create tourism opportunities, especially in the southwest of the country. When surveyed, only 45% of residents around Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park even knew their community had a CBO or trust. An even smaller amount, 17%, said they had benefited from tourism generated by activities relating to the CBO/trust . While not everyone in the community can directly be involved in tourism, and communities closer to Kgalagadi did have more involvement with their CBO/trust, these are surprisingly low numbers. This suggests that both the park and the individual CBOs/trusts need to do more outreach and awareness so that those they are supposed to be helping understand this. In order for African Parks’ model of community engagement to work, they need to avoid the failures of CBNRM around Kgalagadi and make an effort to inform the locals of their community involvement and develop initiatives substantiative enough that a large enough portion of the population is involved with them to create a noticeable impact in the livelihoods of those surrounding the park.
Tourism is part of African Parks’ model as it seeks to develop economic activity in the areas surrounding its parks. With accommodations “that range from basic rooms to $1,300-a-night luxury tents”, the organization seeks to draw tourists to spend multiple days exploring a park and its wonders . Akagera in Rwanda is one of the most popular destinations, bringing in $2.5 million in 2019, making it almost 90% self-funded . Its accommodations range from campgrounds that are $25 per person per night (pppn) to the Magashi Camp, which in the high season of June-October runs $810 pppn, which includes food and drink and excursions . Camps like Magashi are what have prompted comments that African Parks seeks to cater to rich foreign tourists, but all lodging run by African Parks (Magashi is contracted to an outside company) offers discounted rates for citizens of the country.
Additionally, citizens pay lower park entry fees to encourage them to visit and see the wonders of their own country. As a result, in 2017, of the 37,284 visitors to Akagera, over 18,000 were from Rwanda . So, while a large portion of tourists are foreigners, they are not the overwhelming majority, as Servant seems to imply. African Parks also employs local people to work in tourism, providing them with a steady paycheck that has a ripple effect through the community as the staff buys local goods and services. A study in Kinabalu National Park in Malaysia found that hospitality workers felt tourism increased their pride in both local and national culture and improved their quality of life and infrastructure around the park suggesting that people are proud of the fact that they live near something that others consider worth visiting and see the value in protecting it . This helps develop positive attitudes among locals concerning the park, which is something African Parks strives for. All of this put together damages the notion that African Parks wants to create tourism for rich Westerners, instead showing that the organization understands the importance of local tourism and its benefits.
Another major factor in people’s attitudes toward the national parks they live around is the amount of human-wildlife conflict and the responses to that from park authorities. Rehabilitation of a park’s wildlife and the resulting larger populations can lead to more conflict, negatively impacting people’s livelihoods and decreasing the amount they value the park. Around Northern Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, community organizations had been created to distribute tourism revenue to local residents and help reduce human-wildlife conflict . However, when surveyed, 72% of residents said conflicts had increased from 2000 to 2010, and that most cases of declining conflict were because the offending animals had been shot. Communities where more input in decision making was allowed reported smaller perceived increases, suggesting that people were not as upset about conflict when they felt it was a result of policies they had a hand in making, as compared to an organization they were not a part of .
When human-wildlife conflict does occur, prompt response and appropriate compensation from local park authorities can limit the impacts and help prevent local people from developing negative attitudes about the park and its wildlife. Around Kwandu Conservancy in Namibia, many people farm small plots of land for sustenance farming so the destruction of crops by wildlife can put them at risk of food insecurity. With approximately 4,300 people living around the conservancy and 517 incidents of human-wildlife conflict happening yearly on average from 2003-2010, a significant portion of the population is experiencing crop loss every year . The conservancy has a program in place to compensate those whose crops are destroyed, but in order to qualify, the fields must be at least 1 hectacre. On average, women-led households farm 1.63 hectacres, and male-led households farm 2.01 hectacres . Additionally, an inability to guard their crops at night makes farmers ineligible to be compensated. This results in women and sometimes children sleeping in their fields to try and protect them . When compensation was distributed, it often was not enough to fully cover the losses and many in the communities felt it was being distributed unfairly.
While rehabilitating wildlife helps restore the environment, the pressures it can put on surrounding communities can lead to negative feelings toward national parks. In its efforts to gain the trust of local communities, African Parks would be wise to ensure that they respond quickly to any reports of human-wildlife conflict and compensate those whose crops have been destroyed both to ensure the victims still see the value in the park and to prevent food insecurity, which could result in locals hunting for bushmeat within the parks to try and feed themselves and their families.
African Parks needs to also ensure the accountability of their ranger force, to avoid finding itself in a situation like the one the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) found itself in 2019. The WWF had been funding anti-poaching task forces across Africa and Asia, and in early 2019 BuzzFeed published articles alleging victims of these task forces had “had been shot, beaten unconscious, sexually assaulted, and whipped by armed guards” . In response, the WWF commissioned an independent report, led by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. While the report found that the WWF was not directly responsible for any human rights abuses, WWF staff had reported potential human rights abuses to senior staff, who brushed them under the rug for fear “of resistance from a state conservation group” in the DRC . Because African Parks directly employs its rangers and therefore has more direct control over them and their actions compared to the task forces the WWF was funding, it should be easier for them to prevent these kinds of abuses, but it still should heed this as a lesson of what to make sure its rangers do and don’t do.
African Parks has taken care of victims of natural disasters near their parks as well. In response to Cyclone Idai making landfall in Mozambique and Malawi, African Parks delivered “over 140 tonnes of food by boat and helicopter, transported 37 doctors and over 3,700 kgs of medical supplies and other essential items to more than 2,900 families who needed our help the most” . The organization also provided food to over 3,600 people around Liuwa Plain in Zambia when a drought impacted their harvests. The motivations behind this are two-fold: providing food and supplies to those who need it helps reduce poaching in the park by providing people with other sources of food while also building trust among the community by allowing them to see that there are benefits to living near the park and that African Parks cares about their well-being.
African Parks’ growth over the past 21 years is remarkable, from managing its first parks in 2003 to having 17 parks covering over 13.3 million hectares by the end of 2019 . In that time, it has reduced poaching and resource destruction within its parks, while bringing stability and employment to the regions around its parks and rebounding wildlife populations within them. However, its strict enforcement of boundaries has upset some locals, who believe that African Parks cares more about rich foreign tourists than the people living near the park. The organization does engage in community development and attempts to create opportunities for people living near the park to benefit from it, as it recognizes that local respect for the park is key in the conservation of it. However, this can be detrimental to the local economies that already exist. As such, African Parks must ensure that their development initiatives reach a large enough portion of the population to counteract this and truly have an impact. It must also respond promptly to and properly compensates for any incidents of human-wildlife conflict to avoid food insecurity in neighboring communities, which can lead to increased poaching and erode the value of the park among locals. While no organization is perfect, African Parks is making a legitimate attempt at, and succeeding in, both saving Africa’s natural resources and ensuring that those living near these resources benefit from their conservation.
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
African Parks, www.africanparks.org/.
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Tilouine, Joan. “Centrafrique : La Guerre Au Nom De La Nature.” True Story Award, 10 May 2020, truestoryaward.org/story/122.
“WWF Vows to ‘Do More’ after Human Rights Abuse Reports.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Nov. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-55069926.
 African Parks, www.africanparks.org/.
 Servant, Jean-Christophe. “Who Is the Land For?” Le Monde Diplomatique, Feb. 2020, mondediplo.com/2020/02/12african-parks.
 “Obituary: Paul Van Vlissingen.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 6 Sept. 2006, www.theguardian.com/environment/2006/sep/06/guardianobituaries.business.
 Glowczewska, Klara. “Prince Harry and His Very Personal Fight to Save Africa’s Endangered Animals.” Town & Country, 8 Oct. 2017, www.townandcountrymag.com/leisure/arts-and-culture/a8954/prince-harry-african-parks/.
 “African Parks – 2019 Annual Report.” 2019.
 “African Parks’ Right of Reply to Le Monde.” African Parks, 15 May 2020, www.africanparks.org/.
 Quammen, David. “Saving Africa’s Parks.” National Geographic, Dec. 2019, pp. 112–133.
 Tilouine, Joan. “Centrafrique : La Guerre Au Nom De La Nature.” True Story Award, 10 May 2020, truestoryaward.org/story/122.
 “Response From African Parks to Le Monde Diplomatique.” African Parks, 9 Mar. 2020, www.africanparks.org/.
 Moswete, Naomi, and Brijesh Thapa. “Local Communities, CBOs/Trusts, and People–Park Relationships: A Case Study of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Botswana.” The George Wright Forum, vol. 35, no. 1, 2018, pp. 96–108. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26452995. Accessed 4 May 2021.
 Bax, Pauline. “Africa’s Biggest Conservation Success Was Once a Poachers’ Paradise.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 6 Jan. 2019, www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-01-07/africa-s-biggest-conservation-success-was-once-a-poachers-paradise.
 “Magashi.” Wilderness Safaris, wilderness-safaris.com/our-camps/camps/magashi.
 JAAFAR, Mastura, et al. “PERCEIVED SOCIAL EFFECTS OF TOURISM DEVELOPMENT: A CASE STUDY OF KINABALU NATIONAL PARK.” Theoretical and Empirical Researches in Urban Management, vol. 10, no. 2, 2015, pp. 5–20. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24873524. Accessed 5 May 2021.
 Gandiwa, Edson, et al. “CAMPFIRE and Human-Wildlife Conflicts in Local Communities Bordering Northern Gonarezhou National Park, Zimbabwe.” Ecology and Society, vol. 18, no. 4, 2013. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26269388. Accessed 4 May 2021.
 Khumalo, Kathryn Elizabeth, and Laurie Ann Yung. “Women, Human-Wildlife Conflict, and CBNRM: Hidden Impacts and Vulnerabilities in Kwandu Conservancy, Namibia.” Conservation and Society, vol. 13, no. 3, 2015, pp. 232–243. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26393202. Accessed 4 May 2021.
 “WWF Vows to ‘Do More’ after Human Rights Abuse Reports.” BBC News, BBC, 25 Nov. 2020, www.bbc.com/news/world-55069926.