Game Changer: Animal Rights and the Fate of Africa’s Wildlife. Martin, Glen. 2012. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California. ISBN 978-0-520-26626-1, 254pp

The conservation of Africa’s diverse and charismatic large mammals has become the battleground for opposing philosophies based on fundamentally different beliefs regarding the treatment of animals. For the most part Africans view wildlife as an environmental good that can be used for their benefit, whether as food, items to trade, or, more recently, as a means to generate returns through consumptive or non-consumptive tourism, or both. This underlying instrumental or utilitarian philosophy is readily translated into conservation through sustainable use. In contrast, the philosophical underpinnings of animal rights movements assign an intrinsic value to individual animals and strongly oppose the killing of wild animals for any reason. As Glen Martin convincingly portrays in this highly readable book, the end result in Africa is that wild animals possess little, if any, (legal) value to rural people. There is no strong incentive to sustain large wild animals on their land.

The modern approach to conservation of wildlife in Africa is barely a century or two old. It grew out of colonial administrations and the decimation of wildlife by overhunting and diseases, such as rinderpest, during the 19th Century. The first attempts to save remnant herds involved establishing laws to control hunting as well as setting aside game reserves. With the advent of cinema, television and nature films, in which wild animals were increasingly depicted as individuals with human characteristics (e.g. Disney films and Bambi), the stage was set for the increasing influence of western-based values and animal rights movements on conservation in Africa.

Glen Martin explores the fundamental rift between utilitarian and animal rights approaches to conservation and their consequences for the survival of Africa’s large mammals. He does so by skilfully and engagingly weaving the insights of the many experienced conservation experts he interviewed on his travels in Africa with his own commentary on the issues and complexity surrounding the conservation of Africa’s wildlife. A primary focus is the state of conservation in Kenya where the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), and other animal rights protagonists, have been instrumental in convincing Kenya to maintain and reinforce a 1977 ban on hunting and the consumptive use of wildlife. Despite Kenya’s high profile as a wildlife tourist destination, its conservation record is abysmal and marked by a 70% decline in large mammal populations since the 1970s. Martin contrasts the Kenyan situation with those in Tanzania, Namibia and South Africa, where hunting by citizens and foreign tourists is an integral component of wildlife management. In stark contrast to Kenya, wildlife-based land uses and the sustainable use of wildlife is expanding, along with stable or increasing wildlife populations in Namibia and South Africa.

Martin notes the increasing influence of the animal rights movement on wildlife policy in South Africa and Botswana. In November 2012 hunting was suspended in Botswana on the pretext that safari hunting was responsible for the decline in several antelope species but not elephants. However, decision makers in Botswana have apparently ignored the fact that numbers of the corresponding species are stable or increasing just over the boundary in Namibia, where community conservancies receive the full returns from tourism and wildlife utilisation. The importance of local values, incentives and tangible benefits from wildlife again looms large in the conservation equation in Africa.

Clearly the influences on conservation in Africa are far more complex than the conflict between western and African value systems regarding the use of wildlife. In the final chapters Martin draws out the deeply ingrained problems of corruption and failed governance in Africa and their impact on conservation. The much-touted conservation and development paradigm that assumes that win-win outcomes for both conservation and development are possible is critically scrutinised. His interviews with scientists at the Global Institute of Sustainability at Arizona State University convince him that there are always trade-offs with winners and losers. It is these dynamics that require far greater attention. The growth of human populations, land use change, habitat loss, soil erosion and land degradation are also outlined and are seen by Martin as additional important contributing factors to the demise of wildlife populations.

This book is an important contribution to the debate on wildlife conservation in Africa and needs to be widely read. Above all it provides a timely warning of the likely impacts on Africa’s rich and unique biodiversity of ill-conceived conservation policies and inappropriate ideologies. I fear, however, that those who most need to read this outspoken and hard-hitting book may not have the courage to do so.

D. H. M. Cumming is Honorary Professor, Percy FitzPatrick Institute, University of Cape Town and Research Associate, Tropical Resource Ecology Programme, University of Zimbabwe.