Communities hold the key to expanding conservation impact in Africa


Wildlife conservation that uses community partnerships is working for people and threatened species across Africa, write Fred Nelson and Rosie Cooney of IUCN's Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group

Conservancy in Kenya

Conservation efforts in Africa today face huge challenges. Africa’s human population is forecast to quadruple by the end of the century, and already intensifying pressures around the use of land, water, and natural resources are having an impact on the region’s extraordinary wildlife. The high-level statistics on wildlife decline are now familiar: elephant numbers across Africa declined by a third in the past decade, while lion populations have dropped by 50% over the past 30 years.

Against this backdrop, conservationists have been gathering in London in mid-October, at a conference convened by the UK government, to again discuss how to stop poaching and better safeguard elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife.

While most attention is focused on illegal wildlife trade and wildlife security, on the ground evidence is demonstrating the importance of community-level action.

In order to respond effectively to current challenges, conservationists – including funders and patrons based in northern countries – need to urgently promote and invest in approaches that are delivering conservation impact. Despite the impression created by many media headlines, there are strong grounds for hope that Africa’s wildlife can recover lost ground. Indeed, even while most attention is focused on illegal wildlife trade and wildlife security, on the ground a growing body of evidence is demonstrating the importance of community-level action. An expanding array of local conservancies and other community-based models are delivering results and showing the potential to integrate conservation with local livelihoods and national economic interests.

No country embodies these tenets better than Namibia, where innovative models for conservation developed over the past 30 years have restored wildlife on a remarkable scale. Namibia’s wildlife laws enable local communities to create conservancies, which give communities rights over wildlife use and management in their area. This provides the basis for these conservancies to enter into agreements with tourism or trophy hunting operators, which pay the conservancies directly through joint ventures or concession lease arrangements.

Over 80 such conservancies have been created, covering about 16 million hectares – an area larger than all of Greece. These conservancies now earn nearly $10 million annually from tourism and hunting, making wildlife a growing component of the country’s rural economy and creating incentives for rural communities to tolerate wildlife. Elephant numbers nationwide in Namibia have tripled since 1990 and the country has Africa’s largest population of black rhinos on community lands.

Black rhino in Etosha National Park Namibia is seeing success in community-based wildlife conservation, with species such as the black rhino benefiting Photo: Frank Vassen CC2.0

In Kenya, a diverse range of conservancies created by ranchers and local communities are spreading rapidly, now covering over six million hectares – about 11% of the country’s surface and more than the total land area contained in Kenya’s national parks. These conservancies help communities protect and manage their lands and generate opportunities from the country’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry. For example, in the Maasai Mara, conservancies now cover an area roughly equivalent to the Maasai Mara National Reserve (about 140,000 hectares), and deliver about $3.7 million in annual lease payment to thousands of local landowners.

In northern Kenya, recent aerial surveys recorded a 12% increase in the country’s second-largest elephant population between 2012 and 2017, attributed in part to the proliferation of conservancies in that part of the country. In the Maasai Mara, lions are now found at higher densities on some of these private conservancies than in the adjacent national reserve. Private and community conservancies contain nearly all the key habitat of Grevy’s zebra and the hirola antelope, two of East Africa’s most endangered large mammals.

Conservancies help communities protect their lands and generate opportunities from the country’s multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

Across Kenya’s southern border in Tanzania, evidence is also growing of positive conservation impacts linked to local stewardship. Tanzania’s version of conservancies are called Wildlife Management Areas –WMAs – and 19 of these areas cover a total of about 6 million hectares around the country, often bordering national parks and other reserves. These areas have not been as successful as local conservation models in Namibia or Kenya, partly because of ambiguities in government policy regarding the level of local control, and high levels of effective taxation on community revenues earned from tourism and hunting. But even WMAs are now starting to deliver after nearly 20 years of investment.

For example, recent research provides evidence of wildlife recoveries in two WMAs adjacent to Tarangire National Park in northern Tanzania. The most recent paper finds that one of these WMAs “has had positive ecological outcomes in the form of higher wildlife densities and higher giraffe population growth" since it became operational.

Pride of lions Grassroots conservation initiatives have helped to increase population densities of lions in Maasi Mara conservancies Photo: Güldem Üstün CC2.0

Conservancies and similar community-driven conservation areas are now at the forefront of making conservation work for people and wildlife. In both Namibia and Kenya, conservancies have more than doubled the total conservation estate beyond what is included within state protected areas. Namibia now has about 43% of its total land area under some form of conservation management, with more than half that total covered by private and communal conservancies.

While many conservationists, and leading scientists such as E.O. Wilson, are calling for countries to dramatically increase their conservation ambitions, including aiming for conservation measures on up to half of their land area, it is the growth of community-based models and action that is actually making this scaled up impact possible in Africa.

Conservancies and similar community-driven conservation areas are now at the forefront of making conservation work for people and wildlife.

Importantly, this progress is being spearheaded by a rising cadre of African conservation organizations that have the skills, local roots and determination to make conservation deliver for both people and wildlife. These include groups such as Integrated Rural Development and Nature Conservation (IRDNC) in Namibia; Honeyguide and Ujamaa Community Resource Team – the latter a 2016 Goldman Environmental Prize recipient – in Tanzania; and the Northern Rangelands Trust and Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association in Kenya.

Supporting the growth and development of these spreading community-based models, including their long-term financial sustainability, and investing in the local organizations that are facilitating them, will be a key to preserving and recovering Africa’s wildlife in the face of growing threats.

Human-wildlife conflict
Protected areas
Wildlife trafficking

Rosie Cooney

Dr Rosie Cooney is Chair of the IUCN SSC/CEESP Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group and Visiting Fellow in the School of Biology, Earth and Environmental Sciences at University of New South Wales, Australia.


  • English
  • Français
  • Español
  • العربية
  • Nederlands
  • Deutsch
  • Italiano
  • ภาษาไทย
  • Tiếng Việt
  • Cambodian
  • 简体中文
  • 繁體中文
  • Bahasa Indonesia
  • 日本語
  • Laothian
  • Portuguese
  • Русский
  • اردو

All Blogs | Blog authors directory


In our part of Laikipia, Kenya a key element of community conservation that is never addressed is governance. The communities to the north of us are group ranches that might average somewhere around 30,000 acres. The ranches are owned by its members who can vote on their leadership. One of the most fundamental issues is that membership for children born to members is unlimited. One member who only has two kids because that is all he can afford to educate can be powered out by another members who has 10 kids weather they are educated or not. It is a classic 'tragedy of the commons'. In this situation you can have a family that has made good decisions usurped politically by members who make more greedy decisions. The larger families then tend to become powerful fiefdoms that only vote for themselves and their own interests. This most basic issue hinders not only conservation but also sustainable livestock utilization across large areas of community land in Kenya.


Opinions expressed in posts featured on the Crossroads blog and in related comments are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect opinions of IUCN or a consensus of its Member organisations.

IUCN reserves the right to remove links added by commenters that are deemed inappropriate or unrelated to blog posts.

Go to top