Conservation through a political lens: What wildlife management in Africa and Nevada have in common

I have followed some of Nevada’s a debate about its wildlife populations and governance issues with interest. I’m an historian, and I study wildlife conservation. My research is on eastern and southern Africa, far afield from Nevada from a geographic perspective. However, viewing Nevada’s debates through an historical lens, even one rooted in 1920s-1970s Africa, reveals some notable points.

Key issues in Nevada concern representation on the bodies that shape the state’s wildlife policy. (The Current pointed out that the powerful Wildlife Commission “must have five ‘sportsmen,’ ie hunters, fishermen or trappers…one rancher, one farmer, one conservationist, and one member of the public.”) Also controversial are different forms of animal “control” (ie culling), different rhetorical claims on animals and the spaces they inhabitsaid balance between development and conservationand increasing potential for human-wildlife collision or conflict. These were and remain equally controversial issues in most African nations with large wildlife populations. With larger and therefore potentially more dangerous carnivores and herbivores, larger rural populations, and histories of conservation marred by colonial racism and violence (which shape perceptions of conservation down to the present), the scale of the problems are arguably even larger in Africa. Species or population extinction, ecosystem integrity, and regulating or forbidding trade in particular animal products also loom large in Africa as key conservation issues. Trophy hunting (particularly for international visitors) remains a lucrative business in some nations, whereas subsistence hunting is often regarded with less tolerance, creating inequalities and resentment along race and class lines.

From the colonial period until the present, management agencies and political discourse surrounding the conservation of wildlife in Africa gave certain interests outsized clout, at the expense of others. The same is arguably true in Nevada. In Africa, this meant white settlers and colonial officials who were not accountable to majority-African populations during the colonial era, and foreign donors and conservationists during the period after independence. In Nevada, rather than interests being defined strictly along racial or ‘national’ lines, it seems to be a particular set of interests–the hunting and fishing communities in particular–that exert influence well beyond their numbers, effectively claiming animals as “game” or “vermin”, rather than “wildlife” or “biodiversity” (although they use the term “wildlife”). In both cases, therefore, communities that represented majorities in the territories concerned struggled to make their voices heard. Interestingly, large rural communities in Africa that were most impacted by wildlife policy were the marginalized ones, whereas small rural communities most likely to have contact with wildlife in Nevada dominate policymaking through the Wildlife Commission, leaving urban and suburban majorities who have different perspectives on conservation policy with an undersized voice.

Both spaces were and remain shaped by various interests and forms of governance. While nothing in most African nations quite replicates the contentious distribution of authority between state and federal government, most countries had multiple agencies charged with managing animal populations with different–but overlapping and sometimes conflicting–remits for different spaces and/or categories of animals. For example, Game Departments and National Parks agencies did not simply manage different spaces; they also possessed different sensibilities, represented different constituencies, and invoked different sciences. They even called animals different things: “game” in the case of the former; “wildlife” in the case of the latter. Wildlife departments in Africa–both before and after independence–also operated with reference to other kinds of governance structures. These included powerful district officials; customary authorities like chiefs; and other “technical” departments that deal with issues like forestry, hydrology, public health, and public works.

This meant that marginalized communities in Africa had some other channels through which to advocate for checks on minority-produced policies. District officials who did not care about conservation but did care about maintaining rural order pushed back at conservation policy when it gave too much protection in too many places to dangerous animals. Chiefs frequently did the same. This meant that the ground-level dynamics–if not the rhetoric–of wildlife conservation perhaps better reflected the complex politics of these territories, forcing policy to be negotiated, albeit through a politics skewed by racist hierarchies and absent real civic debate.

One consequence was that the resulting policy often lacked coherence, and once international donors entered the equation in the 1960s, they were often able to use their funds and the political clout that came with it to insulate policymaking from wider publics. They did so in a political environment increasingly defined by democratic deficits. In Nevada, policy is made in a desertified political landscape, often through the Wildlife Commission rather than the part-time legislature, which has been serially unable to come to grips in a coherent way with any of the big issues the state faces.

Conservation through a political lens

And politics matters. Conservation interests in eastern Africa during the 1950s, fearing due to the racist narratives they had constructed about African peoples that independence would mean the slaughter of the continent’s wildlife, began creating structures, institutions, relationships, and funding mechanisms to basically shield the conservation sector in Africa from interference from democratically-elected African governments that began coming to power in the 1960s. The results were manifold. For one thing, making conservation work a supposedly apolitical enclave governed by outside interests delegitimized many conservation spaces and some conservation policy in the eyes of the new citizenship, maintaining, rather than doing away with, the alienation from conservation matters that colonialism had produced among African publics. Another result of deliberately seeking to avoid entangling wildlife matters in small- or large-p politics was an assumption that science could yield policy recommendations.

But the scientists who descended on Africa parks in the 1960s generated data, rather than policy recommendations. Science could provide the parameters, but the government, and the public that it served, still had to pose the right questions, and interpret scientific data with reference to public policy priorities and the clamor of various interests invested in conservation. In other words, it was still important to have robust debate involving a representative swath of the public. Absent that, political paralysis sets in. Rangeland management and conservation biology could tell very different stories about a park or ecosystem, or the national wildlife estate, giving African governments a suite of options. But making a policy choice still requires looking at conservation through a political lens and adjudicating different claims to and about wildlife, short- and long-term tradeoffs, and the relationship between wildlife and larger environmental policy goals.

The result of shielding the conservation sector from public debate and commissioning study after study without being willing to act on scientific data in relation to clearly stated public policy, led in Kenya’s Tsavo National Park during the 1950s and 1960s, to the obscene spectacle of wildlife officers brutalizing marginalized human populations on the park’s borders for being complicit in poaching, while killing thousands of animals within the park to maintain a supposed state of ecological equilibrium based on a misreading of decades-old data. Policymakers recognized the absurdity of their work, but were consumed by turf wars between various global funders, and so proved unable to foster serious debate among Kenya’s citizens about the place of, acceptable uses of, and responsibilities towards, the country’s wildlife.

Even after independence, most African countries expressed little interest in involving customary authorities in the management of wildlife, or looking to the pre-colonial past for models of management or co-existence. (Ethnic and therefore historical diversity within borders drawn by European colonizers meant that there would have been challenges with trying to identify a single representative model.) Similarly in Nevada, there does not appear to be interest in seeking input of any kind from indigenous communities. While there will not be a one-to-one fit between past practices and current policy, alternative sensibilities and habits of mind might shape conservation policy in fruitful ways.

It will be tempting for Nevada’s urban majority to simply claw power away from the wildlife bodies, representation on which is dramatically skewed towards hunting and fishing interests. But strictly majoritarian governance of Nevada’s wildlife may not be a good idea either, and input from rural communities, whether through their legislators or reconfigured management bodies is important. The state’s wildlife policymaking apparatus does, however, need an overhaul. The current wildlife management structure seeks to frame its claims without reference to the state’s complex politics, diverse population, or any discernible overarching set of conservation-related policy goals. It invokes conservation and management science sporadically and opportunistically, rather than seeking to develop public policy that is consistently and purposefully informed by wildlife ecology and conservation biology. Its current composition and practice approaches the privatization of Nevada’s wildlife estate, at a time when the state is changing rapidly, and needs to reconcile its wildlife policy with conservation and climate imperatives and goals.

One of the reasons why wildlife conservation in eastern and southern Africa remains such a fraught, messy, and at times violent endeavor has to do with powerful interests that came to dominate that sector during the colonial years refusing to cede power and incorporate new citizens and interests into its decision-making processes. The colonial legacy that continues to shape wildlife policy in Africa–through continuity in policy or the strength of people’s memories–is far from a perfect analogy for Nevada’s strange wildlife boards and departments. But it is a reminder that if wildlife policy is shielded from decision-making and input that reflects the totality of the public interest, then animals, land, and ultimately the integrity of the connected projects of conservation and governance suffer.

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