Mnkhowo wore a blue baseball cap with a two-inch-square piece of tin riveted to its cloth front; it was hand-stamped "jurasic park." He was one of a dozen villagers who had come to kazuni camp, where I was tenting, do discuss wildlife. Now that the others were gone, he and I sat alone in the shade of the meeting tree, watching a herd of 75 cape buffalo graze and an even larger herd of elephants water at the edge of Lake Kazuni, less than 100 yards away. I recall the hat best of all, not because it seemed silly on a grown man but because it seemed so right in a corner of the world where humans were about as far up the food chain as a cow or a pumpkin leaf.
I was in Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve in northern Malawi, a 500-square-mile protected zone in a sliver of a country wedged precariously between Zambia and Mozambique. I was there to work on a conservation project to help stem the loss of that country's wildlands and wildlife, and to do so by reconciling villagers and Jurassic-sized beasts.
Just a week earlier I had been on the Shire River in southern Malawi, along the eastern flank of Liwonde National Park. The scout who traveled with me carried a .303 British Enfield rifle and seven rounds of ammunition--hardly a threat to the hundreds of wary hippo eyes that followed us on our course up the river. He gestured with the gun toward a bank in an opening of tall reed grasses where a village woman, washing her family's clothes, had been dragged screaming and gasping to the river's bottom by a 15-foot crocodile. He shifted the muzzle inland to where a marauding herd of elephants had just wreaked havoc on village croplands and left six men and boys crushed and disemboweled. Later, at Vwaza Marsh, a buffalo would attack a woman and her child as they hauled jugs of cooking water back to their home. The woman would survive; the child would not.
Events like these have made wildlife more a curse than a blessing to the millions of African farmers who must live at the edge of protected areas or husband their livestock in pasture lands that buffer parks and reserves. Yet the curse they face is not so much fear for life and limb, or even loss of crops; rather, it is the anger and anguish of having land that could be used to feed their families locked up by the government, either through parks or game laws, for animals that they cannot legally hunt and whose only apparent value is to serve white hunters and tourists. And in places like Malawi, where the population density (over 200 people per square mile) and birth rate (nearly 3 percent) are among the highest in Africa, local tolerance for the luxury of protected wildlife is close to zero. Malawians, like most Southern Africans, see parks and wildlife as government business, alien and contrary to their own business of survival.
Under such conditions, the task of conserving large, native mammals, even in a land that is naturally rich and diverse in life, is formidable. Yet changes are under way in Southern Africa--changes that give villagers an economic stake in preserving wildlife and its habitat. If not derailed by the United States, the new approach could alter forever the relation of people to wildlife and the way we think about and profit from natural resources. It might even teach us a thing or two about how to manage our own environmental riches.
Africa's wildlife has always held a fascination for non-Africans--an attraction that has proven costly, if not fatal, to the men and women who have borne the burden of the West's love affair with charismatic mega-fauna. Ernest Hemingway, among others, sensed the schism. On the one hand, he scripted the safari hunt into a masculine icon as evocative as the Marlboro cowboy. As a hunter, he saw in the wilds of Africa, and in the pursuit of its game, truths that could not be found in tamer civilization. Among its green hills, he wrote, "I could shoot and fish. That, and writing, and reading, was all I cared about doing." But Hemingway cared also for what he saw happening to the African landscape under Western rule. "A continent ages quickly once we come," he wrote. "The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys." And he was right, though not in the romantic sense he intended.
In the centuries that preceded European settlement of Southern Africa (defined here as the phalanx of nations from Mozambique, Zambia, and Namibia in the north to South Africa in the south), wildlife and people co-existed to a degree unknown elsewhere in the world. While North American aborigines drove mammoths, giant beaver, and saber-tooth tigers to extinction, while early Europeans wiped out lions and rhinos, and while Asians simplified their landscapes, Africans lived in relative accord with creatures that were no less grand or ferocious. How and why they did so is a matter of conjecture. Perhaps it was the gradual co-evolution of the two, as opposed to the sudden and disruptive migration of early people across an emergent land bridge connecting Asia to a previously isolated North American wildlife haven. Perhaps, too, it was the constancy and small size of the African population in comparison to European and Asian numbers--too few people to either overhunt large mammals or exhaust their habitat. In any case, it is unlikely that Southern Africans enjoyed, or even needed, the most rudimentary wildlife management skills in a subcontinent where resource abundance, not scarcity, was the rule.
All of that changed in the mid-to-late 19th century as white settlers arrived en masse in Southern Africa, drawn by the lore and lure of diamonds, gold, and ivory. The ancient accord between people and wildlife shifted decidedly to the advantage of the former. At first, new technologies in the form of repeating-fire rifles and more-sophisticated snaring traps gave humans a clear edge; for the first time, they could harvest game animals in large numbers for expanding markets in meat, skin, horn, and ivory. Other technologies, in the form of Western medicine and sanitation, sparked a demographic revolution. In places like Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the black population exploded 20-fold during the 90-year reign of white settlers. Roughly the same occurred elsewhere. A rising Southern African population, with a commensurate hunger for more land and food, pushed wildlife, now scarcer than ever, to the furthest margins of its historic range. Harvested by all without limit, and effectively controlled by none, elephants, rhinos, crocodiles, and leopards fell victim to the tragedy of the commons.
It is possible that native Africans at the village and tribal level, faced with a burgeoning population, might have created new local institutions to communally govern, allocate, and conserve the increasingly scarce wildlife resource, much as they had been able to do through traditional rules and religious and totem taboos in the era of relative wildlife abundance. But they never had a chance. White colonial policies pre-empted local solutions. To counter the mounting slaughter of elephants and other key game species--in which, ironically, white settlers had taken the early lead--governments simply outlawed traditional hunting and instituted Western-style game management founded on the twin pillars of state wildlife ownership and centralized, command-and-control conservation.
In effect, white African states took wildlife from the historic control, and effective ownership, of self-governing tribal bodies and placed it into the caldron of the open-access commons. But they did so unintentionally. Their plan was to save dwindling African game by restricting its future harvest to paying hunters and proscribing its traditional harvest by black tribesmen. It was an idea that had worked admirably in North America, but in the bush of Southern Africa it backfired.
Now off-limits to hunting by native Africans, elephants and kindred species became what they had never been before: simple marauding pests with no redeeming economic or social worth (except on the black market). Worse, native Africans now saw wildlife as alienated property, stolen and expropriated by a state they had no role in making. Bereft of all legal access and claim to wildlife, Africans donned the only role left to them by their governors: They became outlaws. They resorted to poaching to stem wildlife destruction of their crops, to provide meat to their families, and to trade in skins, horn, and ivory. And they assumed that role with a vengeance, stewarding it to perfection during the wars of liberation, when wildlife was not only the enemy but the symbol of hated white rule. Tragically, a millennium of relative harmony between man and beast disintegrated into a full-fledged killing spree.
But there is more to the story. White settlers also fell prey to the logic and tragedy of a state-imposed wildlife commons. With hunting tightly controlled and the commercial use of wildlife proscribed, they behaved much like their native counterparts, systematically erasing valueless wildlife from the African savannah and veld to make way for profitable domestic livestock. The state, in turn, made the shift in land use from wildlife to cattle cheap and easy by lending capital to ranchers, paying for fences, subsidizing eradication of the tsetse fly and hoof-and-mouth disease, moving more tribal lands into white ownership, and providing massive gun power to eliminate wildlife that preyed on domestic crops and livestock. By the 1960s, the combined ecological might of unrestrained poaching, government-subsidized ranching, and skyrocketing black populations--all in the context of highly centralized state game policies--had reduced wildlife habitat in Southern Africa to a fraction of what it had once been. In the blink of a century, 90 percent of the bulk mass of all grazing animals in the green hills of Africa had shifted from rhinos, elephants, kudu, sable, giraffes, zebras, buffalo, roan antelope, impala, and gazelles to European-bred cattle.
The wars of liberation and the subsequent independence of Southern Africa from white rule were not the watershed events that started the subcontinent on the long trek to erasing the environmentally destructive legacy of the command-and-control approach to wildlife management. Changes were under way in wildlife policy long before colonial rule peaked and faded. By the early '60s, both blacks and whites were painfully aware of the high price wildlife protectionism was extracting from the land. Big game numbers were at historic lows, and species such as elephants, crocodiles, and leopards were perilously close to extinction. Prospects for the future were bleak, given the relentless advance of poaching, cattle ranching, and human population.
In effect, wildlife had become an ornament of the state, a luxury for camera-toting tourists and a handful of trophy hunters, yet a luxury that subsistence and commercial farmers--the very ones who controlled the bulk of its habitat--could ill afford. The state, in its caring wisdom, had turned communal and private landholders of all colors against wildlife, divorcing creatures great and small from the physical habitats that had always nurtured them and eroding the local customs that might have protected them from over-exploitation. In the wake of its national laws, the state left an ecological and political vacuum into which the worst of the commons rushed unrestrained.
Solving the state-made wildlife crisis came first and most easily on privately owned lands. It started with a simple and common-sense idea: If people can benefit from wildlife, their attitudes and actions toward wildlife will improve. Starting in Namibia in 1967 and then extending to Zimbabwe in 1975, lawmakers put the idea into action. Large landowners were allotted ownership rights to wildlife--an idea totally alien to the European and U.S. tradition of exclusive state ownership. Wildlife now had a value, not only a value that could be captured and maximized by prudent private stewardship but one which far exceeded its costs in terms of crop and livestock loss. White landowners, for the first time since the imposition of colonial rule, were free to make economically informed--and, as it turned out, ecologically desirable--market decisions on how best to use their land.