Wild Success

Saving endangered wildlife once meant trampled crops and violent death to the villagers of Southern Africa. Now community-based capitalism is turning once-fearsome pests into valuable sources of wealth.


Mnkhowo wore a blue baseball cap with a two-inch-square piece of tin riveted to its cloth front; it was hand-stamped "Jurassic Park." He was one of a dozen villagers who had come to Kazuni Camp, where I was tenting, to 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.

Wildlife was the clear winner. By 1990, 75 percent of all Zimbabwean ranchers in areas too dry to support crop production had shifted partly or entirely to wildlife ranching–an easy economic decision, given the near quadruple net profit per acre advantage held by wildlife over cattle. Groups of ranchers combined to form "conservancies" of five to 25 properties, each with common rules and objectives, and each with sufficient land base to reintroduce far-roaming yet economically valuable species such as elephant and cape buffalo.

Over the years the benefits of private ownership and cooperative conservancies have accrued to a range of endangered species. Liberal game ranching laws now accommodate the lucrative business of crocodile farming. Crocodile eggs are collected in the wild, and the hatchlings are raised for domestic slaughter. A significant percentage, though, are returned to the wild to seed new populations. Once on the edge of extinction, crocodiles are now thriving in areas of Southern Africa where their commercial exploitation is allowed.

The benefits of private enterprise have also spilled over to nonfarmed wildlife. Black and white rhinos, for example, are flourishing on private ranches, and elephants are making dramatic comebacks. More telling still is the tale and status of leopards and cheetahs, species long viewed and treated as vermin by ranchers fearful for the well-being of their livestock. In Zimbabwe, leopards were removed from protected status, endowing them with high market value as trophies and pelts. Now that leopards are money-making assets, their numbers are on the upswing, and the use of dogs or traps to gratuitously kill them is blocked by social sanction and the economic incentive to sustain a flourishing population for lucrative hunts. In contrast, cheetahs, which were less numerous than leopards, were kept in protected status, suppressing whatever commercial value they might have had. They remain, for that reason, imperiled; they are, in ranchers' eyes, vermin with no redeeming value.

Although private solutions to wildlife conservation have had dramatic results, their promise and application in post-colonial Southern Africa is limited by the political power and cultural dominance of communal lands. First, communal lands are the enduring legacy of traditional tribal land tenure; the overwhelming majority of black Africans live and farm on them, and the prospect of changing that reality is slim. Second, communal lands were excluded from the wildlife reforms granted to the private sector; such lands remained open-access commons under state dominion, subject to the full gamut of national laws that have made wildlife more a burden than a benefit to rural Africans. Third, communal lands are generally the most marginal and least productive lands for agriculture and, for that reason, among the most important lands for wildlife. Fourth, communal lands frequently surround park lands and protected areas; together, the two land systems form vital ecological units in which much of the biological richness and diversity of Southern Africa resides.

African conservationists harbor no illusions about private lands. They have understood all along that saving the region's wildlife could not be done on private lands alone; communal lands would have to be included in the strategy–a strategy that, for both cultural and political reasons, could not entail broad-based privatization. Moreover, they have known that any strategy to conserve wildlife on communal lands would have to have a compelling and enticing economic component. Unless conservation could be linked to economic development, it would have no more value to peasant farmers than a marauding elephant declared off-limits by the state.

The problem they faced was complex: How could nonsustainable open access to wildlife be curtailed and individual incentives for wildlife conservation be created while communal ownership of land and communal harvest of wildlife was promoted and encouraged? One answer, advanced by Garret Hardin in his seminal essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons," is that the problem as stated is unsolvable: Individuals tend to consume as much of the common resource as possible, without preserving it for future use, because they get all the benefits and bear only some of the costs. Over time, this incentive to overconsume leads to permanently depleting land or killing off wildlife.

By all appearances, those conditions held sway on the communal lands of Southern Africa. Harvest of key game species, from elephants to rhinos to buffalo, exceeded birth rates, and the benefits of slaughtering them made the prospect of their impending demise, and the bonanza of their free meat, skins, horns, and ivory, net gains for a rural people plagued by the ever-present reality of hunger, disease, and death. Yet appearances can be deceiving, for what made the "wildlife commons" tragic was not its lot as common property but rather its open-access status, created by the state's usurpation of village rights to wildlife and its eclipse of tribal institutions that had once governed the harvest of big game. That this would happen is partially explained in the writings of F. Berkes, Daniel Bromley, and Elinor Ostrom–scholars who have seen that communal institutions can govern common property resources, but only if their power to do so is not corrupted by state intrusion. Southern Africans took this lesson to heart, and in the wildlands of Zimbabwe the Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources (CAMPFIRE) was born in 1986.

CAMPFIRE, a program of the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife, was designed to improve wildlife conservation on communal lands much the same way wildlife conservation had been improved a decade earlier on private lands by private ownership of wildlife. Its goal was to allocate the rights to use communal resources (especially big game) to small rural communities, which could then sell those rights, mainly in the form of licenses for trophy hunts. The revenue earned–several thousand dollars for a buffalo and many times more for an elephant–would, supporters theorized, give villagers money for local development and strong incentives to protect elephants and other money-earning wildlife. Supporting this presumption was a simple economic reality: Wildlife marketed as intact trophies was many times more valuable than wildlife poached for subsistence meat or divided up for black-market sale.

Communal lands, however, presented a problem; the law did not allow for the transfer of wildlife use rights to villages. As a compromise, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife delegated the appropriate authority to district councils, the legal representatives of CAMPFIRE-participating villages. Though not a perfect solution, district councils generally have given villages autonomy in the running of local wildlife enterprises and in the control of most revenues raised from safari hunting.

Today, CAMPFIRE is more a movement of participating villages, district councils, and collaborating organizations (World Wildlife Fund, the Center for Applied Social Sciences, African Resources Trust, and Zimbabwe Trust) than it is a government monopoly. It is pragmatic rather than ideological, blazing a trail with whatever help it can get, including some $20 million in foreign aid from the United States (all of which has gone to the infrastructure of CAMPFIRE; village revenue comes exclusively from wildlife hunts). As mixed and imperfect as CAMPFIRE is–at least relative to its vision of full village governance of communal wildlife and revenues–it is a seminal movement.

Its significance is suggested by the friends and foes it has attracted. CAMPFIRE's supporters span the gamut of left and right, from the 39-member Congressional Black Caucus to the World Wildlife Fund to an array of libertarian think tanks to the World Conservation Union to the pragmatically Marxist Robert Mugabe, president of Zimbabwe. Its opponents, in contrast, are more narrowly ideological and more inclined to a fervent and unflinching animal rights world view. They include the political and the nonpolitical: passionate legislators, such as Reps. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) and Christopher Smith (R-N.J.) and Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), and the even more impassioned Humane Society of the United States.

Those closest to the CAMPFIRE movement describe it in paradoxical terms. Marshall Murphree, former director of the Center for Applied Social Sciences at the University of Zimbabwe, likens the movement to a "khaki shorts ecology brigade" out to save wildlife but inadvertently thrust to the forefront of a "struggle [to save] property rights in rural Africa"–a crusade that he believes has sweeping implications for land and resource reform, local self-governance, and conservation policy throughout Southern Africa. Such views are common among CAMPFIRE activists, who see themselves as a revolutionary breed apart from the run-of-the-mill conservationist.

Brian Child, a former Zimbabwe National Parks scientist, celebrates CAMPFIRE as the offspring of the Western private property rights tradition and the Southern African tradition of small, self-governing communities. It is, he writes, "like the communist system in that it is based on community rather than private ownership, but resembles the capitalist system in that it uses the market to allocate resources."

CAMPFIRE's melding of wildlife property rights with the rule of autonomous, small-scale communities explains its broad ideological appeal to libertarians, conservation biologists, and leftists–and, in turn, its rejection by animal rightists and statist U.S. politicians. In essence, what proponents of CAMPFIRE admire most about it is its fair and common-sense conservation ethic: Those who bear the costs of conservation should also reap its benefits. Applied to rural, African communal lands, CAMPFIRE and its community-based natural resource management (CBNRM) cousins in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zambia stand for the same wildlife reform principles applied earlier to white landowners, but now adapted to the culture and custom of the peasant farmer.

The goals of CAMPFIRE and CBNRM are simple: to secure community claims to wildlife and to engage local villagers in the sustainable harvest and economical marketing of wildlife products (primarily hunts)–to benefit, in a word, the very people who must pay, on a daily basis, the conservation price of putting up with less-than-benign wild neighbors. The programs work by devolving property rights in wildlife from the state to the lowest possible level, by making clusters of villages the focal point of communal self-governance and by making the body of villagers who can comfortably assemble in the shade of a meeting tree the arbiters of democracy and the marketers of safaris. So far, the results–especially those from CAMPFIRE–suggest a degree of success comparable to that attained earlier on private lands in Namibia and Zimbabwe.

First, CAMPFIRE is earning cash for local people–around $2 million a year–through community-contracted safari hunts of elephants and other popular game animals. It's a pittance by American standards, but for rural peasants whose annual income amounts to a few hundred dollars, it's substantial. For example, the 149 heads of household who make up the village of Chikwarakwara met in the shade of a "meeting tree" to debate what to do with their CAMPFIRE wildlife revenue. After a long and considered discussion, they decided to divide the revenue–just under $100 per household–between community projects and individual household payments. Later, in a formal community ceremony, each household head publicly received his total wildlife dividend. Then each of them took turns depositing his agreed-upon share for community projects into two community pots, one designated for the local school and the other designated for a community grinding mill.

Second, CAMPFIRE communities are learning how to use the global market to their advantage. In 1991, the Chipinge district council had four elephants and several smaller animals to auction off to safari companies for trophy hunting. Lacking any prior experience in marketing, the district was able to sell the package for only $26,000. A year later, and a year wiser in the ways of the competitive market, it sold the same package for $68,515.

Third, CAMPFIRE is changing rural attitudes toward wildlife. In Hwange district, poaching stopped almost immediately after CAMPFIRE revenues were distributed to local residents. Elsewhere, poaching is declining. Before CAMPFIRE, about 50 bull elephants were hunted as trophies and 200 to 300 were shot annually to protect human lives and crops. Now that elephants have economic value to villagers, fewer than 30 are shot each year as problem animals; they are worth too much to be squandered for the sake of saving a hectare or two of maize. And although the killing of elephants in trophy hunting has almost doubled, the total elephant kill has fallen to 120. Fewer elephants now die at human hands, and those that do die enrich rather than impoverish the rural farmers who, with increasing enthusiasm, share the African landscape with mammals of sometimes Jurassic proportions. As a result, elephant numbers are on the increase in Southern Africa, soaring in Zimbabwe to 66,000 from 46,000 in the span of the CAMPFIRE years.

Other benefits can be traced to CAMPFIRE. Habits that indirectly harm wildlife–such as forest denudation, overgrazing by cattle, and human-set fires–are being battled by the same people who once practiced them. Now that wildlife has a high and marketable value, old practices are giving way to more profitable ones. In the community of Masoka, villagers are effecting a revolution in natural resource use and management. Prior to 1990, the resources of Masoka were open-access and heavily exploited. After 1990, Masoka village set up strict rules to govern resource use on its communal lands. Able at last to make wildlife pay, and pay more than cattle, the farmers of Masoka decided to remove their domestic stock and devote their labor to raising elephants and cape buffalo. In the words of one community member, "buffalo are our cattle."

CAMPFIRE has economic, social, and political flaws that even its staunchest advocates concede. Legal authority for community possession and exercise of wildlife rights is weak; by law, formal control of communal resources and derivative revenues lies in the hands of district councils–creations of the state, not of local villages. CAMPFIRE works best where those councils have voluntarily stepped aside in favor of democracy under a tree, letting villages reap the maximum benefits of wildlife use. Proponents of CAMPFIRE, such as Murphree and Child, understand this and are anxious to complete the full devolution of property rights from the state to self-governing village bodies. They know that the prospects for CAMPFIRE will be brighter as the state recedes and vanishes.

There are other problems. Lacking well-defined and fully enforceable communal property rights, many CAMPFIRE communities are plagued by newly arrived settlers who wish to share in the wealth of their common lands and the bounty of their communal revenues. Some communities have found ways around the deficiency of their rights, such as fencing their lands to stop the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease–a tactic that also effectively stops the invasion of squatters. Other communities are less fortunate and are still struggling with the open-access legacy of their communal lands. CAMPFIRE may unfairly raise hopes that wildlife revenues are an economic panacea. Some rural villages will benefit, but many will not; they lack the land base to sustain a wildlife industry. That is OK so long as the true beneficiaries of CAMPFIRE are kept in mind: the embattled wildlife of Southern Africa and the villagers won over to their conservation by the compelling incentive of hard cash. CAMPFIRE has yet to extend its program and its rights paradigm to other natural resources, such as caterpillars and termites (popular, protein-rich foods in rural villages), fish, firewood, and thatch and reed grasses (for roof and fence construction). Finally, the CAMPFIRE program has been heavily subsidized by foreign aid missions, including USAID. If the program is to be sustainable, it must stand on its own feet.

The evidence indicates that CAMPFIRE can be sustainable, especially if nations such as the United States refrain from using their domestic endangered species acts and the global Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora to block or impede the marketing of community-owned and harvested wildlife products. This may be easier said than done, however. In June at the CITES conference in Harare, Zimbabwe, the United States took the lead in opposing the limited resumption of the ivory trade in Botswana, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Successful at first on an open ballot, the United States later failed on a second, secret ballot–a vote that was, to the relief of a majority of CITES's 136 member nations, beyond the pale of America's righteous and intimidating scrutiny.

Politics of bullying aside, the fact is Southern Africans made a better case. They pointed out in persuasive logic the opportunity costs to both humans and elephants should the ban be continued. Over a third of the 33 metric tons of stockpiled ivory in Zimbabwe, for example, is from communal areas, and sale of that ivory (not to mention elephant skins) could double village revenues, giving incentives to farmers to free up more communal land for habitat-challenged elephants and putting CAMPFIRE on more solid fiscal footing. They also reminded CITES delegates that elephants were thriving under their care; indeed, thriving so well that in Zimbabwe their numbers now exceed the land's carrying capacity by almost 50 percent. Having stewarded their elephants even to excess, Southern Africans argued that it would be wrong to further punish them with a CITES trade embargo for what, in effect, was the failure of other nations to protect their elephants through creative programs like CAMPFIRE.

Support for the Southern African position came from an unexpected quarter. TRAFFIC, a global environmental network that tracks unlawful trade in animal parts, had recently concluded in a report sponsored by the World Conservation Union, the Species Survival Commission, the World Wildlife Fund, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the CITES ban on ivory trade was not living up to expectations. The ivory trade had not stopped, and the rate of elephant poaching, after a brief fall in the early '90s, was now on the upswing. Moreover, the ban had done nothing to stem the greatest threat to elephants: the loss of habitat worldwide to a growing human population. In contrast, the one thing that had worked to stop poaching and the loss of habitat was the marketization of elephants through CAMPFIRE and related CBNRM programs. Nonetheless, animal rights groups, led by the Humane Society of the United States, are at this moment lobbying the U.S. government to use its Endangered Species Act and its clout as a CITES signatory to outlaw even trophy hunting of elephants. If that happens, elephants will bear the cost of renewed farmer hostility, and CAMPFIRE and other CBNRM efforts will wither and die, having lost their main source of natural resource revenues: Trophy hunting–the majority of it by U.S. citizens–accounts for 90 percent of CAMPFIRE income, and of that 64 percent comes from elephants.

Despite such internal and external threats, CAMPFIRE has ignited a movement that now encompasses all of Southern Africa. In Botswana, 150 controlled hunting areas have been carved out of the bush, and rights to wildlife resources have been granted to both commercial and community operators. One hunting area, bordering the Chobe National Park, is controlled by five villages that constitute the Chobe Enclave Conservation Trust. Its revenues from wildlife have risen from $12,000 in 1993 to $100,000 in 1996.

Zambia's CBNRM program, tagged ADMADE, has likewise followed the CAMPFIRE lead by vesting in both commercial and communal groups the right to harvest and benefit from wildlife in established game management areas. The Sandwe game management area, for example, was typical of many communal areas at the start of the program; wildlife was depleted and hunting companies were not interested in developing safari opportunities. Yet when the local community agreed to forgo poaching in exchange for marketable hunting rights, Sandwe's bleak picture brightened. Within four years trophy-quality animals had increased sufficiently to draw a paying safari operator, and by 1994 the community had earned its first check of $6,401.

My own interest in CBNRM lies in Malawi, at Vwaza Marsh Wildlife Reserve. It is a small park, one that is eclipsed by the prestige of CAMPFIRE and overshadowed by the sheer bulk and diversity of wildlife in Zambia, Botswana, Namibia, and South Africa. Nonetheless, it is a special place because of what it could mean for the next step in community-based conservation.

Vwaza Marsh is a partial misnomer. Most of its land is well drained; only in the north are there extensive marsh lands, many of which dry up during the prolonged winter dry season. Vwaza Marsh is isolated. Its western border lies along the Zambian frontier, a zone of massive, unpopulated forest reserves maintained by the Zambian government. On the north, east, and south edges of Vwaza Marsh, about 6,000 farmers eke out a living growing maize and tobacco (thanks largely to USAID dollars that promote tobacco culture). Vwaza Marsh is not rich in wildlife; besides a handful of lions, zebras, kudu, hippos, and sable, its principal big game occupants are 300 elephants and a modest herd of cape buffalo.

The problem at Vwaza Marsh is that the people who live along its periphery are land starved and prudently terrified of elephants and buffalo. This has had two consequences. One, elephants and buffalo are being poached to extinction. Two, the people who live near Vwaza Marsh are petitioning the national government to open up its arable lands for single-family homesteads. Privatization of public resources is an attractive idea, but in the case of Vwaza Marsh it is neither ecologically prudent nor economically sound. Instead, a different and more promising solution is being advanced by a small band of community-based conservation enthusiasts, including me.

We want to save elephants and cape buffalo, and we hope to do so by creating use rights to Vwaza Marsh's modest bounty of natural resources and by allocating those rights to the villages nearest the reserve and most able to defend its land and wildlife. Our conservation scenario includes more than just elephants and buffalo (the only game in large enough numbers to be harvested); it also embraces medicinal plants, caterpillars, termites, fish, thatch and reed grasses, and a litany of minor resources. As with CAMPFIRE, we want small clusters of villages to take possession of those rights, distribute them among households–the basic unit of rural African life–and reap the benefits that come with the use and conservation of owned resources.

What is unusual about Vwaza Marsh, and what explains my affection for it, is that it is the first park in Southern Africa to have full-scale community-based conservation practiced within its borders and the first to have rights to its resources assigned to someone other than the state. In this regard, Vwaza Marsh is a departure from the CAMPFIRE model; in the latter, use rights are restricted to communal lands, while in the former they extend to protected lands such as parks and wildlife reserves. Nonetheless, the program's goals and objectives are roughly the same as those of its Zimbabwean cousin: to conserve wildlife and habitat through robust economic incentives.

Ideally, use rights to Vwaza Marsh's plant and animal resources–resources that can be used for subsistence living or marketed regionally or globally for the highest return–will give local residents second thoughts about subdividing the park into small farming plots and cause them to rethink the economy of poaching. (A poached elephant is worth about $500 in meat and ivory, while a lawfully marketed trophy elephant is worth as much as $20,000.) But the greater importance of Vwaza Marsh transcends the conservation dividend of saving a few elephants and buffalo.

Malawi is, in many ways, the future face of Southern Africa, with a burgeoning population pushing inexorably against the last holdouts of uncultivated land within parks and reserves. The future of those protected areas–the biological seeds, so to speak, of the region's emerging wildlife industry–will depend on winning popular support for their continued existence. Clearly, if they are to exist, they must have value to rural Africans, not just value for eco-tourists. Without such value they will be treated precisely as wildlife has been treated in the past: poached on, depleted, and possibly eliminated. Creating that value is the challenge for CAMPFIRE's successors.

Of course, the long-term prospects of Southern Africa's wildlife may well depend on developments external to CAMPFIRE and CBNRM, such as broad-based industrialization to lighten the human pressure on wildlife habitat. For the time being, though, community-based conservation is the thumb in the dike. It is the most equitable, the most politically desirable, and the most socially promising alternative to the Western legacy of state prescription. It is the hope and the vision of the greener hills of Africa.

Community-based conservation can also be much more than the thumb in the dike; it can be a partial template upon which we green the hills, the valleys, and the plains of America. It is clear, I believe, how the earliest phases of wildlife policy reform in Southern Africa can apply to the United States: Robust, enforceable, and marketable rights in domestic wildlife would go a long way toward resolving such emotionally laden issues as livestock on public lands and endangered species on private property. Why not let public land ranchers have the market option of growing either livestock or wildlife, or some combination of the two? Given the proven profitability of game ranching in Texas and fee hunting of wild elk on the private lands of the Deseret Ranch in northeastern Utah (where elk outscore cattle in net revenue), I have a hunch many ranchers would embrace the wildlife bonanza.

Likewise, why not let property owners benefit from endangered species rather than just bearing the enormous cost of preserving them for the enjoyment of everyone else? And so far as I know, a privately radio-tagged and trackable wolf that earns a property owner $10,000 a year in photo opportunities is genetically the same as a public wolf that drives an angered rancher to shoot, shovel, and shut up.

What is less clear, I suspect, is what relevance, if any, the communal aspect of African wildlife reform has for a society built on individual initiative and private property. Despite our individualistic flair, Americans are extremely social animals; they settled this country and peopled its frontiers not in isolation but in community and association. That communal tradition–the one that Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated in Democracy in America–is alive today in suburbs where families are joining together to form self-governing, gated communities and in the nation's rural heartland, where organizations such as the Sand County Foundation are melding disparate private lands into voluntary associations of cooperative wildlife management. By whatever name they are called, they are solidly in the civic and associational tradition that has been America's hallmark from the first raucous New England town meeting to the first cooperative water district set up by Utah Mormons to the first self-governing commons established by Montana ranchers in the early 1900s.

Today, the African model of communal rights can be applied to a wide range of American environmental issues. Many of our resources will not be best served by classic privatization, whether because of political barriers or the existence of more desirable options. Our public lands and national forests, our national parks, our vast scenic expanses, and our rich bounty of wildlife are prized assets that by virtue of their political sensitivity, their cultural symbolism, and their often fugitive nature are best dealt with through community-based rather than private solutions.

There is no reason, for example, why local councils made up of forest and range users of all stripes and geographies could not take over control and management of our federal estate and oversee the marketization of federal resource use rights. There is no reason why conservation trusts elected by membership associations of paying national park visitors could not assume custody of our crown jewels. There is no reason why communities could not develop collective yet voluntary strategies to protect the open-access resource of scenery, much as Randal O'Toole's Thoreau Institute has described for Wallowa County, Oregon. It's akin to zoning, but in the context I imagine it is much closer to democracy under a baobab tree. And there is no reason why large landowners could not form cooperative conservancies to provide adequate habitat for far-roaming wildlife, or why small communities could not band together to exercise common rule over local wildlife by their own means and true to their own visions.

Already, voluntary watershed management groups are springing up across the width and breadth of America to manage complex and highly interconnected landscapes. They are sculpting neighborly solutions to resource conflicts and building new institutions, all voluntary, for the management of what heretofore have been open-access resources. Logging companies in the deep South, such as International Paper, are leasing millions of acres of prime deer habitat in commercial timberland to the collective rule of thousands of hunter associations. And in the Bitterroot mountain range of western Montana and northern Idaho, ranchers, loggers, and environmentalists are communally conspiring to save the grizzly bear.

The lessons of community-based conservation echo from the savannahs and veld of Southern Africa to the very heart of America. It would be our loss, not just Africa's, if the flame of CAMPFIRE were dampened because the best our nation had to offer elephants was a ban on ivory and a proscription on trophy hunting. The flame must be quickened. At stake is the transportable dream of a khaki-shorts ecology brigade for a greener and freer world.

Karl Hess Jr. (khess4@aol.com) is a senior associate at the Thoreau Institute.