African National Parks: Helping Surrounding Communities

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TACOMA, Washington — The natural world is one of contrast, a beauty found in the balance, though it can at times be as daunting as it is breathtaking. Protected and curated natural spaces around the world are a lifeline for many. In developing countries across the African continent, African national parks provide a level of cultural pride and economic stability to those in proximity. Bearing this in mind, violence against such places has a ripple effect far beyond park borders.

Violence in National Parks

Images often focus on the outside relief efforts of western nations rather than the resolve and passion of the people living in this world every day. Africa is a place rich in natural resources, rendering it a beautiful, but at times, violent place. This often arises from struggles between national governments and militant rebel groups fighting for territorial control.

Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one such place that has seen consistent violence both within and around its vast boundaries. The park is one of the last remaining homes for the endangered mountain gorillas. Photographs of the sweeping landscape highlighting sharp mountain peaks and dense, lush forests do not fully represent the place. More than 200 Virunga park rangers have been killed by armed rebels and a part of the park is still controlled by rebel militia. This militia extorts locals within its area of domination and encourages poaching for the illegal bushmeat trade.

This sentiment is worth pointing out not to sensationalize or invoke despair but quite the contrary. The extreme compassion and dedication of the park rangers and management in places like Virunga allow them to become stabilizing factors in chaotic regions. Their passion for conservation and poverty reduction is truly inspiring in the face of such miring obstacles.

Economic Impact of Virunga National Park

Virunga goes well beyond just protecting natural resources though, it allows for the economic development of the four million people living on its borders. A whopping 27,000 people alone work in the park’s fishery industry. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, “Sustainable, well-managed uses of park resources, like fishing, provide stable, long-term economic benefits to local communities.” The drive of responsible eco-tourism also incentives struggling communities not to resort to the poaching of wild animals.

In 2018, after the kidnapping of two British tourists, their driver and the death of a ranger accompanying them, Virunga was closed to the public for a year to assess and bolster rising security concerns. This significantly impacted the local economy. While the closure was understandable, the fragility of the situation showcased the tenuous relationship between tourism revenue, struggling communities’ economic health in developing countries and successful wildlife conservation.

The Economic Effect of Eco-Tourism in Tanzania

Other examples of African national parks that offer economic opportunities are also located in Eastern Africa. Tanzania, famed for its natural spaces, hosts one of them. The country houses some of the highest density populations of four of Africa’s “Big Five” species: lions, elephants, cape buffalo and leopards. Tanzania accommodated 10,000 rhinos (another of the “Big Five”) in the 1970s, but only 100 remained by 2019. The plethora of these animals has helped make tourism a primary driver of the country’s economic growth.

To gain greater insight into eco-tourism, The Borgen Project spoke with Fanuel Mateja, the co-founder and lead guide of Breakdown Safari, as well as co-founder Kathy Reed. Breakdown Safari is a company born out of a passion for wildlife conservation that provides tours across the southern and western safari circuits in Tanzania. Mateja grew up drawn to nature, always knowing he wanted to dedicate his life to it.

Reed is a U.S. citizen who fell in love with Tanzania during her travels. She ended up staying, realizing she could make a difference with her experience as an entrepreneur and passion for the bush. In reference to the balance between human development and the natural world, the tour company operates on the principle, “We believe that human beings can learn from and participate in such cooperative relationships.” Cooperation has long been observed as a viable survival strategy in nature.

Balancing Infrastructure and Sustainability

Mateja expresses dismay at how many people who live on the parks’ borders have never seen the wildlife inside. As they do not have the means to enter and experience these natural spaces, they have little understanding of what is being preserved and why. He spoke about the positive effects of the African national parks and other protected areas. The national parks economically stimulate local communities and give communities a reason for more conservation in the process of mutual benefit. Specifically, he pointed out how safari camps that house tourists are staffed by nearby communities and how all the food and goods are purchased through local vendors. To increase tourism, the authorities build better infrastructure such as roads around parks and nearby settlements. This has the positive byproduct of increasing ease of mobility for locals.

Reed spoke with concern for the balance of developing infrastructure sustainably, particularly regarding hydroelectric power plants. Striking this balance is a challenge, even in the best of socioeconomic circumstances. Accordingly, while there have been great strides in the way Tanzania manages its multitude of protected natural resources, the challenge of monitoring and adapting to further realize its significant potential remains.

A Hopeful Future

If the region housing Virunga National Park can become more stable, eco-tourism will grow in appeal the same way it has grown in Tanzania. If handled responsibly and sustainably, this could be an impactful model for stimulating local economies surrounding parks. After all, the fundamental mission of those who protect the African national parks goes beyond just flora and fauna. With extreme weather conditions becoming increasingly apparent and disruptive, conservation grows more important to keep the natural world and the communities that rely on it alive and prospering.

Jack Leggett III
Photo: Courtesy of Jack Robert Leggett Jr.

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