Africa’s biggest conservation success was once
It also operates the largest anti-poaching force of any private organisation in Africa, with almost 1,000 rangers, and builds lodging for visitors that range from basic rooms to $1,300-a-night luxury tents. That, and the reintroduction of big animals, has helped boost tourism in unlikely places such as Chad, which attracts the super-wealthy with a remote safari camp in the vast Zakouma national park that’s fully booked until 2021.
“Tourism to Africa is still primarily about nature and wildlife,” Peter Fearnhead, chief executive officer of the company, said in an interview in Johannesburg.
“What we try to do is build an economy that’s directly linked to conservation.”
It is an approach that’s been criticised by some activists, who say the fencing-off of land and the increased use of heavily armed rangers to protect wildlife points to the militarisation of conservation and criminalises people who traditionally hunt for food.
“The huge conservation organisations have a colonial model of conservation and scapegoat local people, who are hunting for the pot as they have always done, as poachers,” said Fiona Watson of Survival International, a London-based advocacy group.
There have been setbacks. In 2007, African Parks withdrew from two facilities in Ethiopia after the government failed to back negotiations with local residents to limit the use of the land. Two years later, 15 staff, including rangers, were killed in an attack by a rebel group in Garamba in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In contrast, arrests in Akagera dropped to 19 last year, and there hasn’t been a gunfight since two rangers were killed by hippo poachers in 2010.
Funded by charities and philanthropists in Europe and the US — Akagera was recently given a helicopter by the Howard Buffett Foundation — African Parks got its start in Malawi and Zambia in 2003 following three years of negotiations. Today, it runs 15 national parks in Southern and Central Africa and is expanding into West Africa, including Pendjari in Benin, a UNESCO World Heritage site and host to the critically endangered West African lion. Following the example of Rwanda, which contributes financially to Akagera, Benin has pledged $6 million over the next five years to help fund the restoration of Pendjari.
“This model is beginning to develop where countries learn from other countries that there is a value to their park, so much that they are prepared to invest in it themselves,” said Mr Fearnhead, a Zimbabwe-born resource economist who co-founded the company with four others. The goal is to manage areas big enough to reintroduce species that had disappeared, necessitating areas no smaller than 70,000 hectares.
Income from tourism is still small compared with African Parks’ budget of $45 million, which comes largely from donors. At Akagera, tourism revenue increased almost ten-fold from 2010 and was on track to reach $2 million last year on
Burchell’s Plains zebra at Akagera National Park in Rwanda. Below; Boxes containing lions brought from South Africa are placed on a truck heading to Akagera National Park. Rwanda reintroduced lions after they were wiped out of the country.