Does community-based wildlife conservation work?

Blog written by Talia Speaker, Seth Thomas and Christian Kiffner. Read the full article here.

Since the turn of the century, community-based natural resource management models have risen to the forefront of conservation efforts around the globe. And for good reason—they gained popularity for their promise of meeting both livelihood and conservation goals through empowering local communities to sustainably manage their own land and resources. Particularly in ecologically rich, yet economically poor regions (including many regions in sub-Saharan Africa), this conservation approach sounds like a win-win solution for both human communities lacking basic commodities and declining wildlife populations. But how effective are these conservation models in practice?

Research on these questions has raised major concerns about the socio-economic consequences of current community-based conservation models; namely the results of poor governance and unequal benefit-sharing. These concerns are valid and require urgent attention, but another equally important question has been lacking in the literature: Are these community-managed areas meeting their conservation goals? A handful of studies across East Africa over the last decade suggest a tentative ‘yes’ to this question, but few of these areas have long-term wildlife monitoring programs in place that can be used to assess their sustainability.

Elephant and wildebeest use the swamps and grasslands of Tarangire National Park during the dry season.

Our research takes an important step in addressing this gap by investigating how wildlife populations in a community-based Wildlife Management Area in Tanzania compared to a neighboring state-managed national park over an eight-year study period. More specifically, we tracked changes in species richness and population densities of ten mammal species in both locations from 2011 to 2018 using seasonal and time-matched walking and vehicle based transect surveys. By comparing the community-based model to a national park, we tested it against the “gold standard” of species conservation models, which prioritizes conservation and removes most human disturbances.

Zebra and wildebeest herds aggregate along the Tarangire river during the dry season.

Our results are largely promising. We found that both species richness and population densities across species were comparable between the park and community-managed area, suggesting that these areas can support wildlife communities that are similar to those of a national park, despite different management schemes. We also noted significant increases in the populations of at least three species (elephant, wildebeest, and impala) in the Wildlife Management Area throughout the study period, which further supports the conservation effectiveness of the model but raises concerns about potential negative effects (e.g. crop raiding) of growing wildlife populations on local livelihoods.

Zebras drinking from the Tarangire river during the dry season.

While these findings are good news for this specific Wildlife Management Area, our work is far from done. On a local level, persistent conservation efforts and adaptive management will be critical to the continued success of the wildlife management area model. In the bigger picture, this research only sets the precedent for a much-needed widespread effort to monitor and evaluate the long-term conservation value of community-based models across Tanzania.

Zebras standing in the grasslands of Burunge Wildlife Management Area.

For too long it has been assumed that effective management will come as a de facto result of the (partial) ownership and direct economic benefits derived from wildlife. In our study area, this assumption appears to be valid. We advocate for similar, rigorous assessments of the ecological effectiveness of community-based conservation schemes to test their effectiveness and inform adaptive management. Ideally, assessments are done neither from a wildlife-only nor a livelihood-only perspective but from a holistic and interdisciplinary perspective that takes the social and ecological components into account. To capitalize on this model that holds real potential for facilitating the coexistence of people and wildlife, we must invest now in monitoring its effectiveness and sustainability.

2 thoughts on “Does community-based wildlife conservation work?

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  1. What about the assent of more vulnerable species and doing ongoing land function analysis?
    Elephant, wildebeest and impala are typically quite successful breeders
    Do certain individuals in the community benefit or is it the community at large? This is an ongoing issue in South Africa, and I’d assume in many other areas throughout the continent.

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