Book review – The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya

This book is a searing critique of the wildlife conservation movement, specifically in Kenya. To be clear, this is not a book serving some shady agenda that seeks to deny the need for conservation. Instead, the two authors, a Kenyan journalist and a carnivore ecologist, are very critical of the way in which white, rich westerners dominate this field, to the exclusion of native voices and needs.

The Big Conservation Lie

The Big Conservation Lie: The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya”, written by John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada, published by Lens & Pens Publishing in 2017 (paperback, 210 pages)

They take no hostages and right off the bat criticise well-known wildlife legends such as George Adamson, Richard Leakey, Gerald Durrell, and Dian Fossey. These figures are venerated in the west for their conservation efforts, and most have authored memoirs about their time spent in Africa. It’s exactly these works that the authors attack for maintaining a mythology around these people. In their eyes, it’s always the same story: a rich white person gives up their comfortable life and selflessly dedicates it to saving wild animals in Africa. Allowing these people to sing their own praises sometimes hides inconvenient facts of their past, claim the authors. Such as the fact that Adamson traded in ivory, killed animals for fun and tried to sell hunting safaris to clients. And their conservation efforts often amount to no more than token efforts, saving small numbers of individuals. These people receive adulation in the west for doing what native Africans have done for centuries: live alongside wildlife. And this sentimental praise comes from people who are far removed from the reality on the ground. These ad-hominem attacks are not going to make the authors popular, but it’s hard to argue with some of the uncomfortable facts.

And, it is true, the conservation sector has a troubled legacy. Many of the national parks in existence today were established as game hunting reserves during colonial times, often forcefully removing the local population. NGOs operating on the ground are accused of remaining beholden to the narrow ideas and visions of their founders. At the same time, they work closely with well-funded tourism operators, who charge rich western customers high prices for lavish wildlife safaris (talking of decadent), all the while thwarting the emergence of local initiatives that could generate more meaningful benefits to the local population. And the biggest no-no these authors repeatedly highlight is how many conservation organisations are, in their opinion, almost in league with big-game hunters, all the while arguing that white trophy hunters paying large fees to legally hunt iconic animals can benefit wildlife conservation. This is white-washed by calling it culling or cropping, and the authors see it as a ploy to make more money off the back of the African continent. Similarly, NGOs are accused of working closely with companies that exploit some of the biological resources they conserve, with examples given of pharmaceutical companies making millions off plants or microbes discovered in Africa, with barely anything flowing back to local communities.

Even conservation scientists do not escape criticism, being accused of barely involving local academics or taking note of indigenous knowledge, and monopolising the study of single species, rapidly being seen as experts on one or the other species, despite species not existing in isolation. In their opinion, a lot of conservation work is fundamentally flawed by not taking environmental, social and economical sustainability into account. Supposedly, the aim of most conservationists would be to maintain the conservation problem to guarantee continued funding of their research. This is a troubling accusation, although it is true that many academics have their careers riding on this.

“This is an angry book, given a searing, one-sided, almost cynical critique of the wildlife conservation sector.”

The final chapter will probably be a bridge too far for many, and reeks of conspiracy theory. The authors put forward the idea that it is no coincidence that many of the wildlife parks in Kenya, still owned by white people or Kenyans of British descent, were established in areas that have rich mineral resources. It would all be a thickly veiled scheme to grab Africa’s resources, while on the outside giving it the appearance of helping Kenya out by preserving its wildlife.

This is an angry book, given a searing, one-sided, almost cynical critique of the wildlife conservation sector. Many of the troubling points the authors raise cannot be denied; Have there really been no African conservation heroes in the last 100 years that we ought to celebrate? And, true, Africa was doing just fine until white man came in, colonised the continent and started slaughtering its wildlife. The corrupt continent that Africa subsequently became is largely a nasty hangover from these colonial times, with contemporary African leaders taking after the examples of their white predecessors. A lot of indigenous beliefs, customs, and superstitions – primitive as they may seem to us – forbade excess killing of animals and considered animals sacred kindred spirits. Village elders, much better able to think long-term, played a vital role in enforcing such taboos. With the westernisation and urbanisation of Africa, a lot of these traditions have gone out of the window.

Not being familiar with the actors and different NGOs on the ground, it’s hard to judge the validity and truthfulness of some of the author’s claims. But if all they say is true, they are up against formidable opponents who will seek to deny and distort their claims, and Africa will face an uphill struggle to wrest back control over conservation of its wildlife.

I do have some points of critique. The book veers towards some rather less credible accusations towards the end (the land-grab conspiracy and accusing conservationists of preserving the status quo to further their own career). Furthermore, there is no return to the Africa that was, and overpopulation has become a problem, so the conservation efforts that are in place, flawed as they might be, are becoming more and more of a necessity. The book could also have done with outlining what the authors envision instead. Other than clearly wanting an end to the, in their eyes, racist exclusion of Africans from wildlife conservation, you have to read between the lines to get an idea of what they have in mind. They are mostly too busy being angry to come up with a clear-headed vision of what needs to change.

I recommend this book, albeit it with some reservations. It’s a brave and bold piece of writing, highlighting many uncomfortable truths. It is controversial – almost heretical – in places, but that is no bad thing. The voice of native Africans on this topic is not heard often enough. Its lack of a clear vision where to next is a shame, as it would have made this book much more powerful and useful. As it stands, it’s a rather one-sided challenge that is crying out for a response from the conservation community.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

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