If its wildlife is to be preserved, more income from the tourists who flock to safari parks must find its way to local people
guardian.co.uk, Sunday 3 January 2010 19.30 GMT
Something shaming often happens when you clatter up a dusty track and enter any of Africa's famous national parks, or even some quieter ones, such as Malawi's Liwonde, which I visited recently. Almost all those outside are black and very poor. Most of those inside, at least the tourists, are white and rich. Quite often you pass through a high electric fence, though whether it is intended to keep the animals in or the hungry poor out is not always clear.
The boundary between the preserved world and the real one is explicit. Beyond Liwonde, life is lived in one of Africa's populous nations. Women hoe cassava fields; minibuses hoot at petrol stations in search of fuel (Malawi is short of foreign exchange and so petrol). There is commitment and endeavour and hope: lots of small businesses with cheery handpainted slogans ("Save water, drink beer", suggested one roadside bar).
And just the other side of the fence, there is silence and beauty, and a wide river lagoon packed with belching hippos – a magical place of the sort people fly to Africa to find. But the park is sustained, in part, by a form of tourism detached from the realities of a continent about to see its one-billionth inhabitant. Westerners are more likely these days to be clutching a zoom-lens Nikon than a rifle, but the effect is still deadly: a gated cul-de-sac for the natural environment, hawked to the west as a long-haul luxury product.
Brochures are awash with nostalgia for a colonial dreamworld, the myth of the wilderness. "Imagine the Africa of the great safari era, when blazing sunsets melted into lantern-lit romance and service was an effortless whisper," declares one, and it is typical. Fantasies such as these, priced out of reach of almost every African, demean a continent and detach themselves from science or conservation. Lions are a backdrop to a sunset gin and tonic, as unreal as the Disney king of the jungle. No one mentions that when the Liwonde park was created in 1973, villages were evicted to make room for game.
This sounds unfair to the efforts of good people. Sustainable tourism is more than a slogan; some tourist projects raise money for schools and healthcare. Parks provide foreign exchange, and without them there would be little incentive to preserve ecosystems. Only a brute could wish for fewer elephants in the world, or to see the warthog snuffle its last, or trees cut down for charcoal, which will damage the soil, disrupt the rains and heat up a continent facing environmental crisis. It is undeniable that Africa's conservation movement has achieved magnificent things in tough conditions. Few indigenous species have become extinct; even the strange half-striped Okapi from the Congo basin survives, with a tongue so long it can wash its own ears. Despite the horrible trade in powdered rhino horn, sold to a Chinese elite in search of stimulation, brave men and women have, so far, kept the rare black rhino alive in the wild. All this should be celebrated. But can it last, with Africa's population set to double in the next 50 years and its people – as they should – wanting wealth and jobs?
We want Africa to keep its environment untamed, as we never did ourselves. Lincolnshire too was once wild before we chopped down the trees and drained its soils to grow potatoes. No one now suggests fencing the county off and letting it revert to wolves – but we expect Africa to shoulder the burden. Almost 40% of Tanzania has protected status. Can a growing continent afford it?
Last week Mo Ibrahim, the admirable Sudanese-born philanthropist, pointed out in the Guardian that Africa does not – contrary to repeated claims – have a problem with overpopulation. It has 20% of the world's land and only 13% of its people. It also has some of the planet's most outstanding ecology, and it is greatly to Africa's credit that so many reserves have thrived. But who can blame a poor country for turning its eyes towards obvious sources of wealth – Tanzania and soda-rich Lake Natron, which an Indian company wanted to exploit despite its precious population of flamingos, or the Kongou Falls in Gabon, threatened by a Chinese iron ore project? In 2002 Gabon declared 10% of its land to be national parks. Well-fed conservation-minded Britain cannot match that.
It isn't hard to take a stand against ivory poachers or an international conglomerate intent on ripping the wealth out of Africa. But should the peasant farmer, desperate for new land, be condemned in the same way? In the 1990s locals smashed down the fence and invaded Liwonde park, almost wiping out its wildlife. They were driven back, but the truce is temporary.
A better balance has to be found. African governments, and tour operators, need to leave income from parks with the people who live near them. And tourists need to stop imagining they are visiting an empty continent in the guise of a latter-day Livingstone or Stanley. They should see wildlife, but meet people too. If one of 50 chose an 18-hour total immersion in rural life, precious dovetails between a park and its surrounds would grow.
The word "stakeholder" has been horribly abused; but unless the world can find a way of giving ownership of Africa's parks to Africa's people, the parks will be doomed and the people diminished.
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