Reply To: National Parks, civilisation and globalisation

Author Replies # Posted on May 20, 2014 at 17:21

Today we had a really engaged discussion with Jane Carruthers, a pioneer in South African environmental history, who did her doctoral research on game preservation in nineteenth century Transvaal. I am very interested in the politics of wildlife preservation in Kenya, and I see a lot of parallels, but also many differences between the ‘conservation scene’ in South Africa. I found it really helpful today to think internationally about national parks.
Both South African and Kenyan national parks originated in pre-independence Africa, and famed colonial-era (non-African) wildlife enthusiasts have had instrumental roles in the creation of the identity of these landscapes. African visitors to national parks in South Africa and Kenya continue to be a minority. Carruthers showed that the growing black South African middle-class does not consider national parks to be a destination of choice for leisure and recreation, and white South Africans outnumber black in national park attendance. In Kenya, white Kenyans number just 0.2% of the population, and the domestic tourism sector is small as the majority of Kenyans simply cannot afford to enjoy national parks, despite the gate fees being reduced for citizens. Tourism in Kenya is dominated by visitors from the UK, USA, Italy, Germany, and France.
East Africa claims to be the birthplace of safaris (a Swahili word) a practice immortalized by Karen Blixen, Theodore Roosevelt, and Ernest Hemingway in addition to the great White Hunters and their aristocratic clientele (such as British royal family). In South Africa Carruthers finds the history of national parks to be deeply tied to Afrikaner nationalism, and characters such as Anton Rupert and Paul Kruger feature heavily.
Both white South Africans and Kenyans revered wildlife for valuable trophies (ivory but also food for the pot) and the high-adventure of sport hunting. Wildlife was also a nuisance on privately owned farmlands and grazing areas however, and had to be controlled in these contexts. National parks in East and South Africa were created to set aside land on which wildlife could be enjoyed and conserved without having to clash violently with people. ‘Gentlemanly’ sport hunters and men of military rank (preferably officers) in Kenya and South Africa often turned to the occupation of game warden. Participation of black Africans in national parks in Kenya and South Africa has historically been that of poacher, or native ranger. In addition, the creation of National Parks necessitated the annexation of black African land.
To take a very cynical view, national parks in Kenya and South Africa have shifted in post-independence/apartheid times from being bastions of white privilege to being tourist dollar attractions. Narratives have changed in the national park scene from issues of animal conservation to sustainable development. The tourist industry employs some 10% of the South African population, and is consistently the largest or second largest foreign currency earner in Kenya. Despite this, the financial benefits of national parks in Kenya do not trickle down to the majority of people who live in the vicinity and have to bear the cost of land alienation and wildlife conflict (though the conservation community is increasingly committed to improving the situation). Finally, national parks and the wildlife within them are also great public relations tools that governments can use to manipulate the international community, and conservation crises have served as red herrings for human rights violations.
Anyways, so that is my really negative view of national parks in Kenya and South Africa. I recognize that I am painting a picture with a very broad brush –there are many black Kenyans and South Africans that value national parks, are passionate about wildlife, and benefit from their existence. The complexities of who is disenfranchised and who gains from national parks are difficult to unravel. I’m also probably conflating conservation areas, game reserves, and national park franchises too liberally. Furthermore, I personally think it is a good thing that people are interested in ensuring the continuity of the fauna and flora of sub-Saharan Africa, and national parks do attempt to do that.
Yet, I also think we should shine a critical light on environmental protection initiatives which are often presented as inherently noble but are imbued with unequal class and power relations. Carruthers brought up an interesting point today and that is that national parks are scrutinized for their ability to benefit animal and human communities and their objectives must always be presented as altruistic. Other nationally important industries like mining in South Africa or agro-business in Kenya are not expected to be so friendly. Issues of morality figure heavily in conservation, but determining whose standards should be complied to is murky. I really enjoyed this Current Debates class because I feel this touches on a question that must be discussed in sustainability/environmental studies – what exactly is it ‘we’ want, who are we, and what are we prepared to sacrifice to get it?