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Managing Africa’s Wildlife

  • Robert Nelson,
  • Kay Muir-Leresche

    In most of the world, the ownership of wildlife lies in the hands of governments. State agencies closely regulate the use of wildlife, including the amount permitted, when, and where hunting can occur.

    However, in the southern African nations of Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia and Botswana, an important experiment has been taking place over the past forty years (G. Child 1995). To a considerable degree, these nations have legalized and privatized the use of wildlife, encouraging hunting, tourism, and the sale of meat, hides, and horns. The wildlife remains state-owned without a formal owner (res nullius), but certain conditions grant private landowners the full rights to control the use of wildlife on their land.

    The experience of Zimbabwe illustrates this development. Unfortunately, the violence of recent months in that country, caused by the government’s refusal to protect property rights, may well undermine this extraordinary progress in wildlife management.

    In Zimbabwe, before the mid-1960s, farmers were not allowed to hunt, cull, or sell venison. They relied heavily on the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management for control of problem animals and had no incentive to encourage healthy wildlife populations. Many game animals were killed in order to control the tsetse fly, which wild animals were believed to host (Murindagomo 1997, 433).

    Yet, cattle ranching has always been economically marginal in much of Zimbabwe’s semi-arid rangelands. The ranching industry long depended on government subsidies, encouraging excessive cattle stocking and degraded rangeland.

    One proposed early solution was to use the rangelands for producing wild game for meat. Some observers argued that wild animals were better adapted to Zimbabwe habitat and that introducing game could result in more meat (and higher profits) than cattle operations were showing (Dasmann and Mossman 1961).

    So, a 1961 Conservation Act allowed large-scale commercial farmers to obtain permits to harvest wildlife for meat. However, capturing and killing widely dispersed wildlife populations proved expensive. This and other problems, such as the absence of established channels of distribution, made wild-game meat production unprofitable (Muir 1989).

    Luckily, a more promising approach emerged: safari hunting. Safari hunting was concentrated primarily in Kenya and of east Africa for much of the twentieth century, but a safari industry began growing rapidly in Zimbabwe in the 1960s. By 1974, one study found 17 ranchers actively managing their ranches for safari hunting, with another 150 ranchers showing interest (B. Child 1988, 178).

    Safari hunting does not depend on large numbers of animals, but more on the presence of trophy animals. It thus offered opportunity for larger revenues while lowering burdens on both the land and the wildlife, creating less harmful environmental impacts on semi-arid rangelands. At the same time, transferring responsibility for wildlife on private land from the state to the landholder allowed the Department of Natural Parks and Wildlife Management to concentrate on wildlife research and its protected areas.

    In 1975, the Parks and Wildlife Act delegated management control of safari hunting, harvesting, and other wildlife activities to large-scale commercial farmers. Commercial farmers were designated as the “appropriate authority” for deciding the wildlife use of the land. By either controlling safari operations or leasing hunting rights to an independent safari operator, the owner could now make important decisions regarding their wildlife, including: the time and place of hunting, the number of animals to be hunted, the age and sex of the animals, minimum acceptable trophy sizes, and other hunting conditions. Also, the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management established detailed training programs and tightened licensing requirements for hunting guides. Today, the guides of Zimbabwe are often said to be the best qualified in Africa.

    The principal author of the 1975 act, then the director of the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management, Graham Child, stated that with the exception of specially protected animals, “land holders are better placed than anyone else to conserve their wildlife” (quoted in B. Child 1988, 179Ð80). The government abolished most license fees and allowed landowners to charge for hunting and fishing as well.

    In some areas of Zimbabwe, commercial wildlife operations became more profitable than cattle-raising by the 1980s. Ranchers located near the Matetsi Safari area in northwest Zimbabwe especially benefitted from tourism because of nearby Victoria Falls and Hwange National Park. Most ranchers who converted to wildlife operations experienced significant financial gains.

    One ranch in the northwest, the Rosslyn Ranch, was originally managed for cattle beginning in 1948. Poor financial returns led the owners to convert to wildlife ranching in 1967. Wildlife populations expanded in four years by as much as 50 percent. In terms of meat production alone, the ranch proved viable, but the growing revenues from safari operations gave the greatest boost to profitability. (After 1972, the ranch area was taken over by the Rhodesian government and incorporated into the Matetsi Safari area, where it is now regularly leased as state-owned land to safari operators) (B. Child, 1988, 305Ð10).

    In 1986, Brian Child surveyed ranchers in the southeastern area (the “lowveld”) of Zimbabwe, asking them to name the most profitable use of their land. None named cattle ranching alone. Thirty percent said “mostly cattle, some wildlife.” Forty percent said “mostly wildlife, some cattle,” and 30 percent said “wildlife only.” By 1987, 10 percent of all private farm and ranchland owners were registered as wildlife producers (Muir 1989, 311).

    Kreuter and Workman (1994) analyzed 15 large cattle-only operations, 7 wildlife, and 13 mixed ranches in the Midlands Province, where the climate is less arid and the land more productive. Among these, ranches devoted exclusively to wildlife were less financially successful than those with cattle only. However, the mixed ranches had the highest profitability.

    By 1995, 18 percent of all Zimbabwe farmers were registered as being in the wildlife business (at least in part). A 1995 survey (achieving 50 percent coverage) of Wildlife Producers Association members showed that their lands held 250,000 wild plains animals, including 10,000 sable, 10,000 zebra and more than 2,000 giraffe (Muir 1998, 9).

    Private land has begun to make a major contribution to species diversity in Zimbabwe. By 1994, ninety-four percent of the eland in Zimbabwe were on privately owned commercial farm and ranch lands. Additionally, 64 percent of the kudu, 63 percent of the giraffe, 56 percent of the cheetah, and 53 percent of both sable and impala found refuge on private lands. In fact, private lands contained a majority of every plains game species found in Zimbabwe except zebra, 46 percent of which were found on private lands (Hill 1994). Tsessebe were once threatened throughout Zimbabwe but were able to recover on private ranches, subsequently allowing their restoration to many other private and public lands in Zimbabwe (Zimbabwe Trust 1992, 42).

    All in all, except for large and dangerous game, Zimbabwe wildlife is better preserved through private management for financial gain than by government protection. This happened because of the property rights innovations of 1961 and 1975, which have promoted species diversity and sustainable development. We hope that these achievements will not be lost.

    Child, Brian. 1988. The Role of Wildlife Utilization in the Sustainable Economic Development of the Semi-Arid Rangelands of Zimbabwe. Ph.D. Thesis, Oxford University.
    Child, Graham. 1995. Wildlife and People: The Zimbabwean Success. Harare, Zimbabwe: Wisdom Foundation.
    Dasmann, R. F., and A. S. Mossman. 1961. The Utilization of Game Animals on a Rhodesian Ranch. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Wildlife Society, California Section, Davis, California, January.
    Hill, Kevin A. 1994. Politicians, Farmers and Ecologists: Commercial Wildlife Ranching and the Politics of Land in Zimbabwe. Journal of African and Asian Studies 29(3-4).
    Kreuter, Urs P., and John P. Workman. 1994. Government Policy Effects on Cattle and Wildlife Ranching Profits in Zimbabwe. Journal of Range Management 47: 264Ð69.
    Muir, Kay. 1989. The Potential Role of Indigenous Resources in the Economic Development of Arid Environments in Sub-Saharan Africa. Society and Natural Resources 2(4): 307Ð19.
    —. 1998. The Importance of Policies Which Profile Secure Tenure Growth, Equity and the Environment: The Example of Allocating Wildlife Use-Rights to Farmers. Paper presented to Scandinavian Seminar College Symposium, “African Perspectives on Policies and Practices for Sustainable Development,” Harare, Zimbabwe.
    Murindagomo, Felix. 1997. Cattle, Wildlife Comparative Advantage in Semi Arid Communal Lands and Implications for Agro Pastor Options, Institutions and Government Policy. A Case Study in the Sebungwe Region, Zimbabwe. Ph.D. Thesis. Department of Agricultural Economics, University of Zimbabwe, Harare.
    Zimbabwe Trust. 1992. Wildlife: Relic of the Past, or Resource of the Future, The Realities of Zimbabwe’s Wildlife Policymaking and Management. Harare, Zimbabwe.

    Written By
    • Robert Nelson

      Robert H. Nelson is a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a 2010 Lone Mountain Fellow at PERC. From 1975 to 1993, he worked as a senior economist in the Office of Policy Analysis of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior.

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