Making Room for Wildlife to Improve Livelihoods

This is the second part in a two-part interview with Steve Osofsky, Director of Wildlife Health Policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In this first part of the interview, Osofsky explains Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs) and how small-scale farmers can benefit from the conservation of wildlife. To read the first part of this interview see: Finding Common Ground to Improve Livelihoods and Conserve Wildlife.

What role do Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs) play in the relationship between wildlife and food systems?

Southern Africa and its farmers will benefit greatly from the recognition of the importance of both livestock and wildlife. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)

Let me first just explain what TFCA’s are. If you look back at the colonial era when many of the southern African colonies or protectorates were looking for economic traction— one of the obvious sources was the export of beef. And we talked about how foot and mouth disease, a virus that is naturally harbored by the African buffalo, is a constraint to exports. The Europeans don’t want foot and mouth getting into their animals. It’s happened—you may remember in the UK , the multi-billion dollar losses, the farmers committing suicide, when foot and mouth got in. And actually right now there is an outbreak coming to an end in Japan and they are still not sure where that virus  came in from. But it’s an economically important disease. So from that context, going back to the late 1950’s and early 1960’s you can understand why fences were put up to separate wildlife and livestock. They were creating disease-free areas so that beef could be exported safely to markets like Europe which were providing good prices for many, many years. At that time, tourism was really not a major activity—there was some trophy hunting by the elite but it wasn’t an economic driver. But if you fast forward to today, we’ve learned from analysis like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that nature-based activities like photographic tourism and hunting safaris contribute about as much to the GDP in southern Africa as forestry, fishing and agriculture combined. So we’ve had a dramatic swelling of economic benefits related to wildlife-based activities. Leaders of these countries have said: what can we do to capitalize on something we actually have a strategic comparative advantage in? One of the solutions they are coming up with is to increase the amount of land available for wildlife, and TFCA s are a way for two or more countries to create  connections—many of which were historically present but were wiped out over the past several decades—to in fact recreate connections between some of their national parks and other conservation areas. If you think about it, we already have a precedent in a place like the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem located between Kenya and Tanzania, that is essentially a TFCA, although it was not set-up under those formal auspices but because of the recognized migratory patterns of the wildebeest. It was a natural landscape that luckily for us the Kenyans and Tanzanians agreed to cooperatively manage. But now we are seeing more and more countries creating these areas across international boundaries. And it’s good for conservation and it could be good for these countries’ GDPs but there is also a fundamental conflict that is set up between the current strategy for dealing with foot and mouth disease and this idea of restored connectivity. So we are looking at ways to, literally, bring these different sectors to the same table because there’s been a lot of hostility between conservationists and livestock agriculturalists for many decades in these countries, and we think the only way forward is if they can share their perspectives and we can look at ways whereby both activities can be undertaken. The way forward may involve some new tools and approaches so that land-use planning can be addressed through a different lens. But we think the time has come, given the future economic drivers that are being pointed to in the region-if we don’t recognize the importance of both livestock and wildlife, southern Africa is going to lose out. And frankly it’s been the wildlife sector that has been one of the real shining glimmers of hope for economic growth in southern Africa.  It’s very encouraging and we want to help these countries pursue the development trajectories that they’ve identified. We are not—we at WCS, AHEAD—we are not driving the peace parks movement or the TFCA movement—we are offering technical assistance in the form of an enabling environment to reconcile what are essentially, as I said before, conflicts between agricultural policy and a vision of enhanced connectivity for wildlife across international boundaries.

Beyond wildlife tourism, how else can agriculture serve to benefit from these new approaches of wildlife conservation?

I’ll just continue to use Botswana as an example-though it applies elsewhere. In Botswana, if you want to export beef right now you have to have this physical separation of cattle and wildlife. But in order to produce beef that is free of foot and mouth disease, there are other ways through which it appears that that can be done safely. And this involves what we call commodity based trade—which exists in other parts of the world. And what we are really talking about is managing the risk of foot and mouth disease in a different way. Instead of necessarily requiring all of this separation of wildlife and livestock—you process the beef, you debone it, you take out the lymph nodes— which is usually done to produce high quality steaks, anyway— and you age the beef (which changes the pH and kills the foot and mouth disease virus if it were there)–which is also done to produce high quality beef. And those processes alone, the removing of bone and lymph nodes, the aging of beef which changes the ph of the meat, make the chances of foot and mouth being present, even if an animal actually had it, virtually nil. And cattle are still quarantined for sufficient time so as to ensure they are free from foot and mouth and otherwise healthy before slaughter. So what we need to do is to continue to evaluate and document this approach with good science and to partner with agro-industry, so that we can produce beef in this value-added way so that the world market will view it as a safe product. We do this all the time in other parts of the world, but the southern Africans have really been held to a higher standard in a lot of ways.

But another benefit to this processing is that the producer country is actually exporting a higher-value product. So that per unit of production, per animal, the amount of revenue that stays in the country and then goes back to the farmer is significantly higher than if you are exporting a relatively unprocessed product to Europe and having the Europeans get all the value-added benefit. So this has got important implications for developing countries—many of the market countries for foreign beef from Africa are providing a tremendous amount of aid to African countries in terms of development assistance. But if we really want these countries to stand up on their own two feet without an ongoing cycle of aid dependence, this is the type of “out of the box” (or “out of the fence”) thinking we need to be looking at. If these countries can increase their incomes by producing a product that brings in more revenue per unit of production- fantastic. That’s why we are interested in some of these more modern approaches to risk management and why the international community is gradually coming along. It’s really going to take good science and robust pilot work and countries willing to explore this both on the exporter side, as well as on the importer side, so that these trade restrictions that are currently in place can be gradually lifted- and enable these new opportunities. Finally, keep in mind that the rural poor who currently live closest to wildlife currently have no access to wider markets- so the market-based ideas we’ve been discussing have the potential to help the very stakeholders who are in fact the primary targets of most development assistance.

It seems clear this has got to be driven by economics, and by public-private partnerships. We are going to need the private sector, in all likelihood, running many of the laboratories and meat processing facilities, but it has to be a partnership with government because ultimately government is accountable. So the enabling legislation has to be in place and the policies have to be right, and again, not just on the producer side, but we also have to see a willingness on the importer side—largely developed nations, particularly the Europeans but potentially, eventually, the United States, in terms of recognizing the validity of this approach as it can be demonstrated over time. The other thing is that by producing higher value products, there is also a very important set of regional markets. This doesn’t all relate to markets overseas. In many of these countries there is a growing middle class and there is an opportunity to produce value-added products for regional consumption. And there is also the Asian market. So there are a lot of opportunities, and accessing them will depend on the types of solid partnerships between industry and government that drive many such transitions.

How do you convince governments that this is a priority?

I should note that here in the United States, there are some huge disconnects between the conservation community and the livestock sector. We see a long history of conflict, for example, out in Yellowstone and the Greater Yellowstone region- there are disease-related conflicts between livestock agriculture and the conservation of bison and elk. We find that in many places, all over the world, ministries of environment and ministries of agriculture often have very poor communication with each other. There are, of course, some exceptions, but in many places where we work, we find one of the most important things we can do is to help these different sectors to start communicating within a given country. It’s important to remember that the vision for TFCAs has been driven largely by conservationists, by those who ultimately relate to an environmental ministry. As I said, communication between conservationists and the agriculture sector has not always been good, so only recently (now that the TFCA movement is gaining momentum and being taken more seriously), is the agriculture sector starting to realize that this is something that they also need to start paying attention to. We are interested in trying to facilitate some critical discussions, our theory being that if the various stakeholders all want to get this right then they need to start talking about their respective interests. And it takes time to get some of the old histories set aside so that these sectors can talk about their differences. It’s become very clear that there are very basic conflicts between the vision for the creation of TFCAs and current livestock agriculture policy, and now is the time to get things resolved constructively in the interest of sustainable development and conservation success.

The AHEAD (Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development) Program works at the wildlife / livestock / human interface and strives to catalyze win-win opportunities related to food security, biodiversity conservation, poverty alleviation and enhanced livelihood diversification- all of which enhance resilience in the face of climate change.

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