Thursday, August 14, 2014

To fence or not to fence, that is the question!

Conservation is the responsibility of the state, but Africa is a poor continent, and as a consequence conservation in Africa has unique challenges, as Governments can’t fulfill the role of funding the conservation efforts. National parks and reserves have to find a way to get an income to support their conservation efforts.

Tourism has the potential of creating funds, but not enough to cover all expenses. Non-governmental organizations such as WWF, IFAW and CI to name a few contribute immensely to the conservation effort, but still more funds are needed, which bring me to the controversial topic of utilization of natural resources by the local populations around conservation areas.

I am going to use a few examples I have encountered over the last couple of years, working in southern Africa.  South Africa is the only country where National Parks are totally fenced and this is in the process of changing, with the establishment of Trans Frontier Parks. The fence between Limpopo National Park in Mozambique and Kruger National Park was removed a few years ago to use an example. Fencing is an agricultural practice and once a Reserve or National Park is fenced, we have to manage it more intensely as we have curbed certain natural processes. Numbers of game can increase to numbers higher as the carrying capacity of the area. In times of drought water and food supplements has to be supplied as natural migration routes was blocked. This can have a negative impact on the vegetation, and to keep damage to the vegetation to a minimum we must start inhumane practices such as culling to control game numbers.

So what is the alternative? Will it be possible for humans and wildlife to coexist and to utilise the same resources? Prior to the arrival of Europeans on the Dark Continent this was the practice and did humans and wildlife indeed coexist. But we don’t live in Utopia anymore and alternative strategies are needed. 

Here are a few possible alternatives.  Kafue National Park in Zambia, 22 400 km² the second largest park in Africa is unfenced. Around the park is a buffer zone of 10 to 15 km wide where utilisation of resources are allowed by the local population. Hunting concessions are sold to professional hunting operators by ZAWA and the income created is used for conservation and for creating an infrastructure in the local population adjacent to the park. All meat from hunting goes to the local population, as well as some of the hunting fees. Tourist operators build lodges in the buffer zone which create jobs for the locals, as well as chances to sell curios and fresh produce to tourists and lodges.

Botswana, where wildlife and humans coexist to a certain extent.  Along the western side of the pan handle just above the Okavango Delta, humans and elephants coexist. Humans farm along the river and go through their daily tasks during the daylight hours and once the sun sets spend the evenings indoors. The elephants on the other hand spend their days, 20 – 30 km north of the river, and once the sun sets move down to the river and spend their evenings on the banks, drinking and foraging. They leave before sunset and move back along corridors between homesteads. There are some crop raids, but other methods to keep elephants out of fields such as chilly plant hedges around crop fields and the burning of chilly balls, (a mixture of elephant dung and chilly plants) are used.

So is there still space for fences in conservation?A recent publication in Biological Conservation: 176 (2014) 162-171, Fencing protected areas: A long-term assessment of the effects of reserve establishment and fencing on African mammalian diversity by Massey et al., in Aberdare National Park in Kenya. This study used long term data sets at two sites in the park collected over approximately 50 years. The two sites, Tree Tops on the perimeter, and The Ark away from the perimeter of the park. The park was partially fenced in 1991 enclosing the two study sites.They looked on the effect the fence had on wildlife populations. Their findings are very interesting, initially the fence had a positive effect on wildlife, and game numbers increased at Treetops. Although there was fluctuations on species richness at both sites, the Ark was much more stable during the study. Comparing the total mammalian biomass at both sites, the same pattern was seen, a decline at Treetops and stability at The Ark. The fence created an edge effect that had a negative impact on game numbers, species richness, on the other hand, at the Ark, away from the fence it was stable throughout the study. The fence initially kept the impact inside the park to a minimum, and hence game numbers increased, but due to a lack of maintenance and illegal entrance,the local human population encroached into the protected area.This led to illegal practices such as logging, the making of charcoal, and cattle grazing which had a negative impact on game numbers and species richness, proof that a fence is only successful in protecting wildlife if managed properly.

Private Game Reserves with potentially dangerous animals such as lion and elephant in highly populated regions that are focused on the tourist market, must obviously be fenced. This is to keep the danger away from the local population and to protect the livestock of their neighbors. After all small reserves are managed intensely, and can be treated as an“agricultural” practice in the region, with fence maintenance as a priority.


Another method might be to fence in the people in and to give wildlife the freedom of movement. The farmers at Panamatenga just south of Chobe National Park have done that. The whole farming area is fenced in with an electric fence and the wildlife can move around the farmland. Ask anybody who have ever been to Kasane in northern Botswana, and they will tell you, the elephants move through town at night, this is a prime example that humans and wildlife can coexist, we just have to adapt our behaviour slightly. After all it is just good manners to be considerate to your neighbors habits and needs.
To conclude, fences have a role to play in conservation. In areas of conflict between wildlife and humans, fences can form a barrier protecting humans from potential danger and at the same time protect conservation areas from human impact.
Let us rather try to find ways to move away from fencing,especially in larger reserves and National parks,  fences are expensive and difficult to maintain,  and sometimes not successful in protecting wildlife and humans alike. Mozambicans are allowed to stay within the boundaries of their  National Parks and Reserves, maybe that is something to look at, as long as there is not an over utilisation of resources, we can all live in harmony, maybe Utopia once again!

Jo Fourie
Oceans Research
Wildlife Research Unit

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