THE BIG CONSERVATION LIE – The Untold Story of Wildlife Conservation in Kenya

Volume 14, Issue 2  | 
Published 27/10/2017

Author: John Mbaria and Mordecai Ogada
: Lens & Pens Publishing LLC Auburn WA USA 2017
Reviewer: Diana Lee-Smith

I wish the title had been ‘The Big White Conservation Lie’ for that would have been more apt. This book raises fundamental questions about the philosophical basis of conservation, with Kenya as the case study. It also answers those questions, in a scatter-gun tour de force of empirical observation and righteous professional anger. Although the book has flaws, which I shall mention later, it is essentially right in its argument that the basis on which Kenyan conservation has been thought about should be ditched. I would go further and say we should ditch the way we have thought about conservation, period.

Essentially, conservation thinking is trapped by its roots in western colonialism and the adventure of white people exploring Africa. It is time for a change. Not least, because the way western thought romanticises Africa also destroys African ways of thinking and acting. Unless this domination of ideas changes, there is a danger of driving those African ways of thinking into oblivion under the guise of an approved western-oriented education system, not to mention a prolific literature, both academic and popular, plus wildlife campaigns and hype.

The book is thus very timely, and should be taken extremely seriously by policy-makers, the education system and media in Kenya. Kenyan children should not continue growing up under the assumption that they are the bad guys who do not understand the value of wildlife, and buying into the Big Conservation Lie that only well-intentioned white people can tell them what to think and do about conserving it. Mbaria and Ogada have put their feet aggressively in the door and their argument must be listened to, and form the basis of Kenya’s future conservation work.

As they state, it is simply a lie that Kenyan people have been living for centuries in a state of enmity to wildlife and the environment and would have exterminated and destroyed both were it not for western conservationism. As the authors point out, the very existence of that wildlife and environment demonstrates the truth. People living among them have deep-rooted value systems and customs that conserve. In fact, they relate to wildlife and the environment in ways that are much more sophisticated than the hit-and-run approach of western conservationists that are detailed in this book. The latest of these is the ‘value’ system based on the economic value of tourism, neatly exposed by empirical data and reasoning by Mbaria and Ogada.

The book is however a patch-work of ideas and contributions from the two different authors and this shows up in a few inconsistencies, not of philosophical and historical argument but of their varying positions in railing against individual white people. On the whole I am with them, especially when it comes to some historical monstrosities such as George and Joy Adamson. Less so when it comes to people such as Richard Leakey and David Western; the former is definitely more than the high-school drop-out they portray, and the latter is one of the first who put forward the argument they are making, in academic and policy settings.  And they themselves acknowledge the stature of and contributions made by Daphne Sheldrick. So what if Leakey dropped out of school? He has made contributions to Kenya through creative thinking and action on a number of fronts.

This is not to say that Mbaria and Ogada are wrong to criticise the ethos driving the anti-poaching campaigns and the way they are sold outside Africa of which Leakey is emblematic, just to plead for some respect and balance when taking on specific people. Serious ecologists and wildlife scholars such as Western and later Joyce Poole should not be dismissed out-of-hand because they are white. They do not belong in the same boat as the Adamsons and Theodore Roosevelt. Yet Mbaria’s and Ogada’s criticisms of campaigners and writers such as Mike Norton Griffiths and later Paula Kahumba are valid based on their reasoning, in serious logical and scientific terms.

Above all, the ethos driving the book’s analysis is correct and must be taken seriously. This includes their prescription for moving forward also, in that conservation must be re-thought on African principles and dealt with on a spatial planning basis. Mbaria is himself a spatial planner. It is a job for each Kenyan county, to be handled by the people in those counties. It is simply wrong for Kenya to continue living by the myth of the great white saviour conservationist. Kenya should not allow the white hunter lobby to prevail on its logic of bigger bucks from allowing foreign hunters, while continuing to exclude indigenous groups from planning wildlife conservation including utilization.

Last modified on Monday, 30 October 2017 20:24

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