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‘Helicopter science’ must get the chop

Who’s pulling the strings behind Africa’s conservation narrative and who should be?
Host a panel discussion featuring a fire ecologist, a sangoma/ ethno-ecologist, a Radio 702 host and a co-founder of Africa Parks and the debate is sure to get sparky.

Sangoma and ethno-ecologist Nolwazi Mbongwa would love to give the chop to “helicopter science”. She derides the phenomenon that sees cash-flush overseas researchers fly into developing countries, grab data and hurry home to analyse and publish without really involving locals.

She argues that context is king, that research must be grounded in a commitment to the communities at the heart of any study, that their proper consent is vital and that researchers must be accountable for the long haul.

“Conservation is not a colonist concept. It always existed in Africa,” says Mbongwa, a University of Cape Town PhD candidate who is studying wildlife use among muthi traders and traditional healers.

Mbongwa was among four panellists at a discussion entitled “Conservation – Who owns the conversation?” during the recent 11th Oppenheimer Research Conference.

The other panellists were Peter Fearnhead, the CEO and co-founder of African Parks, Radio 702 host andCarte Blanche presenter, Bongani Bingwa, and fire ecologist and Associate Professor at the University of Witwatersrand Sally Archibald.

The pipers

So, who does own conversation, or at any rate, control the narrative around conservation in Africa? And what about the foreign funders of many parks and other conservation efforts on the continent? Are the pipers from Europe, America and elsewhere calling the tune?

Journalist Bingwa certainly thinks so and says the muted voice of African researchers and environmentalists must be urgently addressed.

He pointed out that less than 1% of top climate research authors are based in Africa and that less than 1% of African media coverage was about climate change.

This dearth of African science informing decision-making, and the way foreign funding nudge the direction of African research, makes him cynical about the continent’s conservation narrative. 

“If the money comes from the Global North, it is already informed by certain perspectives,” he said. 

Hoodwinked media

Bingwa warned of governments and corporations hoodwinking the media and implored African journalists “to follow the money” when unravelling the complexities beneath conservation and climate stories.

“Where is that money going? Who controls it? Who makes sure that it does what it is meant to? Who funds the NGOs? Who funds the politicians? Who funds the positions that the lobbyists are taking?” he asked

He also stressed the value of “engaging with lived experiences of communities”.

He said that as a television and radio broadcaster for many years, firstly as part of Carte Blanche’s investigative journalism team, he had trudged in E. coli infested rivers, chased rhino poachers, stood on threatened dunes.

Most importantly, he said, he had interacted with people who felt powerless and voiceless when confronted by with “the machinations of big government, aligned, with corporate interests” which often sought to actively divide people in local communities.

He said if people in these poorer many communities had a voice, “they would stand boldly and use that often-used social political slogan: ‘Nothing about us, without us’’.”

Social licence

African Parks CEO Fearnhead drove home the well-known fact that Africa contributes the least to global warming yet will be hardest hit by it.

African Parks manages 22 national parks across 12 African countries.  Most of the organisation’s $120-million in annual funding pours in from the Global North, as is the case with many other conservation initiatives throughout Africa. 

But he said African Parks’ dealings with its foreign funders had been positive. The funders and the governments of the conservation projects they subsidised were equal partners in negotiations and held each other accountable, he said.

Though some funders felt they’d be able to influence policy, Fearnhead said it was the “sovereign government’s sovereign right, to be able to determine policy on behalf of their population”.

 At African Parks, he said, the differences between governments and local people are a far bigger issue than differences across the North–South divide.

“Even if you’ve got the government on your side, if you’re not working with local people and getting their support for what you’re doing, you haven’t got a hope of succeeding in the long-run anyway,” Fearnhead said. 

He stressed the organisation’s “social licence” to operate came from local people, and that African Parks would walk away from a partnership where the interests of the community were not being looked after, he said. 

‘Helicopter science’ must get the chop
‘Who owns the conversation about conservation?’ is the question put to a panel of experts by Polly Carr, CEO of Oppenheimer Generations Custodian, at the 11th Oppenheimer Research Conference (Photo: Supplied)

‘Consensus science’ setbacks

And in the academic world? Is there a North-South divide?

“There’s a bit of tension among European and African scientists,” said Prof Archibald.

The fire ecologist related how she and 20 other scientists, conservation managers and people working in carbon offset programs across Africa had recently lost a battle to get their voices heard on savannah fire management.

This was after a One Earth research paper had implied that all conservation areas in Africa were degraded. It concluded that changing the fire regime to early season burning would restore them.

This paper, she said, showed “a shocking lack of understanding of ecological processes” in Africa and “dismissed entirely” African research and ideas about fire.

Archibald said burning at different times of year was effective for various and widely different conservation objectives, including managing poaching, bush encroachment, and promoting biodiversity.

For example, late-season burning was effective at controlling disease-carrying ticks and had allowed buffalo populations to be restored in the Ngorongoro Crater.

Archibald said that when she and her colleagues challenged One Earth’s paper, their rebuttal was not published because “they (One Earth) like to publish consensus science, and we couldn’t come to a point of consensus with the authors.”

“So, the state at the moment is that their paper is the message out there that everyone is hearing,” said Archibald. This was despite objections from more than 20 scientists, and conservation officials and people who are working in carbon offset programmes across the continent.”

“This is an example where I feel there’s a huge divergence, and it does have important conservation and funding implications,” added Archibald.


Mbongwa said Africa was flooded with requests to set up carbon offset projects (which reduce emissions to make up for emissions that occur elsewhere).

This was largely because it’s much cheaper to set them up in Africa than in other parts of the world.

But projects, set up by corporates and based largely on financial incentives, “solve a problem by creating a problem,” sometimes coming at the expense of people being removed from their land for conservation.

Most of these projects failed, while those that involved people in the communities survived, said Mbongwa.

This was because “there is an identity associated with land, with how people use resources”.

“So, if the only thing you come to show to the people is money, the moment that money runs out, they will not care about the project,” she said.

She cited as an example South African conservation and social nursery projects that had hoped to save over-harvested medicinal plants, but had “completely failed”. This was because they were “pumping money into projects” without properly understanding the circumstances of the communities.

Mbongwa reminded the conference how, after the Kruger National Park hired rangers at great cost to guard heavily poached pepper-bark trees (Warburgia salutaris), social ecologist Dr Louise Swemmer had stepped in. 

Swemmer figured out how people living near the park used pepper-bark and got the park’s nurseries to grow the sought-after tree. 

Propagated plants were given to traditional healers at workshops and this became a conservation success story, helping South Africa’s most threatened tree go from endangered to vulnerable status.

Researchers, she concluded, need to appreciate that people living near parks often have an intimate understanding of conservation from a life immersed in nature and deep generational expertise. 

“We need to make space to learn from Africa’s oldest conservationists, rather than go into communities and educate them on things we learnt in books,” she said. 

Credit: Article commissioned by Jive Media Africa, strategic media partner of OGRC.

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