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Oak’s Environment Programme’s new five-year strategy: Natural Security

Environment Programme / Programme news / Natural Security

Alexandra Kennaugh, Oak’s head of Wildlife Conservation & Trade Sub-programme, has witnessed the power of working with local communities to protect wildlife. “Too often, traditional approaches to conservation have meant isolating communities from the lands that nourish them and that they call home. As a result, too many initiatives end up addressing symptoms of a system failure or, worse, maintaining the broken system rather than addressing its root causes. We take a different approach.” We spoke to Alex as part of a four-part series about Oak’s new five-year strategy.  

In Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park, elephant conservation is going well. Almost too well. The park, the name of which translates as “The Place of Elephants”, has one of the greatest concentration of elephants in Southern Africa. Once the elephants learned that poachers are not active in the park, they stay within the park borders, leading to numbers that are beginning to stress the area’s ecological ability to support them. The answer is simple: more safe space, so the elephants can move safely outside of the park.   

In response to this need, we have been supporting conservation partners and community areas surrounding protected areas to nurture goodwill toward wildlife and wild spaces. While not conventional conservation support, we provide funding for employment training, gender equity, and other programmes that help make the community surrounding the park stronger, healthier, and less desperate to exploit the economic avenue of poaching. In addition, the park also fosters a more supportive approach to enforcing anti-poaching laws. Ultimately, this approach brings together the needs of the people and the needs of the elephants.  

“Now, when cattle rustlers use the park paths to steal community cows, the security units help retrieve the cattle and pursue the criminals,” says Alex. “And, women’s excursions into protected areas to gather traditional medicinal plants is no longer an infringement but organised and safer, protecting the women and the resources. This creates a mutually supportive environment between local people and wild spaces. It is all about being more aware of how well-meaning efforts to protect endangered species can be exclusive, disruptive, and destructive of social systems. We want to revive the ways that people and endangered species coexist, without marginalising communities, which ultimately make efforts more durable and effective.” 
A major approach at the heart of our new five-year strategy is to support local not-for-profit organisations and efforts that help communities thrive around the areas needing protection. Ultimately, we want to support communities to protect their own natural wealth from exploitation – be it rhinos or elephants or the rich biodiversity of the landscape. The model at work in Zimbabwe is the same as that in the Pacific, where we are funding efforts to protect coastal fisheries from distant water fleets. This work ensures that local and Indigenous small-scale fisheries flourish. The model is also at work in our support to urban not-for-profit organisations to create liveable cities with reduced pollution, less CO2 emissions, and food choices that are healthier, more just, and sustainable.  

In other areas in Africa we aim to improve wildlife protection, food security, and economic development by supporting commercial-leaning projects within protected areas. “For example, in one World Heritage Site we support an agricultural project where communities and a conservation organisation are joint shareholders,” says Alex. “This means the costs of the conservation organisation will be funded by crops sold in local groceries which have been grown by newly trained community members, who received salaries and equity. And, the croplands create a protective corridor within the wilderness areas which will connect the rhino orphanage with an area where the rhinos will eventually be rewilded.” 

“Really it’s about replacing the idea of stakeholders with the idea of shareholders,” says Alex.  “We are creating social and economic opportunities that benefit communities and are attached to the protection of wildlife.” 

This is what we mean by “living landscapes”, the idea that we can co-create these incredibly resilient networks of people able to deter exploitation and to safeguard wildlife and wild spaces. We believe that our partners can connect networks working for justice and equity with those focused on conservation and wildlife. They can promote new thinking among funders and decision-makers about conservation projects that do not isolate wildlife and wild places from the people who live in and around them.   

For all its challenges, 2020 has shown us the inseparable link between wildlife and people. As the world starts to build back better, there is an unprecedented opportunity at the regional levels to bring together conservation, health, and rural development interventions with financial resources. This will help broaden the coalition of actors working to transform our relationship to nature.  

And, what about those elephants in the Gonarezhou National Park? We are supporting the expansion of the programme into new areas and new countries to improve their ability to range. And not too soon – they are about to have some new neighbours. For the first time in five decades, rhinos are being reintroduced into the park. With the full support and protection of both the security units and the communities living and benefitting alongside.