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’You can’t buy conservation,’ suggests survey of Africa’s rain forest parks


Economic assistance to areas surrounding Africa’s rain forest parks does not, as currently applied, contribute to their health, suggests an extensive survey of park scientists and managers. Rather, the survey found the most successful parks are those with public support and strong law enforcement. The survey’s authors also said that their findings indicate that careful ecological and compliance monitoring and stable long-term funding are key to park success.

The survey involved sending questionnaires to scientists and park managers, and gathering satellite imagery and other data on the parks. It will be published in the May 2005 issue of the journal Biological Conservation and was posted online in December 2004.

Authors of the paper were Thomas Struhsaker, Paul Struhsaker and Kirstin Siex. Thomas Struhsaker is a research scientist in Duke University’s Department of Biological Anthropology and Anatomy; his brother Paul is a marine biologist, biostatistician, and private consultant based in Quebec; Siex is at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. The study was supported by the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science of Conservation International.

The researchers included data on 16 African parks and wildlife preserves obtained from 36 scientists and managers, who collectively had 567 years of experience in conservation and park management.

"We undertook the survey because, although there had been many financial audits of such parks, no one had ever audited how successful their strategies are," said Struhsaker. "Our approach was not the ideal way to conduct this study, but it was the only realistic approach given limitations in time and money. To do this study properly would take a least a decade and millions of dollars.

"However, this study does reveal what very knowledgeable people with extensive field experience think about the factors that contribute to park success," he said. "We hope these initial findings will generate more studies and highlight the complex issues facing these parks."

According to Thomas Struhsaker, many of the findings were expected. "It was not surprising that the parks that tended to be most successful were the large parks that were relatively inaccessible, and had low human population densities around them," he said.

However, Struhsaker said, the researchers were surprised by the importance of non-economic factors in park success.

"We found that a positive public attitude toward the parks -- having good community relations -- was one of the strongest indicators of park success," he said. However, said Struhsaker, their data did not suggest a single strategy for engendering such public support. For example, the researchers did not find a relationship between public education and park success, although he emphasized that this finding by no means indicates that public education is not important or effective.

"The lack of correlation between public education and park success could arise because of the wide variation in public education efforts and even the lack of a consistent definition of public education," he said. Furthermore, this lack of correlation may also reflect the very long time-lag between the initiation of conservation education and actual changes in behavior and attitudes, Struhsaker said. The effects of conservation education might also be overwhelmed by one or more of the many variables affecting park success, such as massive immigration and social instability, he said.

The researchers did find that investing in the local economy was not correlated with park success. "You can’t buy conservation," said Struhsaker. "Our evidence was contrary to beliefs expressed by such organizations as the World Bank -- that investment in economic development around parks aids in their success.

"For example, subsidizing agriculture around the parks generates income, but it also attracts more people, exacerbating the problems in the park," said Struhsaker. "The cost of such subsidy always goes up, because it’s in the interest of those living near the park to bid up the price of their support, thereby threatening the integrity of the park." Nor is ecotourism the answer for park preservation, said Struhsaker, since unregulated ecotourism can stress park ecology as much as can economic development.

"Rather than throwing money into development, our data indicate that greater park success arises from treating local people as good neighbors and partners in park conservation and making it clear that it’s the park managers’ job to protect the park," he said.

Such protection entails law enforcement strategies that must adapt to the specific threats to each park," said Struhsaker. Thus, they may range from meetings with local communities for information exchange and dialog to military-style operations against well-armed poachers who are also murderers.

"While we found that law enforcement was one important short-term solution, it isn’t the ultimate answer to the complex problems of preserving the parks," said Struhsaker. "There must be a combination of efforts on different time-scales -- including limiting the population around the park, public education and eliciting public support for the parks. And there is definitely no one-size-fits-all solution for all parks."

The survey findings indicate that over the long-term, investment in ecological monitoring programs and in permanent trust funds are critical to park success, said Struhsaker. And importantly, he said, provision of such funds must be contingent on independent performance monitoring and accountability, to avoid wasting money and encouraging corruption.

"Monitoring programs should include not only the plants and animals, but also the impact of humans on the park and the attitudes of people toward the park. It is only through such monitoring programs that one can objectively evaluate the success of the park and the various management strategies being employed said Struhsaker.

Dennis Meredith | EurekAlert!
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