David Banks is Director of The Nature Conservancy's Africa Program. He is responsible for setting priorities, developing strategies and taking action to conserve important places for wildlife and plants in Africa. Previously, Banks was the State Director for The Nature Conservancy in Alaska. He was responsible for all actions of the Alaska Chapter and works closely with other senior managers to implement global strategies. David started as an intern with The Nature Conservancy in Indiana and has served in various conservation planning, science and land management jobs with the Conservancy for the last fourteen years. Prior to his career with the Conservancy, he worked for community forestry programs in the Midwest, completed a Masters degree in Public Administration and Natural Resource Management at Indiana University, and served for two years in Ghana as a Peace Corps volunteer working to restore forests in the West African Sahel.
David, most Americans are aware of the work of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in the U.S., but many are unaware yet that TNC has a fairly new program dedicated to Africa. Please tell us how the Africa Program got started.
The program was started in 2006 after TNC undertook a global assessment study a year before and realized that you can’t make a global impact in conservation without addressing the conservation issues in Africa. At first, the program was designed to primarily invest in local African partners on a small scale. For about 6 months, I was the only one on the staff (though I was assisted by many from other areas of TNC), and the program supported local partners such as the Jane Goodall Institute, African Wildlife Foundation, Save the Rhino Trust - Namibia, Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Northern Rangelands Trust and The Green Belt Movement. Since then, the scale of the program has grown significantly along with the number of staff and the dedication of TNC’s resources.
There are many NGOs large and small dedicated to African conservation. In a nutshell, how does TNC’s Africa Program differ?
I think we are different in that we are both large and small. The Africa Program is really an entrepreneurial program which seeks to foster local level, grass roots conservation movement; yet, with TNC’s global presence and size, we are able to influence policy matters and such that would be impossible for a small organization to tackle. We also bring expertise in rangeland, marine and fresh water conservation. We bring years of experience in structuring transactions that can be useful in, among other things, land conservation deals and securing long-term funding from institutions. Finally, we are unique in that we are currently 95% funded by private donors (there is quite a bit of “public” funding of NGOs by the likes of US AID, the World Bank and other sovereign entities). While that percentage is likely to go down in the future as the program grows, we are still by and large funded by private individuals and foundations.
What are TNC’s focus areas in Africa currently?
The key focus areas so far have been northern Kenya, Zambia (around Lower Zambezi and Kafue), Namibia (the Kunene region), northern coastal Mozambique and western Tanzania. Please do keep in mind, we just got started in Africa, so most of our projects are in infancy. Of these, I would say our program in northern Kenya is the most developed.
Please tell us more then about TNC’s involvement in northern Kenya.
In northern Kenya, we have formed a partnership with Lewa Wildlife Conservancy and its sister organization, Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). The areas covered by the two organizations include the famous private ranch, Lewa, and a large swathe of dry savannah to the north inhabited primarily by pastoralists. The region has tremendous biodiversity and includes the Matthews Range, which is one of the very few important rain catchment forest areas in Kenya that is still left untouched. The mosaic of private ranches (including Lewa) in Laikipia, as well as NRT community conservancies, has created important wildlife corridors in northern Kenya where mobile animals such as elephants can freely roam. Lewa is the “nerve center” of the conservation activities in northern Kenya, and NRT is a group of conservancies that protect wildlife and the pastoralists’ way of life. Each conservancy is equipped with a security force (for the protection of both wildlife and people), a grazing committee,, health clinics and schools and may have ecotourism facilities that earn substantial funds for the community. NRT is one of the shining stars of conservation in not just Africa but the world. TNC is supporting NRT not just with funding but also with technical expertise.
Many others have echoed your sentiment about NRT. What is the secret behind its success?
At the end of the day, the conservancies formed by NRT are self-governed, and the work of NRT is beneficial to the people living in the communities. I think those are the key ingredients for success. Historically, northern Kenya, where most of NRT’s conservancies are based, has been troubled by banditry and fighting amongst various pastoralist tribes. The first thing NRT brought to these conservancies was security provided by community-hired scouts. In fact, NRT has an experienced “conflict resolution teams” that sort out cattle rustling or worse, violence. The security factor alone has people in these communities embracing NRT. Next came the policies regarding the use of the land. Where and when shall we let the livestock graze? Should we set aside land for wildlife and tourism? Where shall we have schools and clinics? These matters are all determined by a democratic process within each conservancy. The pastoralists there now feel safer, and they feel they are in charge of their own land/destiny. Some conservancies have been rewarded handsomely for setting aside some of their land for wildlife -- from significant tourism revenues which they never had before. This has diversified their income source, which historically has only been from livestock. It is a clear case of a win-win situation for humans and wildlife. It is our goal at TNC to “export” this type of community-based conservation to other parts of Africa.
So, in this case in northern Kenya, benefits to wildlife can be categorized almost as a byproduct of benefits to people?
Precisely, yes, in this case.
Do tell us about the benefits to wildlife in northern Kenya
Historically, a mosaic of private ranches in the Laikipia District of Kenya did a decent job of preserving wildlife movements, yet the whole system was still fragile with many ranches changing hands. Lewa helped found NRT in 2004 and started a couple of conservancies that helped secure the fragile corridors. Now, with the establishment of many conservancies later, wildlife can move uninhibited from Lewa, at the edge of the Laikipia plateau, all the way past Samburu National Reserve and beyond to the north. This is an important habitat for numerous iconic species such as elephant, lion, cheetah, etc. And of course, there is the endangered Grevy’s zebra, wild dog and rhino, which are holding their own and even thriving in this area. Lewa has one of the largest populations of rhinos in Kenya; Lewa and the NRT conservancies now host the majority of 2,000 or so Grevy’s zebras remaining in the wild; and the wild dog population in the area has recovered – no doubt due to habitat improvement and better tolerance by the pastoralists. Then there is an exciting new NRT conservancy called Ishaqbini, which is not in northern Kenya but more closer to the eastern coast. It is an entirely different habitat and holds the largest population of the critically endangered hirola. There are possibly only 300 or so hirolas left, and some 100 of them use the conservancy seasonally. Ishaqbini is a new project but an exciting one in which NRT is working with the local Kenyan Somali group to preserve the hirola and the unique habitat there.
TNC is involved in a major transaction involving the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Please tell us about that.
Lewa is a well-known private ranch of some 60,000 acre in size owned by the Craig family. It is not only a fantastic wilderness, but it is strategically important in that it is, as I mentioned, the” nerve center” for conservation in that much of the infrastructure for NRT exists there alongside, of course, the infrastructure for Lewa itself. With the future ownership structure of Lewa and the long-term security of the land ownership being uncertain, TNC is engaged in helping the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy purchase the land from the long-time owners, the Craig family. When the transaction is completed, Lewa will be a wildlife conservancy in Kenya owned and managed by a Kenyan NGO for the benefit of wildlife and the Kenyan people.
What’s going on in Zambia?
It has taken us some time to get situated there, but we will soon have a field office in Lusaka and a Zambia director. Our initial focus will be the area around Kafue National Park in southwestern Zambia. Kafue is one of the largest national parks in the world but has been largely neglected. Poaching and uncontrolled fires have ravaged the place, but incredibly the ecosystem is still intact. We would like to work with communities living around the park in order for them to better utilize their natural resources more efficiently and sustainably while managing the poaching and fire issues. We are already forging relationships with local partners there. Kafue contains important woodland and wetland habitat, and animal migrations from as far as northern Botswana, the Caprivi Strip of Namibia and western Zimbabwe have been documented. It is an area too important for us to ignore.
How does one, as you say, “export” models that work in northern Kenya to, for instance, Kafue, Zambia?
Kafue is different, of course. We are now talking about subsistence farmers on the park boundaries as opposed to pastoralists in northern Kenya. But the key ingredients are the same: sustainable utilization of resources and good governance. I will give you an example of what can be done. The woodlands inside and outside Kafue National Park are burned to a crisp every year. That’s not good for the people or the animals. Forestry products are a valuable natural resource for these communities. Certainly, uncontrolled fires are not helpful to maximizing sustainable forestry resources. An organized team of fire fighters, for example, would be beneficial to the environment both inside and outside the park, as well as provide employment for the locals. And it can all be done under community governance.
And your new backyard, Tanzania?
Yes, I moved to Arusha at the end of 2009 to open up our Africa Program headquarters. There are several interesting projects in Tanzania we are looking into. To date, we have worked with TANAPA, the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), Frankfurt Zoological Society and Tanzania Natural Resource Forum. At the moment, we are involved most heavily with JGI. The Gombe/Mahale region of western Tanzania has a wealth of forests and forest species in addition to the chimpanzees. We are looking at expanding the coverage of the conserved areas east and connecting it somehow with the vast miombo woodlands of the interior. Again, just like anywhere we work, the key will be working with the people in the communities. Lake Tanganyika is an intriguing project we are looking into. It is the longest and deepest lake in the world containing 17% of all fresh water. It also supports hundreds of freshwater fish species, making it one of the most diverse freshwater systems on the planet. Interestingly, the health of the forest that supports chimps is tied to the health of the lake fishery. If the protein source in the lake is depleted, the local communities will turn to the forest for food. So, helping local people protect fish also helps protect the forest and the chimps.
Poverty alleviation seems to be a catchy new phrase often used now in conservation. What is your view on how conservation and poverty alleviation relate?
Conservation is not the silver bullet for poverty alleviation. However, there are instances in which conservation and poverty alleviation intersect. A very tangible example may be communities that benefit financially from ecotourism. Another example might be, for instance, the coral triangle area in Indonesia, where better marine protection resulted in more and higher quality fish for the local fishermen. Many more examples exist. They are rarer than we would like, but they are thrilling to a conservationist when they occur. One philosophical thing I will say about this: we as humans tend to have a very condensed time scale. Things we don’t see during our lifetime don’t matter much to us. But in reality, life goes on beyond one’s lifetime, and there is no doubt in my mind that if we waste our natural resources, man will one day be much poorer altogether.
Please describe the team you have assembled in TNC’s Africa Program.
We have a small team of three based in Arusha, Tanzania. Two are working in Kenya with Lewa and NRT. We will shortly have an office in Lusaka, Zambia as I mentioned. In addition, we have a small support staff in Virginia, where TNC is headquartered. We are really a diverse group of people. Some of us have a scientific background. Some have experience in business and law. Importantly, we frequently draw on the expertise and help of 4,000 staff members of TNC. TNC has frequently seconded experts out to the field. We have begun to do some of that in the Africa Program.
How have you found operating out of Arusha, Tanzania?
I think it’s critically important that I am in Africa. It certainly gives me a great perspective to be on the ground. I can get a real sense of what is really going on in Tanzania, a better perspective on the rest of Africa and get to know the local perspective on things. The great thing about Arusha is that it really is the safari capital of the world, and one can find wilderness even just outside of the bustling city. The downside is that the communication infrastructure is sub-par.
What is your long-term goal for the Africa Program?
If I can dream a little, it would be that Africa one day won’t need TNC there anymore. I am not trying to say that every conservation project should be financially self-sustaining and therefore won’t need our help. No, that is not realistic. What I am trying to say is that I would like to see the Africans with their version of TNC taking care of their environment. Ultimately, it is up to the Africans to conserve their land, and that is why our focus is in scaling up and building capacity of our local partners. I would, in essence, be very happy to work myself out of my job.
Thank you, David.
The views expressed therein are solely those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of Safaritalk.
Edited by Game Warden, 21 September 2010 - 10:34 PM.