The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa

By Garland, Elizabeth | African Studies Review, December 2008 | Go to article overview

The Elephant in the Room: Confronting the Colonial Character of Wildlife Conservation in Africa


Garland, Elizabeth, African Studies Review


Abstract:

This article draws attention to the structural inequalities that characterize the position of Africans within the global symbolic and political economies of African wildlife conservation, and theorizes these inequalities in ways that move beyond the critique of conservation as simply a colonial or neocolonial imposition. Conceptualizing wildlife conservation in Africa as a mode of global capitalist production, the article argues both for broadening the analytic lens through which the effects of conservation on Africa are assessed, and for redressing the global power dynamics that currently surround the protection of African wild animals.

In the Euro-American West, the continent of Africa has long been associated with iconic wild animals. China may have its pandas, India its tigers, the Amazon its jaguars and anacondas, North America its bison, wolves, and bears. But Africa has lions and leopards, gorillas and chimpanzees, elephants, rhinos, hippos, ostrich, zebra, giraffe, and more! Not only is the continent home to more large, charismatic species than other regions of the globe, but its animals are also highly familiar to Western people, who are exposed to them in the form of toys, visual media, and the display of live creatures in zoological parks, often from early childhood on.

The ubiquity of African animals in Western daily life itself derives from the dialectical history of European exploration and colonization of the continent, processes through which Africa came to figure as an important space of nature in an emerging Western imaginary-a wild and natural backdrop against which people of European descent could define themselves as belonging to a civilized, specifically Western, world (see esp. Comaroff & Comaroff 1991; Curtin 1964; Mudimbe 1994). Over time, the role of African animals in this imaginary has become so naturalized, so unremarkable, that today an American parent might well point out a lion in a zoo, or put a child to bed in pajamas covered in cartoon hippos, without consciously associating either with Africa, or with the West's historic relation to Africa. Indeed, as globalization has conveyed dimensions of the "Western" imaginary far beyond the bounds of Europe and North America, animals like lions and hippos have become part of the natural symbolic repertoire of people around the world, their existence taken for granted as the birthright of people everywhere.

It is in Africa, however, that wild African animals actually live, and on African shoulders that the primary responsibility for maintaining this "global" inheritance falls. The burden that this responsibility represents is substantial, and the terms on which it is undertaken are seldom, if ever, determined by African people or nations alone. On the contrary, African actors participate in the provision of wildlife to the world from a global vantage point deeply compromised by the continent's history of colonization and association with nature in Western systems of thought.

In this essay, I draw attention to the structural inequalities that characterize the position of African people within the global symbolic and political economies of African wildlife conservation, and theorize these inequalities in ways that move beyond the critique of conservation as simply a colonial or neocolonial imposition on the continent (e.g., Neumann 1998). I begin by recounting two recent true stories that evoke the transnational power dynamics characteristic of the contemporary African conservation field. I then argue that these dynamics may be understood by conceptualizing wildlife conservation in Africa as foremost a productive process, a means of appropriating the value of African nature, and of transforming it into capital with the capacity to circulate and generate further value at the global level. Finally, I suggest some ethnographic directions in which formulating conservation in this way might lead, and point to the potential of such an approach to help re-imagine, and possibly even begin to reconfigure, the global power dynamics that currently surround the conservation of African wild animals. …

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