The “Communal Areas Management Programme for Indigenous Resources” - CAMPFIRE - was the first of a new generation of concept wildlfe conservation projects. The context into which it was born, in Zimbabwe in 1989, is interesting because it is typical of much of postcolonial Africa. And the fierce opposition it has faced represents a new form of colonialism - that of western moral sentimentality.

Under colonial rule, indigenous people had been banned from hunting the wild animals on which for generations they had depended for food, clothing, tools and ritual practices. The result was that, where once they had lived in harmony with wildlife, they had become subsistence farmers and regarded it as a nuisance. It destroyed their food crops, raided livestock and threatened their safety. And at that time they received no compensatory benefit to sweeten the pill. There was also widespread resentment that others, mainly safari tourists and big-game hunters, had taken over what they regarded as their wildlife and were exploiting it for their own financial gain.

It is perhaps little wonder therefore that poaching became rife. As numbers plummeted, colonial overseers were replaced by conservationists and tour operators. These saw the exclusion of indigenous people from the new National Parks and the deployment of armed rangers as the only answer to the decline in species. Tribespeople were shipped out from their ancestral territories en masse and forbidden to return. But growing populations, poor agricultural practices, and intermittent droughts began to put pressure on lands bordering the National Parks to which local people had been banished. More land was needed for them to cultivate.

By the 1980s, expanding cultivation and poaching had become two of the biggest problems facing wildlife in Africa. Valiant game rangers, always far too few in number, fought a running war against poachers entering the parks to hunt valuable ivory, rhino horn and bushmeat. It was a losing struggle. Wildlife numbers went into a steep downward spiral. Another solution was sorely needed. With inspired inputs from ecologists, economists and sociologists alike, thus it was that CAMPFIRE came to into being.

CAMPFIRE’s remit was to bring wildlife and local people back together again, to put them on the same side once more. By involving rural communities in conservation and sustainable development the hope was to alleviate poverty and protect wildlife all in one. The plan was to harvest natural resources for profit, not least by tapping into the lucrative international market for game hunting. Foreign hunters have long been prepared to pay substantial sums to hunt elephant, buffalo, giraffe, lion, kudu and other wild animals, and soon over 60% of CAMPFIRE profits were being derived from elephant hunts alone. The new inflow of funds brought schools, power, water and roads to the poorest Zimbabweans. There were other benefits, for example the sale of excess animal stocks to national parks, and the sustainable harvesting of natural resources. Tourism was another important element.

This imaginative project was for a time well supported by international charities. For example, USAID, the primary American conduit for Third World project funding, was a leading contributor. But USAID became infiltrated by animal rights pressure groups whose campaigns bore an undue influence on policy. Despite CAMPFIRE’s evident benefits they remained vehemently opposed to all forms of hunting, unmoved by the argument that hunting had always been a fundamental and natural part of the African way of life. Although I would never even consider big-game trophy hunting myself, I would not begrudge it to others so long as it is performed in a lawful, humane, ecologically sensitive and socially inclusive manner with demonstrable environmental gain.

If wildlife populations are not damaged by carefully controlled game hunting (indeed those involved vigorously maintain the reverse is true, and the evidence supports it) it seems incongruous that affluent foreigners who don’t begin to understand the complexities of wildlife management should seek to impose subjective, sentimental and elitist Western morality on those who struggle to feed their families. Some animal rights campaigners like to point to Kenya as a paradigm for successful non-hunting conservation, yet anyone who knows Kenya knows that poverty, conflict, poaching and exclusion remain endemic there.

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh towards these activists. They overflow with that most noble of human sentiments – empathy. But when empathy towards individual animals overtakes empathy for fellow human beings and for wildlife in the round to such a degree that they actively obstruct constructive programmes that clearly benefit both, then perhaps they need to re-examine both their consciences and their philosophy. If they had their way everywhere they would surely preside over the destruction of our great wildernesses and their wildlife.

CAMPFIRE was  perhaps the nearest you could come to an example of a socially responsible commercial project for wildlife conservation. It was also hugely successful in its main aim – to re-engage local people with their wildlife. As revenues were distributed, local people soon began to view wildlife in a different way, as a result of which poaching levels plunged.

Yet in 2000, all outside aid to CAMPFIRE ceased and the project was on its own. But the problems that later arose were not from lack of funds, for it had by then generated substantial commercial revenues. Instead they were political. A combination of the ending of the charities’ oversight of accounting practices and spiralling political turmoil in Zimbabwe resulted in the corrupt inveigling of revenues by local chiefs and their comrades. Democratic processes were subsequently undermined; payments to local communities fell to pitiful levels, further diluted by opportunist incomers joining the bandwagon to milk the revenues.

Nevertheless, while CAMPFIRE’s political structure was in disarray, many of the pre-2000 benefits, such as reduced poaching and better resource use, seem to have become engrained in local behaviour – for the time being at least. Ongoing hunting revenues also ensure close attention is still paid to conserving trophy game species’ numbers. Despite the hiatus, CAMPFIRE’s benign influence was never in doubt. At independence from Britain in 1980, just 12% of Zimbabwe’s land was devoted to wildlife management, all of it in state-managed protected areas. But since the establishment of CAMPFIRE this has increased to 33% through the inclusion of communal lands and private conservancies. The principle of community conservation thus remains intact.

Functioning as it did pre-2000, CAMPFIRE’s credentials within the local economic ecosystem were not in doubt; in fact they were classical. In effect the system nurtures economic species, among them hunters, tour organisers, conservationists and, most importantly, local people. They promoted the welfare of ecosystems and wildlife for the most pressing and dependable of reasons – economic and social benefit.

Hunting holds an extra-special place in conservation. This is because you can breed many kinds of animals for the table in controlled farm environments, but you cannot do so for hunting. For that, animals need not only to be wild, but also to inhabit wild places. Therefore hunting encourages the conservation of wilderness and wildlife together, and leaves great tracts of land virtually undisturbed. In fact, hunting safari parks in South Africa have resulted in huge areas of land being “re-wilded” – that is, turned from farmland back into natural wilderness. This is to the benefit not only of the large species, but to the tens of thousands of others, of all types and sizes, that have been able to recolonise their old habitats after centuries of exclusion. It is truly a win-win situation.

This is not to suggest for a moment that there should be a hunting free- for-all; just sensitive cull-hunting programmes like those that have operated successfully on Scottish sporting estates and elsewhere for centuries – for the benefit of the species for which it is in everyone’s interests to conserve. Regulated hunting needs to be carried out only under licence as part of a legitimate conservation programme monitored by conservationists and run by experienced personnel. Done in this benevolent way, more rural Africans will be given the opportunity to re-engage with their priceless heritage in a constructive and mutually beneficial way, producing a potentially rich and productive symbiotic relationship that could stabilise the loss of land and wildlife, and endure long into the future.

CAMPFIRE is once again thriving. Along with its undoubted success in wildlife conservation it has enhanced the communities’ sense of ownership of their natural resources. It claims that it “has a combined 2.4 million beneficiaries, made up of 200,000 households that actively participate in the programme, and another 600,000 households that benefit indirectly from social services and infrastructure supported by CAMPFIRE income within districts”. These successes are surely ample testimony to the benefits of its model.