2018 marked a significant personal milestone: 20 years working in African conservation. The lessons from my early days in Tanzania have shaped everything I’ve tried to do since I first landed in the region back in 1998. As a conservation rookie fresh out of university it was my experiences with grassroots activists and organizations that helped me quickly understand that effective conservation must be led by local communities that live on the land and alongside wildlife. And key to this, are locally-rooted organizations that are a part and parcel of their communities and society.
I was fortunate to spend the first half of 2018 on an extended visit back in Africa, visiting both familiar landscapes in northern Tanzania, and new sites in northern Kenya, the Maasai Mara, and Zambia’s Luangwa Valley, where Maliasili partners are now doing trail-blazing conservation work on a rapidly growing scale.
Spending this time in the field with our partners was an irreplaceable opportunity to see how they are providing leadership and innovation across the region. It was gratifying to visit areas in Tanzania where I first worked and to see that, despite many changes and growing challenges from expanding human populations and infrastructure development, there are often more elephant, giraffe, and zebra on community lands in key sites than there were 20 years ago. I spent time in the bush with the Ujamaa Community Resource Team, one of Tanzania’s most accomplished grassroots organizations, who I first met in 1999 when they were a small team of activists with one barely-functional Land Rover. Today they work with over 80 communities across much of northern Tanzania, have helped communities secure legal rights to over 700,000 hectares of savannah rangelands and forests, and have an annual operating budget well north of $1 million. Maliasili has played a key role in helping UCRT become a stronger and more effective organization through our long-term support, ultimately helping to scale up UCRT’s work in this manner.
I also camped out near Mount Kilimanjaro with Damian Bell, the founder of Honeyguide, which is now Tanzania’s leader in supporting community-run Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), and trying to make these conservation entities effective and sustainable. Communities in these areas are now earning more revenue from wildlife, poaching levels are very low (or zero, in the case of elephants), and local management capacity is increasing thanks to Honeyguide’s creative, community-oriented approaches. The areas where Honeyguide works are now models for other community conservation initiatives in Tanzania, where there is a huge need for effective, locally-led models such as this.
Over the past several years Maliasili has helped Honeyguide focus their strategy, re-organize internal staffing, build new partnerships, upgrade their external communications and fundraising approaches, and strengthen their leadership team. In 2018, we doubled down with our support to help Honeyguide manage a series of funding challenges and develop new partnerships; a few months after camping with Damian in northern Tanzania, we were fundraising together in California as a part of efforts to secure those critical resources.
The impacts we’re seeing on the ground from partners like these are what Maliasili exists to deliver: stronger local organizations that are able to become better at what they do, attract more resources, and ultimately take their work and impact to the next level. This is what we believe is needed across Africa as threats from land use change, illegal wildlife trade, and expanding human populations all put more pressure on wild, healthy landscapes. But by helping more outstanding local organizations strengthen and grow their impact, we believe we can turn the tide. This is what the growing Maliasili team seeks to do in all our work, and with the resources that our generous supporters invest in us.