The Complexities of Conservation – Staying the Course in the WAP Complex, Benin

Protected area management across Africa brings opportunities, but also a diverse set of challenges and complexities. Navigating this operating context means that African Parks must consistently adapt its approach to local factors, considering the environment, threats to the system, and the host country’s socio-political context. This needs to be done within the framework of the African Parks model and the mandate agreed with our government and community partners. With this in mind, the stakes to stay in many of these regions can be extremely high. However, the consequences of leaving can be devastating.  

Africa harbours 25% of the world’s biodiversity, some of the world’s largest intact ecosystems, and an incomparable diversity and abundance of large mammals. However, the confluence of climate change, increasing pressure on natural resources and challenging socio-political environments pose a significant threat to these natural systems. How does one maximise on the opportunities that Africa’s biodiversity presents, in the face of the very real challenges that many parts of the continent is dealing with? A recent UN report shows that nature is declining at rates that are unprecedented in human history, with 75% of terrestrial land already severely altered by human actions. Simply foregoing management support to many of these critical ecosystems due to their challenging operating environments, will only accelerate these trends.  

The WAP Complex is the last significant refuge for West African lions © Marcus Westberg

The W-Arly-Pendjari (WAP) Complex is a network of protected areas covering            26,361 km2, that straddles Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger. In a region that has become extremely fragmented, the WAP Complex is the largest wild intact ecosystem remaining in West Africa, and harbours critical regional biodiversity. Over 70% of West Africa’s elephant population is estimated to be found in the WAP, and over 90% of the critically endangered West African lion population, of which there are likely less than 400 individuals remaining in total. Thousands of local communities, who live in and around this Complex, rely on the survival of the WAP for the critical ecosystem services that it provides.

The Benin portion of the WAP Complex consists of two national parks, Pendjari and W and their adjacent reserves which together constitute half of the total Complex and make up almost the entire border between Benin and Burkina Faso. The Beninese Government and African Parks signed long-term management partnerships for Pendjari and W in 2017 and 2020 respectively, to revitalise and develop the two parks.

Violent extremism in the Sahel

The WAP Complex is unfortunately located in a region that is fraught with growing instability and ecological pressures, and faces unprecedented challenges. In particular, it is immediately adjacent to the major centres of Jihadist-oriented violent extremism in Nigeria, Niger and Burkina Faso (the country that currently has the highest global impact from terrorism).

Agriculture has been practiced in West Africa’s Sahel region over the past 5,000 years. However today, a combination of governance challenges, unsustainable natural resource use and biodiversity loss, and an exponential growth in the population, has resulted in extreme environmental degradation across most of the Sahel. This is being exacerbated by climate change, but also contributes to it.

These factors impact on the seasonal movement of nomadic pastoralists (livestock herders), who move millions of livestock across the Sahelian belt in search of grazing and water each year. With the Sahara Desert having spread southwards by at least 100 km in the past 40 years, and the northward expansion by sedentary farmers into the Sahel, combined with the general increase in numbers of both people and cattle, pastoralists are being squeezed, resulting in increased tensions with sedentary farmers. In essence, the social and economic model of pastoralists has become unsustainable in the current context. In addition, government systems have historically not favoured stateless and non-tax-paying nomadic pastoralists, leaving these communities with no legal representation.

In the absence of management and good governance, protected areas can also become opportunistic refuges from which extremists can operate and where they can exploit natural resources to fund their activities.

These drivers create an environment where vulnerable and marginalised communities become prime targets for recruitment into terrorist groups, who thrive on instability.

Consequences for Benin

Pendjari ranger shares a tender moment with his young daughter. Like many other rangers in Benin, his family comes from an area currently under threat from foreign Jihadi insurgents © Marcus Westberg

Over the past decade, militant activity in the region has expanded, with a notable spread into Benin and the WAP Complex since 2021, from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Niger. This heightened activity intensified around W National Park in 2022, resulting in the tragic loss of seven African Parks staff members and a Beninese soldier, due to a militant attack involving improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Further incidents have occurred since this attack, resulting in the death of one ranger in 2023, and several Government officials and Beninese soldiers.

A monument to the courage and sacrifice of rangers and other staff members killed in the course of their duty in W National Park © Marcus Westberg

The rising instability and imminent threat of further violent extremist activity presented an extremely challenging situation for African Parks. While we were acutely aware of the risks involved in continuing to operate in Benin, we also recognised the ecological importance of both parks, as well as the contributing role that good park management plays in improving regional stability. With the risk of further loss of life, combined with the escalating costs of management in this context, the obvious question posed was, “should we stay?” – not an easy decision to make. We held considered discussions with our government partner regarding our mandate, with the funders regarding their willingness to continue supporting the project, and our teams on the ground regarding their readiness to continue working in such extreme circumstances. While all acknowledged the severity of the challenges, there was unanimous and overwhelming support to continue.  

In light of the devastating attacks, we had to re-evaluate our approach to management. To ensure the safety of our personnel, all non-essential staff were relocated, and operations pulled back from the areas under threat. Road use was reduced, and rangers received additional training in identifying IEDs, as well as special training to improve safety, confidence and overall morale. Most importantly, close, positive engagement was prioritised and maintained with local communities who play a vital role in supporting security within their regions.

In addition to these efforts, the Government of Benin deployed the national army along the borders with Burkina Faso and Niger to reduce further militant action infiltrating the parks. For these solutions to work, it’s imperative that we maintain good coordination and clarity on roles and responsibilities between African Parks and the Government. Park management’s focus is on biodiversity conservation, safeguarding natural resources, reducing illegal activities that threaten wildlife and continuing with community development initiatives. The Benin security forces are responsible for ensuring national security and working towards de-escalating socio-political tensions.

Staying the course

Students gather for the arrival of new desks at the local primary and secondary school in Tanguiéta, just outside Pendjari National Park © Marcus Westberg

African Parks has been met with criticism for staying in Pendjari and W, and indeed withdrawing would have in many ways been the easier option. However, the social, economic, and environmental costs of leaving would be significant when compared to the option of ensuring ongoing holistic management of these protected areas. Good governance and ensuring that national conservation laws are being upheld contributes towards safety, stability and security in the region, which enables sustainable natural resource management and socio-economic development.

Since African Parks commenced managing W and Pendjari in partnership with the Benin Government, approximately 650 permanent and thousands of temporary jobs have been created for local people. Thousands of community members have been assisted in accessing natural resources legally and sustainably, including fishing, hunting, and grazing. The parks support schools in the periphery, provide veterinary services to livestock owners and conduct extensive engagement activities, including with pastoralists that utilise the WAP Complex. The Parks also provide support to local communities developing income generating activities such as baobab fruit processing and fish-farming. Moreover, they help local farmers to develop organic agriculture around the park and improve water accessibility to communities and livestock.

A fisherman checks his net for catfish in the Alibori River, deep inside W National Park. He wears a yellow vest to show that he has the necessary qualifications and permits to access natural resources in the protected area © Marcus Westberg

A community member recently said to one of our staff ‘thank you for staying, when so many others would have left’. The resilience and deep dedication of our teams on the ground and our donor and government partners, makes us resolute in staying the course. However, we have not chosen to do so blindly. Every single day brings new challenges, and we constantly need to re-evaluate and monitor the risks and the implications of staying. Yet we are committed to overcoming and working through those challenges in a responsible and proactive manner, because withdrawing from this commitment would have devastating consequences for people, for biodiversity, for the host country and the region at large.

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