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close this bookThe Courier N 122 July - August 1990 - Dossier Tourism - Country Report: Mali (EC Courier, 1990, 104 p.)
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View the documentThe Pendjari National Park - what a project can achieve

The Pendjari National Park - what a project can achieve


There, where Benin meets the mountain, that great ridge of Atacora which splits the north into two like a spine, the territory of Africa’s big wild animals stretches 450 000 hectares to the border with Burkina Faso.

Hard up against the mountain, covering the whole southern flood plain of the River Pendjari, lies the national park of the same name, a huge area of parkland, shrub and savannah, with swathes of forest, in an appealing succession of changing views.

For years, the park which was created in 1961 presented an enviable picture of the wealth of Africa’s natural attractions and a wide range of wildlife. But like many other African parks, it was unable to withstand the mounting human pressure of all kinds and it ended with severe depletion of animal life in the 1980s, aggravated by the devastating effects of fire and a gradual drying of the climate (with a rain shortage of 300 - 350 mm p.a.).

In 1983, conscious of the extent of the damage, the Benin government decided not to reopen hunting on the game reserves by the park and asked the EEC to set up a project to rehabilitate all the protected areas as soon as possible. Thus the project to develop national parks and protect the environment in Benin was born, the first of its kind in Africa for a major funder like the EEC and a follow - up of the studies which the FAO had been running for five years. The project began in 1985.

More than 1 200000 hectares over the whole of northern Benin was covered by the scheme, since it also took in the “W” park. The size and the more regional nature of this latter park’s problems were such that the people in charge decided to focus on the Pendjari area and ensure a minimum of results in the three years allocated. This wise decision turned out to be a very effective one which showed how absolutely vital it was to proceed in concentrated, logical stages when working with the environment.

To many, the complexity of the situation (the human one not least so) and the lack of experience of this kind of scheme in North - South relations made rehabilitation look quite a challenge. The idea of taking and keeping command of such a vast and relatively “lost” stretch of land, of halting the rapid disappearance of the animals and even getting gradual growth started again, of combating the deterioration of the environment, exercising fire control, ensuring efficient logistical, technical and scientific monitoring and setting up a rational system of management seemed unrealistic and rather Utopian in 1985.

So we must emphasise the merit of all those, both within the EEC and the local authorities, who took the idea up and got it accepted. We should also underline the fact that a two - man Benino - European team of forestry and ecology specialists was appointed to direct the project. With total financing of CFAF 1.5 billion and staff numbers fluctuating between 150 and 250 (including three technical assistants from AGRER), it was an extremely praiseworthy act to hand the management over to a pair of ecologists, bearing in mind the authorities’ usual view of such things, particularly five years ago!


These commitments were not in vain and the record today is a positive one, with even better harvests than the ecologists themselves anticipated.

Four years of project work have seen the Pendjari area rehabilitated to the point where it is the premier wildlife zone of West Africa and no doubt one of the best if Central Africa is included, too.

But that is not to say that the battle is won. Far from it, for the state of the conservation of Africa’s last natural zones as our experience with the Pendjari project clearly shows - is such that we are forced to leave conventional views behind us and espouse ideas that are completely innovatory if we are to ensure the harmonious development of the natural regions of Africa and preserve the continent’s big animals.

How did rehabilitation start?

If the preservation and subsequent development of an area are to become realities, then there are various operations to carry out first, including the timetabling of the process.

Various (simultaneous and successive) phases were defined as a lasting, functional basis for the undertaking. It is obvious]y just as pointless to lay tracks without the people to look after them as it is to instal expensive scientific equipment without a proper system of tracks to facilitate access to and monitoring of the area.

The various phases are.

- strategic control, which is vital if achievements are to be protected and to last for a relatively long time;

- scientific control, without which any form of management is impossible because there are no biological indicators to guide the strategies;

- generation of a dynamic local movement with which, by systematically approaching the active components of the local system of production and exploitation, it is possible to trigger proper development of the region.


The natural heritage to be rehabilitated must be taken care of, and so a system was set up for this purpose, using fully - equipped teams of five to 10 men, placed strategically about the protected area.

The facilities were:

- infrastructure, with buildings out in the bush to house staff and a network of tracks, bridges, culverts and so on, to enable them to move around and across the area;

- all the equipment required to make the teams operational, from safari clothing to firearms, camping gear and observation and transmission equipment, cars and motorbikes;

- a work plan based on monthly patrol programmes organised in a structured manner such as not to hamper initiative.

The system (11 teams) has:

- caught more than 800 poachers (one fifth on them persistent offenders) since the beginning of the project and seized 200 lots of sophisticated and other weapons;

- collected CFAF 15 million in fines;

- triggered 73 man - months of penal servitude (the biggest sentence being two years for elephant poaching).

In addition to the construction of accommodation for the 11 teams, 250 km of track were laid and more than 80 bridges and culverts built.

Scientific monitoring

Once the system of protection was introduced, the need to the able to assess the various ecological considerations arose so that environmental trends could be monitored and developments finalised.

It soon became clear that, with constantly deteriorating ecosystems, what were needed were methods of intervention that could halt the downward trends. At a certain stage, environmental imbalances, whether man - made or natural, bring about changes which can only lead to the ever - faster deterioration of the environment. So nature has to be “sorted out”.

Studies were therefore programmed to establish the bases for correct identification of the levels of action where intervention was called for. Qualified staff were recruited, special equipment purchased and the logistical side of things taken care of with a vehicle, a station in the bush and a system of monitoring.

With a dozen study programmes running at the moment (some of them, including the ones on cartography, the spatial dynamics of fauna, the effect of fire and ecological considerations of threatened species, have already had good results) and university dissertations being written, wildlife censuses run etc. the project has already acquired some absolutely decisive elements of appreciation. However, any investigation of the living world has to take a relatively long time and many a study has yet to be finalised.


Data from the scientific monitoring process were the basis for a number of schemes making for rational management of the area. These involved:

- fire management (zoning, early burning etc);

- water point management (rehabilitation of ponts);

- the development of tourist activity (planning circuits. putting up light observation posts etc).

The project showed the effectiveness of the method with its remarkable development of the mid - park Bali lake, which recovered all its attraction and ecological interest, but management must also bear the human dimension in mind and develop the areas on the periphery. The conservation and development of any area depends ens much on the drive to rally the interest of the local (and then national) population as on the effort which goes into efficient protection.

Map 3.

So the project tried to put the locals in the picture and freed almost 20 000 ha of land for agricultural production at the request of villagers on the edge of the reserve. But this phase is running the biggest deficit, essentially because the timetabling of project activities and the means available are such that it can only be operational during the present period.

The number of animals is increasing fast thanks to the synergy of all these schemes and the herd is getting back to what it was 15 years ago when the Pendjari reserves still flourished. The table gives the latest estimates from the census and shows just how far rehabilitation has got - eight years ago, the figure were half the present ones and sometimes even less! With a biomass of 2.6 tonnes per km² (Comoas 1.4 t, Kainji 1.2t and Arly 1.8 t), Pendjari is the premier park of West Africa.

And the tourists agree. They soon realised that animals were plentiful and large, had fine pelts and only retreated a short way (20 - 100 metres) and tourist arrivals, which went from 1000 in 1986 to 3200 in 1989, are still on the increase as a result.

All this practical proof in constantly motivated teamwork is very encouraging. But although the scheme has demonstrated the reliability of certain methods, it has given rise to contradictions which point to an absolutely basic problem.

Pendjari’s wildlife is increasing, the damaging effect of uncontrolled bush fires is on the wane and the deterioration of its water points is being halted. It is gradually becoming a haven of nature, pleasant of course, but how isolated it is from trends throughout the rural world which hems it in!

The ecologist moves into another world only a few kilometres away from the edge of the reserve. It is not the place here to stress the dramatic state of the biological, social and economic environment of this other world - reports on the catastrophic situation are now on the decision - makers’ desks... at long last.

But is there any point in spending a lot of money on maintaining an oasis of protected natural beauty in the midst of such constant and relentless deterioration? In the short term, maybe there is, but this is not our way of thinking. The future of Africa’s big animals and rural populations depends on something which is urgent enough to need tackling in the short term, but of a nature and size which can only be handled in the long term.

Pendjari National Park

Park versus population

In many countries of Black Africa’ the rural world is increasingly seen as the only way out of the terrible economic and structural crisis afflicting the continent. The move back to the land (as the only answer to the unemployment problem) is now gathering momentum and every environmental and territorial manager should keep a close eye on it.

The first phase of the project took a repressive approach to stopping a situation that was highly prejudicial to the wealth and lasting survival of the milieux involved. Such repression was unavoidable and it has proved to be efficient, although conditionally so, as the local people are bound to see the park as an extremely negative departure for the time being. now that a whole range of things are banned and a vast and apparently rich tract of land has been taken away from them.

Park versus population is a classic case (and not just in the tropics either) which has generated a great deal of literature and given rise to many theoretical models. A crucial time is coming for Africa’s big animals, for, over the next 30 years, on poor and unproductive land, they are going to have to withstand the greatest population increase ever known. But if people already persist in being happy with (well - intentioned but unrealistic) theories, with no resolute commitment to practical measures, there is no point in pitching wildlife against the local population, as we know what will happen to the wildlife. But have we any idea what awaits the local population when its environment has been destroyed, as has happened in some parts of Africa?

For are we not being shortsighted in saying that reserves prevent honest men from eating wild meat? Are we not forgetting that, without the reserves, the fauna - less stretches of land between them would soon cover the whole territory... and deprive the population of every possibility of animal protein from the wild once and for all’?

And when we try for integration and grant 20 000 hectares of a protected area like Pendjari to the farmers, we are being prejudicial by default as long as we fail to change the highly damaging growing methods of peasants who are over - dependent on the lobbies which have made such a bad job of shaping African agronomy. It takes only three years for the 20 000 ha to be bare and eroded and unproductive, to the point where the villagers want more land from the reserve, rightly thinking it to be fertile, although apparently refusing to see that this fertility has anything to do with the system of protection.

When peasants are more gatherers than protectors in outlook, is it reasonable to try and integrate a heritage and environment policy into the rural society of Africa? The approaches involved are so far removed from village practices that we feel we have to rethink the whole issue.

Is the African peasant living on borrowed time?

There are plenty of examples - Peuls and Dama gazelles in the Ferlo area of Senegal, the fauna management company in the Nyaminyami district of Zimbabwe and the village hunting association in Burkina Faso - of the current drive to restrict, or indeed completely transform, the antagonism which seems to prevail between wildlife and the rural populations.

Specific approaches of the kind involved in the biosphere reserves (of which the Pendjari park is one) provide us with integration - seeking models which are useful food for thought.

But time is so short that decisions have to be taken now. Involving the people in protecting and managing the last natural ecosystems of Africa does not mean pondering on the ability of one to understand (or assimilate) the needs of the other. The population explosion and Black Africa’s present position on the checkerboard of the international economy force us to look to other benchmarks which suggest that the African peasant and his environment are living on borrowed time. And people living on borrowed time cannot be taught, particularly about the need to protect something they have always looked upon as inexhaustible.

But the question remains. Although it is possible to rehabilitate a natural area, as Pendjari shows, is it a viable proposition if the surrounding areas are not rehabilitated too? And rehabilitating the surrounding areas means being able to get soil conservation measures applied fast and providing management techniques that have a proper effect on current practices, so there is no doubt that encouragement must be given to agrobiology and agro - ecology techniques (being tested near the project) and to the establishment of land management and self - supporting peasant village groupings (some in the Sahel, such as the Six - S NGO, hold out considerable hope) with this mind.

But effectiveness still depends on being able to give proper training to up - and - coming generations of farmers.

So we are moving towards a more global view of the management of these last sanctuaries of African wildlife, which, if it is to stand up, must consider the protected areas and the rural world as an indivisible whole.

Can it do this? It would be presumptuous to answer a question involving more political will than means here. The decision - makers must be rapidly aware of their responsibilities in the historic evolution of the planet’s natural assets and, once they are, we can contemplate moving away from the repressive system which worked in Pendjari and going for an as - yet - to - be - designed cooperative system involving all those concerned by local and regional development.

In maintaining the park as illustrated above, the project should be able to count on the NGOs, finance back - up programmes (of village water engineering, land management, agricultural stabilisation and so on) and step in, as the occasion demands, through cooperative but contractual links with the rural communities. Later on, it will be a good idea to try and integrate the local population and make it aware of the environmental issue, although this would mean planning (much of it as yet to be defined) calling for what are currently barely perceptible changes in the rural world of Africa.

What would Pendjari’s 7000 hartebeests come to if the project were to stopped? With the rural world minus its structure and its balance and totally unable to hang on to its own natural resources, alas, not much.

The duo of the future

There are plans to continue the Pendjari project by creating a huge regional project over 3 000 000 ha of Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger - an extremely exemplary increase in size which will only be understood if a change in outlook goes with it.

The land and the wildlife of Black Africa, one naturally poor and the other naturally rich, are perhaps the continent’s duo of the future - provided development means preserving both. For both can be exploited and both represent the soundest way to rational development that is adapted to the present context of Africa.

The challenge is there and we have to be methodical in taking it up, for the gravity of the situation leaves us no latitude. We have both to obtain land to ensure the long - term reliability of the system of protection (and wildlife needs a great deal of room) and be quick to get the rural world to realise it has to manage and protect its land. Otherwise, the dawn of the 21st century will inevitably break on a scene of African devastation, where parks, reserves, wildlife and forests are no more!

And we shall have mortgaged once and for all a fantastic heritage of biological, genetic and cultural resources without equal on any other continent. It seems reasonable to doubt that this will improve Africa’s development...

So we have to react fast. The help of a funder such as the EEC is valuable and vital and people are bound to encourage us, but it is up to the people in the field to turn this commitment into a coherent, innovatory system which holds out hope for the long term.

The Pendjari park is an undeniable success after four years of the project. But the results will have to be spread elsewhere if we are to avoid being an oasis that is mathematically doomed to rapid disappearance because it has broken its synergy with a rural world that is creeping up on it and will gradually wipe it out altogether.

E.M. and A.M.T.