Private Investors Look to High-end Tourism to Fund Conservation in Mozambique

by  on 24 June 2021

When COVID-19 started to sweep across the world last year, conservationists feared that it would be a disaster for Africa’s wildlife. Tourism revenues evaporated, causing salary cuts and layoffs for rangers in protected game parks. But after a spike in poaching incidents looked to be confirming those fears at first, in some countries the opposite has proved to be the case: harsh lockdown measures instead led to a temporary decline in poaching of rhinos and other large game.

Still, the crisis has laid bare one of the central dilemmas for conservation in Africa: who pays for it, and are those funding streams resilient enough to hold up under pressure?

In the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, a patchwork of protected nature reserves along the borderlands of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe, some investors are saying the answer is the private sector. One example is the Karingani Game Reserve in southwestern Mozambique, which is developing what it says will be a flagship example of private capital-driven conservation in Africa.

But with a history of land conflict between the reserve and rural communities living nearby, how will it balance its ambitious plans for high-end ecotourism with the livelihoods and cultural needs of those communities? And will those plans lead to a profitable, sustainable business model that can deliver benefits for wildlife and local people?

As the Mozambican government continues to encourage foreign investment into conservation in the wake of COVID-19, Karingani may prove to be a test case for whether private reserves can deliver on their promises.

Karingani Game Reserve

Karingani shares a 72-kilometer (45-mile) border with South Africa’s storied Kruger National Park, encompassing a massive 150,000-hectare (371,000 acre) swath of land in Mozambique’s Gaza and Maputo provinces, an area historically ravaged by poaching — especially for rhino horn.

Operators of the reserve say they plan to restore wildlife populations, ecosystem functions and biodiversity on the land through a private-public funding model by partnering with the Mozambican government.

The location of Karingani Game Reserve is in the lower center of the map to the right of Kruger National Park.

Karingani is owned by Twin City Ecoturismo Ltd., a sister company to the Twin City Development company, owned by South African real estate investor Arnold Pistorius, one of the three founding sponsors of the Karingani project a decade ago.

In an interview with Mongabay, Paul Milton, philanthropic adviser and CEO of Milton Group Ltd., a United Kingdom-based real estate company that oversees Karingani along with conservation investment projects in several other African countries, said that it has taken 12 years of acquiring land, millions of dollars in investments, the resettlement of some communities, and intensive negotiations with the government to get Karingani “ready to come to market.”

(Midway through the reporting for this article, Milton withdrew his participation with Mongabay and asked for it to be made clear that “the story is incomplete,” declining to answer a series of follow-up questions on how the reserve measures its progress toward conservation goals, along with other requests for information.)

“We’ve approached this differently, and we’ve only been able to do it because of long-term capital that we are privileged enough to be able to attract,” Milton said.

Among the successes Karingani claims to have achieved thus far are a drop in poaching-related incidents and the establishment of an agriculture project co-owned by communities living near the reserve. The reserve says it has also reintroduced 17 African wild dogs (Lycaon pictus), classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List, as part of its effort to cultivate biodiversity.

An African wild dog (Lycaon pictus) in South Africa. Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

Like other private reserves operating across Africa, Karingani has its own fleet of armed rangers, surveillance helicopters, and K-9 and equine units to combat poaching.

“We are 100% convinced it is the only way to protect these pieces of land: boots on the ground, helicopters, private militia, anti-poaching teams in partnership with government, security forces, intelligence, you need all of that,” Milton said.

According to Karingani’s public-facing reports, in 2020 there were no poaching incidents of rhinos or other large game inside the reserve.

“Karingani is a pretty good example that’s going to ultimately, over time, be a case study for many others,” Milton said.

Conservation in a post-COVID world

In April 2021, after being postponed for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IUCN African Protected Areas Congress officially launched, billing itself as the first pan-continental congress of its kind “to discuss the role of protected areas in conserving nature and promoting sustainable development in Africa.” The congress will formally convene in Rwanda in March 2022 to discuss Africa’s conservation models and which ones are best suited to protecting nature on the continent.

The inaugural congress of leaders and interest groups comes at a time when many nations’ tourism-based economies are struggling to overcome the effects of the financially crippling pandemic. Some believe that monetizing the value of nature could help.

“The overall common goal is really to set a common agenda and have some shared values on how Africa’s protected areas are going to be managed,” Luther Bois Anukur, the IUCN regional director for eastern and southern Africa, told Mongabay in an interview. “I think that this is really the time for creating the link between nature and the economy.”

The pandemic devastated revenue models for many national parks, requiring shortfalls to be covered from donors or funds like the conservation trust fund BIOFUND, which used money from its endowment to support some private protected areas in Mozambique.

Currently, 25% of the national territory in Mozambique is designated as protected land. Financial assistance from international NGOs and agencies like the World Bank and USAID covered an estimated 80% of national park operating costs in 2014, with the rest being generated by tourism revenue and budgetary allocations from the Mozambican government, according to data from BIOFUND.

“The big issue is that [current models are] highly dependent on a model of financing that is not necessarily sustainable, and all protected areas are always struggling to get funds that can help them [get] by,” Anukur said.

Wealthy investors say that in some cases they can provide a solution to the funding gap — while also turning a profit — by offering services to high-end clients.

The Rockefeller Foundation estimated that in 2016, $52 billion was directed toward conservation projects across the world, well short of the $300 billion to $400 billion a year needed to protect the planet’s vital ecosystems. Private finance, the foundation said, “may be the main source of additional capital.”

“The global private sector has the money,” Milton said. “But the structure within these African jurisdictions, land tenure, and the ability for African nations to partner with private capital is not in position.”

Southern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum simum) in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Rhett Butler for Mongabay.

Premium tourism, premium revenue and conservation outcomes

By attracting a select group of wealthy tourists eager to soak in the reserve’s vast landscapes and abundant wildlife, the Karingani reserve can finance its anti-poaching force and, Milton claims, create economic opportunities for nearby communities.

“The multipliers of high-end tourism generates eight to nine downstream jobs per permanent job on property,” Milton said. “Mass tourism doesn’t give you that multiplying effect in terms of regional job creation and economic uplift.”

But at present, according to Karingani’s website its staff includes only 170 people from 10 neighboring Cubo communities, saying that more shorter-term jobs are expected to be created during the construction phase. Milton told Mongabay that the reserve hopes to create more than 750 permanent tourism-sector jobs once the guest lodges are in full operation. (The combined population of Massingir and Magude districts — the two municipalities that include Karingani’s land — is around 100,000).

Francis Massé, a lecturer at Northumbria University in the U.K. who researches conservation security and anti-poaching efforts in Mozambique, says that in remote areas with limited infrastructure and government investment, conservation projects like Karingani can provide job opportunities where there aren’t many otherwise.

“There’s a huge potential for the private sector to play a really important role in conservation in Mozambique,” Massé told Mongabay in an interview, adding that it should be done “in a way that genuinely brings people into the product of conservation and contributes to long-term wellbeing and development.”

But who owns the land?

While Karingani’s operators say the reserve will improve the lives of Mozambicans who have traditionally occupied the land it now controls, not all of the communities living in the area have been convinced in recent years. Mozambique has a track record of handing out land to investors without consulting locals, and according to reporting by the Pulitzer Center and others, Karingani has been plagued by similar land conflicts to those that extractive projects have faced elsewhere in the country.

For 20 years, Karingani and its predecessor, Twin City, have been embroiled in a dispute over who owns the land that the reserve is being developed on, with local Cubo communities saying they were duped into handing some of it over to government officials who later transferred the land to Twin City and that promised jobs haven’t materialized.

Since then, conflict over the boundaries of the park has raged, particularly after the Mozambican government rezoned a stretch of farmland in Karingani’s expansion plan out of Cubo control. One Cubo leader says he was offered a bribe by local authorities in exchange for transferring 3,000 hectares (7,400 acres) of land into Twin City’s control.

According to local media reports, in 2018 Karingani agreed to a compromise over the boundaries of the park and paid nearly $50,000 in compensation to community members who had lost cattle to lion attacks.

Human-wildlife conflict is a major complaint for communities who have long relied on cattle farming and agriculture for their livelihoods, said Kei Otsuki, a professor of international development studies at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who has conducted research on displacement in Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park. Tourist-oriented reserves like Karingani often import wildlife from other areas, she said, creating a problem for locals when their crops and livestock are attacked by large animals.

Women lead their goats to a market in Mapai, Gaza Province, Mozambique. Andre van Rooyen for ICRISAT, courtesy of Creative Commons.

An advocate with the Mozambican civil society group Plataforma Distrital de Sociedade Civil de Massingir who recently visited Cubo communities near Karingani told Mongabay the relationship between those communities and the park has improved in recent years, but that there is still skepticism about its expansion plans as well as the Mozambican government’s commitment to respecting local land rights. According to the advocate, who asked not to be named, one leader she spoke to said they had lost 121 cattle and suffered three deaths to wildlife attacks since Twin City’s arrival.

(Due to pandemic-related safety concerns, Mongabay was not able to send a reporter to directly interview Cubo community members about their views on the Karingani project.)

On Karingani’s website, it says that all land it controls was acquired legally, mainly through what are called DUATs — formal land use rights issued by the Mozambican government. Milton told Mongabay that the reserve is making efforts to develop a better relationship with local communities than it’s had in the past.

He said Karingani has built schools and other infrastructure, financed agriculture programs, and is currently planning to install a 70-km (43-mi) pipeline to deliver clean water to communities east of the reserve. The reserve also provides compensation for crops damaged by elephants and other wildlife, he said.

“We are dogged about delivery,” Milton said. “Our communities are our real partners, they’re not tokens. It’s transparent, and we deliver on what we promise, but even then, things go wrong,” citing as examples bug infestations of crops, low agricultural yield, and labor disputes.

But Otsuki told Mongabay that the power imbalance between communities on one side, and private-sector conservationists along with their government partners on the other, makes it hard to ensure that agreements over land and benefits are fair.

“Even when there is an official resettlement agreement, people get easily convinced by, ‘We’ll give you tap water and you should be happy,’” Otsuki said. “It has to be more than that. The co-ownership of a project or co-ownership of tourism, that’s the way to go.”
According to Karingani’s website, 30% of the revenue generated by the Cubo Community Lodge, set to open later this year, will go toward communities and 70% to the reserve.

“It’s really simple,” Milton said. “It’s about relationship management. We treat our local partners as well as we treat ourselves and vice versa. But it took us a long time to realize it’s what we should be doing … as we’ve been learning along the way.”

But benefits promised to communities by Karingani and Twin City have failed to make their way into the right hands in the past. While DUATs require 20% of the revenue generated from tourism and game hunting on community land to be disbursed to those communities, in 2017 some Cubo residents complained to a researcher that they had not received their share, with one claiming that they’d been told by Twin City that it had “paid the government and that it’s the government who should then channel the money to us.”

Lioness in Tanzania. Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Photo credit: Rhett A. Butler

Private capital, wildlife economy

Some conservationists have long dreamed of implementing a wildlife economy in parts of Africa as a way to finance protected areas.

“We want to promote the wildlife economy in Mozambique,” Sean Nazerali, director for innovative financing at BIOFUND, told Mongabay, listing examples for garnering revenue such as trophy hunting, game farming, ecotourism, habitat restoration, and the carbon market. “Communities can make so much more money from wildlife than they can from subsistence farming.”

Nazerali says that privately protected areas are better managed, see higher density of animals, and have lower deforestation rates than public protected areas, adding that private game reserves offer local economic opportunities.

“In most places, you’re the only economically functioning entity within a day’s walk,” Nazerali said. “You’re the source of a lot of hope as well as a number of frustrations. You’ve got to be managing that relationship all the time.”

But what constitutes an “economically functioning entity” in regions where large portions of the population live in the informal economy — and stand to lose access to resources when land they traditionally use is rezoned for conservation — isn’t always straightforward.

“There could be lots of good intentions and lots of effort to work with communities, but there’s still those classic challenges of … this hard protected area model that sees conservation as keeping people out,” Massé said, drawing on his experience researching Canhane, Cubo and other communities around Karingani from 2014 to 2016 for his research.

IUCN’s Anukur said that striking the right balance between community empowerment and results-driven conservation is key to the long-term well-being of ecosystems in landscapes like Karingani.

“A key point right now is to recognize the rights of [Indigenous] people to that land, the rights of those people to a livelihood, and to create models for which these rights can be upheld as well as … a coexistence between people and nature in those settings,” Anukur said.

As the Karingani project unfolds, whether it can turn a profit while also convincing the Cubo and other communities that its presence is a long-term win for both wildlife and local people remains a crucial challenge. If those communities don’t see tangible benefits from private conservation and feel marginalized from decision-making, they will be unlikely to buy into the model, researchers say.

“To what extent is the real, genuine inclusion and participation of local people in the process and project of conservation?” Massé said. “I think that is kind of the big sticking point in terms of its ability to really contribute to transforming the area and developing a genuine, sustainable wildlife economy.”

Banner image: Tourists in South Africa’s Kruger National Park photograph wildlife. Image by Rhett Butler for Mongabay.