Protecting Livestock and Wildlife through Transfrontier Conservation Areas: An Interview with Steve Osofsky

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Steve OsofskySteve Osofsky, director of wildlife health policy for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), developed the Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development (AHEAD) program at WCS and served as the first wildlife veterinary officer for the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks. In an interview with Worldwatch Research Fellow Molly Theobald, Dr. Osofsky discusses how farmers can both help and benefit from wildlife conservation.

Why did you transition from being a wildlife veterinarian on the ground in Africa to doing policy work for WCS?

When I was the wildlife vet for the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks, I had a very interesting portfolio involving research and management. Yet over time, I was getting concerned that the work wasn't exactly having the type of wider impact I was hoping for. In other words, it's not usually the wildlife vet on the ground who influences a parliament's decisions or a minister's decisions on whether a particular area will have wilderness or wheat, cattle or carnivores, in the future. And I got more and more interested in the land use dimensions and the policy arena, which seemed of more direct relevance to the development trajectories of the countries I had experience working in. I think as conservationists, we all struggle a bit in terms of trying to pragmatically link our science efforts to policy.

But I think my field experience is critical to my work. If I'd never been in the field, if I'd never been a hands-on vet and gotten into the nitty-gritty, I wouldn't have been effective on the policy side. I think it's really important to have people in the policy arena who have experience in the "real world," if you will, so that those two levels can be properly connected. Because it's people who've been out there-whether they were working for foreign governments like I was, or whether it was through an entity, in the case of Americans, like the Peace Corps-people who are able to see things through the eyes of local stakeholders. Those people can really contribute in the policy arena. It is really important to bring that perspective with you to the policy side of things.

What is an example of something happening on the ground that you are better able to address through your policy work?

What we are working on right now with the Animal & Human Health for the Environment And Development (AHEAD) program, in southern Africa in particular, is land use policy, which is in many ways driven by agricultural policy. Specifically, it's often driven by the desire to get beef to international markets like Europe. And to make a long story short, right now under current international agreements, in order to get beef out of southern Africa, you have to have geographically zoned management of diseases like foot-and-mouth disease-a virus harbored by the African buffalo.

At the ground level, you can sort of get a sense of the conflicts that that presents: the migratory patterns of wild animals get cut off by miles and miles of fencing, the impact that has on natural resources over time, and the opportunity costs to communities that don't have a more diversified income stream. The management of wildlife and livestock diseases-including zoonoses, diseases transmissible between animals and people-within the southern Africans' vision of larger transboundary landscapes remains unresolved and an emerging policy issue of major concern to livestock production, associated access to export markets, and other sectors, including public health, in the region. Livestock farming is, of course, an important traditional way for communities in sub-Saharan Africa to build and maintain wealth, not to mention attain food security. 

Essentially, the transfrontier conservation area (TFCA) concept and current internationally accepted approaches to the management of transboundary animal diseases (TADs) are largely incompatible. The TFCA concept promotes free movement of wildlife over large geographic areas across international boundaries, whereas the present approach to the control of TADs is to use vast fences to prevent movement of susceptible animals between areas where TADs occur and areas where they do not, and to similarly restrict trade in commodities derived from animals. In short, the incompatibility between (a) current regulatory approaches for the control of diseases of agro-economic importance and (b) the vision of vast conservation landscapes with fewer major fences needs to be reconciled now that countries have chosen to pursue transfrontier conservation initiatives in the interest of regional risk-diversification of land use options and livelihood opportunities.

Furthermore, if you are constrained by these fences and can only manage livestock, then that has implications in terms of your adaptability and your resilience in the face of things like climate change. By looking at that set of issues from a policy perspective and how that relates to economic growth and to food security, I think we have a better chance of finding compromises. In the context of the work we're doing now, looking at ways to help countries to reconnect some of their conservation areas by maybe even realigning some of these fences, that's only going to happen through policy intervention-and as a hands-on field vet, I don't think I would have been able to even try to navigate this. Then again, if I had never been a field vet, I don't think I would have developed an understanding of these complex challenges in a grounded way.

Can you talk about the relationship between wildlife and food systems?

You know, if you are in much of rural, southern, or East Africa, there is a lot of tension between farmers and wildlife. A lot of it comes down to human/wildlife conflict, whether you are talking about elephants or buffalo eating crops, or people getting killed by elephants, buffalo, crocodiles, or hippos. There is a lot of tension there. And if local people, farmers, pastoralists don't derive a benefit from local wildlife, they are going to continue to oppose sharing land with wildlife. We see that time and time again. So I think we have to recognize that wildlife has a significant cost for people, and those costs have to be dealt with.

As an example from a veterinary point of view, one of the things that some colleagues of mine did in Kenya was look at people's relationship with carnivores. If you are a Maasai pastoralist and you see the remnants of one of your calves and you see pug marks from a lion next to it, you are going to have a very visceral reaction. And you are going to want to exact retribution, get rid of the lion that you think caused this loss. This group of vets started to look at what was really impacting the livestock and livelihoods for these pastoralists. There were quite a few basic local diseases-often tick-borne disease and parasitic diseases-that were literally having orders of magnitude more impact on the livelihoods of pastoralists. In other words, their milk and meat production was being much more significantly impacted by these locally present diseases than it was by occasional predation.

By providing intervention and training and empowering local people to be able to deal with the very common veterinary issues, while at the same time educating people about the value of wildlife and some of the economic benefits that they were deriving- and could derive-from things like tourism, in the case of Kenya, they were able to raise the threshold of tolerance among the pastoralists for the occasional livestock losses. I am not saying this is easy to do, but there is clearly a logic to looking at livelihood issues more holistically.

Why didn't the Maasai deal with this before the vets got there? The Maasai knew these diseases were there-they are part of the background noise, if you will, of raising cattle in Kenya. But they didn't have all of the tools that could help them. They didn't have any modern vaccines or treatments. And with some of these very cost-effective interventions, they were able to increase their productivity. And by linking the service and the training that was provided to some agreements about how to interact with local wildlife, it was a real win-win. People begin to have a greater appreciation for the wildlife sector and, at the same time, as wildlife rebounds, thanks to changes in attitudes and behavior, people can begin to increase their own economic opportunities: building bush camps for tourists, developing jobs that service the tourist industry-whether it's providing chickens to the local lodge or providing tours.

In addition, in much of southern Africa, we are going to see changes in climate. We are going to see many places get much drier. And in those conditions, wildlife can be much more resilient-wildlife that has evolved in these areas for millennia. When it rains, livestock can do well. But what we are trying to do in our conservation program is provide more resilience to livelihood opportunities and link them to more than just livestock. We are looking to make wildlife and livestock more compatible by dealing with diseases, by dealing with human/wildlife conflict, and at the same time seeking economic opportunity in both of these arenas.

What are Transfrontier Conservation Areas (TFCAs), and what role do they play in the relationship between wildlife and food systems?

If you look back at the colonial era, when many of the southern African colonies or protectorates were looking for economic traction, one of the obvious sources was the export of beef. With foot-and-mouth disease a constraint to exports, the Europeans did not want foot-and-mouth getting into their animals. Going back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, fences were put up to separate wildlife and livestock. They were creating disease-free areas so that beef could be exported safely to markets like Europe that were providing good prices for many, many years. At that time, tourism was really not a major activity-there was some trophy hunting by the elite but it wasn't an economic driver.

But if you fast-forward to today, we've learned from analysis like the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment that nature-based activities like photographic tourism and hunting safaris contribute about as much to the GDP in southern Africa as forestry, fishing, and agriculture combined. So we've had a dramatic swelling of economic benefits related to wildlife-based activities. Leaders of these countries have said, "What can we do to capitalize on something we actually have a strategic comparative advantage in?" One of the solutions they are coming up with is to increase the amount of land available for wildlife, and TFCAs are a way for two or more countries to create connections-many of which were historically present but were wiped out over the past several decades-between some of their national parks and other conservation areas.

If you think about it, we already have a precedent in a place like the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem located between Kenya and Tanzania. That is essentially a TFCA, although it was not set up under those formal auspices, but because of the recognized migratory patterns of the wildebeest. It was a natural landscape that, luckily for us, the Kenyans and Tanzanians agreed to cooperatively manage. But now we are seeing more and more countries creating these areas across international boundaries. It's good for conservation, and it could be good for these countries' GDPs.

But there is also a fundamental conflict that is set up between the current strategy for dealing with foot-and-mouth disease and this idea of restored connectivity. So we are looking at ways to literally bring these different sectors to the same table because there's been a lot of hostility between conservationists and livestock agriculturalists for many decades in these countries, and we think the only way forward is if they can share their perspectives and we can look at ways whereby both activities can be undertaken. The way forward may involve some new tools and approaches so that land use planning can be addressed through a different lens. But we think the time has come, given the future economic drivers that are being pointed to in the region.

If we don't recognize the importance of both livestock and wildlife, southern Africa is going to lose out. And frankly, it's been the wildlife sector that has been one of the real shining glimmers of hope for economic growth in southern Africa.  It's very encouraging, and we want to help these countries pursue the development trajectories that they've identified. We at WCS/AHEAD are not driving the peace parks movement or the TFCA movement; we are offering technical assistance in the form of an enabling environment to reconcile what are, essentially, conflicts between agricultural policy and a vision of enhanced connectivity for wildlife across international boundaries.

Beyond wildlife tourism, how else can agriculture serve to benefit from these new approaches to wildlife conservation?

In Botswana, if you want to export beef right now, you have to have a physical separation of cattle and wildlife. But in order to produce beef that is free of foot-and-mouth disease, there are other ways through which it appears that it can be done safely. And this involves what we call commodity-based trade, which exists in other parts of the world. What we are really talking about is managing the risk of foot-and-mouth disease in a different way. You process the beef, you debone it, you take out the lymph nodes-which is usually done to produce high-quality steaks, anyway-and you age the beef, which changes the pH and kills the foot-and-mouth disease virus if it were there (also done to produce high-quality beef).


Those processes make the chances of foot-and-mouth being present, even if an animal actually had it, virtually nil. And cattle are still quarantined for sufficient time so as to ensure they are free from foot-and-mouth and otherwise healthy before slaughter. What we need to do is to continue to evaluate and document this approach with good science and to partner with agro-industry, so that we can produce beef in this value-added way so that the world market will view it as a safe product. We do this all the time in other parts of the world, but southern Africans have really been held to a higher standard in a lot of ways.

Another benefit of this processing is that the producer country is actually exporting a higher-value product. So per unit of production, per animal, the amount of revenue that stays in the country and then goes back to the farmer is significantly higher than if you are exporting a relatively unprocessed product to Europe and having the Europeans get all the value-added benefit. This has important implications for developing countries: many of the market countries for foreign beef from Africa are providing a tremendous amount of aid to African countries in terms of development assistance. But if we really want these countries to stand up on their own two feet without an ongoing cycle of aid dependence, this is the type of "out of the box" (or "out of the fence") thinking we need to be looking at.

If these countries can increase their incomes by producing a product that brings in more revenue per unit of production-fantastic! That's why we are interested in some of these more modern approaches to risk management and why the international community is gradually coming along. It's really going to take good science and robust pilot work and countries willing to explore this both on the exporter side as well as on the importer side, so that these trade restrictions that are currently in place can be gradually lifted and enable these new opportunities. Finally, keep in mind that the rural poor who live closest to wildlife currently have no access to wider markets, so the market-based ideas we've been discussing have the potential to help the very stakeholders who are in fact the primary targets of most development assistance.

It seems clear this has got to be driven by economics, and by public-private partnerships. We are going to need the private sector, in all likelihood, running many of the laboratories and meat-processing facilities, but it has to be a partnership with government because ultimately government is accountable. So the enabling legislation has to be in place and the policies have to be right, and again, not just on the producer side, but we also have to see a willingness on the importer side-largely developed nations, particularly the Europeans but potentially, eventually, the United States, in terms of recognizing the validity of this approach as it can be demonstrated over time.

How do you convince governments that this is a priority?

I should note that in the United States, there are some huge disconnects between the conservation community and the livestock sector. We see a long history of conflict, for example, out in Yellowstone and the Greater Yellowstone region. There are disease-related conflicts between livestock agriculture and the conservation of bison and elk. We find that in many places, all over the world, ministries of environment and ministries of agriculture often have very poor communication with each other. There are, of course, some exceptions, but in many places where we work, we find one of the most important things we can do is to help these different sectors to start communicating within a given country.

It's important to remember that the vision for TFCAs has been driven largely by conservationists, by those who ultimately relate to an environmental ministry. As I said, communication between conservationists and the agriculture sector has not always been good, so only recently (now that the TFCA movement is gaining momentum and being taken more seriously) the agriculture sector is starting to realize that this is something that they also need to start paying attention to.

We are interested in trying to facilitate some critical discussions, our theory being that if the various stakeholders all want to get this right then they need to start talking about their respective interests. And it takes time to get some of the old histories set aside so that these sectors can talk about their differences. It's become very clear that there are very basic conflicts between the vision for the creation of TFCAs and current livestock agriculture policy, and now is the time to get things resolved constructively in the interest of sustainable development and conservation success.

Molly Theobald is a research fellow with the Worldwatch Institute. Visit Worldwatch's Nourishing the Planet blog to learn more about the fight for food sovereignty in industrialized and developing nations.

This article appeared in its original form on the Worldwatch blog Nourishing the Planet. For permission to republish this article, please contact Danielle Nierenberg at