Conservation Planning for Extreme Events?


What am I trying to illustrate in the above photo (a picture of cattle and elephant dung)? That conservation planning is a pile of poop?

No. But this mixture of excrement does show why such planning needs to incorporate extreme events like drought or flooding – especially for the impacts of those events on local people.

In the place where I took this photo — Mt Kenya – livestock herders have moved into protected areas. Why? Because of a protracted and devastating drought — one Kenya is (hopefully) at the end of. The drought has caused the displacement of huge numbers of people and the estimated deaths of half the livestock.

In times this tough, local herders have been forced to graze their animals in protected areas around the country – areas normally set aside for nature and tourism. I can’t blame them — but in a country that relies on tourism so heavily (it’s the second largest sector of the economy), this development is big and troubling news.

Obviously, conservationists should be planning for such extreme events. They will occur; we just don’t know when. We do often include in our plans responses to long-term environmental events (e.g., blow-downs, hurricanes, etc) and critical threats (such as habitat fragmentation and large-scale agriculture). We are even slowly coming to grips with consequences of climate change. But how often do we consider the effects of extreme events on local people, especially the poor, in the areas in which we work?

Probably not nearly enough.

Why should conservationists do this kind of planning? Because quite often the people living in and around the areas we are interested in protecting rely on their immediate surroundings for sustenance. And how extreme events effect these people will likely tell us how they will in turn use those local resources (in many cases, such as around Mt. Kenya, for their survival). By planning for these events and the ramifications on both nature and people, the effects can be at least reduced or muted.

To that end, many Conservancy projects have indirect benefits to people; but not many plan for direct ones. One example of direct benefits to people is grassbanking – the setting aside of land that can be used for grazing livestock in the event of an extreme drought. It’s simple and effective, and something the Conservancy has done in areas such as Montana, and in Kenya, with our partners at the Northern Rangelands Trust ( where the grassbanks are being put to good use right now – helping both wildlife and people get through the current drought. And this grassbanking in Kenya has helped reduce pressure on protected areas and keep many more people off of Mt Kenya.

We will get droughts, or floods, or extremes of some sort or another — and people, especially those in poorer areas and countries, will turn to nature to help them through those tough times. We should make sure that nature is resilient enough not only to endure these extreme events, but also the pressures that will be brought to bear by local people — especially when those people’s very survival is at stake.

(Image courtesy Timothy Boucher/TNC.)

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  1. Perhaps conservationists could press for some sort of legislation to ban natural disasters. There must be some way of abolishing change and achieving the harmonious utopian fairytale that they all seem to believe in.

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