When African colonial governments wanted to create protected areas to house Africa’s immense diversity of species, they found a model in America’s Yellowstone National Park, created in 1872. Like Yellowstone, the creation of Africa’s parks and preserves involved the forced removal of thousands of indigenous people whose coexistence with wildlife was thought untenable. This “fortress” paradigm of conservation ignored the fact that many of the evicted had been living for centuries in ecological balance with wild animals. But it appealed to African administrators and their Western counterparts who were partial to a vision of “wild Africa,” where animals exist away from human interference.

While enshrining wildlife in protected areas, most 20th-century African governments banned subsistence hunting by indigenous people, making safari hunting socially exclusive. But animals don’t recognize boundaries; 70% of Africa’s wildlife lives outside contained areas, in places where people are trying to make a living. And as human development spreads, so do conflicts. Elephants and buffalo destroy crops; antelope compete with cattle for grass; predators attack humans and livestock. Suffering losses to life and livelihood, but unable to legally hunt, many rural Africans came to view wildlife resentfully as “the White Man’s property.” By the last half of the 20th century, spurred by the growing independence of many African nations, conservation had become charged with political conflict. Poaching and social upheaval, combined with widespread drought in the 1980s, threatened the future of wildlife even in protected areas.

More recently, the conservation world has been turned upside down by a growing consensus that wildlife is doomed unless the people who live amongst it are given a say and a stake in its management. Community-based conservation (CBC), a broad strategy taking-root on every continent, goes by many names (Southern Africans speak of CBNRM, or community-based natural resource management). Its various forms and acronyms share a core philosophy: to enfranchise local people to manage their natural resources, and to work towards the dual goals of community economic development and sustainable conservation. In programs supported by government and private sector funding, community-run eco-lodges and cultural tourism turn wildlife into an asset for remote communities. Sustainable-use hunting quotas can bolster a community’s meat intake or be auctioned off to trophy-hunting safari operators. Community game-guard programs, established to monitor and protect wildlife, provide employment and use indigenous animal-tracking skills. Ranchers, farmers and pastoralists are finding new reasons to conserve wildlife and other natural resources on their own lands.

In a short time, community-based conservation has become the dominant conservation paradigm. Yet, it faces formidable critics and obstacles. Traditional preservationists and animal rights advocates challenge the notion of “sustainable utilization” of wildlife, and warn that endangered species will suffer. Governments and developers balk at ceding land rights to pastoral people. CBC programs have experienced problems ranging from corruption of local governance, to lack of relevant skills and capacity, to unsound resource management. Academics and funders wonder whether CBC is living up to its hype: are rural populations helped or hurt by the approach? Do the benefits really trickle down to the average household? And how has wildlife fared? There is currently a flurry of research initiatives and books-in-progress that aim to answer these questions.

The failures are cautionary tales. They show that the transfer of conservation authority to local people is a process fraught with difficulties, and will not happen quickly or easily. However, few serious people advocate a return to the orthodox “fences and fines” approach, which bred resentment between communities and conservationists. Most agree that while community-based conservation faces challenges large and small, it must be made to work.