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Global Connections

The human connection to nature

February 9, 2012
by Delwin Benson

The nature of Africa is black, white, gray, and brown - it's a prism of vibrant colors that challenges understanding. Southern Africa has become a green classroom for me to learn from private landowners and local practices about nature conservation.
(Cover photo: sunset in Botswana.)

Sable antelope are prized on private properties and sold from the property shown here (as an example), which is owned by a South African veterinarian, wildlife rancher, and wildlife capture specialist.Background in wildlife stewardship

In 1985, I conducted the first national survey in South Africa on the socioeconomics and management of wildlife and recreation on private lands. That learning experience allowed me to apply useful actions toward my work with wildlife and private landowners in Colorado and the United States. Those experiences were part of a book, Wildlife Stewardship and Recreation on Private Lands, that earned The Wildlife Society award in 1999.

International lure

Africa lures us back regularly for talks, conservation education, and the experience of wilderness and carefully managed nature. In October, I spoke about “Connecting People with Nature” at the 7th International Wildlife Ranching Symposium held in Kimberley, South Africa, which included about 200 delegates from Africa, America, Asia, Australasia, and Europe. I chose my topic because urbanized peoples have lost personal connections with the land, its processes, and associated recreation. In the U.S., we have fewer visitors to some parks and forests and fewer hunters, anglers, and youth experiencing nature. Author Richard Louv calls this “Nature Deficit Disorder.”

Surprisingly (and for decades), natural resources-based agencies, organizations, educational institutions, and individuals have funded and conducted conservation education and outdoor-use programs using trained staff and volunteers to educate, recruit, and retain outdoor participants. Unfortunately, outcomes have not solved the dilemma of a further disconnect from nature. What’s lacking are the networks, communications, and motivations for people to be in nature when urban life and technology provide other options.

Bigger initiatives need to be taken. My presentation recommended institutional and communication networks with leadership from the top and grassroots application in local communities.

On the Chobe River, Botswana.Shrinking natural landscapes

Nature shrinks worldwide as human populations increase and people demand more natural resources. There is a place for nature protection at large scales such as parks and other public lands and caring for nature at smaller scales on private lands.

Nature cannot be protected by politicians and laws alone as was done with Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado or the national parks and communal nature reserves that we visited in Botswana during this latest trip. Timely foresight in the U.S. conserved our forests, grasslands, and waters; however, that only accounts for one-third of Colorado and one-third of our nation. What happens with the majority of land and waters under private control?

Once public lands have been set aside around the world, private and communal lands become the new frontier for conservation. In South Africa, the fraternity of wildlife ranchers includes landholders and associated private stakeholders, academic researchers, public agencies, and the broad range of clients: wildlife viewers, hunters, anglers, wild meat consumers, buyers of live animals, and associated community businesses.

Summit of world delegates

At the Kimberley symposium, topics of debate included wildlife ranching throughout the world, legislation, land-use issues, economics, endangered species, tourism performances, people’s attitudes, conflicts between humans and wildlife, global health, meat quality, animal health and genetic integrity, relations with conservancies and National Parks, and numerous research questions.

A civil society, which includes nature, clearly emerged as a major and growing need in environmental conservation. Urban dwellers and everyone using natural resources or owning land are responsible for nature. In South Africa and many parts of the world, land areas managed by the private sector and local communities for nature-oriented activities have become much larger than government land devoted to nature.

Ecosystem services, including wildlife management provided by private and communal stakeholders, are increasing in a number of countries. And those same private and communal land owners and users can greatly assist governments in their efforts to conserve the natural heritage, especially in developing countries where governments’ human and financial resources are scarce and used for other pressing priorities.

Del Benson, professor and Extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at CSU.Systems may not be universal

The wildlife ranching system that works in South Africa may not be adaptable to other situations, especially because of land tenure and wildlife ownership differences. For example, private ownership of wildlife and wildlife-proof fences in South Africa provided incentives for landowners to succeed in the business model of wildlife management on their lands, but ecological and ethical questions resulted.

Logically, this cannot be the only global symbol of wildlife ranching. Rather, enfranchising some rights and responsibilities for custodianship to landowners by governments could replace the fence and help support other forms of wildlife ranching. The U.S. model has some of these enabling components. 

Without incentives to nurture wildlife on private lands, animals and recreationists are often considered as liabilities due to damages inflicted on crops, grazing lands, fences, and facilities. If wildlife pays aesthetically and financially, then they are more likely to stay! Widening the scope of wildlife ranching is expected to foster nature conservation, enhance ecosystem services and boost socio-economic development.


The next rendezvous of the 8th International Wildlife Ranching Symposium is planned for Mexico in 2013. Situations there are different from South Africa, again suggesting the need for innovative models everywhere to provide nature conservation on private lands.

Del Benson is professor and Extension wildlife specialist in the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at CSU.