Morally contested conservation: EVIDENCE TO INFORM POLICY A RESEARCH PROJECT | AUGUST 2021 — July 2024


Wildlife conservation in sub-Saharan Africa is morally contested.

Who should get to decide what is best for sub-Saharan African wildlife and the people who live alongside it? Who is conservation in sub-Saharan Africa for, and what does successful conservation look like? Protecting animals, developing rural economies, conserving biodiversity, or reducing conflict between people and dangerous animals?

Competing answers to these questions illuminate stark differences between local and external worldviews, which can appear virtually irreconcilable. Powerful external voices typically dominate debates and influence conservation and development policies, often amplifying historical inequalities and disempowering sub-Saharan African people who bear the costs of living alongside dangerous species.

But when local and external interests conflict, whose interests should take priority? How much harm should rural Africans bear in protecting wild animals and their habitats? Are local people part of the problem or part of the solution? Is it acceptable to remove people from their land to create space for wildlife? Which are more important, the rights of local people or the rights of individual animals?

How local, national, regional and international decision-makers answer these questions will determine the future for wildlife in sub-Saharan Africa and the lives of millions of people in the region.

There is an urgent need to systematically measure and compare moral beliefs and policy preferences among multiple groups, crucially including rural Africans, to better inform conservation and development policies in sub-Saharan Africa and internationally.

Between August 2021 and July 2024, we will collect data on moral attitudes, beliefs, and policy preferences regarding critical issues in conservation and development, and identify key points of divergence and convergence between rural and urban communities in several African countries and internationally. We will publish our findings in peer-reviewed academic journals and clearly communicate them directly to the people whose decisions will influence the future of conservation in sub-Saharan Africa.

What DO we do?

We focus primarily on two conservation areas in sub-Saharan Africa: SOKNOT (Southern Kenya and Northern Tanzania) and KAZA (the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, which straddles the borders between Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe).

We combine on-the-ground fieldwork with large online studies to measure attitudes, beliefs, and policy preferences of people living in sub-Saharan Africa, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

This approach allows us to chart the contours of moral divisions over conservation in sub-Saharan Africa and identify the factors that influence how people think about fiercely morally contested issues. It permits us to make powerful comparisons between groups, for example whether wider divisions exist between people who live in sub-Saharan Africa and those who live in the United Kingdom and United States, or between rural people and urban people regardless of where they live.

Our project steering group comprises academics, representatives from civil society organisations, and local community leaders who represent communities to ensure our project serves communities’ interests. This steering group helps us identify key morally contested issues affecting people in sub-Saharan Africa, where there appear to be major rifts between local and external moral worldviews.

We investigate a variety of issues, including but not limited to:

  • competing pressures on rural land use
  • hunting, including trophy hunting
  • retaliatory or preventative killing of animals due to conflict with people
  • excluding people from protected areas
  • equitable distribution of benefits from wildlife tourism
  • achieving economic development alongside wildlife conservation
  • militarised conservation
  • sustainable use of wildlife
  • community-based natural resource management
  • building wildlife economies

At the heart of our project are four graduate students enrolled in universities in sub-Saharan Africa. Students contributing to core project research, and have flexibility to design and pursue their own complementary research projects on morally contested conservation, using methods of their own choosing.

why is this research important?

This project will:

  • Systematically measure and clearly elucidate moral beliefs and policy preferences regarding key contested issues affecting rural lives and livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa, tackling tensions between local and external values head-on
  • Directly compare local people’s beliefs and preferences to those of people living in large urban centres in sub-Saharan Africa as well as people from the UK and the US, and precisely identify areas of divergence and convergence
  • Translate results into clear, robust, evidence-based recommendations for national, regional, and international decision-makers working in governments and NGOs in sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America, as well as intergovernmental organisations such as UNEP, UNDP, UNHRC, World Bank, and the African Development Bank
  • Infuse local voices into the international scientific and policy discourses by publishing results in in high-profile scientific journals, and simultaneously communicating results and recommendations in pointed, plain-language perspective articles in popular media outputs, as well as policy briefs for key decision makers
  • Train a cohort of four excellent young scientists from the region who, by working together during this project and beyond, will develop the scientific expertise and cross-sectoral network of collaborators required advance the science and practice of wildlife conservation in sub-Saharan Africa

Tangible outputs

  • Evidence-based policy briefs with clear recommendations for practical application of results delivered, directly to decision makers working in national governments, NGOs, and international organisations whose policies and projects have the capacity to influence outcomes for people living in rural sub-Saharan Africa
  • Plain-language written reports and accompanying audio and video (in English and local languages) for communities who participated in field research
  • Student-led, peer-reviewed scientific articles, driving informed debate on views about conservation in sub-Saharan Africa among local and external people (published in open-access journals)
  • Student-led presentations or special sessions in high-profile international policy and science forums such as World Conservation Congress, Society for Conservation Biology, and the Business of Conservation Conference

Evidence to Inform Policy: PATHWAYS TO REAL-WORLD CHANGE

This project will:

  • Infuse scientific discourse with evidence on rural sub-Saharan African people’s attitudes, beliefs, and policy preferences, and how these compare to those of external people, coalesced around key issues identified by people from the region
  • Amplify local people’s perspectives in international debates and policy processes that materially affect their rights and livelihoods
  • Organically build capacity by equipping four students from sub-Saharan Africa with scientific and policy expertise through close mentorship and dedicated training, helping them become emerging leaders in scientific and policy dimensions of morally contested conservation
  • Establish enduring research partnerships between universities in the UK, US, and sub-Saharan Africa, and civil society organisations working to build and enhance capacity and representation in the region
  • Enable meaningful exchange of ideas and experiences between the UK, US, and sub-Saharan Africa—for example student exchanges and practically focused workshops led by thought leaders from the region



Betty Rono

Betty Rono, Rhodes University, South Africa. Originally from Kenya, Betty’s research focuses on nature's contributions to people, linking Indigenous People and Local Communities’ livelihoods, biodiversity conservation, and policy. Betty has bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Egerton University. As a member of the MCC research project, Betty plans to build on her rich background in conservation biology, natural resource management, and climate change, by developing expertise in policy analysis, science communication, and collaborative research.

David Kimaili

David Kimaili, South Eastern Kenya University, Kenya. David is taking master’s degree in sociology. David’s research focuses on application of sociological knowledge and skills in contributing to community based natural resource management. As a member of the MCC research project, David plans to expand his training in human dimensions methods to study wildlife conservation and sustainable wildlife use. He believes that this approach will help identify sustainable conservation policies, actions and outcomes that benefit people and wildlife.

Salum Kulunge

Salum Kulunge, Sokoine University of Agriculture, Tanzania. Salum’s research interests are human-wildlife interactions, protected area planning, and wildlife utilisation. His current research focus is assessing the contributions of trophy hunting and photographic tourism to wildlife conservation and communities’ livelihoods in community-managed wildlife areas in Tanzania. Salum holds a diploma from the College of African Wildlife Management-Mweka, a bachelor’s degree and a master’s from the Sokoine University of Agriculture. He has a diverse background in wildlife conservation, protected area management, wildlife law enforcement, and hunting. He served as a wildlife ranger and later a wildlife officer at the Tanzania Wildlife Management Authority (TAWA).

Yolanda Mutinhima

Yolanda Mutinhima, Chinhoyi University of Technology, Zimbabwe. Yolanda holds an honours degree in wildlife ecology and conservation with distinction from Chinhoyi University of Technology, and is currently studying towards a master’s in biodiversity conservation. She has worked on rural livelihoods and African wild dog conservation. Her current research focuses on human-wildlife conflicts at the interface of rural communities and wildlife zones in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. Yolanda is especially interested in retaliatory killings of hippos and crocodiles.


Lovemore Sibanda

Dr Lovemore Sibanda is a postdoctoral researcher and Director of the Cheetah Conservation Project in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwean born and raised, Lovemore has devoted most of his career to studying human-lion interactions and (more recently) cheetahs in the remote parts of Hwange National Park. He has vast experience working with rural communities and evaluating the impacts of conservation interventions using the theory of change approach. Lovemore's research interests include human-predator interactions and using board games as a tool for effective teaching. Lovemore works closely with student researchers to assist them with fieldwork design, data collection, and analysis.


Lessah Mandoloma

Lessah Mandoloma, Oxford University, UK. Born and raised in Malawi, Lessah is a DPhil student in the Interdisciplinary Centre for Conservation Science in the Biology Department at Oxford University. She studies linkages and trade-offs between biodiversity conservation and agriculture in developing countries, using interdisciplinary approaches to understand how biodiversity goals can be achieved without compromising food security. Lessah also serves as an African Universities Ambassador for the Biology Department, responsible for mentoring prospective African students as well as fostering research collaborations between researchers based in Oxford and those based in African research institutions. She works closely with the MCC project to design field data collection instruments, conduct data analysis, and communicate project findings.

Jess Tacey

Jessica Tacey is a DPhil student in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Biology at Oxford University. Jess investigates the behavioural drivers of human-elephant conflict in Southern Africa, using an individual differences approach to elucidate whether certain African elephants are more likely than others to come into conflict with humans over shared resources. Jess previously investigated socio-economic and ecological impacts of Orca depredation in sub-Antarctic fisheries at the French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development. She is passionate about conservation outreach in schools, serving as an Environmental Education Officer for the Jane Goodall Institute. Supervised by Dr Darragh Hare, Jess works closely with the MCC team and is particularly interested in communicating research findings at a local scale in collaboration with the MCC project.

Trisha Bhujle

Trisha Bhujle, Cornell University, USA. Trisha is an undergraduate student studying Environment & Sustainability and International Relations at Cornell University. Trisha is specifically interested in the impact of climate change on wildlife-based livelihoods in East Africa. She has previously studied tensions between international hunting, human rights, and wildlife conservation in Africa. As a Laidlaw Research and Leadership Scholar, Trisha will translate scientific publications on controversial issues in wildlife management into more accessible formats, in both English and Swahili. She hopes this will support evidence-led policy decisions and improve public understanding of the complexities of wildlife conservation.

Emily Madsen

Emily Madsen is a DPhil student in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Biology at the University of Oxford. Emily works on how changes to carnivore community structures impact human-wildlife conflict dynamics in East Africa. Emily previously used camera traps and local ecological knowledge to understand how human pressures affect carnivores in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Emily contributes expertise in data analysis to the MCC project.


Dr Darragh Hare (principal investigator, project director) is a research fellow in the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Department of Biology at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and a visiting scientist in the Department of Natural Resources and the Environment at Cornell University in the United States. He studies moral conflicts over wildlife conservation internationally and works with conservation professionals across sectors to design socially and ecologically responsible approaches to wildlife governance. Darragh has extensive experience of national and international environmental policy, governance, and politics. Before becoming an academic, he worked for nine years in public policy and directed knowledge exchange projects that brought together research producers (e.g. academics) and research users (e.g. civil servants, business leaders, NGOs, community-based organisations) to co-produce evidence-based solutions to real-world problems.

Professor Amy Dickman is Kaplan Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University in the United Kingdom, and Director of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania. She studies human-wildlife coexistence in Africa, and has more than 20 years of field experience in community conservation across Southern and Eastern Africa. Amy is an expert in science communication and frequently contributes to international press and media on the topics of conservation, development, sustainable use and rural livelihoods in sub-Saharan Africa. She works with policymakers at all levels, and has presented on these topics to UK Government representatives, African Government representatives, the United Nations, and in many other international forums. She is an award-winning conservationist, an experienced supervisor, has published more than 70 peer reviewed articles on conservation, and is a member of the IUCN Cat Specialist Group, the IUCN Task Force on Human-Wildlife Conflict, the IUCN Sustainable Use and Livelihoods Specialist Group and several other international conservation advisory bodies.

Professor Shorna Allred is a full professor at Cornell University in the Center for Conservation Social Sciences, Department of Natural Resources and the Environment, and Department of Global Development. Shorna’s research and outreach work focus on understanding human attitudes, motivations, and behaviour related to natural resource conservation and management. Her main interests centre on how social science can facilitate community-based approaches to planning and management while enhancing community resilience and sustainability. Shorna is passionate about engaging students in community-based work and leads a global service learning program, Global Citizenship and Sustainability, that is focused on indigenous community resilience. She works in Southeast Asia in Malaysian Borneo and recently spent a sabbatical investigating flood resilience in Bangkok, Thailand. Her teaching focuses on community-based research methods in natural resources, global service-learning, environmental justice, and community organizing for the public good. Shorna is a member of the New York board of the Nature Conservancy and in 2018 received Cornell University’s Engaged Scholar Prize.

Darragh Hare, Amy Dickman (credit Pat Erickson), and Shorna Allred (credit Lindsay France)


Craig Bruce, Jamma International

Dr. William Crosmary, WWF Deutschland

Dr. Anca Damerell, Luc Hoffmann Institute

Edwin Tambara, African Wildlife Foundation

John Kamanga, South Rift Association of Land Owners (SORALO)

Dr. Moreangels Mbizah, Wildlife Conservation Action

Dr. Nyambe Nyambe, independent conservation specialist

Sam Shaba, Honeyguide

Dr. Sue Snyman, African Leadership University


The MCC project has five core values: respect, integrity, diversity, courage, and evidence.

We interact respectfully with everyone we encounter (i.e., with each other, communities where we work, and organisations we with collaborate with), including those who see the world differently than we do.

We embody integrity by holding each other to the highest standards of excellence, honesty, and professionalism in all aspects of our work.

We embrace all forms of social, cultural, and ecological diversity in the places we work, the people we meet, and the ideas we encounter.

We display courage by asking honest questions, accepting honest answers, and communicating findings clearly to individuals and organisations with the power to deliver change.

We are committed to producing robust evidence, and using that evidence to help develop pragmatic solutions to real-world challenges.


This research project is generously supported by Jamma International, WWF Deutschland, the Luc Hoffmann Institute (now Unearthodox), the Brettschneider Oxford Exchange Fund at Cornell University, and the Laidlaw Scholars Program at Cornell University.

Image credits: Betty Rono, Clausin Chulu, Darragh Hare, Justin Kalinga, Salum Kulunge, The Ruaha Carnivore Project