Looking for Balance Between Conservation and Development in Africa

Posed as a question, it sounds like a corny joke.

Why do they need to build the highways in Africa so high? So giraffes can walk underneath!

But for ecologists like Helen Gichohi, it’s a legitimate concern. As the African continent aims to modernize its infrastructure and diversify its economy in the decades to come, striking a balance between development and conservation — like building highways high enough above the ground for wildlife to migrate safely underneath — will be paramount.

“I often get asked, ‘Why are you being such an activist?’” Gichohi said during a recent discussion with students from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). “Because I understand and believe that our continent must develop, but we must do it responsibly in order to secure the iconic wildlife species of Africa.” Gichohi, the former president of the African Wildlife Foundation, is this year’s Dorothy S. McCluskey Visiting Fellow in Conservation at F&ES, a role that welcomes conservation practitioners — particularly women from developing countries — to spend a semester at the School. The Fellowship recipient can pursue independent research, enhance collaborations between F&ES and environmental organizations, and expand professional training opportunities for students.

“I am honored to have been offered the McCluskey Fellowship — and with it the opportunity to spend time at F&ES interacting with both students and professors and undertaking my research.

Previous Fellows have included Frances Beinecke ’71 B.A., ’74 M.F.S., the former executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council and the late Wangari Maathi, founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
For Gichohi, her F&ES experience is focused mainly on research. In particular, she and her team of F&ES student researchers are analyzing potential threats to conservation areas by reviewing Africa’s infrastructure corridors, their size and scale and the critical ecosystems that will be affected by their development and how the threats to them can be mitigated. These projects fit into an initiative adopted by the African Union, Agenda 2063, which is a strategic framework that seeks growth and sustainable development on the African continent over the next half-century.

Part of what will make development in Africa unique — and particularly challenging — is the amount of space its biodiversity requires. While people can comprehend political borders and protected lands, animals (of course) do not, migrating great distances for food, water, and mating.

It becomes important, Gichohi explained, to address conservation efforts at the scale of “large landscapes,” which transcend legal, geographic and land ownership boundaries by looking at environmental issues across multiple ecosystems and even entire countries and regions. Part of Gichohi’s work is aimed at examining the gaps in environmental governance and proposing more effective ways that parties concerned during the process of project design and development can tackle these issues.

“We need to present the proper, science-based criteria that will allow us to secure these large landscapes as economic development progresses,” Gichohi said.

In addition to her role with the African Wildlife Foundation, Gichohi, a native of Kenya, has also served as the Managing Director of Equity Group Foundation, Managing Director of the African Conservation Centre and on the board of trustees of the Kenya Wildlife Service. In 1998, she was one of five panelists selected from the continent of Africa to a dialogue on environmental issues in Africa with President Bill Clinton. In 2006, in honor of her contributions to conservation, Gichohi was awarded the Order of Great Warrior (OGW) and, in 2012, the Moran of the Order of Burning Spear (MBS) for distinguished service to Kenya in conservation.