Rewilding the Anthropocene

About the Project

Rewilding the Anthropocene

Human-Animal Assemblages in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area

Rewilding is a project in environmental anthropology contributing to the budding field of environmental humanities and to debates on the shifting entanglements between people, flora, and fauna in the world’s largest conservation landscape, the southern African Kavango-Zambezi Transboundary Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA). Beyond KAZA, the project engages with debates and research on rewilding across the globe.

Inaugurated in 2011, KAZA TFCA is a working landscape of conservation par excellence. The conservation area’s green future is broadcast globally, but simultaneously bears marks of colonial and post-colonial pasts. Rewilding compares changing human livelihoods, institutions, social imaginaries and attitudes under different socio-ecological conditions and examines six particular assemblages. The project is tied into networks of interdisciplinary research on the effects of recent population rebounds among megaherbivores, vectors of epidemic diseases tied to refaunation, and the socio-economic ramifications of rapidly commodifying diverse flora and fauna. Therefore, it is uniquely positioned and purposefully designed to contribute better understanding of the complexities of recent large-scale refaunation efforts, and will thereby offer new, empirical insight for the future planning of conservation.

The project will be hosted by the University of Cologne and its Global South Studies Center. Here it will convene with other project groups that are working in the field of environmental humanities, the “Future Rural Africa” project, an interdisciplinary project on increasing inequalities in the Global South, and a comparative project on socio-cultural transitions in delta regions. Rewilding the Anthropocene will also engage and foster exchange with current research projects on conservation and rewilding beyond southern Africa.

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Conservation in and for the Anthropocene

Anthropological perspectives on a contested topic

The so-called Anthropocene and its correlates framed as the Great Acceleration, or Sixth Mass Extinction, pose particularly formidable challenges for the global community in general and the African continent particularly. Climate change will be the most important cause of socio-ecological transformation in the 21st century. By 2100, according to the World Bank, climate change alone will result in the loss of over half of Africa’s birds and mammals. At the same time challenges of climate change meet upon a rapidly expanding human population in need of more space for food production and settlement. Rates of urbanization are enormous across sub-Saharan Africa. The decline of key species is rapid: elephant numbers for example have decreased dramatically. Rhino numbers dropped immensely. This catastrophic scenario is fleshed out in great numeric detail by scientists, but also in on-line presentations by NGOs such Panthera, International Rhino Foundation, or IUCN bodies like the African Elephant Specialist Group and documented in Red Lists and the like. Calls for more comprehensive efforts in conservation become ever more prominent.

Rewilding investigates the political discourses, strategies, and organizations working on these disasters—and that link people, non-human species, and landscapes – at local level and in global political arenas. It examines how rural economies, social institutions and worldviews change in the context of a large-scale conservation zone dedicated to address these challenges. Its core innovative contribution is to link this comparative agenda to research on progressively entangled species assemblages. Based on these in-depth studies, the project aims to contribute to the Anthropocene debate in the social sciences and questions the place of human and nonhuman agencies and entangled existences in large-scale conservation efforts for greener futures.

The “working landscapes of conservation” concept advertises an integration of human land use and conservation, with the aim to support at the same time biodiversity and the sustainable provision of ecosystem services for humans. Rewilding shares concerns with other scholars that this vision uncritically embraces capitalist value chains and organizations, presenting a largely under-politicized vision of conservation. Yet, Rewilding also acknowledges that the working landscapes of conservation approach has gained tremendous traction during the last decade and that a number of conservation areas are de facto working landscapes. For its part, KAZA TFCA is conceived as a working landscape of conservation with its mix of strictly protected national park and state forest areas, community-based conservation lands, lands under agro-pastoral land use, and few urban areas. For some 3 million people, the working landscape of conservation KAZA TFCA is a reality rather than some future vision.

Rewilding deploys the concept of multispecies assemblage (developed by the anthropologist Anna Tsing) to analyse socio-ecological changes unfolding in the KAZA TFCA. While zoologists focus on the mobility, sociality, and expansion of wildlife herds, and social scientists examine constructions of conservation amity and enmity, livelihood changes, and political dynamics, the assemblage concept focuses on interconnections.

Conceptual tools

Working Landscapes and Multispecies Assemblages

Study Area

The Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area

Inaugurated in 2011, KAZA TFCA is one world’s largest inhabited conservation landscape, straddling the borders of Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe. With 3 million people and 520,000 square kilometers of land, KAZA TFCA is one of the most spectacular conservation experiments in the world today.

KAZA TFCA features close proximity of strictly protected areas (e.g., national parks and state forests), landscapes with some form of biodiversity protection (wildlife management areas and conservancies), places of intense agricultural or pastoral land use, and a number of rapidly growing urban centres. Wetlands and arid lands, poverty and wealth, conservation and resource extraction through both cutting-edge and rudimentary technologies exist side-by-side. KAZA TFCA is marked and occasionally marred by the rapid and sometimes spectacular faunal increase in recent years, including elephant, predators, as well as wildlife-borne diseases, all of which have tremendous impacts for human lives.

Project Design

Rewilding:
a two-pronged approach

Section A is comparative, focusing on the disparate impacts of the KAZA TFCA on rural societies and economies. It includes three distinct work packages, which will be part of all six field studies and focus on:

Two studies will be located in Zambia, one each in Botswana and Zimbabwe, one in the Angolan/Zambian borderlands, and yet another one in north-eastern Namibia. Researchers will work with local communities and develop a methodological approach that allows for the comparison of results across KAZA TFCA.

Section A is comparative, focusing on the disparate impacts of the KAZA TFCA on rural societies and economies. It includes three distinct work packages, which will be part of all six field studies and focus on:

Two studies will be located in Zambia, one each in Botswana and Zimbabwe, one in the Angolan/Zambian borderlands, and yet another one in north-eastern Namibia. Researchers will work with local communities and develop a methodological approach that allows for the comparison of results across KAZA TFCA.

Studies conducted in all work packages will draw on qualitative and quantitative anthropological research methods. They will be based on extensive fieldwork periods among four doctoral students, a post-doctoral scholar and a principal investigator. All studies subscribe to a mixed methods approach combining survey techniques, household censuses, extended case study analysis, interviews, and various techniques of multi-sited and multi-species ethnography. The project hub will be located at Katima Mulilo, where Rewilding will be attached to the University of Namibia’s campus.

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