Professor Keith Somerville dons his safari jacket and pith helmet to check whether a new game can help succour conservation in a time of shrinking funds.

Wildlife conservation is a complex and highly nuanced issue. There are no simple and easy solutions for conserving wildlife habitats and species and, at the same time, improving the livelihoods of people living alongside potential dangerous and destructive wildlife in Africa, Asia, the Americas and even, with the recent recovery of wolf populations, Europe. 

So, perhaps, the last thing you’d think could help improve understanding is a board game. But don’t jump too fast to judgement. We all, starting as children, learn through games. The military use war games, and game theory is applied to complex economic, social and political activity. Conservation is no different, and a new game, Conservation Crisis, from Richard Milburn and Edward Gilhead, could soon change the landscape.

Conservation goes through periods of crisis as a result of poaching, droughts, floods or wars. Currently, there are mounting fears that the almost total suspension of wildlife tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic will seriously damage conservation across the globe. 

Many national parks, reserves and private conservancies are heavily dependent on tourist income (whether from photographic or hunting safaris) to pay staff wages, maintain fences and keep up anti-poaching patrols. If substantial income is lost, as is the case in many tourism-dependent areas of Africa and Asia under current conditions, the ability to maintain wildlife habitat and deter poachers could be seriously compromised. It could lead to reserves becoming degraded, habitat encroachment by people who have lost income during the virus and increased poaching, whether for ivory and horn or simply for meat for impoverished people to feed their families.

Tourism to Africa is worth $30 billion a year and most of this will be lost this year. And India, Nepal, Thailand and other Asian countries will also suffer as will wilderness or wildlife tourism destinations across the world. Conservation projects could also, over time, see a decline in donations from NGOs and the public as incomes fall and donations are made instead to health services, charities dealing with health or social care and other Covid-linked good causes. At this time of human crisis, we must not lose sight of the need to maintain habitats and wildlife and bolster their contribution to humankind.

By now you are probably saying to yourself, OK we appreciate all that but where do board games come in? It’s simple – one exciting new game demonstrates a way of highlighting some of these serious issues. Richard Milburn and Edward Gilhead’s clever, enjoyable and educational game Conservation Crisis could show the way forward.

Essentially, each player in the game is running a reserve – your reserve has a card on which you keep track of the numbers of wildlife, how much you have invested in projects to help improve the lives of local communities, whether you have built a school, put up fences, restored degraded habitat or built backpacker camps or lodges. You need, as real-life conservation projects and reserves or conservancies need, to generate income, to spend some of that income on ranger wages, on the already mentioned projects and you may – it’s your choice – on bribes to poachers.  

On your way round your reserve you will get to a point where you are held up by poachers. You choose whether to miss 2 turns before you can move on or whether to bribe the poachers to move straight on.  If you do bribe, you take a bribe card which you can only look at when you get back round the board to HQ. Bribing has consequences and the card may tell you all your rangers have resigned in protest, or the poachers have bought more ammunition and you lose 25 of your animals.

You take an event card at every go – these may show that poverty is forcing local communities to kill your wildlife for food and you lose animals, or that there is a drought, or that if you have built a school the education provided is cutting wildlife losses. You may gain or lose NGO donations as a result of event cards. 

At certain places on your progress around your reserve you may pass a point where you have a community meeting – as a result of which you may gain community support or lose some of it.  You can employ rangers and vets and you can pay for research projects. Your aim is to increase your wildlife population – you win by having the most wildlife, not the most money.

It is a clever game and one that makes you think about wildlife and conservation – not in isolation but as part of a human-inhabited world with local communities who can help if you treat them right. It is nuanced but obviously does not represent every aspect or include every choice that it is necessary to make when running a conservation project And, there is a strong element of simplification, though it does not become so simple as to avoid difficult issues.

The game is aimed at 7-year-olds and older – it is easy enough to follow for children but clever enough for adults too. I tried out the game playing deliberately as an ultra-altruist, next time as an ultra-Machiavellian and then as a more pragmatic person. I won’t spoil it by saying how you win. It can be played online through an app or as a board game.

As someone researching and writing about conservation I was dying for more options and more seriously difficult choices. I would like to have been able to have clear anti-poaching actions rather than just bribes or employing rangers – for example how do you decide when to use lethal force and what are the consequences? Also the chance to have more than just a couple of habitat restoration opportunities, to put more into livelihood schemes and have a more varied range of choices of whether to go for increasing wildlife purely in terms of numbers or whether to be able to target specific, high tourism-value species. And what the consequences of those choices might be.  

The developers told me they are considering more options for a future range of games, including ones about marine conservation, and with a range of locations.

Given that we may be locked down or socially restricted, this is a good way of spending time, having fun with family and, for people interested in conservation but not directly involved, learning about some of the complexities through play.  It’s also worth noting that some of the income will go to conservation projects and the game’s creators have partnered with groups including TUSKCCG Trust and the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation.

Professor Keith Somerville is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, a member of the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology at the University of Kent where he teaches at the Centre for Journalism. His book, Humans and Lions. Conflict, Conservation and Coexistence, was published in July 2019 and he is now working on the next: Humans and Hyenas. Monsters or Misunderstood.