Human Zoos, Conservation Refugees, and the Houston Zoo’s The African Forest

By Guest Contributor Shannon Joyce Prince

Note: The Houston Zoo uses the term “pygmy” and specifies no particular so called p*gmy ethnic groups.  According to the Indigenous Peoples of Africa Co-ordinating Committee, “This term [‘pygmy’]is used by some communities and organisations, but is considered pejorative by others.”  When I first began writing about the Houston Zoo it was my research-based understanding that as there is no one word that names all the African ethnic groups racialized as “p*gmies” the term wasn’t offensive when speaking of the groups collectively while the names of the different ethnic groups should be used when speaking of them in particular.  In my writings on the Houston Zoo I continue to navigate this issue. Since some communities consider “p*gmy” to be pejorative, I use an asterisk when employing the word when not quoting another source.  When speaking of a particular ethnic group, I use the group’s name, clarifying that the group is labeled as “p*gmy.”  When speaking of the ethnic groups collectively I refer to them as labeled as rather than as being “p*gmy” as I have never been able to find a comprehensive list of all the ethnic groups.

The Houston Zoo has proudly announced a new project, The African Forest, which is set to open December 2010 if we don’t halt it.  According to the Zoo’s website, The African Forest is not just about exhibiting “magnificent wildlife and beautiful habitats.  It’s about people, and the wonderful, rich cultures that we all can share.”  Actually, The African Forest is about exhibiting and teaching inaccurate Western conceptions of African indigenous cultures in a place designed to exhibit and teach about animals.  The African Forest is also about displacement in the name of conservation.

Fairs, exhibitions, and zoos that showcase, market, or teach about Africans and other non-white peoples as though they were animals are called “human zoos.” Only non-whites are exhibited as or alongside animals. Human zoos allowed and still allow targeted non-whites to be redefined as animals in Western, European, or First World spaces in order to justify white past, current, or planned mistreatment of non-white peoples in the non-white peoples’ homelands.

According to the Zoo’s website, The African Forest includes an “African Marketplace Plaza” selling gifts from “from all over the world” and offering dining with a “view of giraffes;” a “Pygmy Village and Campground” showcasing “African art, history, and folklore” where visitors can stay overnight; “Pygmy Huts” where visitors will be educated about “pygmies” and “African culture,” hear stories, and be able to stay overnight; a “Storytelling Fire Pit;” an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges;” a “Communications Hut and Conservation Kiosk” where “visitors will use a replicated shortwave radio and listen in on simulated conversations taking place throughout Africa;” a “Rustic Outdoor Shower” representing the fact that the fictional “Pygmy Village” “recently got running water” where children can “cool off;” a section of the “Pygmy Village” where children can handle “African musical instruments and artifacts;” and “Tree House Specimen Cabinets” that showcase “objects, artifacts, and artwork.”[i] (This information is difficult to find on the Zoo’s website, so use the web addresses at this endnote if you want to look it up.)

The African Forest is problematic for several reasons.  For example, Africa is not a monolith.  Africa is a continent of fifty-three nations and even more cultures.  So while one may speak of a Ugandan forest, Yoruba marketplace, or Xhosa culture, Africa is such a diverse continent that the idea of, for example, an “African marketplace” is meaningless.

The Zoo’s website specifies that “The African Forest” is really the “central African forest,” but beyond the fact that Africa is not a monolith, central Africa is also not a monolith.  Central Africa contains Burundi, the Central African RepublicChad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Rwanda.  Therefore, it’s problematic that in a website video the Zoo refers to “the culture of central Africa” as though there were only one.  (Furthermore, the Zoo doesn’t bother to name the village it’s creating a Baka, Mbuti, Twa, etc. village.  But as the Zoo is educating its visitors that all Africans are the same and all central Africans are the same, perhaps all so called p*gmy groups are the same, too.)

The ironic part of representing all Africa in the context of the central African forest is that certain aspects of both Africa in general and central Africa in particular are conspicuously absent from this “everything but the kitchen sink” approach.  For example, why are the large cities, skyscrapers, boutiques, and movie theaters of Africa missing while The African Forest shows off the village that just got running water?  I am emphatically against the idea that there is anything less modern about a “Pygmy hut” than a glass and steel tower, but the Zoo is only showing aspects of Africa that fit Western stereotypes of “primitivism.”[ii]

I said earlier that non-white peoples are the peoples deemed worthy of being placed in the zoo – but whites place one particular people in the zoo more frequently that any other – so called p*gmies.  If Africans in general are seen as being exotic, less than human, and physically different from whites, those labeled as p*gmies are viewed as Africans par excellence.

What’s particularly chilling about the frequency with which so called p*gmy culture is placed in zoos is that people labeled p*gmies, like Jewish people, are victims of genocide.  Up to fifteen million people, including six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed in the Holocaust, and up to fifteen million so called p*gmy and other black Congolese men, women, and children were killed under King Leopold.  Both Jews and so called p*gmies, at the time of their holocausts, were being compared to animals to justify their treatment, and so called p*gmy culture was being exhibited in zoos – p*gmy-labeled culture is still being exhibited in zoos.

The Southern Poverty Law Center states that racist websites “offer a window into some of the most important ideological and other discussions going on in the racist movement.”[iii] Members of Stormfront, a major neo-Nazi/white supremacist forum, liken blacks to all manner of non-human primates and other animals, and it is frequently said that we belong, of all places, in the zoo.  Special opprobrium is directed at Africans, and, naturally, so called p*gmies.  On Stormfront threads members celebrate historical and contemporary human zoos.[iv]

So what does the Zoo explicitly say about The African Forest and Africans?  1) The Zoo says on its website, “The African Forest will transform the way Houstonians view the world providing visitors with a glimpse into the remote forests of central Africa and the distinctive people that call it home. By understanding and appreciating the challenges these people face, we will be better equipped to work with them to preserve our fragile world and to make it a better place for future generations.”[v] 2) A spokesperson for the Zoo stated in the Houston Chronicle, “This delves into habitat; conflict between man and the wild.”[vi] 3) The Zoo also said in its description of The African Forest that the project contains an “Outpost” where visitors, while getting refreshments, will view posters “promoting ecotourism, conservation messages, and African wildlife refuges.”

4) Finally, the Zoo’s blog states, “To that end, the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts will focus on developing wildlife, habitat, and human community support programs in central Africa in 2010…There are also few national parks and protected areas on earth where humans did not co-exist with wildlife before these park boundaries were put in place. And there are even fewer places where the decision to designate a protected area does not somehow intimately affect the human population living around its borders.

“If the ability for native people to coexist with their habitat is taken away from them without offering a sustainable solution, then wildlife and habitat conservation efforts are bound to fail…

“Model community initiatives lead to socioeconomic and conservation gains by establishing and strengthening alternative community initiatives for sustainable development which can be compatible with the long term conservation of local natural resources…”

There’s so, so much egregiously wrong and wrongheaded in the Zoo’s discourse on Africans that it’s necessary to analyze the Zoo’s words piece by piece.

Let’s start with the Zoo’s first quote which basically exhorts visitors to take up the White Man’s Burden.  Africans have millennia of knowledge on how to care for their environments, but we’re the ones in the position to tell them what to do.  The Zoo states that the reason we should learn about central Africans is so that we can understand Africans’ challenges and help them.  The only reason to learn about African cultures is to control them.

The next problem with that quote is that it is gallingly hypocritical.  Is it primarily Africans or Westerners who own polluting industries, mining industries, the corporations that use the resources that are mined, and the corporations that create toxins – all of which threaten the well-being of animals and people alike?

The hypocrisy of the Zoo’s quote is tied to the fact that when Western entities decide they want to “help” the environment or animals, too frequently they do not change their own behavior but rather declare they are helping by dominating Africans’ and/or indigenous peoples’ lives and behavior.  In “Reflections on Distance and Katrina,” Jim Igoe of Dartmouth College[vii] tells how Tanzanians are being displaced by “networks of private enterprise, NGOs, and government officials.”  He says, “Exxon Mobil is also sponsoring part of conservation interventions initiated by the African Wildlife Foundation” which meant that “local people targeted by this intervention are being encouraged by the African Wildlife Foundation and the Tanzanian government to enter into agreements and sign things that they don’t fully understand.”  This “transforms these landscapes from peopled landscapes to those dominated by wildlife, which has made them attractive to private investors at the expense of locals.  It also provides Exxon Mobil, and many other corporations that sponsor conservation interventions, with tax breaks and a valuable green public image enhancement.”

Instead of respecting African sovereignty, human zoos perpetuate the myth that non-whites don’t mind being dominated.  The Houston Zoo’s website describes the various ways in which the Zoo and Zoo patrons can “help” indigenous Africans to protect wildlife, but just as non-white peoples resisted imperialism in the past, they continue to resist the West’s imperialist environmental practices – including those promoted by the Zoo.  I’ll delve into that further in a moment, but first, please refer to the second quote.

The African Forest dares to teach Zoo patrons that indigenous Africans are in conflict with wildlife, but falsely claiming that indigenous Africans harm animals is a well known tactic to violate their human rights and drive them from their traditional lands – often in cahoots with organizations such as the World Bank, NGOs, and corporations.  Let’s look at the culture The African Forest is exhibiting – so called p*gmies.  The Batwa, a so called p*gmy people, according to tribal rights group Survival International, “had lived for generations before and after 1930 without destroying the forest or its wildlife, and even had historical claims to land rights… Despite legal provision for Batwa to use and even live within the national parks (Ugandan Wildlife Statute, No. 14, 1996, sections 23-6) they remain excluded from them. Access to the parks… is negotiated through ‘multiple use committees’ which include almost no Batwa representation. This exclusion is encouraged by the stereotype which represents the Batwa as destroyers of the gorillas. In fact, however, Batwa do not eat gorillas, and they have coexisted with them for centuries….[viii]

Survival International also notes “the Aka, like all of the ‘Pygmy’ peoples in Central Africa, are under threat. More and more of the forest is being depleted by logging companies, while huge areas of good forest have been turned into parks or wildlife reserves that are guarded by armed thugs who beat up the Pygmies and drive them out of their ancestral hunting grounds. And yet the Pygmies are the real guardians of the forest. As their proverb explains: ‘We Aka love the forest as we love our own bodies’ ” (italics mine.)[ix] To learn more about so called p*gmy and other African and indigenous peoples’ views on conservation see this endnote.[x]

Now refer to the third quote.  Let’s examine ecotourism first. According to Lee Pera and Deborah McLaren,[xi] tourism “has been promoted as a panacea for ‘sustainable’ development. However, tourism’s supposed benefits … have not ‘trickled down’ or benefited Indigenous Peoples. The destructiveness of the tourism industry … has brought great harm to many Indigenous Peoples and communities around the world…”

They say, “It is no coincidence that those who have lost their lands or have no market for their crops are forced into service-sector employment in the tourism industry and are increasingly dependent on the whims of the global market and the corporations which run it” (italics mine.)

McLaren adds, “Global tourism threatens indigenous knowledge and intellectual property rights, our technologies, religions, sacred sites, social structures and relationships, wildlife, ecosystems, economies and basic rights to informed understanding; reducing indigenous peoples to simply another consumer product that is quickly becoming exhaustible” (italics mine.)
Georgianne Nienaber writing for central African (Rwandan) newspaper The New Times states, “Finally, the detritus of ‘civilization,’ in the form of excrement, garbage and detergents, is discharged into the once pristine environment…  The story of tourism in Africa causes one to weep. In Kenya, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe the story of tourism is a tragedy in which western businesses sent most of the money back home to the colonialist developers… Foreign workers held the most lucrative management positions (Pera and McLaren, Globalization, Tourism and Indigenous Peoples: What You Should Know About the World’s Largest Industry,, reducing the local ‘service providers’ to little more than slave labour…”[xii]

A paper published by the Forest Peoples Programme in conjunction with the United Organisation for Batwa Development in Uganda – the Batwa people’s own organization – quotes a Mutwa (so called p*gmy) as saying, “Don’t mix us with other people, leave us separate and help us.”[xiii] It’s odd that The African Forest plans to promote ecotourism as a way to help Africans and African wildlife despite how devastating some Africans, specifically central Africans and so called p*gmies, and allies of indigenous people find the industry for Africans and African wildlife.

Now let’s examine the last two things the “Outpost” in The African Forest promotes: “conservation messages and African wildlife refuges.”  Conservation in Africa and the creation of wildlife refuges on the continent are notorious for the frequent creation of “wildlife refugees.”  That means that African governments, with the help of Western businesses and NGOs, violate the human rights of Africans, decide they have no right to their traditional lands, and literally make them refugees alongside, for example, refugees of war.  In other words, in Africa it’s common for conservationists to create refuges to conserve wildlife by simply kicking Africans out.

Five of the world’s most important wildlife conservation organizations are guilty of stealing land from indigenous people and making them refugees: World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Wildlife Conservation Society, and the World Conservation Union.[xiv] The aforementioned African Wildlife Foundation is yet another conservation organization that steals land from indigenous people.  As I noted earlier, the African Wildlife Foundation partnered with Exxon Mobil to displace Tanzanians.  An employee representing Exxon Mobil Corporation is on the Houston Zoos’ Board of Directors.

Exxon is known for the Valdez Oil Spill, the Brooklyn Oil Spill, and the Greenpoint Oil Spill, and despite its eagerness to support the Houston Zoo and create a wildlife refuge in Tanzania, the company is currently harming endangered gray whales.  If its crimes against nature weren’t enough, the company is currently being accused of sharing responsibility for ” Indonesian Military Killings, Torture and other Severe Abuse in Aceh, Indonesia” such as rape and murder according to the International Labor Rights Forum.

An employee representing Shell Downstream, Inc. is another of the Zoo’s board members.  Royal Dutch Shell is a multinational petroleum company notorious for committing crimes against humanity, abusing African indigenous people, torturing people, and poisoning the environment.  This is the company that is widely believed yet never has admitted to helping facilitate the execution of legendary environmental and indigenous rights leader Ken Saro-Wiwa and eight other indigenous Ogoni Nigerians who protested the theft of Ogoni land for oil extraction.  (Exxon settled for millions to the victims’ families.)[xv] The company was condemned by the Nigerian High Court and activists as recently as 2005 and 2008 for “violating the constitutional ‘rights to life and dignity.’ ”  Shell, in addition to its other crimes against human rights, creates conservation refugees.[xvi]

And lest I forget, one of the Zoo’s donors is Chevron.[xvii] As you might expect, Chevron also makes indigenous people conservation refugees.[xviii] Furthermore, Chevron is currently being sued for 27 billion dollars by an indigenous Amazonian community whose rainforest was polluted by the corporation’s oil-drilling.[xix]

The conservation refugee problem is so bad that, according to Martha Honey, in her book Ecotourism and Sustainable Development, conservation refugees “are roughly estimated to number between 5 millions and tens of millions of human beings.”    Beyond the fact that making people refugees in the name of conservation is evil – it doesn’t even help conservation.  As Mark Dowie says in Paradigm Wars, “More and more conservationists seem to be wondering how, after setting aside a ‘protected’ land mass the size of Africa, global biodiversity continues to decline…  90 percent of biodiversity lies outside of protected areas.  If we want to preserve biodiversity in the far reaches of the globe, places that are in many cases still occupied by indigenous people living in ways that are ecologically sustainable, history is showing us that the most counterproductive thing we can do is evict them.[xx]

Refer back to the Zoo’s fourth group of quotes.  The Zoo freely states that indigenous people’s right to coexist with their habitat is being “taken” from them.  And, as can be expected, they promise to offer a consolation prize.  But what do “sustainable solutions” for indigenous people often mean?  As Jim Igoe says, after being made refugees in the name of conservation by one of the Zoo’s donors, Exxon Mobil, Tanzanians were then told “their only way out of poverty is to become junior partners in conservation-oriented business ventures on grossly unfavorable terms.”  This treatment is the rule, not the exception, when it comes to treatment of conservation refugees according to Mark Dowie.

Stephen Corry, the Director of Survival International, says of the situation of conservation refugees, “What is happening to these people is not some kind of inevitable doom; it is a crime, and must be resisted.”[xxi]

So let’s sum things up: The Houston Zoo, which is funded by corporations notorious for destroying the environment, harming wildlife, violating human rights, and creating conservation/wildlife parks by making Africans and other indigenous peoples conservation refugees, is creating a human zoo called The African Forest that supports and promotes the creation/continuation of conservation parks and the attendant displacement of Africans.  This paper was not meant to be a journey through historical and present day manifestations of prejudice, but a call to action.  Please consider opposing The African Forest, human zoos, and the creation/perpetuation of the conservation refugee crisis in one or more of the following ways:

1.    Tell the Houston Zoo you are against The African Forest human zoo and the creation of conservation refugees as well as the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis by contacting the Houston Zoo here:  Tell the Houston Zoo that you will boycott zoos that host human zoos and/or make/keep Africans conservation refugees.  If you have an affiliation, credential, or detail about yourself you feel is relevant, feel free to mention it i.e. a university you work for, a social justice group you work with, being indigenous (black or not), African, or of African descent, being a parent or educator, etc.  Be sure to send a copy of your message to so that we have a record of your letter in case the Zoo doesn’t respond and to prevent the Zoo from deciding to claim that no one is protesting.

2.    Send your name and, if you want, affiliation to if you want to be put on a petition stating, “We, the undersigned, do not support The African Forest human zoo, the creation of conservation refugees, or the continuation of the conservation refugee crisis.”

3.    Raise awareness about The African Forest through your website, blog, email list, livejournal, twitter, etc. and encourage others to write the Zoo and sign the petition.

·       Please be aware that, naturally, the letter you send or your signature on the petition may be made public.

·       The original version of this paper is thirty nine pages long and has much more information.  If you would like the full version of this paper email

Thank you so much for your help!


[ii] Some might argue that features of urban life wouldn’t be appropriate to include as urban dwellers do not live in harmony with nature.  That argument ignores the fact that The African Forest teaches the lie that rural indigenous Africans in fact don’t live in harmony with nature either.





[vii] At the time his paper was written, he was affiliated with the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center.



[x], and other resources on




[xiv] Conservation Refugee by Mark Dowie






[xx] Again, in the interest of keeping this long essay from being any longer than necessary, I encourage those wanting more information on conservation refugees to read Mark Dowie’s work in Orion Magazine, and his book Conservation Refugees: The Hundred-Year Conflict Between Global Conservation and Native Peoples.


Ed note: a version of this piece appeared at Stuff White People Do

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