Understanding how institutions to govern protected areas (PAs) emerge and evolve has not been an analytical concern in the ongoing debate about conservation policies and practice in Africa. Such institutions however constitute and contain historical accounts of successive policies that shape the current arrangements and further inevitable impact the prospects for institutional change. We employ Mt. Elgon in Uganda and Kenya to examine a case of PA historical evolution, from their establishment to the most recent policy alternative, transboundary PA management. We use institutional analytical tools to examine the drivers behind the PA emergence, how their governance has been evolving, who has had power to induce changes and what interest such changes served. A key analytical focus is put on the interactions between PA polices and local communities, both historically as assessing the current relations. The study shows that PA regimes are highly enduring, path-dependent institutions that persist throughout major societal transformations. PA policies and institutions are set and successively changed by the more powerful actors, imposing their interests on the less powerful actors. We find local community interests alienated throughout, and attempts for community-based institutional reforms perverted by the historically nested asymmetric power relations. Our analyses show the complications to include community rights and interests later into already established PA institutions. This becomes highly apparent in the most recent institutional change, transboundary PA management, that we find entailing further alienation of local actor’s interests. PA regimes with formalized rules and law enforcement services seem to have “nine lives,” are a powerful, long lasting “fortresses”, used to impose institutional preferences by the authoritarian actors.
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