The African Conservation Investment Imperative

David Peddie
July 2017

The concept of sustainable use of natural resources is a primary strategy in protecting Africa’s ecosystems, wild places and wild creatures and in supporting rural socio-economic development. It is a cornerstone philosophy. Not the frequently and emotively presented image of illicit trading in rhino horn, elephant ivory, lion bones, pangolins and great apes, that so confuses the illegal trade and trafficking with the logical management and use of biological resources. Nor that which confuses the controlled and sustainable harvesting of well managed and viable wildlife populations, with the corrupt abuse of scientifically and legally-based controls; the perversion of hunting ethics and, so often, with poaching.

Rather, it is a strategy that embraces the whole gambit of natural resource use based on an understanding of biology and ecology, and their relevance in, and holistic integration into, the socio-economic development of Africa’s rural people. One that also recognises that the ecosystem services provided by those wild areas, often owned and inhabited by rural communities, are an “essential global commodity” - one well worth that global community paying for.

It is the needs and opinions of those rural people living adjacent to protected wildlife areas, and thus with wildlife, in Africa, whose numbers and demands for land and prosperity are growing exponentially, that are ultimately pertinent in the survival of much of the Continent’s natural, wild environment. They, many of whom appreciate that their future could depend upon the sustainable utilisation of that wildlife, but do not have the means to achieve that future, are the key. They will be the final decision-makers.

The successful application of this philosophy and, by implication, the survival of African wildlife, depends on providing the means and opportunities, including appropriate funding, education and training, for rural people to take responsibility for their own socio-economic development. Development based on the sustainable use of that wildlife and the other renewable natural resources available from effectively functioning ecosystems - including selectively located and protected infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries and domestic livestock systems. Islands of human development within a sea of wildlife.

In addition to human population growth, the most obvious and widely documented issue facing the African natural environment, and hindering Her rural economic development, is the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products. However, the solution is complex and multi-faceted. Field operations, intelligence, trained rangers, equipment, transport and communications are all part of the frontline, but are just one element of the whole strategy. Education in source and end markets; demand reduction through awareness; appropriate legal systems linked to supportive judicial systems; combatting of corruption along the whole supply chain; cooperation between countries and, again and fundamentally, the inclusion of local communities living with wildlife in the benefits of wildlife management and utilisation, are all critical.

However, it is the latter issue where Africa most urgently needs investment, funding and support efforts to be directed. This is not to say that other avenues of conservation and rural development action should be diminished, but the key element in controlling the poaching assault and ensuring that land is used for wildlife in the long term, is the provision of sustainable socio-economic development for poverty stricken rural communities; especially those living adjacent to, or in, wildlife areas. Critically, that includes a concerted, multi-faceted effort to reduce human population growth.

In essence, for ecosystem and wildlife conservation efforts to have any chance of success beyond isolated pockets of protected areas, it will require substantial investment into the aforementioned development programmes. Many rural communities which could use wildlife to support economic development, frequently do not have the means to initiate a programme that will break them out of the cycle of poverty - poverty that results in them degrading or destroying the very resources of land and wildlife that are their most likely source of a solution.

The scourge of poaching and the illegal trafficking of wildlife which is sweeping across the continent at the moment is not just a high profile decimation of some of Africa’s most iconic species, it is a threat to long term development and one that could equally threaten political stability.

It is important to bear in mind that if conservation in Africa is about integrating rural people and economics with the land and landscape in functional ecosystems, then the elephant, rhino, great apes and other high profile, charismatic species are merely the torch bearers for the conservation of all wildlife in Africa. To focus conservation efforts on these species and individual animals at the expense of investing in their habitat, ecosystems and rural people, is likely, all too soon, to consign most of Africa’s wild species to memory.

If the economic returns of wildlife-based land-use are not better than the opportunity cost of alternative enterprises on that land, then, yes, much of Africa’s wildlife will pass into history beneath “the cow and the plough”. No amount of sanctimonious moralising and hand-wringing by those with warm, safe homes and full bellies about “sentient beings” and wanting our grand-children to see elephants in the wild, will make any difference. Nor will buying more guns and killing more impoverished, poaching foot soldiers.

There is, thus, a compelling case for advocating the investment of finance, materials and expertise into innovative rural land-use planning; into wildlife-based development of rural community land, and into the education of, and into the creation of natural resource-based economic opportunities for, the rural people of Africa by private, institutional and government investors.

Investment in the socio-economic development of Her rural communities is perhaps the most critical and crucial conservation imperative for the future of Africa.

Curriculum Vitae                                                   Conservation    Community    Commerce    Culture                                      © David Peddie 2017