Africa must not become one big game park


Patrick Bergin, The Guardian

Date Published

Around the world, people are looking to the recent meeting in Johannesburg of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to help end the elephant and rhino poaching crisis. This hope is misplaced.

The convention is, by definition, about legal trade in endangered species. It determines what species of animals and plants can be traded by law-abiding nations and citizens. The poaching crisis, conversely, is about illegal trade and is driven by individuals and entities that are not bothered by the niceties of law, much less relatively toothless international conventions. (This is not to say that Cites is irrelevant to the poaching crisis. Sadly, Cites has an important and unfortunate indirect impact on illegal trade by creating conditions and sending messages to the marketplace that inadvertently help promote a parallel, illegal trade.)

This is why there is overwhelming consensus among mainstream, science-based conservation organisations that legal ivory trade should be ended for good. When ivory is not for sale, and when it becomes socially unacceptable to own it, then the potential and the incentive to trade illegal ivory will also disappear.

The story of conservation in Africa, typified by the African elephant, has been one of constant retreat. The elephant has ceaselessly been driven into ever-smaller parks and reserves, dwindling to ever-lower populations. In the early 1970s, Africa had an estimated 1.3m elephants. The first great poaching and trafficking crisis at the end of the century saw the “continental herd” reduced by more than half to approximately 600,000. The current crisis is on track to halve the population yet again.

While it is true that there are a few examples of threatened wildlife species that have begun rebuilding after dramatic declines, namely the white rhino and the mountain gorilla, these rates of rebound can only be considered impressive from a low base – a mere 200 to 300 individuals at the nadir. Must we really go so close to the edge before humanity acknowledges their potential loss and only then generates the collective will to act?

Even after the present crisis, Africa’s wildlife still faces an extremely challenging future. The continent now has the youngest and fastest-growing human population in the world. Cities are expanding. International agencies and companies are seeking a massive expansion in African agriculture.

Long overdue infrastructure, including ports, highways and railways, is being built. But all of that comes with a potential conservation price. So is all lost? I don’t believe so. The African Wildlife Foundation exists to actively promote and advocate for a future in which large and representative populations of wildlife continue to exist in an increasingly modern and prosperous Africa. We believe that Africa must not become one big game park and that to ensure the future of Africa’s wild places, conservation planning must be managed in a way that benefits Africans themselves.

Priority areas must be set aside and vigorously defended against short-term commercial exploitation. African nations, the regional economic blocs and Africa as a whole should establish specific numeric goals to stabilise the “continental herd” of elephant and the “continental pride” of lion, as well as many other species at reasonable, viable, resilient numbers, which realistically can coexist alongside modern society.

With political will, planning and foresight, it should be possible for Africa to have livable modern cities, well-planned infrastructure, productive farmlands, industrial parks for manufacturing and jobs, while retaining the Serengeti, the Okavango delta, the Kalahari desert, the Congo basin forest and other very large natural systems with their resident wildlife.

These areas will remain critical for climate change mitigation, water catchment, support for the agricultural economy and both domestic and international tourism.

While supporting voices are welcome, the political will to conserve Africa’s natural heritage cannot be generated from London, New York or Hollywood. The new young, tech-savvy, increasingly urban generation of African citizens must value and become the strongest advocates for their continent’s unique wildlife heritage.

Patrick Bergin is the CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation