The end of wild elephants? Why we must not let Africa become one giant food farm


Erik Solheim, executive director of UN Environment Programme, The Guardian

Date Published

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Elephants are in big trouble. Even if we beat poaching and illegal trade, their potential doom has been sealed in projections for population growth, and has already been priced into the commonly accepted solutions to how we humans plan to feed ourselves well into the century – by looking to Africa to be our next big breadbasket.

Africa is home to 1.2 billion people, but by 2050 that number is likely to double, and may well double again by the end of the century to reach well over 4 billion. Globally, we may exceed 11 billion souls. This is of course a cause for celebration and a testament to the huge strides we’ve made in public health. We’ve all but beaten polio and yellow fever, mother and child mortality has plummeted, and we’re making headway in the fight against malaria.

Another cause for celebration is the confidence, energy and entrepreneurship in many parts of the African continent – a spirit that is unmatched anywhere in the world. It’s easy to see we’re on the cusp of enormous positive change.

The obvious flipside is the environmental disaster waiting to happen. This has been compounded by number crunchers who are leaving the future of our planet’s fragile ecosystems out of the equation as they try to come up with answers about how to fill billions of bellies. Several scenarios for cropland expansion – many of them focusing on Africa’s so-called “spare land” – have already effectively written off its elephants from having a future in the wild.

These projections have earmarked a huge swathe of land spanning from Nigeria to South Sudan for farming, or parts of west Africa for conversion to palm oil plantations. Economies are already being structured for the future, and are locking us into an unsustainable path to the tune of Feed the World – but with Africa providing the food.

Some models suggest that 29% of the existing elephant range is affected by infrastructure development, human population growth and rapid urban and agricultural expansion; that may rise to 63% by 2050. If we continue like this, elephants will see more of their migration routes become narrow corridors before being eventually severed. Inevitably, as competitors for space, elephants will fight it out with us. But being the dominant species on this planet, we will win. And Africa will become a giant farm.

But we can change this trajectory if we act now on three clear solutions – and even bring about a win-win scenario in which Africa’s future generations come out on top thanks to healthy ecosystems.

The first is better land-use planning; setting clear boundaries and limits on urban development and farming. The benefit here is that when constrained, we innovate. Land use becomes more considered and more efficient.

The second is agricultural yield – looking at food production in the sub-Saharan region and comparing it to, for example, the European Union, we can clearly see room for huge gains. With the right investment, yields could potentially double. Better choices and technology will remove the temptation simply to plough more land.

Third, we need conservation areas that generate tangible benefits for the people who live alongside wildlife, creating real, localised green economies that can secure local buy-in. Namibia has made great strides in providing for community-owned land outside national parks, while Kenya’s recent conservancies law creates a more robust framework for communities to protect and profit.

Most of all, we have to see conservation not as a cost or a burden, but rather as a business opportunity and an investment in our own survival. This is an argument I’ve carried with me into climate negotiations, where for years we’ve been disagreeing about who should foot the bill. At last we’re beginning to see an inclusive green economy and a shift to technologies like renewables as a bounty. These changes can be drivers of a better quality of life, better paid jobs, and a growth potential of decades.

Human wellbeing and the survival of our ecosystems are inextricably linked. The health of Africa’s elephants – a keystone species upon which countless others depend – serves as a barometer of not just the state of the environment, but also our prospects as a species. Simply put, we need to secure the space for both.

As part of our series on elephant conservation, we’re investigating the impact of human development on wildlife habitat in Africa. Please get in touch via