The most underused tools in fighting wildlife poaching in Africa are its beloved national soccer teams


Yomi Kazeem, Quartz Africa

Date Published

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If you’ve watched the African Cup of Nations (AFCON) hosted by Egypt over the past month, you’ll likely have heard nicknames of the continent’s soccer teams.

They range from being literal like South Africa’s Bafana Bafana which translates to “the boys”, to being historical like Egypt’s Pharaohs. In some cases, they invoke national heritage like Zambia’s national team, the Chipolopolo, which is loosely named after copper bullets—derived from the country’s biggest export.

But there’s a dose of irony in some cases as several African national soccer teams are nicknamed after animals that are either extinct or critically endangered in their countries.

Take Morocco, its national team is nicknamed Atlas Lions after Barbary lions, a subspecies known for their dark manes and being native to North African mountains. But these lions have been extinct in the wild since the 1960s, partly due to excessive hunting and a lack of protection.

Similarly, Cameroon’s national team is nicknamed The Indomitable Lions even though its actual lion population is “small and regionally endangered.” Then there’s Senegal whose national team is nicknamed Teranga Lions while its lion population is estimated to be fewer than 50, according to the Lion Recovery Fund. Across board, these lion populations have dropped sharply largely due to severe poaching and lax conservation efforts.

In Angola, the national team is nicknamed Palancas Negras after giant sable antelopes, the country’s national symbol, famed for its long, curved horns. Yet, decades of civil war during which the antelopes were excessively killed for meat has left the species critically endangered.

In Nigeria, where the national team is nicknamed Super Eagles, the birds used to be key attractions at festivals in northern Nigeria but have since disappeared from some of their known habitats. Eagles in Nigeria are currently listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

For its part, Côte d’Ivoire, with a national team nicknamed Les Éléphants, has made moves towards securing its dwindling elephant population including deploying rangers to save dwarf elephants in the country’s west and relocating its African forest elephants to its southern coast. But despite best efforts, elephant poaching still outpaces population growth rates across the most of the continent.

To be fair, there are also several European national soccer teams nicknamed after wildlife. National teams in Bulgaria and England, for instance, are nicknamed after lions even though the big cats haven’t existed in the wild in either country for thousands of years. 

But one key difference however is that unlike in most African countries, there’s much wider awareness about wildlife conservation as well as significantly more government spending and civil society support. In comparison, conservation initiatives across Africa are struggling to tackle problems like persistent poaching for illegal and lucrative wildlife trade, controversial trophy hunting and widespread disinterest in conservation.

Channeling the Love

This year’s AFCON tournament has proven yet again that millions of Africans are crazy about soccer. While traveling to Egypt to watch live games is out of reach for most and has been made even more difficult by the country’s visa processing constraints, local bars and public viewing centers in participating countries have been typically filled up during matches as the sport continues to serve both as an escape and cultural unifier.

Nothing symbolizes that more than in Côte d’Ivoire where the national team, led by iconic former captain Dider Drogba, is credited with playing a key role in ending a brutal civil war after helping the country qualify to make its debut at the 2006 World Cup.

For conservation groups, leveraging the widespread affinity for and popularity of national soccer teams can prove transformative for raising awareness about wildlife conservation to a mass audience.

So far, by themselves, the nicknames have had little impact on conservation efforts. “In Africa,  the national teams mostly nicknamed after wildlife species [are] predominantly in Central and West Africa yet this is where a lot of the species that are critically endangered and highly threatened are,” says Edwin Tambara, director of external relations at the Africa Wildlife Foundation.

(A 2016 report by the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species through analysis of its Monitoring the Illegal Killing of Elephants (MIKE) program found the proportion of illegally killed elephants is highest in Central and Western Africa.)

Changing that reality will require planned campaigns, messaging and high-level government support to use national teams as tools for conservation awareness. “It will take innovation on our end as conservation organizations but we could look into partnerships with national teams,” Tambara says. Critically, this kind of partnership can solve one of conservation organizations’ biggest problems which Tambara admits is getting conversations about the importance of conservation into broader audiences beyond wildlife enthusiasts. 

For evidence of what’s possible from such a partnership, conservation groups and government agencies can look to Kenya where Tusk, a UK-based non-profit group which focuses on wildlife conservation in Africa, leverages Kenya’s renown for long distance running by hosting an annual marathon within Lewa Wildlife Conservancy located around Mount Kenya. While the marathon was established mainly to raise funds for conservation programs, “it was immediately clear that it had a number of other benefits,” says Charlie Mayhew, Tusk chief executive.

“The marathon helps raise the profile of Lewa to a domestic audience in Kenya and showcases the beauty and value of Kenya’s natural heritage—and need to protect it—to Kenyans,” he says. Mayhew explains the marathon has become “a vehicle for engaging a much wider audience in our world of conservation.”

The United Nations has also explored partnerships to boost wildlife conservation among private sector players as well: last year, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) launched The Lion’s Share, an initiative to get corporate partners to contribute 0.5% of their media spend for each of their adverts which feature an animal. The raised funds are then spent to support animals and their habitats globally, UNDP says.

As conservation keeps “getting tougher” across the continent, Tambara says government policy must look to readdress the balance and protect elements of our environment. “As much as we can nickname ourselves after wildlife species, the real connection to those species is getting lost,” he says. “If we call ourselves the Indomitable Lions, what’s happening to lions in Cameroon?”