The ‘Wildlife Bank’: Why cash loans could be the only way to save Africa’s iconic wildlife


MARCUS CLARKE, Mail and Guardian

Date Published
We must find a way to translate the abstract worth of Africa’s wildlife into hard cash, so that the animals are genuinely worth more alive than dead.
The moment a hasty crocodile was killed after getting trapped in a maze of angry, angry hippos in Tanzania’s Serengeti Park. But that is not the danger Africa’s wildlife faces – it’s poachers. (Photo Vaclav Silha/Barcroft USA/Getty Images).
The moment a hasty crocodile was killed after getting trapped in a maze of angry, angry hippos in Tanzania’s Serengeti Park. But that is not the danger Africa’s wildlife faces – it’s poachers. (Photo Vaclav Silha/Barcroft USA/Getty Images).
AFRICA is losing its iconic wildlife. There is a real danger that its diverse landscapes will be emptied of large mammals, perhaps in as little as a decade.
The rural poor subsist where they can and how they can, until recent times often cohabiting with wildlife, whilst agribusiness is given a free pass to destroy habitat and wildlife in the name of development to the benefit of a very few, often foreign multinationals.
Conservative estimates show that tusks from a single elephant (assuming an elephant carries 10kg worth of ivory) will be sold at $60,000 in the retail market.
But research by David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust calculated that an elephant is worth US$1.6 million dollars in revenue over the course of its lifetime; each elephant contributes US$23,000 per year to local economies.
The loss of 60% of Africa’s elephants over the last few decades thus represents a huge loss of revenue, compared to the poachers’ cut of black market price, which is a one-time deal.
So if elephants are worth more alive than dead, why do they keep being killed?
In my view, we, as conservationists, need to wrestle with the fundamental reality on the ground – capital.
But this is not the paper value that comes with the abstract discussions of what wildlife is “worth” but real hard currency. We must find a way to translate this abstract worth into money that a family can spend on sending their children to school or starting a small business.
In 1998, after completing my MSc in Conservation Biology, I spent a few months as a research assistant on a private game reserve in South Africa.
The reserve was developed from former cattle ranch land with poor soils and low productivity into a luxury game reserve boasting the “Big 5”, lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. This was achieved by purchasing all the animals required to repopulate the landscape.
It was in this transformation I recognized that South Africa was developing a strong business model, indeed an industry, out of private game reserves and game farming.
In South Africa wild animals and land can be owned by the individual rather than the State so there is a hard currency value attached to an elephant, for example, and a measurable benefit to a private reserve with capital investments in wildlife. Indeed farming “game animals” is more efficient use of marginal landscapes than cattle with potentially no ecological downside.
Private game reserves
For Private Game Reserves in South Africa this “stock” carries a quantifiable market value and is negotiated for in the purchase price like furniture in a home sale. If your reserve has the “Big 5” one can charge visitors more, increasing the value of your lodge. 
When reserves come together to form larger conservancies and drop their fences (South Africa’s reserves are fenced) the numbers of animals contributes to negotiating traversing rights for game viewing, which again can attract a value or premium. 
This is one reason why 90% of Africa’s rhinos live in South Africa, the owners of these animals rely on these animals for  their livelihood. Their animals are genuinely worth more alive.
This is where the idea of “The Wildlife Bank” came to mind.
Not every community can rely on eco-tourism to benefit from wildlife in their area – tourism is a notoriously fickle industry, and many times, the proceeds from park fees is stolen by corrupt local officials.
But a Wildlife Bank goes even further and will provide a hard currency system of payments, loans and incentives – in the same way as traditional donors give loans and grants – which will enable communities to educate their kids and feed their families whilst investing in wildlife friendly practices.
Where will the money come from?
Internationally funded Wildlife Bank
There already exists precedent for the setting aside of funds for such payments.
There’s REED+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation), developed in response to the UN Climate Conference in December 2009, a $4billion fund that pays out hard cash to countries and projects that avoid deforestation.
What we need is an internationally-funded Wildlife Bank that will similarly pay out rural communities that keep their wildlife alive, and the money can thus be used for directly developing the community. Only then will it be undisputed that conservation pays.
Conservationists on the frontlines have long recognized that local communities are the key to preserving our wildlife. Over the last few decades many projects such as CAMPFIRE in Zimbabwe, have sought to create buffer zones around protected areas by helping develop sources of income from sustainable uses of wildlife.
In East Africa, there’s the Northern Rangelands Trust and Cottars Wildlife Trust in Kenya. These projects facilitate the participation of local communities in wildlife protection and tourism, providing job opportunities and income.
A Wildlife Bank will enable conservationists expand programs like these, safe in the knowledge that that they have long term financial support.
We know that the future of wildlife relies on local communities, and we recognise that the land is their main resource including all that lives and grows on it. So by banking on people future development we can secure a future for Africa’s iconic landscapes.
Bring on The Wildlife Bank!
-The author is a conservation biologist and wildlife advocate.