Time to place people at the heart of solving the wildlife crisis


Joyce Msuya, for The Independent

Date Published

We all know that our planet demands urgent attention. In an article published by Nature Communications, we recently learned that the African elephant is on an imminent path to extinction. It will be gone in a matter of decades if we don’t change our approach to conservation.

The article points out that many efforts focus on addressing poaching to save elephants. Indeed, tackling poaching must be a key component of any strategy to save elephant populations. However, even if we stopped poaching tomorrow, elephants and other wildlife would still face enormous threats as they compete with humans for land and water.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) recently published a global assessment that found that humans have altered nature in a way that could potentially lead to the extinction of 1 million species. We cleared 32 million hectares of forests – an area the size of Norway – between 2010 and 2015. The space for wildlife is shrinking fast.

Solving this crisis demands new ways for wildlife and people to coexist. We must create a new economy, one in which the communities living next to wildlife are primary co-investors.

A sustainable wildlife economy benefits people and nature. It consists of harvesting wildlife products and using their habitat in an ecological, economic and socially sustainable way. Examples include harvesting of plants and natural products for food, cosmetics or medicines, or developing wildlife credit schemes for direct payments for conservation, similar to carbon markets.

Tourism is one of the most talked-about components of an effective wildlife economy. According to the World Bank, nature-based tourism is growing significantly. In 2017, international tourist arrivals and receipts in Africa are estimated to have increase by 9% to 63 million visitors and 8% to US $37 billion respectively.

However, for these dividends to drive a socially just transformation, the people living with nature have to be at the centre of transactions. Communities must be treated as equal partners, with their own conservation and development aspirations similarly valued alongside global desires to conserve species. 

Namibia empowers its communities with rights to manage and benefit from the wildlife on their lands through communal conservancies. As a result, a robust wildlife economy that includes tourism, natural products and other wildlife-centred value chains has emerged. 

Communities have received direct benefits and income since the first conservancies were created in 1998, with nearly US$10 million generated in 2016 alone. Today, Namibia’s wildlife populations have grown to become some of the healthiest on the planet, exemplifying the power of putting people at the centre of the wildlife economy. 

Some might argue that solving the wildlife crisis is not as easy as simply turning over rights and management to local communities or establishing tourism enterprises. That is true. 

Years of alienation of people from their land and natural resources has eroded more traditionally sustainable practices that must be reinvigorated. But as the IPBES report showed, nature is faring significantly better in places where land area is owned or managed by local communities. 

In view of this, the African Union and UN Environment – with support from Space for Giants, the World Wildlife Fund, UNDP, the European Union and other partners – are convening the African Wildlife Economy Summit in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, from 23-25 June. 

Hosted by H.E. President Emmerson Mnangagwa, the Summit will bring together communities, private investors and governments to explore the next frontiers of the wildlife economy on the African continent and how communities can be co-investors on that journey. 

Humanity is facing a global wildlife crisis of our own making, but we have to power to alter its course, by placing people at the heart of change.

Joyce Msuya is the Deputy Executive Director of UN Environment. She has more than 20 years of experience in international development, strategy, knowledge management and partnerships @JoyceMsuya