Forging a future for the African wildlife economy
By Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes
Africa’s iconic wildlife forms a key part of the continent’s identity and is globally significant, both ecologically and economically. As the twenty-first century progresses, how is Africa’s economy likely to evolve and what role will this vital natural heritage play within it?
Emerging from the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic, Africa faces some sobering realities. In the short run, public and private custodians of wildlife and natural areas face severely reduced income streams and growing pressures to exploit natural resources.
The pandemic’s disruption of international tourism cut off critical revenue flows to many wildlife conservation initiatives and its general effects on the economy have constrained the extent to which governments and multi-lateral agencies can step in and provide subsidies to compensate for these losses.
Economic constraints negatively affected rural communities and resulted in more people poaching wildlife for food and profit. In the longer run, Africa is set to continue its trajectory of rapid human population growth and urbanisation, which will fuel demand for a range of natural resources against a background of destabilising climate change.
Exactly how this affects African wildlife will depend on the nature of economic development, shaped by a combination of varying socio-political and governance factors, including the application of emerging technologies.
The historical context of African wildlife economies
In pre-historic times, Africa’s wildlife was closely intertwined with the lives and livelihoods of our human ancestors, who depended upon it for their survival. The advent of agricultural practices started to reduce this dependence but until the twentieth century, much of Africa remained relatively sparsely populated by humans with abundant wildlife that was regularly harvested.
The Cape colony in what is today South Africa was the first to experience a human-driven extinction of a large African mammal species (the bluebuck) and by the late nineteenth century most of this region’s wildlife had been lost to hunting and habitat loss through land conversion. Whereas much of Africa has since followed this trend, the establishment of state-protected areas (SPAs) – such as national parks and game reserves – throughout the twentieth century has helped to mitigate it.
However, SPAs have been no panacea. Initially established during colonial times and mostly pursuant of a ‘fortress conservation’ approach (which prohibits all hunting and harvesting), many such areas carry a legacy of forced removals of indigenous people, harming their lives and livelihoods. This has frequently undermined the local legitimacy of SPAs and subsequently led to various forms of resistance, from poaching to an outright land invasion. These problems still persist across large parts of Africa today.
Not only do wildlife governance arrangements vary widely across the continent, but different interest groups continue to disagree over policy goals in relation to its management and use. Some focus on people-centred conservation: efficient and sustainable wildlife use, and the equitable sharing of economic benefits. Others are more concerned with maintaining healthy ecosystems and ecologically functional wild populations of species.
Yet others are more concerned with the welfare of individual animals, especially those with high sentience such as elephants, and may oppose lethal management and extractive commercial exploitation of these animals. These concerns are somewhat in conflict with one another and inevitably require trade-offs in policymaking and practice.
In 2020 Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation committed R10-million to the African Wildlife Economy Institute of Stellenbosch University to support and promote sustainable and inclusive wildlife economies across Africa through research, outreach, teaching and engagement with stakeholders.
When it comes to wildlife and its role in the economy, contemporary Africa finds itself amidst a plethora of competing demands, varied approaches, and diverse results – as well as in the crossfire of fiercely contested policies in relation to wildlife management, harvesting, and trading practices. A robust future African wildlife economy will need to appropriately navigate this policy conflict across different scales of governance at the different levels, and further harness new technologies and sources of socio-economic support, guided by good data and inclusive ethical standards.
Sustainable and resilient wildlife economies are critical to align wildlife conservation with inclusive economic development in Africa. The governance of the African wildlife economy should be informed by the lessons of the past and anticipate future trends and plausible scenarios.
The Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation team continue to build a first-class research entity which supports, funds and partners with national and international researchers to undertake and share cutting-edge research focused on the natural sciences ensuring practical and impactful outcomes. They are committed to further developing, expanding and promoting systems of sustainable conservation programmes and networks throughout the African continent.
The African Wildlife Economy Institute aims to be the leading academic institute in Africa for research, teaching, and outreach on wildlife economies. Its academic mandate is multidisciplinary working across the faculties of Stellenbosch University and, importantly, collaborating with universities, research institutes, and conservation organisations across Africa. AWEI aims to generate new research on wildlife economy and to use it to enhance policies, governance, and management practices within the sector.
Michael ’t Sas-Rolfes, Research Fellow at the African Wildlife Economy Institute
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