Conserving Africa’s nature

August 12, 2016

It is sad that it may take only another generation and elephants will become extinct in Africa unless the issue of poaching largely driven by Chinese mafias is tackled.However, its no brainer that many plants and animals in Africa will become extinct in this century and millions of years of evolutionary experimentation will be abruptly terminated.In a debate with a female friend involved in conservation of nature in Africa, the extinction has raised profound dilemma on which species should be saved and why in Africa.She said that apart from a few countries, wild animals will become extinct soon.Her view is that it depends on who should decide on the necessary trade off between conservation and development and also having sufficient skills to conserve the remaining plant and animal species in increasingly stressed natural environments in Africa as population in the continent is growing at alarming and unsustainable levels.The approach Africa take now was developed in the 20th century where countries established protected areas, such as national parks and game reserves. In these places, society forfeits forever the right to resource development.Outside the parks it has been pretty much open season on nature in agricultural landscapes. The bits that survived were largely protected by economic factors, habitat survived if it wasn’t worth spending money clearing the land, and in some cases, because of an emotional attachment to uncleared bushland. But pressure is increasing on even these remaining uncleared and unprotected landscapes. Schemes to increase agricultural production, harvest water and mine mineral deposits are all impinging on habitat preservation.The protected area conservation approach has almost reached its practical and political limits.

An image I captured from television footage showing Ivory burning at Nairobi National Park
An image I captured from television footage showing Ivory burning at Nairobi National Park on April this year

There is substantial reluctance to set aside national parks because they lock up natural resources and foreclose development opportunities. And government funding for managing existing protected areas is tight and will remain so.In any case, plants and animals and associated ecological processes don’t recognise the boundaries of nature reserves. A lot of biodiversity still remains outside the protected area estate. The lady told me how Africa will secure the future of this unprotected biodiversity present enormous opportunities for win-wins. However, off-reserve conservation has issues about the collision of public and private rights as witnessed in Maasai Mara Game Reserve in Kenya over the last few years.Off-reserve conservation in Kenya is an approach where land owners are encouraged by a variety of legal and financial instruments to manage their land in a manner that is sympathetic for the survival of biodiversity for a fixed or perpetual basis. In Namibia, such agreements don’t necessarily preclude management practices such as grazing of native vegetation and firewood collection.After all, i see no reason why private landowners should give up their rights to development. Conversely, private landowners have the right to destroy irreplaceable products of evolution if they wish although i’d find it immoral. Resolving such issues is creating a range of approaches which span the political spectrum.African society accepts that conservation is mandatory for every responsible citizen and accepting the need to conserve biodiversity using a variety of political instruments and private programs.

In the case of non-government conservation programs there are a range of actors with strongly contrasting, and sometimes conflicting, agenda like farmers, urban conservations,indigenous tribes like Khoi Khoi in Southern Africa, Hadzabe in Tanzania, Ogiek in Kenya and Karamojong in Uganda, naturalists and entrepreneurs among others.Approaches include restoration schemes that take a range of approaches, from restoring degraded ecosystems through to biodiversity-friendly plantations. Some conservation organisations believe owning the land themselves is the key to sustaining biodiversity. Others believe partnerships with landowners are more effective.Such partnerships can involve legal agreements where the owners forgo their rights to development. Or they might get financial incentives to maintain the condition of land.But external factors can undermine the security of such schemes. An important innovation for biodiversity conservation is the development of indigenous protected areas that includes a small proportion of community lands.The jury is still out on what form of off-reserve conservation works best, or how best to maintain the ecological integrity of landscapes in Africa. It is widely accepted that climate change will compound Africa’s biodiversity crisis.The current protected areas are almost certainly too underpowered to effectively conserve biodiversity in these circumstances. And it remains unclear if off-reserve conservation like Lewa Conservation area in Kenya will be able to effectively buffer the protected area network.In essence, in the 21st century the only certainty in Africa’s nature is change. While that is bad news for the evolutionary trajectory of a lot of organisms it makes game parks, conversation areas, national parks ever more important insurance policy for what will survive in Africa.

Contador Harrison