As price of illicit tusks and rhino horn trumps gold, Africa needs to go to war for its wildlife

Wildlife is not just a source of pride for Africa, it is also the backbone of tourism, an industry valued at $34bn and employs 8 million people.

RECENTLY, the world rallied around wildlife during the second-annual World Wildlife Day, a day proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in December 2013.

Long before it was called World Wildlife Day, however, March 3rd was known on the continent as Africa Environment Day, established by the African Union in 2002, and later held in conjunction with Wangari Maathai Day. This is for good reason.

The value of wildlife to Africa is enormous. Africa is home to some of the world’s most charismatic and iconic species, including elephant, rhino, buffalo, leopard and lion. These animals live in some of the planet’s most spectacular landscapes, many of them World Heritage Sites. 

Our wildlife is not just a source of pride for Africa, but it is also the backbone of tourism, an industry valued at $34 billion that directly employs 8 million people across the continent.

Many African countries have prioritised tourism as a major sector for driving economic growth, employment creation and poverty reduction, especially as they seek to move toward a more green economy and sustainable development - from food and water production to climate regulation, the various habitats occupied by wildlife provide critical ecosystem services that support life on earth. 

In addition, these areas provide minerals, timber and other natural resources on which many economic activities are based. In recognition of this and in pursuit of major international conservation obligations, many African countries have initiated conservation initiatives that been successful in conserving wildlife.

But are we doing enough? The theme of this year’s World Wildlife Day was, - “Its time to get serious about wildlife crime”. It drew attention to the threat posed by the multi-billion dollar illegal wildlife trade and the urgent need to combat wildlife crime at all levels of society. 

This illicit industry is decimating wildlife populations across Africa. As we celebrated this important day, we reflected on the state of wildlife in Africa and could not help but ask the question: How serious is Africa about combating wildlife crime and protecting the future of its wildlife? Here we provide some ideas to challenge Africa to become more serious about its wildlife.

Today, wildlife crime threatens to undermine the ecological and economic value of wildlife as it targets and decimates key species. Since 2005, there has been a steep surge in poaching that can be attributed to widespread poverty, inadequate protection by poorly funded wildlife authorities, political instability in some countries, poor law enforcement and increasing demand for wildlife products in Asia. 

This crime is now driven by well-organised transnational criminal networks that supply illegal wildlife products such as ivory and rhino horn to booming markets in Asia whose value is estimated to be worth US$50-150 billion per year. To satisfy this demand, almost 30,000 elephants and 1,000 rhinos are poached annually in Africa for ivory and horn respectively. 

The price of both products has now outstripped the price of gold. We and others in the conservation community estimate that at current poaching rates, some local populations of species could well become extinct in the next 20 years.  

Several countries, including Kenya, South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania and Cameroon, are among the worst hit. Yet, many of these countries have led the way in putting in place various solutions to address wildlife crime. 

Legislation for penalising poachers and traffickers and enforcement has improved in countries like Kenya and South Africa. Funding to wildlife authorities for protecting key species has increased.

Various complementary law enforcement initiatives ranging from community-based scouts to smart technology have been introduced. Inter-agency and inter-state collaboration on wildlife law enforcement has been improved. 

These actions, while a step in the right direction, remain insufficient and must be expanded in scope to fully address wildlife crime. We must see a comparable commitment from our politicians to weed out corruption in their ranks, which undermines the fight against wildlife crime, and to dedicate the appropriate resources to combat the trade.

Africa cannot tackle this problem alone. She welcomes the collaboration of the international community. The international community has stepped up efforts to combat wildlife crime in recent years: the illegal wildlife trafficking conference in London in 2014; the 2013 Executive Order issued by US President Barack Obama that led to the establishment of a national strategy for combating wildlife trafficking; the burning of ivory stockpiles in China, Kenya, the United States and other countries; and the willingness of celebrities and political figures from Yao Ming to the Prince of Wales to speak out against the trade and in support of Africa’s wildlife.

Sadly what is missing from this chorus is a coordinated and strong African voice, nurtured and owned by Africans to stand up against wildlife crime. Where is the African voice that articulates a future in which wildlife co-exists with modern Africa? Where are the thousands and millions of African voices? Where are our Wangari Maathais?

Very few efforts have been convened to create this voice and vision. The African Elephant Summit held in December 2013 is an isolated example. 

The forthcoming international conference on illegal wildlife trade to be convened by the African Union (AU) at the end of April 2015 in Congo-Brazzaville does provide hope and a venue for the emergence of this voice and vision.

The vision must identify ways to recruit and enlist influential Africans to loudly advocate against the theft of our wildlife heritage and create wide awareness among ordinary Africans to spur them into action. 

The AU’s Vision 2063 must include wildlife and habitat protection—currently absent in the Vision document—as a way to encourage political will, leadership and dedication of resources toward this issue.

The decimation of Africa’s wildlife is an African problem. It must be owned and addressed by Africans first before we can stretch our hands to the international community for help. Now is the time for Africans to stand up and be counted if we are serious about securing a future for wildlife in our rapidly modernising continent.

-The author is Vice President at African Wildlife Foundation.

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