African conservation today: New trends, perspectives and opportunities

Introduction to the Current Conservation special issue on African Conservation

Rapid social, technological and environmental change are reshaping conditions for human societies all around the world. Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplifed the pace of change with an unprecedented scope of disruption, and, in many cases, social trauma. For conservation today, the watchwords of our time are urgency, scale, and entrepreneurship. Conservation efforts need to creatively address enormous challenges on a large scale, if they are to step up to address the realities of the unfolding climate and biodiversity crises.

Nowhere are these realities more pressing than in sub-Saharan Africa. With by far the youngest and most rapidly growing human population, widespread economic poverty, and relatively young political systems with fragile democracies, African societies face an additional suite of challenges. And with economies and large rural populations that are heavily dependent on natural resources and healthy ecosystems, the impacts of climate change and environmental degradation are particularly pressing across this region. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disease has become a more prominent direct and indirect threat to the conservation of great apes and other species that generate signifcant tourism revenue, and which supports conservation efforts on the ground.

This puts conservation in a critical position in relation to social, economic, and even political futures across Africa. It demands, as a recent paper published in Science by a leading group of African conservationists (and summarized in this issue of Current Conservation) puts it, “a paradigm shift toward sustainability, meeting peoples’ needs, and equity” in how conservation is conceptualized and pursued. It also makes the ‘old’ ways of doing conservation—top-down, centralized, focused on pristine nature and wilderness, and with a strong bias towards the biological sciences—increasingly anachronistic in a context where human livelihoods and land use practices have been intertwined with ecological systems for longer than anywhere else on earth.

In this context, new ideas and approaches to conservation are indeed fourishing across the region, creating new possibilities. Just as African countries have taken a vanguard role in pioneering new technologies and business models in felds such as telecommunications and fnancial services, the region is fostering pioneering conservation models and practices in felds such as human-wildlife confict mitigation, ecotourism, community-based conservation, protected area management, and One Health approaches.

This special issue of Current Conservation attempts to capture some of the new directions that are reshaping African conservation today. It features a range of perspectives that touch on many of the key themes and trends in conservation from across the region.

One highly innovative and entrepreneurial organization working to reshape African conservation is the African Leadership Group, helmed by its founder and CEO, Fred Swaniker (originally from Ghana). In establishing the School of Wildlife Conservation as part of the ALG network in Rwanda, and creating the Business of Conservation annual conference, Swaniker often talks of wanting to change conservation in the region from an ‘old social cause’ to an ‘engine of growth’ and development. Here, African Leadership University’s Director of Research, Susan Snyman, reports on the key findings of a major new study ALU has carried out over the past year on Africa’s ‘wildlife economy’, and how developing new economic opportunities tied to wildlife and wild landscapes are key to conservation efforts.

Relatedly, David Obura, a Kenyan marine scientist and leading global expert on coral reefs, recently led the authorship of a prominent article by a group of African conservationists in Science that provides an African perspective on global conservation models and targets. Calling for a greater focus on ‘shared landscapes’ that support people and biodiversity, Obura and colleagues ground the ambitions of the 2030 global conservation dialogue in African realities and priorities.

The special issue includes two perspectives on community management, indigenous knowledge and land use systems, human-wildlife co-existence, and locally led collaborations from East Africa: one on the Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative by Alphonce Mallya and one on the South Rift Valley of Kenya by Peter Tyrell, Peadar Brehony, and John Kamanga.

The Saharan and Sahelian region is often overlooked in conservation efforts, but some of the most notable efforts at rewilding and restoration of endemic wildlife, and development of locally suitable management systems, is taking place in countries such as Chad. John Newby, of the Sahara Conservation Fund, provides an overview of these efforts.

Building the capacity of African scientifc networks and institutions is important to the long-term effectiveness of conservation in the region. Inza Kone and colleagues describe how the African Primatologist Society is helping to build African leadership in conservation science and action. Lastly, the special issue showcases some of African conservation’s new voices and emerging leaders, who are driving change and innovation in their communities and their countries.

This article is from issue


2021 Sep