Unlocking the potential of Africa’s wildlife economy to drive conservation

Conservation in Africa today continues to be strongly shaped by economic realities. For conservation to succeed, it needs to contribute to reducing poverty and uplifting the economic aspirations of a rapidly growing population with huge demand for employment and upward mobility. Conservation efforts also must face the reality that many wild species—particularly the region’s iconic large mammals—create real costs that are imposed on local people living alongside wildlife. Fortunately, Africa’s wildlife resources also have immense economic value and are one of Africa’s greatest actual and potential sources of competitive economic opportunity. This value is, however, poorly understood and largely not taken into consideration in decision-making, policy development or in practice.

59 percent of Africans live in rural areas and are heavily dependent on natural resources for subsistence and livelihoods. Local and national economies also rely heavily on natural resources, the sustainable use of which is crucial for ensuring economic resilience and a prosperous future. However, these resources are rapidly declining in the face of various, mostly human-induced threats, with serious implications for conservation, human welfare, and the wildlife economy. African countries must effectively manage their natural resources for them to deliver a sustainable fow of benefts, and to harness the value of wildlife for conservation in both protected areas, as well as on private and community lands.

State of the wildlife economy in Africa

The old adage ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure’ applies equally to the value of wildlife. It was a key impetus for the African Leadership University to develop a State of the Wildlife Economy in Africa report. An understanding of the wildlife economy and the value of these activities to local, national, and regional economies is essential for encouraging greater investment in wildlife—the asset base of the wildlife economy—so that governments will see wildlife as a key strategic asset, as well as a key growth opportunity. The hope is that by encouraging a ‘growth mentality’ and identifying opportunities, governments, private sector, and all stakeholders will invest more in sustaining the region’s natural assets (i.e., in long-term conservation as a key pillar of Africa’s economic development).

For many years, the focus of the wildlife economy has been on ecotourism. However, COVID-19 and the catastrophic impacts of the pandemic on the ecotourism industry have starkly highlighted the need to diversify the wildlife economy, as well as ecotourism itself, to build resilience and reduce risk. Other important activities with scope for further growth include wildlife ranching, carbon credit projects, film and photography, wildlife estates, non-timber forest products, and fsheries. The report includes detailed information on all of the above aspects of the wildlife economy, as well as the potential challenges and opportunities related to each. Some of the key regional trends highlighted in the report are summarized below.

Key regional trends

Most African countries engage in a diversity of wildlife economy activities, at varying degrees of intensity and scale. Ecotourism is by far the largest activity in most countries, especially in eastern and southern Africa. Yet, despite its ubiquitous nature, detailed data on ecotourism was found to be inconsistent. Forest products are of widespread importance across the subcontinent. However, a large part of the market is informal and, therefore, not accounted for. There is also a signifcant amount of illegal trade and unsustainable use, especially charcoal, which remains the most important source of household energy in most African countries. At the same time, this extensive use highlights the high level of demand for forest products and the huge potential of legal market opportunities.

Wild meat is one of the most valuable forest products in Africa, after timber. Wild meat hunting is largely legal in central and western Africa—where consumption is more prevalent due to strong wild meat-eating cultures and traditions—although it is poorly regulated. Conversely, it is illegal or heavily restricted in many east and southern Africa countries, where wildlife has high tourism value. Wild meat hunting is a key driver of species decline across Africa and African countries need to improve monitoring and research related to it.

Trophy hunting is practiced in a number of countries, and in some, such as Cameroon, Namibia, and South Africa, comprises a large part of local and national economies. There is, however, a lack of comparable data related to hunting, most of which is outdated. And wildlife ranching is prevalent in southern Africa—Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe—because of enabling legal conditions and policies that provide secure private and, in some cases such as Namibia, communal user rights over wildlife. As a result of COVID-19, many other countries are looking at this as a key activity to diversify the wildlife economy—for example Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

The report found that the carbon market in Africa has great potential, in terms of the revenues that can be earned and as a means to support conservation, but it is largely untapped. This is due to a combination of policy and legal provisions—relating to property rights surrounding carbon and forests, which would give communities and the private sector rights and, therefore, incentives to engage in the carbon market—as well as a lack of awareness and/or understanding of the carbon market. Where communities have rights to beneft from carbon projects, it has been shown that there can be considerable positive fnancial impacts.

Finally, wildlife film and photography is underdeveloped in almost all countries. It should be seriously considered as a future opportunity for employment and revenue, both locally and nationally. The same holds for wildlife- or ‘ecoestates’, which can provide a mechanism for integrating housing development in natural landscapes in a way that conserves biodiversity, but also provides innovative fnancing for conservation of these landscapes through land purchases, rentals, levies, etc.

Examples and case studies

At a national level, the report includes many examples that highlight the positive impact of different policies and institutional arrangements for unlocking the potential of the wildlife economy. For example, in South Africa, the Game Theft Act (1991) provides certain ownership rights to landowners over wild animals held in adequately enclosed areas. This has provided incentives for a major shift in farming activities, with the sale of wild meat in South Africa now generating approximately USD 56 million annually.

In Rwanda, the Rwanda Development Board (RDB), which was established in 2008 out of a merger of eight government institutions, is a government institution with a mandate to accelerate the country’s economic development by being a ‘One Stop Centre’ for business and investments, and thus providing an enabling environment for the private sector to invest. The government of Rwanda also revised the investment law, in order to facilitate the growth of new sectors and attract new investments, by means of various incentives. The establishment of such a supportive, enabling environment is important for attracting investors in the wildlife economy.

In Namibia and Kenya, community conservancies have been supported and established on a large scale to create formal, legal mechanisms for communities to beneft from wildlife enterprises and uses. In Namibia, over 80 conservancies now generate over USD 10 million in annual revenue and income from tourism, hunting, and other natural resource uses. In Zambia, a new institutional framework for community forest management uses legislation to vest rights to forest products, including carbon, in community forest managers, thereby allowing communities to beneft from their forests in new and important ways.

Strengthening the wildlife economy

Some key recommendations in the report include the need to raise awareness and increase knowledge related to different wildlife economy activities. This is because many stakeholders, especially local communities, are not aware of alternatives or how and where they can get involved. The overall strengthening of policy, legal, and regulatory provisions governing natural resources—particularly property rights over wildlife, forest, and fsheries—is critical to unlocking the potential of the wildlife economy. There also needs to be an improvement in overall governance and the business environment, including institutional arrangements for beneft-sharing, to ensure greater inclusiveness and equity and to garner support from local communities. Essential to the long-term sustainability of wildlife and wildlife
economies is investment by government, the private sector, and communities in the conservation of wildlife—the asset base of the wildlife economy.

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of collaboration and strategic partnerships at all levels, as well as the need for a government strategy to provide direction, guidance, and structural coordination to all stakeholders. The wildlife economy includes a diverse range of stakeholder groups across several sectors. Hence, strategic direction is important to avoid overlapping mandates, a lack of role clarity, and conflicting policies and actions.

In addition, broader diversifcation of wildlife economy activities and products is important in order to reduce risk, build resilience and engage more stakeholders, sharing benefts more widely. The establishment of systems and protocols for data collection and analysis for Africa, at all levels from the community to national, is also critical to promote data-driven decision-making going forward.

Ultimately, we need to change the narrative about wildlife to drive investment and conservation outcomes. Wildlife is a key strategic asset contributing to African development and livelihoods and we need to grow this asset and invest in it.

Further reading

Snyman, S., D. Sumba, F. Vorhies, E. Gitari, C. Enders, A. Ahenkan, A.F.K. Pambo et al. 2021. State of the Wildlife Economy in Africa. African Leadership University, School of Wildlife Conservation, Kigali, Rwanda.

Snyman, S., F. Nelson, D. Sumba, F. Vorhies, C. Enders. (2021). Roadmap for Africa’s Wildlife Economy. A summary of Snyman, S., D. Sumba, F. Vorhies, E. Gitari, C. Enders, A. Ahenkan, A.F.K. Pambo et al. 2021. State of the Wildlife Economy in Africa. African Leadership University, School of Wildlife Conservation, Kigali, Rwanda.

This article is from issue


2021 Sep