Africa’s Pivotal Moment

As human populations increase and competition for land intensifies, the continent could see significant carbon release and wildlife loss if action isn’t taken.

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Rachel Nuwer is a freelance journalist and author based in Brooklyn.

Africa is a place of superlatives. It’s home to some of the world’s most iconic animals, including a quarter of all mammal species and one-fifth of all bird species. About 17% of its land — more than 1.6 million square miles — is protected for wildlife, with habitats ranging from sprawling grasslands and snow-dusted mountains to the world’s oldest desert and second-largest tropical rainforest. Tens of millions of Africa’s 1.4 billion human residents depend on the continent’s natural capital, including for fresh water and crop pollination, and for jobs through industries such as wildlife-based tourism, which generated $29 billion annually prior to the pandemic. 

But Africa’s people and wildlife face an uncertain future. Although the continent is home to some of the world’s largest and most intact natural landscapes, they are rapidly being lost to agriculture, livestock, mining, logging and other forms of development. These pressures are only set to intensify. Sub-Saharan Africa’s human population is growing at a rate three times the global average, with most predictions putting the total population at around 4 billion by 2100. This represents both a challenge and opportunity. 

“I think Africa’s going to be a super dynamic continent going forward, but we have to acknowledge the fact that things are changing very quickly,” said Peter Lindsey, a Zimbabwean conservation biologist and director of the Lion Recovery Fund at the Wildlife Conservation Network. As human populations increase and competition for land intensifies, “that’s going to result in very significant losses for wildlife and carbon release if we don’t get ahead of this.” 

Last year, Lindsey and a group of African and international colleagues published a paper in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources examining various trajectories for Africa’s future and laying out a roadmap for steering the continent along the most sustainable route possible. “The coming decades are likely to be the most challenging ones that nature in Africa will ever face,” Lindsey said. “So it is the steps we take now and over the next two to four generations that will determine what is left to conserve.” 

“Sub-Saharan Africa’s human population is growing at a rate three times the global average, with most predictions putting the total population at around 4 billion by 2100.”

Lindsey and his colleagues found that growing human populations pose a very real threat to nature, especially when combined with other factors such as relatively weak governance and poverty. According to the World Bank, while the overall poverty rate in Africa declined from 1990 to 2015, the total number of Africans living in poverty actually increased due to population growth. By 2030, the continent is expected to be home to 90% of the world’s poor — most of whom are “deeply and almost entirely dependent on the provisioning of ecosystem services for their livelihoods,” said Andrew Parker, a South African conservation biologist and co-founder of Conserve Global, a non-profit group that provides protected area management services to community conservancies and governments in Africa. 

Unless proactive steps are taken now, poor Africans will continue to have no choice but to use the finite environmental resources at their disposal. Concurrently, commercial traders will increasingly exploit African countries’ need for capital and extract minerals, timber and other natural goods until nothing is left. In some places, this is already happening. At the moment, African governments aren’t allocating enough money toward protecting national parks and game reserves, said Tunde Morakinyo, executive director of the Africa Nature Investors Foundation, an African-led non-profit group that develops innovative financial models to fund African protected areas using private-sector investment. Many protected areas today are “full of cows, full of logging, and wildlife is being killed and disappearing.” 

Most human encroachment on protected areas in Africa is happening illegally, but in some cases, it’s being greenlit by governments. “With literally one signature, an entire half of a national park can be put under agriculture,” said Jean Labuschagne, director of conservation development at African Parks, a non-profit group that rehabilitates and manages national parks in partnership with African governments and communities.

“Unless proactive steps are taken now, poor Africans will continue to have no choice but to use the finite environmental resources at their disposal.”

As ecosystems are degraded and eventually destroyed, the people living in such landscapes become “trapped in perpetual poverty,” Parker said. “A failed landscape is a failure for people as much as it is for wildlife.”  

Lindsey and others are calling on the world at large to start steering Africa toward a sustainable future now, before its nature is lost and it is too late to change the continent’s fate. The value of doing so for biodiversity, carbon capture, provisioning of ecosystem services and cultural heritage is global in scope, and as such, Africa should be receiving much more substantial outside support for nature conservation, Lindsey said. “Africa is ultimately in charge of its own destiny, but it’s going to need help, and it deserves help.” 

Dynamic Demographics

Efforts to protect the environment need to go hand-in-hand with ones aimed at bettering people’s lives. This includes prioritizing access to education and family planning for women and girls — a move toward equality that would allow more women to contribute to African countries’ GDPs as well as slow population growth. “The numbers don’t lie,” said Alice Ruhweza, a sustainability thought leader based in Nairobi, Kenya. “When you look at a girl who spends twelve years in school, you reduce the number of children she has by four.” 

Even if most African women are empowered to make their own choices around fertility, though, there are some cultural factors that could affect predictions about the continent’s changing demographics. Historically and around the world, when women have been empowered to choose the number of children they want, most have opted for one or two. In Africa, however, many educated women today say their ideal number of children is three to five. “It’s a general trend we’re seeing across the continent,” said Sarah Harper, a gerontologist at the University of Oxford in the UK. While the reasons behind this difference in preferences are unclear, if three to five children are what most African women want, “we have to accept that,” Harper said. 

Regardless of African women’s fertility choices, what is for certain is that the continent’s human population is set to grow. Low-end estimates put Africa at 1.9 billion people by 2100, while high-end ones predict more than 6 billion. The growing population will no doubt present challenges for the environment. But while some might view this as “a burden,” Ruhweza emphasized that with education and opportunity, these future children “could build our African and global economies.” 

The Cost Of Conservation 

Even if Africa’s population was not set to grow, significantly more money would still be needed to ensure that its wildlife is preserved over the next century. The scale of the additional investment that’s needed is “drastic” when compared to the status quo, Lindsey said, yet in global terms, it is quite manageable. “You’re talking something in the region of $5 to $10 billion a year, but for environmental protection across a massive, massive, massive continent,” he said. “So the returns would be really significant, too.” 

Africa has traditionally depended on tourism and philanthropy to fund its protected areas, but as the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare, that model is highly vulnerable. During the pandemic, around 10% of more than 8,600 protected and conserved areas across the continent were left with no budget at all, and nearly all protected areas experienced significant financial impacts that affected their ability to perform basic functions like ranger patrols. Even before COVID’s arrival, though, Africa’s protected areas were not receiving close to the support they needed. In 2018, Lindsey and his colleagues found that 88 to 94% of 282 protected areas they analyzed were operating on budgets of less than 20% of that required to do effective conservation. 

Africa needs a diversified, resilient stream of funding to close this budgetary shortfall. Lindsey and his colleagues have several ideas for where to source that money — some tried and true, others more aspirational. An idea in the latter category, for example, is for the developed world to start making direct payments to African countries to keep their protected areas intact. This would not be done out of charity but in recognition of the contribution Africa is making to preserving the world’s biodiversity and capturing and storing carbon. “Rich countries have a responsibility to help fund some of this,” Lindsey said. 

“As ecosystems are degraded and eventually destroyed, the people living in such landscapes become ‘trapped in perpetual poverty.’”

This is especially true given that Africa shoulders a disproportionate amount of the world’s nature when compared to developed countries. Tanzania, for example, has set aside 38% of its land for conservation, compared to just 13% by the U.S. Yet of the $49 billion currently spent on biodiversity protection worldwide, just 6% goes to Africa — where budget deficits are the highest. “Africa is a region recognized as a hotspot for biodiversity conservation, but when we look at the resources that are being invested, it’s the inverse,” said Patience Gandiwa, director of transfrontier conservation areas and conventions at the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority. 

Establishing carbon markets at scale across Africa is another possibility for generating funds to pay for keeping ecosystems in place. The Congo Basin is among the world’s largest carbon sinks, and vast stores of carbon are also locked into the soil and trees in other African ecosystems. “That’s a global public good,” Ruhweza said. Another related but as-of-yet untested idea being put forth by some conservationists is to launch a global movement to require companies and countries not only to offset their carbon emissions but also to offset their negative impacts to biodiversity. “Carbon has set the tone, but it’s now time for these markets to mature,” Parker said. “We need a full nature credit.” 

Empowering Africans

Another key to success for Africa is for African people to start having a stronger say in shaping their future. Currently, most policies and solutions for conservation, climate and development in Africa are generated in the global north because most of the money and political power is concentrated there. “Because we’ve depended so much on donor funding, we’ve allowed the donor agenda to shape our development paradigm,” Ruhweza said.

Problematically, though, the people shaping those agendas usually do not have a strong understanding of the local context in Africa. Time and time again, this mismatch has led to wasted money and effort, Ruhweza said, emphasizing the need for African countries to have an equal voice in determining their own conservation and development strategies. One way for donors to empower an Africa-led agenda, she added, is to adopt a flexible funding approach — or to donate money to organizations or government departments without earmarking it for any specific project or activity. 

Public-private partnerships between non-profit groups, communities and governments are an increasingly popular and effective means for providing strong initial support for protected areas and the people living around them. Under this model, groups like African Parks, Conserve Global and the Africa Nature Investors Foundation assume some or all of the responsibility for the areas they manage. They provide local jobs and training, and some also help to develop protected areas into hubs for basic services, disaster relief and other activities that build “a whole green economy,” Lindsey said. 

“Of the $49 billion currently spent on biodiversity protection worldwide, just 6% goes to Africa.”

In a 2021 study, Lindsey, Gandiwa, Parker and colleagues found that public-private partnerships can yield up to 14.6 times more funding than baseline state budgets for protected area management. One reason this model is so effective is because non-profit groups usually pursue diversified income streams — philanthropy, tourism, hunting, carbon credits, agribusiness and more. They are also seen as a trusted local institution by people in the global north to give funds to. “The private sector doesn’t want to invest if they think there’s a risk of corruption or mismanagement,” Morakinyo said. “But because we are in control and are accountable for delivery of things on the ground, we are removing what’s called ‘government risk.’” 

The ultimate goal, Morakinyo said, is to transform protected areas into self-sustaining economic engines that support the entire region. Public-private partnerships are not meant to last forever, though. As African countries become wealthier as a whole, the hope is that tax dollars can be used to fund conservation, and public-private partnerships will no longer be necessary. As Morakinyo said, “We’re trying to grab onto the wildlife and protect it until Africa is rich enough to not need models like ours.”  

A Unified Effort  

It’s not enough to just focus on protecting Africa’s officially designated national parks and reserves, because significant numbers of wildlife and habitat are found outside of those boundaries. Many species are also migratory, moving vast distances within or between countries. It’s imperative, then, that policymakers, conservationists and local leaders tackle the problem of sustainability on a landscape-level scale, with multiple nations working together. Otherwise, Africa will be left with disjointed islands of nature. “We cannot have myopic visions of only dealing with solutions that work for ourselves at the national level,” Gandiwa says. “We need to pool our resources together as a global community because your neighbor’s problem is your problem.” 

A real-world project using this approach is currently underway in Southern Africa. In 2011, five African heads of states — from Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe — signed a treaty to establish KAZA, the world’s largest multinational terrestrial conservation area, about the size of California. KAZA is home to around half of Africa’s elephant population, a quarter of its wild dogs, 15% of its lions and 15% of the world’s wild cheetahs. Some 2.7 million people live there, and many benefit from community-bettering initiatives, tourism and infrastructure development. 

Striking a balance between humans and nature is still a challenge, though. KAZA suffers from poaching, illegal logging and retaliatory killing of elephants and lions for coming into conflict with farmers and herders. Even so, it represents a significant step in the right direction in terms of joint management and audacious visions for conservation, said Nyambe Nyambe, executive director of the KAZA Secretariat in Kasane, Botswana. “A lot of mistakes will be made, but we will not learn if we don’t make mistakes.” 

Opportunities abound for replicating this model across the continent — but they will not be available forever. “Before you know it, you lose it,” Labuschagne said. “We’ve got to get the thinking, planning and ultimately governance right, because sustainability inherently requires a limitation of use.” 

While Lindsey suspects that “things are going to get really tough” in Africa for a few decades, he is confident that positive change can happen if the world realizes the extent of what is at stake and acts now. In 50 to 100 years, he and his colleagues hope that their children and grandchildren will see Africa emerge on the other side of today’s challenges with vast areas of habitat still intact for the benefit of all.