These days it is almost impossible to find any areas of “pristine wilderness” on the planet no matter how many times this is mentioned in tourism brochures. The human footprint is everywhere, even if we have not set actual foot on some few pieces of the planet. Polluted rivers have effects far beyond the borders of nations causing the pollution, climate change is a global and largely negative phenomenon, plastic waste reaches everywhere via our interconnected oceans, and loss of forests in the Amazon will affect rainfall in Australia.
Almost everyone I talk to these days says that the problem for wildlife and wild areas is too many people. If the planet is already overpopulated and struggling at around 7.5 billion people today, how can we possibly cope with a projected population of 9.7 billion in 2050? Especially since half the global population increase will be in Africa? Such projections involve many assumptions based on human demography, not least of which are measures of fertility (number of surviving children born to a woman). Projections rarely factor in more tenuous influences like climate change affecting agricultural production, but it is pretty certain that by 2050 there will be many more people than there are now.
Will there still be wildlife left in 2050? Especially since the Living Planet Report, looking at 3,700 vertebrate species, indicated a 58% decline in population numbers over the past 40 years? That report has been criticized for largely focusing on western European species and largely ignoring species in tropical areas and rainforests, but the overall trend is probably accurate.
And rainforests themselves are in great decline, with some reports estimating a loss of 1 billion hectares over the past 40 years. Causes are varied, but almost ubiquitously involve human activities such as logging, clearing forests for crops like oil palm, soy beans and rubber, making land available for livestock, and clearing land for urban expansion. There is of course collateral damage associated with such forest clearing including changes in rainfall patterns, erosion of fragile soils, greater release and less capability of absorption of greenhouse gases, and of course loss of wildlife.
Promises were made at the Paris Climate Change Summit that by 2020 a sum of $100 billion annually would be made available for “climate finance”. Given past experience such sums are unlikely to materialize anywhere near that amount (especially given the threatened withdrawal of the USA from the Accord), but nevertheless it was interesting to note a call to manage, conserve and enhance biological carbon reservoirs - forests and other ecosystems - in developed and developing countries.
It is meanwhile clear that funding, or perhaps the lack of appropriate spending of such funding, has not prevented declines in wildlife numbers, though a recent study mentioned that $14.4 billion spent in 109 countries in 1992-2003 resulted in a 29% decrease in the rate of biodiversity decline between 1996–2008. Not quite the same measure of course, but an indication that annual spending of about $1 billion can at least reduce rates of loss. Other estimates of how much it would cost to actually ensure wildlife conservation are much, much higher. One study estimated cost of reducing the extinction risk of threatened species would cost about $3.41 to $4.76 billion annually, and that protecting and effectively managing all terrestrial sites of global conservation significance would cost about $76.1 billion annually. Such sums are clearly well beyond any reasonable expectation, especially if the additional costs of conserving marine sites are factored in.
Another analysis concluded that global funding for conservation is inadequate and unevenly distributed, both in terms of donors and recipients. The authors mention that while protected area networks have expanded, conservation budgets have often declined, and that while total conservation expenditure amounts to about $14.5 billion/year, 94% of that amount is spent in developed countries by developed countries. Consequently, the funding shortfall for the existing global protected area network has been estimated at $3.9 billion/year . Meanwhile industrialised countries have never even come close to fulfilling agreements to allocate $2 billion/year in international conservation aid made at the 1992 Rio Summit.
But is it all about the money? Certainly more, better targeted and reliable funding is needed, but funding alone cannot solve many of the problems facing wildlife declines. These problems include corruption levels in some of the most globally biodiverse countries. Recently, Transparency International published their Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks 180 countries and territories by their perceived levels of public sector corruption according to experts and businesspeople. In Africa, countries containing the highest levels of biodiversity and numbers of wildlife generally rank very high on the corruption scale – Democratic Republic of Congo (161 of 180), Zimbabwe (157), Kenya (143), Madagascar (155), Cameroon (153), Nigeria (148), Tanzania (103), Gabon (117), Zambia (96) – with the notable exception of Botswana (34). Moreover, these rankings have changed little over the past five years, indicating long-standing problems.
Other problems include poverty, instability (aka armed civil strife), a compromised judiciary, weak laws and sentences on wildlife, lax enforcement of even the most basic CITES regulations and government-level participation in significant levels of illegal wildlife trading. In Africa, Zambia, Mozambique, Tanzania, Cameroon, the DRC etc all score low to very low on preventing the illegal wildlife trade, and in southeast Asia Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand also score abysmally.
Yes, if wildlife is to not only decrease at slower rates but actually recover, funding is needed. But perhaps more importantly, the people in those countries with remaining numbers of wildlife and high levels of biodiversity need to become active participants rather than commercially enticed partners. These days, people in countries like Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania etc are told that they should conserve wildlife because wildlife provides jobs, tourists, foreign exchange. If it pays it stays is the formula, and almost all African wildlife-rich nations seem to have bought into that motto as income is sought from “non-consumptive” (photographic) and “consumptive” (trophy hunting) tourists as well as donations from NGOs and bilateral/multilateral government contributions to fund wildlife conservation.
Actual national financial input as budget item is often minimal despite claims that African countries value wildlife as a “national heritage to be conserved for future generations”. For example, in 1961 then President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere said “The survival of our wildlife is a matter of grave concern to all of us in Africa. These wild creatures amid the wild places they inhabit are not only important as a source of wonder and inspiration, but are an integral part of our natural resources and our future livelihood and wellbeing. In accepting the trusteeship of our wildlife we solemnly declare that we will do everything in our power to make sure that our children’s grand-children will be able to enjoy this rich and precious inheritance”.
The excessive dependence of African nations (and countries in Asia, South America) on foreign funding to maintain wildlife populations and maintenance of protected areas needed to ensure conservation of wild species is, at best, tenuously sustainable. Foreign tourists can hardly be relied on as a reliable source of income, especially in the face of actual or perceived threats to their security as recently evident by a drop in numbers visiting countries like Kenya. Unless there is a realistic buy-in for wildlife conservation by the countries themselves, in step with their declarations of the importance of wildlife to their citizens and their heritage, the future of wildlife in such countries is bleak. It is already evident that very few citizens take the trouble and their money to visit wildlife areas in their own countries, except perhaps in South Africa.
Indeed, given the levels of poverty in most African countries with remaining healthy wildlife populations, most rural people see wildlife as a burden rather than a boon. Wildlife destroys crops, kills livestock and people, demolishes fences and water supplies, and spreads diseases to livestock. Indeed, many rural people and even politicians question the need for wildlife, asking African governments what they value more – the life of an elephant or the life of a child? And what would rural people living in poverty say to multibillions afforded to wildlife conservation while they continue to struggle at an income of about $2 per day? Like 72% of the population in Zimbabwe, 64% in Zambia, 47% in Tanzania, 77% in DRC, 81% in Madagascar? (https://data.worldbank.org/products/wdi).
Solutions can be found, but it will take real and present involvement of the people living with wildlife. For they are the ones that will not only drive change but also ensure a future for wildlife. Without the buy-in from rural people, all the money in the world will not deliver sustainable conservation outcomes, and neither will rangers armed with all the latest guns, drones, night-vision goggles, aircraft. Fortress style conservation was the conservation formula long ago and seems to be creeping back in. Wildlife protection is as much a land issue as it is a conservation issue. Unless the land that is allocated to wildlife can produce returns to local communities equal to, or under a best scenario situation, more than other land uses in less-developed countries, the conservation dream evaporates no matter the billions poured in by foreign donors. Wildlife conservation needs to make sense to those on the ground and that will require much more relevancy than a few idealistic “education” programs in schools.
In short, wildlife rich countries need to truly believe that wildlife is important to them – at levels ranging from politicians to pastoralists. And that belief has to come from within, not influenced by the largely unsustainable and mostly fictitious promised billions. Wildlife conservation priorities and commitments need to be owned, not bought by seductive promises.
Photo credit: “The dead tree” Sebastian Wuttke