Global Leadership

Unearthing Truths: Africa's Conservation Dilemma Demands Global Action

About the Author

Kaddu Sebunya has been chief executive officer since January 2019, after serving as the AWF President beginning in January 2016. Kaddu has over 20 years of conservation experience at the grassroots, national, and regional levels in the US, Africa, and Europe. Today he leads the organization in… More

The recent remarks by Botswana President H.E. Mokgweetsi Masisi regarding the potential export of elephants to Germany have ignited a long-overdue debate that the world has evaded for far too long. Regardless of whether his comments were perceived positively or negatively, they serve as a stark representation of the realities faced by many African countries grappling with conservation challenges on a monumental scale.

At the heart of the matter lies a fundamental question: How can African nations effectively balance the preservation of their invaluable natural heritage with the socio-economic imperatives of their populations? The issue extends far beyond the fate of a few elephants; it encapsulates the broader struggle to navigate the intricate nexus of wildlife conservation, sustainable development, and global responsibility.

For decades, African nations have grappled with the complex task of safeguarding their rich biodiversity amidst pressing socio-economic needs. The preservation of iconic species such as elephants has become emblematic of this challenge, symbolizing the continent's natural splendor and enduring conservation dilemmas.

Yet, amidst the myriad complexities, a critical truth emerges: African conservation is at a crossroads, and the time for candid dialogue and proactive solutions is now. President Masisi's remarks catalyze a much-needed conversation — one that transcends political divides and confronts the harsh realities of conservation on the ground.

A lion pride walking

A lion pride walking through the dry African savannah in Kruger National Park

In this dialogue, it is imperative to acknowledge the multifaceted nature of Africa's conservation landscape. While the continent boasts some of the world's most renowned protected areas and conservation initiatives, it also grapples with systemic challenges of balancing population growth, food security, energy, economic, infrastructural, and urbanization. These issues underscore the urgent need for innovative, context-specific approaches prioritizing the sustainability of ecosystems and our economic growth. These issues may as well determine the space left for wilderness.

The debate surrounding President Masisi's remarks underscores the global interconnectedness of conservation efforts. Wildlife conservation is not solely the responsibility of African nations; it is a shared endeavor that requires collective action and collaboration across borders. As the world grapples with pressing environmental challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss, preserving Africa's wildlife heritage assumes heightened significance as a global imperative.

Recognizing the wide range of viewpoints among stakeholders, engaging in this discussion with a comprehensive grasp of science-backed conservation strategies that support sustainable economic development is crucial.

Thus, to effectively pursue conservation goals, we must ensure that our toolbox contains all necessary tools and apply them judiciously. As a conservation specialist, I stress the pivotal role of properly regulated hunting initiatives, guided by scientific principles and rigorous standards, in bolstering species preservation and management and maintaining habitat integrity.

It is essential to recognize the cultural significance of conservation in many African societies and respect the sovereign rights of African nations to manage their wildlife resources in accordance with their cultural values and developmental priorities. While ethical considerations remain paramount, it is imperative to uphold the autonomy of African governments and support their endeavors to balance conservation imperatives with socio-economic realities and science.

The primary responsibility for safeguarding African wildlife rests with the African people themselves—as custodians—but the benefits of African wildlife are global.

African White Rhino
African White Rhino in a Southern African Game Reserve


This discourse brings to the fore the conundrum that most leaders in African countries face, unraveling key questions that all need answers to, such as: What is that conservation vision for Africa’s wildlife and wild lands that is crucial for agriculture, pasture for livestock, energy for industries, water, clean air, etc.? How do we engage with business leaders and heads of state and make conservation an economic and national policy priority? How do we get ordinary Africans—especially the youth—60% of Africa’s population—to step up and voice their interests in conserving wildlife and wild lands?

How do we get African governments to embrace conservation—not just as tourism revenue but also to uplift rural communities, create gainful employment, and diversify the economy? … Most importantly, how do we accept inevitable tradeoffs (conservation and development)?

The urgent need for a radical shift in how societies worldwide value and finance conservation efforts is underscored. Conservation necessitates financial resources. So far, it seems Africans have outsourced the responsibility of conservation to the global community. Africa's proactive stance on developing its own funding streams for biodiversity conservation is central to this endeavor. Recognizing the limitations of external resources—often unpredictable and insufficient—Africa should lead the paradigm shift where external funding complements, rather than supplants, internally generated resources.

The Africa Protected Area Congress
The Africa Protected Area Congress that took place in Kigali, Rwanda in July 2022


However, another major challenge lies in increasing the intrinsic value of wildlife. How can national parks be valued beyond tourism? How can forestry cover be valued beyond timber? How can wetlands be valued more for their ecological systems than waterways? How can we look at wetlands for their ecological purposes and not as wastelands?

How can species like leopards and lions be valued more than domestic animals like goats and chickens? Failing to confront this challenge puts wildlife populations at risk, imperiling their security and survival. This compels us to consider drastic measures aligning our economic ambitions with preserving biodiversity. Alternatively, it steers us from the "develop first, conserve later" approach, aiming to prevent the detrimental consequences of development observed in Europe, North America, and Asia.

Ultimately, the discourse sparked by President Masisi's remarks presents an opportunity—a call to action for all stakeholders invested in the future of African conservation. It beckons us to confront uncomfortable truths, engage in constructive dialogue, and forge innovative solutions that uphold Africa's natural heritage's intrinsic value while advancing its people's well-being. In doing so, we honor not only the majestic elephants of Botswana but also the enduring spirit of conservation that unites us all.