In March 2012, the ministers of five African nations met in Nairobi to officially launch what may be a model for the future survival of African wildlife. Their ceremony marked the opening of the new Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA), a 440,000-square-kilometer area that spans parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe — forming the largest transboundary conservation area in the world.
Created by treaty, the KAZA will foster sustainable tourism and community-based conservation across a vast region, providing open corridors for wildlife migration. Elephant populations that are overcrowded in Botswana, for example, will be able to expand their range into areas of Angola emptied by war, thereby relieving overpopulation pressures in Botswana and giving Angola new opportunity to develop its ecotourism potential.
This collaborative approach — both on a community and international level — is spreading throughout Africa, with development increasingly based on sustainable use of wildlife. It’s a welcome trend on a continent long beset by devastating wildlife exploitation, which still occurs today due to poaching and the illegal bushmeat trade. Rhino poaching, for example — primarily for horns to supply Asian markets—is on the rise.
According to South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs, 448 rhinos were killed in South Africa last year (DEA). That figure is expected to surpass 620 in 2012 — and the crisis is spreading to East African countries. In some pockets of the continent, elephants continue to die by the scores. Heavily armed gangs of poachers range across the northern savannas of Central Africa, and in March of this year they slaughtered up to 400 elephants in Northern Cameroon. Others travel hundreds of miles to kill elephants along the Ruvuma River between Tanzania and Mozambique.
Despite the grim statistics, there is also encouraging news and an increasing awareness of the need to make conservation a priority. For example, Namibia emerged from apartheid in 1990 with little wildlife left. Since that time, the nation has established 71 community conservancies that foster a sense of stewardship toward natural resources and incentives to manage them sustainably. Today, Namibia has the largest free-roaming population of black rhinos in Africa. Its lion populations are increasing rapidly, and other species such as oryx and zebra are also thriving.
In the Congo Basin there is also reason to hope despite high profile setbacks such as that in Cameroon. Seeds were planted in 1999 when several of the region’s leaders came together for the historic Yaoundé Forest Summit. The resulting Yaoundé Declaration committed each country to designate at least 10 percent of their territory as protected areas, eliminate the illegal logging and bushmeat trades, and work together across international boundaries to create conservation landscapes. In 2005, a second summit in Brazzaville, Congo, formalized these commitments in a treaty and created the Central Africa Forests Commission, a framework to implement the treaty across 10 countries.
Today, 40 percent of Congo Basin forests are in 12 conservation landscapes, many spanning two or three international borders. Land-use plans have been developed and adopted for these landscapes with zones for protected areas, community conservation, and extractive zones.
Such efforts benefit not only African wildlife but also the continent’s indigenous peoples. Central Africa’s BaAka people, for example, have often been ignored to make way for logging, mining, and even the creation of protected areas within traditional homelands. Today, the BaAka are largely incorporated into management of protected areas, in particular the Dzanga-Ndoki National Park within the Dzanga- Sangha complex of the Central African Republic, where they use their traditional knowledge of the forest and wildlife to help manage local resources.
The BaAkas’ superior tracking skills have been key in habituating western lowland gorillas to the presence of visitors in the park, a feat never before accomplished. With skilled BaAka trackers, visitors can sit in this magnificent forest and watch gorillas in their natural habitat. The trackers are now considered rock stars in the area.
Consequently, traditional BaAka skills are being passed to the next generation, sustaining traditional knowledge. Conservation thus offers an incentive for indigenous people to maintain their traditional ways of life while providing skills to adapt to a changing world. This is the beginning of economic development based on wise use of natural resources that benefit the people of the forest.
In the current global economy, economic investments in Africa — from China and a host of other nations — are at an all-time high, as is population growth. With a focus on conservation, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) works with numerous partners in government, private industry, nonprofit groups, and indigenous communities to address Africa’s complex conservation issues.
WWF also helps ensure green growth that provides needed jobs while balancing climate change scenarios and environmental and social concerns. From the Congo Basin to the Spiny Forests of Madagascar, WWF is working to stem the poaching crisis of elephants, rhino, and a host of wildlife species for the bushmeat trade. We form partnerships with governments and extractive and agriculture companies operating within priority sites to ensure increased law enforcement efforts (guards, logistics, and operational costs). We encourage them to provide alternative protein, ensure that access is limited, prohibit wildlife transport, and provide customs controls at major airports, ports, and transport companies. WWF is also increasing support to judicial systems to help ensure sentencing for wildlife crimes, and launching a media campaign to expose officials involved in wildlife trafficking.
These efforts are making a difference. In the early 1980s, I came to Africa to do gorilla research in the Central African Republic, walking thousands of miles through its dense forests with members of the indigenous BaAka community. At that time there was no protection for wildlife, and hunting camps were on every stream. Now when I return to those forests, I still see some of my old BaAka friends.
We talk about how empty the forests were 30 years ago, and they tell me of their pride in protecting their heritage and passing it along to their children. Former poachers now work as game wardens and smile when they talk about the gorillas and elephants they see roaming the forests. In 2011, no elephants or gorillas were poached in the Dzanga-Sangha — the first poaching-free year in the history of this region — due in part to a well-managed law enforcement team. I hope this history repeats itself, and that the children and grandchildren of the BaAka have those same smiles 30 years from now.
Richard Carroll, Ph.D., is Vice President of World Wildlife Fund’s Africa Program.