The economics of Africa’s wildlife

Philip Muruthi
Senior Director of Conservation Science, African Wildlife Foundation
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“Wildlife crime is serious; let’s get serious about wildlife crime.” That’s the theme for this year’s World Wildlife Day on 3 March. The theme draws attention to one of the most serious and immediate threats facing the planet’s wildlife: the multibillion-dollar illegal wildlife trade.

According to a United Nations Environment Programme report, illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife derivatives is worth between $7 billion and $23 billion annually, and is driving many species to the brink of extinction. In Africa, this includes iconic species such as the elephant and rhino, which are being slaughtered by poachers for their ivory and horn, respectively. These products are smuggled abroad, largely to Asian markets, where demand for ivory trinkets and rhino horn medicine are in high demand, and typically via an organized network of middlemen, corrupt officials, kingpins and criminals.

Coincidentally, World Wildlife Day is also celebrated as Africa Environment Day, established in 2002 by the Organization of African Unity, and, since 2012, as Wangari Maathai Day, a special tribute to the late environmental activist and Nobel Laureate from Kenya. It is therefore an important day for acknowledging Africa’s extraordinary natural heritage, and the fact that the continent is one of the last truly wild frontiers. It’s only in Africa where the planet’s largest land mammal, the African elephant, still roams; where the tallest land mammal, the giraffe, still lumbers; where the fastest land mammal, the cheetah, still sprints; and where most of the world’s great apes live, including the eastern gorilla (the mountain gorilla is probably the best known subspecies of this group), western gorilla, chimpanzee and bonobo.

A lucrative and growing trade

Yet the “wild” side of Africa is changing as economies blossom and new infrastructure transforms urban and rural areas. As trade routes between Africa and other parts of the world open and multiply, so do the opportunities for smuggling Africa’s natural heritage abroad. Each year, more than 20,000 elephants – possibly up to 35,000 – are killed by poachers for their tusks, which are shipped to ivory markets, predominantly in countries such as China and Thailand. In 2014, 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa alone, which, when compared with the 13 killed by poachers in 2007, represents a more than 9,000% increase in rhino poaching.

This dramatic percentage increase is driven by demand from Asian consumers, mostly in Vietnam, who believe rhino horn has medicinal properties and can cure everything from headaches to cancer. The size of Africa’s lion population has declined by 30% in the past 20 years, and today only about 30,000 of these iconic carnivores remain on the continent. Lesser-known species, such as the pangolin, are also caught up in the wildlife trade. Too frequently, customs authorities in Hong Kong and other East Asian ports seize shipments from Africa containing tons of smuggled pangolin scales.

As rising wealth and disposable income have grown in Asia, so too has demand for wildlife products, in turn driving up prices for these products. Today a kilogram of rhino horn can fetch as much as $60,000. A kilogram of raw ivory on the Asian market reportedly fetches more than $750. Worked ivory is worth even more.

The mammoth importance of wildlife

Although there has been more mobilization of resources towards, and greater attention paid to, combating the illegal wildlife trade, World Wildlife Day serves as an additional call to action and a reminder of the benefits generated by Africa’s wildlife and wild landscapes.

The disappearance of Africa’s megafauna has serious repercussions for ecosystems. Africa’s elephants are often referred to as mega-gardeners as they frequently shape and change their respective landscapes. Savannah elephants help maintain vast, open grasslands by pushing over trees and clearing away brush. Forest elephants consume and defecate tree seeds over long distances, helping to maintain both the size and diversity of Central and West Africa’s forests. As top predators, lions prey on many species, including ungulates, which, if left unchecked, would proliferate, leading to habitat degradation through overgrazing.

However, there is another reason why we Africans and our respective governments should be concerned about the disappearance of the continent’s wildlife (and wild lands), and it is a financial one.

The loss of wildlife and wild habitat threatens important sectors of the economy and handicaps future development opportunities. For example, the tourism industry (while woefully underdeveloped in Africa compared with other continents) contributes significantly to many countries’ economies. In Kenya, for example, tourism comprises 12% of GDP. In 1997, South Africa’s bird-watching tourism industry alone contributed between $12 million and $26 million to the country’s economy – and it has been growing ever since. According to a 2014 brief prepared by the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), tourism in Africa increased steadily between 2005 and 2013, with an average annual growth rate of about 6.1%. While international arrivals numbered 35 million in 2005, in 2013 they grew to 56 million and, by 2030, arrivals are expected to number 134 million people. In 2013, international tourism in Africa was conservatively valued at $34.2 billion, according to the UNWTO.

Conserving the bottom line

Not only Africa’s wildlife but also its landscapes should be recognized for their financial contribution via the ecosystem services they provide. The Mau Forest Complex in Kenya, for example, is the source of no less than 12 rivers, yet it has declined in size by 40% as a result of logging and other forms of deforestation. The Kenya Forest Research Institute and the United Nations Environment Programme estimate that the services provided by the Mau Forest Complex are worth approximately $1.3 billion annually. The disappearance of the Mau threatens the future of one of Kenya’s other big industries – tea. Tea plantations nearby benefit from the forest’s ability to catch, store and distribute rainwater, which irrigates tea fields. It’s estimated that the Mau benefits Kenya’s tea industry to the tune of $163 million in services. Hence, continued deforestation threatens one of Kenya’s key export industries.

As African governments plan for the future and make decisions about development, infrastructure and industry, it is critical that the continent’s wildlife and wild landscapes, for all that they contribute to our moral and financial bottom line, be a part of the thought process and planning. Investing in and planning now for the long-term protection of our wildlife heritage will ensure present and future generations of Africans continue to reap ecological, social and financial returns. On World Wildlife Day and every other day of the year, it is time to get serious.

Author: Philip Muruthi is the Senior Director of Conservation Science for the African Wildlife Foundation.

Image: Orphaned baby elephants play at the Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for Orphans within the Nairobi National Park, near Kenya’s capital Nairobi February 12, 2014. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya 

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