This week, I have joined regional and global leaders from government, business and civil society in Cape Town, South Africa for the 25th World Economic Forum on Africa. The theme of this meeting —Then and Now: Reimagining Africa’s Future — frames well the juncture at which the continent now finds itself, transitioning from a past of economic underdevelopment and stagnation to a present day defined by rapid modernization, rising foreign direct investment, increased investments in agriculture and infrastructure, and impressive economic growth.

Africa can wear many faces depending on the lens through which you view it. To an oil and gas giant, the continent is a giddy expanse of known and unknown oil and gas reserves. To a mineral extraction company, Africa beckons with its 30% ownership of all global mineral reserves. And with Africa’s mobile phone use expected to grow 20-fold over the next five years (already there are 635 million subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa), mobile phone companies view Africa as the new consumer mecca.

When I look through my lens as a conservationist, I see an ecologically diverse continent — comprising 20% of the Earth’s total land area —brimming with wildlife and extraordinary landscapes. I see a continent that is home to the largest, tallest and fastest land mammals in the world. I see a place where great migrations of hundreds of thousands of animals still occur because their habitat has remained unobstructed. I see a place that is home to the second largest expanse of tropical forest in the world, which holds 8% of the world’s forest-based carbon. I also see a place where wildlife and people interact in such close proximity on a daily basis that their respective futures are unmistakably intertwined.

My lens doesn’t exclude the other visions of Africa, however. Superimposed on the continent’s biodiversity blueprint is a myriad of other blueprints — blueprints for infrastructure projects that include roads, railways and dams; blueprints for logging and mining concessions; blueprints for oil and gas exploration; and blueprints for human settlement.

As I take part today in the World Economic Forum on Africa, I pose this question: How do we line up all of the blueprints — and marshal the various interests they represent — in a way that ensures wildlife has a future in modern Africa? It is a question conservation groups like mine have been asking but know the answer and way forward must come from a multitude of stakeholders such as those represented at today’s Forum —governments, industry leaders, private sector and civil society, all working alongside conservation and environmental groups.

It is a false dilemma to suppose that Africa’s wildlife and wild landscapes must or should be sacrificed in order for the continent to modernize and maintain the steady pace of its economic growth. Africa is vast enough and still on the cusp of defining its development path to avoid unnecessary choices. In spite of this, some countries are already making those choices… unnecessarily I might add. Governments need not allow — and companies need not pursue — concessions to prospect, extract, explore, drill, log or otherwise disrupt the integrity of protected areas and World Heritage Sites. African leaders need not accept that the price of doing business with foreign countries is the obliteration of their natural resource base, including elephants, rhinos and other wildlife. The responsibility for ensuring sustainable development lies with Africans and their governments. If countries determine that wildlife is important to their ecological and economic bottom line, they are in a position to set their own terms for conducting business within their borders. Likewise, national agendas must be coordinated and articulated in such a way as to ensure wildlife and habitat are not jeopardized by disparate domestic interests.

At every level — national, regional and continental — Africa’s elephants, rhinos, lions, great apes and other species are sustaining massive declines to their populations. Just this week, Tanzania’s government released data showing the country had lost 60% of its elephant population to poachers in the last five years, with an estimated 65,721 elephants slaughtered between 2009 and 2014. The news out of Mozambique the week before was no less bleak. According to a government-backed survey, the southern African nation’s elephant herds have declined by 48%. Further south, rhino poaching in South Africa has reached record levels, with 1,215 rhinos killed in 2014 and an 18% rise in poaching during the first four months of this year as compared to the same period last year. Central Africa’s forest elephants face an uncertain future too. Between 2002 and 2013, they have endured a 65% decline in their population numbers.

These numbers only capture wildlife deaths as a result of poaching. Elsewhere across the continent, lions, elephants, giraffe, wild dogs and other animals are also dying from conflict with humans, habitat loss and fragmentation, and disease transfer. By not acknowledging and deliberately addressing the root causes for these declines, many countries risk a future with no wildlife and compromised ecosystems. This staggering loss of biodiversity demonstrates why wildlife protection should rank as a priority for African governments, alongside employment, education, regional peace and security, and economic growth. Governments ought to consider the many contributions wildlife and healthy ecosystems provide, and will continue to provide if nurtured.

As the most direct and obvious input, wildlife contributes to economic growth and employment through tourism. For countries such as Ethiopia, where wildlife tourism is still in an embryonic stage of development, this contribution may seem remote. Ethiopia need only look at neighbouring Kenya, though, to see how wildlife contributes by way of revenue and employment, with Kenya’s tourism sector making up 12% of GDP. Other contributions are perhaps less obvious and more difficult to quantify, but no less important. Healthy forests, for example, provide ecosystem services that benefit people and industries dependent on them. In 2011, the global value of ecosystem services was an estimated $125 trillion annually. Kenya’s Mau Forest Complex alone contributes an estimated $1.3 billion in services to the country and helps protect one of its key industries — tea. Fisheries in Africa, as well, support 30% of the population.

These contributions would suggest that the job of protecting wildlife and ecosystems cannot and should not fall solely to conservation groups, nor be the sole responsibility of environment ministries. The Ministries of Finance, Agriculture, Planning, Forestry and Economic Development, and others also must play a role in safeguarding wildlife. Likewise the nature of wildlife and ecosystems in Africa is that they often transcend national boundaries. It is a shared resource, and its protection should be a shared responsibility among regional bodies such as the East African Community, the Southern African Development Community, and the Economic Community of West African States.

From the continental perspective, African nations have been working through the African Union Commission to develop Agenda 2063, a vision and action plan for the continent that will call on all segments of society “to work together to build a prosperous and united Africa based on shared values and a common destiny.” Those shared values and that common destiny should include wildlife. Responding to an invitation to contribute to Agenda 2063, a number of our trustees, including HE Former President Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, HE Former President Festus Mogae of Botswana, and Nigeria’s Dr. Myma Belo-Osagi, wrote to the Commission requesting that protection and stewardship of wildlife and wild lands be explicitly outlined in this important articulation of Africa’s priorities.

Prioritization is what it is all about, from the local level on up to government ministries and heads of state. Protecting elephants, lions, rhinos and other species along with the large spaces they need to thrive must be a priority and not an afterthought if we are to secure a future for wildlife in a modern Africa. That future will only be realized when all stakeholders, especially those represented here in Cape Town, work together and engage in deliberate action toward that end.

Author: Patrick Bergin is the CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF).

Image: Orphaned baby elephants play at the Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust for Orphans within the Nairobi National Park, Kenya. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya