Today we celebrate Africa Environment Day and World Wildlife Day. This year’s World Wildlife Day theme—“the future of wildlife is in our hands—strikes both a hopeful and a cautionary note.

On the surface, the choice before us seems an easy one—most of us would choose a future with our wildlife. But where that easy choice ends, many difficult choices begin.

Here in Africa, some might interpret that to mean we should give up our development agenda: that, in order to have elephants, we must sacrifice our aspirations for higher living standards or that investing in lions means having to divest from quality education.

As one of Africa’s largest and oldest conservation organizations, we believe the protection of wildlife and wild lands is an essential part of a modern and prosperous Africa – that development and the protection of our natural world can occur at the same time, and indeed they must.

The rapid growth of many national economies in Africa will need resilient ecosystems to sustain their growth in the long run, and healthy ecosystems need wildlife. However, as countries throughout Africa continue to pursue current production and consumption models, the compelling evidence suggests that our ecological systems will be undermined and the quality of growth on the continent will be limited.

To avoid this fate, we must secure political commitments at the highest level to allocate adequate resources toward the protection of wildlife to ensure conservation is central to Africa’s economic plan. We must also integrate protection of wildlife into national and regional planning to secure the economic, cultural and environmental value of Africa’s unique natural heritage. Lastly, we must make responsible stewardship of Africa’s wildlife and wild lands a meaningful criterion for measuring Africa’s internal governance and ethical investing.

The future of Africa’s wildlife is in African hands. It is our natural heritage and we bear the responsibility for securing or losing it. At the end of the day, only we can dictate the pace and path of development at the national, regional and continental level. We determine whether a road is built or a pipeline is laid through a national park. We decide where companies can explore, drill, mine, log or extract in our countries. When a wildlife trafficker infringes on our laws, it is our law enforcement community that must arrest, convict and sentence the wildlife trafficker or poacher.

On World Wildlife Day and Africa Environment Day, we are reminded of this responsibility. If we don’t act now – or hesitate to act – we will bequeath nothing but a biologically and economically bankrupt continent to our children and our grandchildren.

The decision is in our hands.

Read the messages for the World Wildlife Day 2016 from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, UNEP Goodwill Ambassador Ian Somerhalder and others.

Image: Craig R. Sholley, African Wildlife Foundation