Get those young dig­i­tal na­tives in the room when talk­ing wildlife

African Wildlife Foun­da­tion chief ex­ec­u­tive says that with­out stop­ping the pace of de­vel­op­ment, African gov­ern­ments can still make bet­ter choices to en­sure wildlife thrives in a mod­ern Africa. He spoke to about his priorities as he takes up his new role

The East African - - OUTLOOK -

As the first African to be ap­pointed to head an in­ter­na­tional con­ser­va­tion or­gan­i­sa­tion, what are your priorities go­ing into this new role?

This is an ex­cit­ing time be­cause I have al­ways be­lieved that for con­ser­va­tion in Africa to work, it has to be led by Africans.

My top pri­or­ity go­ing into this new role is to push for more African par­tic­i­pa­tion in this sec­tor. We want to see more African-driven in­vest­ments in con­ser­va­tion given the very di­rect ben­e­fits that ac­crue to us. I want to push not only for African-led con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tives but also for more ben­e­fits to lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties from con­ser­va­tion. We have to own it; these are our re­sources and our land­scapes.

Fi­nally, I want to see more young peo­ple par­tic­i­pate in con­ser­va­tion, not just as mem­bers of wildlife clubs but also at pol­icy and lead­er­ship level. AWF pi­o­neered youth in­volve­ment in con­ser­va­tion in the 1960s by found­ing the wildlife clubs in the re­gion. We are also work­ing with the Global Youth Bio­di­ver­sity Net­work to groom the next gen­er­a­tion of con­ser­va­tion lead­ers. I be­lieve the youth are not lead­ers of to­mor­row as politi­cians are wont to say; they are lead­ers of to­day.

There are con­cerns that con­ser­va­tion in Africa is “too white,” and that the en­tire ecosys­tem is rigged against Africans. Is it time for an African rev­o­lu­tion in con­ser­va­tion?

We do not need any rev­o­lu­tion to do what is good for the en­vi­ron­ment we live in. It is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of Africans to own the con­ser­va­tion nar­ra­tive. In the ab­sence of our own African ini­tia­tives, some­one has to take the re­spon­si­bil­ity and it doesn’t mat­ter whether they are black or white. Africa’s nat­u­ral cap­i­tal is a global re­source and the re­spon­si­bil­ity to con­serve it is a global ef­fort. We ac­knowl­edge the sup­port of our part­ners out­side the con­ti­nent. My chal­lenge now is to African elites, in­vestors and gov­ern­ments to use their money and en­er­gies to pro­tect our nat­u­ral her­itage.

Africa is ur­ban­is­ing fast and the pop­u­la­tion is also grow­ing rapidly. What is the place of con­ser­va­tion in this new Africa?

Africa can craft its own de­vel­op­ment model that does not in­clude the de­struc­tion of the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment. We have seen other coun­tries in Asia, Europe and North Amer­ica, which pri­ori­tise eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment over the en­vi­ron­ment and they now have to deal with the dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects of ne­glect­ing their bio­spheres.

Ask­ing Africa to pick be­tween con­ser­va­tion and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment is a false choice. With­out stop­ping the pace of de­vel­op­ment we can make bet­ter choices to en­sure wildlife and wild­lands thrive in a mod­ern Africa. African gov­ern­ments can still build roads, rail­ways and bridges and con­serve wildlife and wild­lands as well – after all we have the tech­nol­ogy Kaddu Kiwe Se­bunya is the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the African Wildlife Foun­da­tion. He has over 20 years’ ex­pe­ri­ence in con­ser­va­tion at grass­roots, na­tional and re­gional lev­els in the USA, Africa and Europe.

Work Ex­pe­ri­ence:

Mr Se­bun­yua has worked with Ox­fam UK, the World Con­ser­va­tion Union in the US Peace Corps, Con­ser­va­tion In­ter­na­tional and Soli­mar In­ter­na­tional.

Area of con­cern

Mr Se­bunya be­lieves con­serv­ing Africa’s wildlife is too im­por­tant and ur­gent to be left to the West alone. He is con­cerned that there is not a sin­gle em­i­nent African voice to­day lead­ing the fight against the de­struc­tion of habi­tat and wildlife, ar­gu­ing that it is time the African elite stepped for­ward. “We need their voices and net­works to build a truly au­then­tic African voice against the de­struc­tion of our nat­u­ral wildlife her­itage. It’s time to reimag­ine the con­ser­va­tion nar­ra­tive,” he says.

His priorities

Work­ing with lead­ers in busi­ness, pol­i­tics, civil so­ci­ety, pol­icy, in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment and education as well as the youth, Mr Se­bunya is build­ing a global coali­tion for con­ser­va­tion to pro­tect Africa’s nat­u­ral cap­i­tal for pos­ter­ity. to re­duce de­struc­tion of habi­tats and dis­place­ment of peo­ple. But con­ser­va­tion­ists have to be in the room when de­ci­sions are be­ing made by govern­ment and pri­vate sec­tor to en­sure that African wildlife and wild­lands have a voice in the con­ti­nent’s de­vel­op­ment blue­print.

In­creas­ingly, we are see­ing coun­tries open­ing pro­tected ar­eas for nat­u­ral re­sources ex­trac­tion/ex­plo­ration. What does this mean for the fu­ture of Africa?

It is a fact that only a few coun­tries in Africa are min­eral-rich and that most of the con­ti­nent’s wealth is above the sur­face. Africa needs to be smarter about not pri­ori­tis­ing what is un­der the soil over wa­ter tow­ers, rivers and lakes, healthy soils and the rest of the nat­u­ral ecosys­tem that sus­tains its peo­ple.

Un­til we change our view of the eco­nomic ben­e­fits of pro­tected ar­eas vis a vis the ex­plo­ration of min­eral re­sources, we will con­tinue to fight a los­ing bat­tle. Gov­ern­ments need to look be­yond the di­rect cap­i­tal in­jec­tions from these min­eral ex­plo­rations and in­stead fo­cus on the mul­ti­ple ef­fects of con­served land­scapes on the econ­omy — tourism, trans­port in­fra­struc­ture, wa­ter catch­ments, food se­cu­rity and a host of other ben­e­fits di­rectly linked to the nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ment.

How can com­mu­ni­ties liv­ing in wildlife rich ar­eas ben­e­fit from these re­sources?

Tourism and con­ser­va­tion can di­rectly ben­e­fit lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties if ex­e­cuted well. It should be un­der­stood that con­ser­va­tion is not just for tourism. It is for de­vel­op­ment, and it should es­pe­cially leave lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties bet­ter than it found them. Tourism and de­vel­op­ment are by-prod­ucts of con­ser­va­tion. AWF has in­vested over the past decade in tourism in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zam­bia and Namibia. We do not in­vest in tourism for the sake of tourism. We in­vest in tourism as a means to drive con­ser­va­tion out­comes and com­mu­nity ben­e­fits.

In Rwanda, for ex­am­ple, AWF pi­o­neered com­mu­nity-own­er­ship of high-end eco­tourism lodges through the cre­ation of Sabyinyo Sil­ver­back Lodge, which is man­aged by Gov­er­nors’ Camp. Since open­ing in 2007, the lodge has gen­er­ated over $2.9 mil­lion for the com­mu­nity.

The com­mu­nity is re­ceiv­ing sub­stan­tial rev­enue from the lodge and they are sup­port­ive of con­ser­va­tion. This is the kind of change and tourism de­vel­op­ment we need across Africa.

What role does tech­nol­ogy have in help­ing with con­ser­va­tion?

Tech­nol­ogy is ex­cit­ing and has been a game changer in how we ap­proach con­ser­va­tion. Our GIS team at AWF, for in­stance, has de­vel­oped maps that iden­tify the most crit­i­cal ar­eas for sur­veil­lance to en­sure that ranger re­sources are op­ti­mised and used to the best ad­van­tage. Us­ing these maps, rangers can iden­tify not only the ar­eas that have the heav­i­est wildlife pop­u­la­tions but also those most vul­ner­a­ble to threats and de­ploy re­sponse teams in time. In some places, drones are be­ing used in sur­veil­lance.

We are also dis­cussing how we can use tech­nol­ogy to pro­mote our parks. Imag­ine sit­ting right at your home, of­fice and through virtual re­al­ity, shar­ing in the of­fer­ings of the African parks in real time? This is one of the rea­sons why it is so im­por­tant to in­clude young peo­ple in con­ser­va­tion. They are dig­i­tal na­tives and they will cham­pion in­no­va­tions that will push con­ser­va­tion to the next level.

Do you be­lieve African gov­ern­ments are do­ing enough in terms of fund­ing con­ser­va­tion ef­forts within their ju­ris­dic­tions?

Not yet, but they are be­gin­ning to step up fol­low­ing cam­paigns by key con­ser­va­tion stake­hold­ers.

The bud­getary al­lo­ca­tions for con­ser­va­tion ini­tia­tives are go­ing up in sev­eral African coun­tries and we are also see­ing a lot of par­tic­i­pa­tion by con­ser­va­tion­ists in key govern­ment de­ci­sions. The fu­ture looks bright.

Some con­ser­va­tion chal­lenges to hit the head­lines last year in­clude the botched translo­ca­tion of rhi­nos in Kenya and the mass deaths of ele­phants in Tanzania over sus­pected poi­son­ing. Look­ing at the big­ger pic­ture across Africa, how well would you say that our an­i­mals are far­ing against threats to their sur­vival?

We can­not ig­nore the heavy losses we have suf­fered but I would like to point out that there has been a lot of good news as well. Elephant and rhino pop­u­la­tions in sev­eral African coun­tries where AWF has ac­tive projects are sta­ble or in­creas­ing. The num­ber of moun­tain go­ril­las in Uganda, Rwanda and the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo is also up. We are work­ing very hard to turn the tide but the triple chal­lenges of poach­ing, traf­fick­ing and il­le­gal trad­ing are still a grim re­al­ity.

The mes­sage is clear – there is noth­ing in­evitable about con­ser­va­tion chal­lenges in Africa. We can pre­serve the con­ti­nent’s pre­cious wildlife her­itage with strate­gic and co­or­di­nated ef­forts to stem the killing, dis­rupt the trade routes, ag­gres­sively pros­e­cute sus­pects, and dampen de­mand for wildlife prod­ucts.

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