The conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity are vital to social and economic development as well as to humanity’s survival. SDG 15 calls to protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems; stop and reverse land degradation; and halt biodiversity loss.
When zooming in on Southern and East Africa, there are many challenges to reaching this goal. There are equally as many opportunities to help achieve it. One massive opportunity we cannot miss: Africa’s bush elephant – the biggest land animal on the planet. Elephants are incredible ecosystem engineers and – when we give them room to roam – they will support us in environmental development, reducing carbon emissions, and fighting poverty in rural communities.
Elephants as ecosystem engineers
Elephants truly are a keystone species – critical to maintaining Africa’s biodiversity and healthy ecosystems. How do they do it? When elephants travel across the savannah and forest landscapes, they disperse countless seeds through their dung. Also, elephants eat large quantities of vegetation and keep the plains healthy by tearing down brush and trees that block their path. They create highways for other animals, dig wells and bring up minerals from deep in the mud. Elephant presence correlates with the richness of other large mammal species, like lions, buffalos and giraffes. Elephants store and sequester carbon. They are also tourism magnets and safari tourism is a key contributor to the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and local communities in Southern and East Africa. Throughout, their contributions are undeniably vital to people, animals, and the landscape.
Between hope and fear
Habitat fragmentation, poaching, human-wildlife conflict and erratic weather patterns caused by climate change are having a severe impact on the continent’s elephant population. The great elephant census that took place between 2013 and 2016 reported a 30% decrease in African elephant population in less than a decade. It is overly clear that effective, large-scale, audacious conservation efforts are necessary; otherwise, we risk losing Africa’s elephants.
There is reason for hope and at its crux is large-scale connectivity. Wild animals need safe routes to move freely through countries, across borders and at a distance from humans. Elephants are no exception – connecting key elephant habitats is critical to their survival and ours. When habitats are connected and elephants can roam freely across their natural habitats, populations become resilient to changes in their environments, like extreme climatic variations and local poaching activities. Communities also become more resilient, as space for migration leads to less conflict with elephants. Connectivity fosters better human-wildlife coexistence. And – these mammals can continue their vital work that supports healthy habitats for all.
Transfrontier conservation areas
There is exciting proof that this approach of connectivity is working. A recent elephant survey in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) – a massive landscape in Southern Africa, the size of France and overlapping parts of five countries – shows that large TFCAs are the key solution for elephant conservation. Despite severe droughts and continued poaching pressure, elephant populations in the KAZA TFCA are stable at 227,900 individuals.
The KAZA TFCA encompasses a couple of key habitats for African bush elephants in the South and Southwest of the continent. In Southeast and East Africa, there are also several protected areas of which some cross state borders, but not to the same scale as KAZA. When these protected areas were connected, we could see the birth of the biggest TFCA on the planet, stretching from Namibia to Kenya. The positive impact on biodiversity, climate and people would be astounding.
A TFCA this size is more than an idea sparked by me. A matrix of connected habitats in East and Southern Africa is based on 20 years of science by the University of Pretoria’s Conservation Ecology Research Unit. The unit’s scientists have a deep understanding of elephant population dynamics and demography.
The biggest transfrontier conservation area on the planet
Science informs us but politicians make decisions. To make a mega TFCA a reality the leaders of the six countries in the Southeast and East – namely Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya – need to define a shared vision for wildlife conservation, tourism development and the wellbeing of communities.
It will be a challenging political process for which a solid foundation needs to be built. The communities in the landscape and the wider population in the region need to realize that natural resources straddling boundaries between states are shared assets with substantial potential to meaningfully contribute to socio-economic development. Human-wildlife conflict is a very serious issue, but when wildlife corridors are planned and managed well, the conflict between elephants and humans over land and resources can actually be lowered, which benefits both biodiversity conservation and community development.
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