Ivory ban 'sets conservation ball rolling'
Kaddu Sebunya says Africa needs the infrastructure so African people cannot talk conservation at the expense of development. Lucie Morangi / China Daily
The head of an international conservation organization says China's move to ban its domestic ivory trade gives Africa the impetus to come up with a unique modernization model that balances development and conservation.
Previous development models in North America, Europe and Asia have compromised wildlife and wild regions, says Kaddu Sebunya, president of the Africa Wildlife Foundation. He says this is not what Africa needs and that China has instead shown its mettle by disrupting its domestic legal trade to meet its commitments — a move Africa should emulate to achieve sustainable growth.
"China has imposed the ban and simultaneously announced plans to retrain and help artists transition to alternative careers. The country has set the ball rolling and we hope to see other countries taking similar action."
With a decrease in demand for ivory, Africa will experience a surge in elephant numbers, while those who benefited from the illegal trade will be idle. Conservation, therefore, has to be pushed up the priority list," says the Ugandan, who took the helm of the 55-year-old organization in 2015.
Africa is set to be the biggest beneficiary of the ban. According to a report released last year by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the continent lost an estimated 111,000 elephants in the past decade. There are only 415,000 of the animals left, with the biggest population located in southern Africa.
Sebunya believes China's increased collaboration with Africa may have partly contributed to its decision. But, most importantly, the country took the decision to meet its commitments.
President Xi Jinping discussed plans to ban the ivory trade during his meeting in New York with then-US president Barack Obama in 2015 and he also talked about it during the second summit of the Forum of China-Africa Cooperation in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2014.
China is Africa's biggest trading partner and is behind the continent's recent infrastructure transformation.
Some modern transport projects have put African governments and environmental activists at loggerheads. However, Sebunya says that wildlife activists are not against development.
"Africa needs the infrastructure so we cannot talk conservation at the expense of development. The discourse should instead be on the relationship between the two. The good news is that we already have data from previous development models that have not worked. We must therefore develop an African model and China can help us mold it."
He disputes allegations that China has gained a foothold in Africa by turning a blind eye to conservation issues. He attributes delays in getting funding from other international financiers to a lack of skill on Africa's part in negotiating deals that put the continent's environmental needs on the table.
Noting this, he says China, through the cooperation forum, has increased the continent's skill development programs for wildlife and environmental experts. China's success at protecting its own endangered pandas offers lessons to the elephant conservation programs, and enable Africa to negotiate with a strong voice that will shape its development agenda.
Moreover, African conservation and wildlife management agencies have in the recent past been beneficiaries of China's technical and financial assistance. Kenya and Zimbabwe have each received vehicles and state-of-art equipment such as night-vision goggles to boost surveillance. China's security forces have also joined hands with global networks such as the Interpol to exchange intelligence that has successfully led to the arrest of ivory barons and a decline in the ivory trade.
But Africa cannot escape the fact that the ban does not explicitly solve its challenges, says the president. The continent's chief problem has always been human-wildlife conflict. The population boom and soaring demand for food has seen more and more human activities encroaching on wild land, setting off a vicious cycle pitting humans against animals.
Climate change has also forced wild animals to venture into farmed land, while herders have invaded national parks in search of pasture. Compensation claims are on the upswing, putting more pressure on national budgets, while countries such as Botswana and Zimbabwe have been forced to hold huge stocks of ivory and other wildlife trophies.
Sebunya says China's ivory ban will effectively put the global focus squarely on Africa's ability to protect both its human capital and wildlife. Encouraging responsibility and creativity on the subject could result in the development of effective policies, but this can only be achieved with the right synergy created in all government departments.
"This is not only an environmental issue but also a political, social and economic issue," says Sebunya. "There have been several voices around illegal ivory trading but these are all going to tone down and turn to governments for direction going forward. I think we need Africa to own this space and be able to explain to fellow Africans the merit of our natural resources."
He says the only way communities living around protected lands will take responsibility for conservation efforts is when the government talks about it in boardrooms.
"Conservationists always seem to be coming in late, after monumental decisions such as infrastructure master plans have been approved. But finance ministers should be activists too, conscious of the consequences of prioritizing development over the ecosystem. Africa will not achieve its development agenda without its natural heritage," he says.
AWF has been recognized by the African Union as the official implementation partner of Africa Vision 2063.
Sebunya says the next 10 years will be crucial because decisions taken will determine the entire future of Africa.
"The continent has identified agriculture as key to its industrial take-off. However, Africa cannot develop without a healthy workforce and water to irrigate its lands and run industries. Conservation and development go hand-in-hand," says the president.
"The question Africa needs to answer is how it can have it all. There must be an African development model and data is available to guide us. China, which developed rapidly over a very short period of time, has lessons we can learn and this is why the ongoing partnership between China and Africa is monumental," says Sebunya.
He commends China for offering both its financial and technical skills in Africa's ambitious infrastructure development. With the right policies in place, Chinese construction companies will help build an eco-friendly African landscape.
"We are closely engaging with China in achieving an African renaissance dream. But we know that we should also be ready to compromise," says the president. "We will lose some while making gains elsewhere."
Good policies will also see the budgetary allocation for conservation increase. Expanding the education system to include communities previously engaged in poaching should also be prioritized.
"These people need to engage in alternative activities that will be economically viable to them. The ivory ban will force African governments to be more proactive and this calls for all partners to support their strategies."
With the ban in place, external conservation funding may dry up and this, according to Sebunya, will be to the detriment of the already stretched funding that also covers other endangered species.
Continental bodies, such as the African Union, need to take a stronger stand to ensure member countries develop better wildlife management and sustainable strategies.
For countries grappling with huge elephant populations, sharing with countries such as Mozambique — whose elephant population has been wiped out — could be a prudent solution.
"When negotiating for the movement of people and capital, animals and technical support should also be considered," Sebunya says, adding that AWF helped in developing a tripartite agreement that saw Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo benefit from the protection of mountain gorillas.
"While charting Africa's unique development model, China cannot be ignored, and we will continuously engage with them, too, in this space," says the president, who is set to attend the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) from March 23-26 in China's Boao, Hainan province.