After 30 hours of traveling, I finally landed in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe for the inaugural African Union/UN Environment Wildlife Economy Summit to create a new vision of pan-African conservation that will deliver sustainable economic benefit to nation-states and local communities. As the tourism capital of Zimbabwe, you can imagine how excited I was to see one of the 7 Natural Wonders of the World while learning more about communities for conservation, harnessing conservation tourism, and supporting tourism by uniting political and community leadership, private sector conservationists, and financial resources.
The summit began with a train ride aboard the Victoria Falls Steam Train, where we were fortunate enough to hear from Zimbabwe’s Minister of Environment, Tourism, and Hospitality Industry, Hon. Prisca. Mupfumira, M. P. She discussed Zimbabwe’s high tourism rank and displayed her hope that the next two days of conferences would have a huge impact on the pristine wildlife that calls Zimbabwe home.
His Excellency The President of the Republic of Zimbabwe, E. D Mnangagwa began the first day of conferences with an opening ceremony. He began his introductory address by launching a multitude of topics that would be elaborated on throughout the next two days. These subjects included ecotourism, trophy hunting, eradicating poverty, creating jobs, wildlife coexistence, public and private sector conservation, and the upcoming Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which is a multilateral treaty to protect endangered plants and animals.
H. E. Mnangagwa continued by discussing the illegal ivory trade and opening a free-trade market for animal trophies from hunting. Zimbabwe has $600 million dollars in ivory stockpiled, which have no real value with the ban on the ivory trade in place. Zimbabwe needs this additional $600,000,000 to bolster their economy, assist in the eradication of poverty, and work to conserve the remaining living elephants. However, opening this trade would create a market for more ivory to be sold, thus continuing the cycle of elephant and rhino poaching.
Along with H. E. Mnangagwa, His Excellency The President of the Republic of Botswana Mokgweetsi Masisi enforced that the new deal must be relatively timely and must maximize the development primarily for the benefit of the people. The growth of the wildlife economy requires a deep understanding of the people living among the wildlife while engaging people and forming connections and relationships, as well as attending these summits to further our learning on wildlife conservation. H. E. committed to going full throttle in doing what it takes to achieve this new deal. His Excellency The President of the Republic of Nambia reinforced this idea of coexistences between people and animals.
One idea behind this conference was coming up with a “new deal” to help the KAZA countries (Angola, Botswana, and Namibia) grow their economies through manners other than the trade of ivory and horns. This is where unlocking the investment potential in tourism and raising capital infrastructure plays a vital role. Forming an industry that benefits rural communities is a necessity, or else we will lose the animals that help to make these countries so beautiful. By 2030, Africa should have over 134 million tourists visiting the continent - this growth is indispensable to the economy.
To achieve all of this, we need a new business plan centered around infrastructure. This requires the ongoing support of communities and governments and a transparent partnership between the two. Along with those two necessities, physical infrastructure such as airstrips, ground staff, properly trained and well-equipped rangers, and safe lodging are essential in constructing this new deal.
There are 5 main factors that impact tourism wildlife. The first is obviously protecting the animals and the landscapes they depend on. After that comes conservation management, which includes property and management rights. Knowing who has control over what plots of land is essential to continuing the growth of the wildlife economy. After that comes political stability and the security and safety of travelers. The tourism industry can’t grow if tourists don’t feel safe enough to truly experience the country. Local support, which is including the new deal, and community ownership is vital. The people who are directly impacted by the animals have a significant amount of power in controlling the fate of these animals. The final factor is improved access and infrastructure. Tourists cannot travel to these countries if there is no way to get there. This includes physical aspects such as airports, but also important aspects such as the ease of obtaining a visa.
National parks are economic engines - they continue to bring in millions of valuable dollars throughout the year that have generated enough money to create an industry worth $2-3 billion. But, why isn’t it $20-30 billion? Only 10 out of 100 national parks in Southern Africa are operating. This is massively due to declining use of land, deforestation, climate change, and loss of wildlife habitat. To combat this, we need to both restore land rights and create a fair deal where communities are involved with the animals and parks.
Community inclusion is the only way this new deal will work. It is essential to make sure that the benefits that come from the wildlife economy are equally distributed. Opportunities need to be created for everyone, especially women who are currently under-represented. We need to create policies that make opportunities that are mutually beneficial for both communities and the animals that live amongst them. It also needs to be ensured that the tourism centers help with unemployment and restore human dignity for those who are struggling to feed their families.
Taking these ideas to scale requires quick growth of both the economy and ecotourism. Taking advantage of growing tourism in Africa while making sustainable use of money with equitable distribution of funds is crucial. Political will, security for tourists and animals, interconnectivity between countries, and sustainable and responsible development of tourism is key in expanding the wildlife economy. All of this will add to each countries GDP and improve the lifestyle of communities.
These ideas have already been implemented in various countries and have produced fantastic results. Great Plains Conservation, an organization based in South Africa that manages multiple wildlife reserves in Kenya and Botswana, has been working with communities and governments to acquire properties, work on them for 3 years to do a complete handover to communities after they have been prepared. They hear from communities about a new kind of tourism - their kind of tourism. They have been heavily investing in women and education because they believe that that is where the future lies.
More examples of these executed ideas are in Rwanda and Uganda. Rwanda has established strong allies, a good business environment, and fantastic security that has earned the country the title of #1 safest country in Africa. In Uganda, 16% of the country is under-protected: the country has 10 national parks but they will be lost without the help of the government. However, they created a one-stop center for registering businesses in a matter of hours. They also review management plans of protected areas with an aim of ecotourism and sustainability and a heavy focus on infrastructure and security.
Luckily, there are massive foundations and organizations that are able to supply funds for creating this new deal. The Global Environment Facility (GEF), which was founded by 39 countries from the UK, US, and EU, have raised over $4.1 billion among 144 countries. However, their Global Wildlife Program has only spent $131 million, meaning there is still almost $4 billion left to be used for the new deal and wildlife conservation. The World Bank with the World Wildlife Fund as their supporter creates government and community partnerships that are essential to forging this new deal. The EU has also donated €340 to combat trafficking annually.
After 2 days of listening to professional experts in conservation speak about the Wildlife Economy that these countries depend on, I feel that I have gained a completely new understanding about the politics and economics behind animal conservation and the tourism industry. With all of this set in motion, our goal is to forge a new deal for tourism, rural communities, and wildlife by 2030.
I'm Emily Walker, the creator and founder of Kids Against Animal Poaching. This is my blog discussing my giant journey!