The Commission must back up its conservation commitments with action

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The African Elephant Coalition (AEC), which comprises 29 African countries, is working to ban all future ivory trade. [Brian Snelson/Flickr]

The European Commission’s commitment to raise €5 billion for a study on wildlife conservation in sub-Saharan Africa is a grand plan, but without support, it will remain just that, writes Sonja Van Tichelen.

Sonja Van Tichelen is European Regional Director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The European Commission last week released a report with the aim of bridging the poverty-biodiversity nexus in sub-Saharan Africa. This report is the first time that the Commission (or any other donor) has developed such a detailed and comprehensive strategy.

The study, Larger than elephants: inputs for an EU strategic approach for African wildlife conservation, was co-authored by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) and other major public and private stakeholders of the conservation world, and has defined a holistic and detailed strategy for the next ten years.

What is interesting is that this report was developed by the European Commission Directorate for Development, a body more traditionally associated with human welfare, rather than animal or ecosystem welfare.

IFAW has long believed that ecological sustainability is vital for the wellbeing of life on Earth – including human wellbeing – and must be the primary objective of conservation.

And it is not just the European Commission that is on board; the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) bear a striking resemblance to the theme contained within this study. The Goals, which address the root causes of poverty and the universal need for development that works for all people, mention nature in no fewer than six of the SDG sub targets. Goal number 15 aims to “Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainable manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.”

An example of why biodiversity should matter to the development community is the elephant. As a keystone species, the elephant has a profound effect on its ecosystem, and as such, the communities that rely on this ecosystem. The importance of this species means that a change in the size and distribution of elephant populations can change the nature of whole ecosystems. For example, they may contribute to desertification when confined in areas above carrying capacity, whereas they could help prevent desertification in areas where they have achieved a steady population dynamic and are fulfilling their role as seed dispersers.

But elephants are currently facing an unprecedented crisis. Habitat destruction and fragmentation pose the most significant threats to elephant populations in the wild, with climate change expected to have a further significant impact.

IFAW’s landscape work in Amboseli proves this need not be a zero-sum game between humans and elephants. Using the principles of ecological sustainability and viewing elephant sufficiency as a prerequisite for advancing human development, carefully designed and appropriately scoped, an African elephant resiliency plan could bring knock-on benefits to ecosystems, other species, and humans. This could help achieve biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation goals, as well as poverty alleviation targets.

But it is not just about habitat loss and degradation. The trafficking of wildlife has become a real and increasing threat to national, regional and global security. It is estimated that an elephant is killed every 15 minutes for ivory. Organised crime groups, especially those with smuggling capabilities, find wildlife trafficking attractive because of its low risks, high profits and weak penalties. Products like rhino horn and bear bile can be worth more than gold or cocaine, and the earnings can bring well over 1,000% returns on investment.

There is further evidence that militia groups such as the Janjaweed and Lord’s Resistance Army gain vital resources through their participation in the illegal ivory trade.

Urgent action is therefore needed to protect the world’s remaining elephants and to prevent the cascading negative impacts that the demise of this species will have on ecosystems and the local communities that depend on them.

To its credit, the Commission has already mobilised €700 million for the period up to 2020, but this is a drop in the ocean when the total cost of funding this new strategy is estimated at between €400 and €500 million per year. Currently, the EU is mobilising about €100 million per year.

IFAW hopes this report will provide the framework for a concerted and coordinated effort by all concerned parties to mobilise the necessary funds for this important work. Furthermore, the EU member states must embrace this strategy with the establishment of a special EU Trust Fund for African wildlife, serving as a reliable way forward to leverage the funds needed to put this plan into action. 

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