Protections for African wildlife face growing threat: a lack of money

Lions in Kenya.

Lions, such as the ones pictured here in Kenya, will experience severe population declines if protected areas in Africa continue to be underfunded. (© Art Wolfe)

Some 90 percent of the almost 300 protected areas in Africa are underfunded, according to a recent study, The New York Times reported this week. These combined deficits — totaling at least US$ 1 billion — mean that iconic fixtures of Africa’s permanent landscape, such as lions, could face severe population declines if no action is taken.

We spoke with Michael O’Brien-Onyeka, senior vice president of Conservation International’s Africa Field Division, and Rachel Golden Kroner, a social scientist at Conservation International and an expert on protected areas, about the study’s findings, and what can be done to better protect nature in Africa and beyond.

Question: What was your first reaction to the results of this study?

O’Brien-Onyeka: The assessment about the gross underfunding of parks in Africa is correct and perhaps even conservative — the funding shortfall could be higher, in my view.

Golden Kroner: The study resonates with research that I have read – in particular, a study led by David Gill (former Conservation International postdoctoral associate) and co-authored by Mike Mascia (Senior Vice President of the Moore Center for Science). Their research found that in marine protected areas, staff and capacity — essentially funding — were the most important predictors of success for ecological outcomes. So, this new study in Africa very much aligns with the idea that funding for management is key to ensure that protected areas can be effective.

Q: Michael, from your perspective, what explains this funding shortfall? 

O’Brien-Onyeka: Africa’s vast natural capital — that is, the sources of the benefits that nature provides to people — is not properly valued or accounted for in decision-making, and represents one of the key underlying reasons why parks are being taken for granted in terms of funding.

The shortage of funding could also be caused by lack of understanding about the linkages between conserving critical ecosystems where wildlife live and food security, peace and security, and so on. The conservation community is still just beginning to take a holistic approach to this — where you are not just looking at a specific park, but also outlying communities and ecosystems connected to those parks and the aggregate contributions of the parks to the livelihood and well-being of people in the area.

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Q: Rachel, you’re an expert on the downsizing of protected areas. How does that come into play here?

Golden Kroner: From our work looking at downgrading, downsizing and degazettement of protected areas — weakening, shrinking or removing their protected status, respectively —  the findings of this study make a lot of sense. Although we don’t explicitly know the connection between funding and legal changes to protected areas, we have found a connection between so called “paper parks” — parks that are legally written down as protected, but have no management, marked boundaries or patrolling — and our work. In the case of Rondônia, Brazil — one of the most heavily deforested states in that country — our research found that protected areas that were poorly managed, and in turn more deforested, were more likely to be downsized or degazetted. In other words, paper parks were more likely to lose protections.  This suggests that if protected area management isn’t supported by adequate funding, there is a risk of future loss of protections.

Q: What is a potential solution to Africa’s protected area problem?

Golden Kroner: A sustainable financing mechanism could be beneficial to protected areas in Africa. For example, in Brazil, the ARPA model — Amazon Region Protected Areas Programme — helps to permanently finance protected areas through a funding commitment between the government and various foundations. The government gradually commits more funding and foundations commit less over time, eventually leading to almost full support from the government alone. It’s a model that has worked in Brazil and other countries are now looking into adapting it, so I think a similar type of sustainable financing model could work in Africa.

O’Brien-Onyeka: The suggestion that developed countries and multilateral agencies should increase their support for protected areas in Africa is good, because it would go a long way in supporting protection of wildlife — but it may not be reliable in the long run, as it depends on the good will of donors. What we need is a combination of different funding mechanisms including donor funds, trust funds, carbon credits and others. There is no silver bullet.

Our plan at Conservation International is to develop sustainable funding mechanisms for protected areas that don’t rely solely on philanthropic or donor funding. This year in Liberia, for example, we launched and capitalized the first endowment fund for the country’s protected areas, in collaboration with the government, to provide perpetual funding for these areas. The fund accepts funding from all sources including government and the private sector, and it is a model that can be replicated across Africa.

Michael O’Brien-Onyeka is senior vice president of Conservation International’s Africa Field Division. Rachel Golden Kroner is a social scientist at Conservation International. Olivia DeSmit is a staff writer for Conservation International. Ally Jamah, Conservation International’s regional communication manager for Africa, contributed to this report. 

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