Ask a Westerner what the first thing in their mind is when they think of Africa, and there's a strong chance that they'll talk about its wildlife. Africa has long been the home of the safari, and plays hosts to a range of fauna which appears either sporadically or not at all in the rest of the world. The connection between Africa and the animals that live on her land is so strong that it's the focal point of everything from movies to online slots. If you log on to Rose Slots, you'll find slot games called ‘Hot Safari,' ‘Stampede' and the less-subtle ‘Africa Goes Wild', all of which use the sights and sounds of African wildlife as their theme and inspiration. There's almost a romantic view of the continent as a sanctuary for exotic creatures; one that persuades tourists to pay big money for those safari trips, and entertains players when they spin the reels on the slot games.
Until recently, though, the prospect of the next generation connecting animals and Africa so readily seemed a bleak one. Between 1975 and 2010, the number of wild animals living in Africa’s national parks fell by over half; a trend that was accelerating as the years progressed. Loss of natural habitat was a factor in the decline, but so was poor investment by those responsible for the parks, financial shortages, and illegal hunting activity. As this decade began, we faced the prospect of the national parks becoming empty and lifeless by the end of it. Drastic action was needed, and drastic action was taken.
Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park suffered more than post. Blighted by the civil war which wracked the country for over fifteen years, it lost 95% of all its larger animals by the time the war ended, and someone took the time to count them. As with all wars, there had been heavy casualties, and animals were among the first to fall. Conditions during wartime had become desperate, and so valuable creatures were sold to purchase more weapons. Less valuable ones were killed and eaten. It seems inconceivable that a park with only 5% of its livestock left could stage a recovery, and yet it has.
As of the end of last year, Gorongosa is home to over 100,000 animals. Almost all that was lost has been restored. Gorongosa is a special case; it found an American sponsor who was willing to invest heavily in restoring the area to its former glory. Gregory Carr is estimated to have spent well over $10m on the park, including advanced protection systems, imported animals and a ‘protected zone’ around the park that covers more than a thousand square miles. Not every park is lucky enough to have a benefactor as generous as Carr, but there have been signs that the lessons which can be learned from Gorongosa are being employed elsewhere. Not every park has an individual sponsor, but a collective of non-profit organizations are filling the void.
Arguably the largest such non-profit organization is African Parks, which was formed in 2000 specifically because the decrease in wildlife numbers had become so dramatic and pronounced that members of the international community felt that something had to be done about it. It started with just one park - the Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, but experienced success there and turned its attention to another park, and then another, and kept going from there. It now has 13 parks under its protection, with Chad's Zakouma national park its most recent success story. Donating and investing into the charity has become a popular cause for celebrities and high profile global figures, including Prince Harry of Great Britain, who currently sits as the honorary President of the organization. The charity publishes its accounts on an annual basis and is known to have an operating budget of almost $50m.
The presence of foreign money in African national parks doesn't come without controversy. The origin of most of the national parks isn't African, but colonial. The borders of many of the continent's largest parks were drawn up under colonial rule and operated for the pleasure of white tourists, who enjoyed a luxury guided experience while locals were forbidden from entering the area. Both Gregory Carr in Mozambique and the management committee of African Parks have been keen to dispel the idea that the donations and investments amount to foreigners ‘buying' the parks from Africa, and so as they've replenished the wildlife and improved the facilities of the parks, they've also gone to great lengths to support and involve the communities and people who live around them.
That's especially evident at Gorongosa, where virtually every member of staff is from Mozambique, and up to 85% of them live locally to the park. Carr spent $15 in Mozambique during 2018, but only $5m of that went on the park. The remaining $10m was invested in the community, with a particular focus on improving both education standards and access to education for children, and especially girls. There are now girls focus groups in fifty of the schools around the park, all paid for by Carr, and offering employment opportunities within the park as well as conservationist and scientific training. A cynic may say that Carr is funding his future employees, but there can be no denying that his generosity has made a material difference to the lives of the people who live around the park.
As for the animals, there are green shoots of recovery everywhere. Rwanda’s Akagera Park recent re-attained its ‘big five’ credentials, meaning that it plays host to lions, leopards, rhinos, water buffalo and elephants. As recently as 2015, it had no lions at all. Comoe National Park in Cote d’Ivoire was removed from the ‘in danger’ list of the World Heritage Committee in 2017, becoming the first African park in over a decade to be taken back off the list after being placed on it. Animal populations are recovering, protections are improving, and fresh money is coming in.
Because of global co-operation, the willingness of the world to pour money into African conservation, and the willingness of Africans to accept assistance without suspicion, the roar of the wild in the African savanna will continue to be heard for years to come.
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