Will The European Commission’s new plan for Sub-Saharan African help Elephants?

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

The European Commission commitment to raise 5 billion Euros to fund a Study on Sub-Saharan African Wildlife Conservation is a grand plan, but one which without support will remain only that, to the detriment of wildlife and the communities that depend on them, writes Satyen Sinha, European Lead for Advoacy and Campagins (Wildlife and Elephant Programmes) for the International Fund for Animal Welfare

The European Commission has today released a new report with the aim to bridge 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 10 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 first and foremost objective of conservation.

And it is not just the European Commission that is on board; the recently agreed Sustainable Development Goals 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 less than 6 of the SDG sub targets, and have a dedicated target (15) which 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 matters to the development community is the elephant; the elephant as a keystone species has a profound effect on the ecosystem, and as such communities that rely on them. The importance of this species means that a change in the size and distribution of elephant populations can change the nature of ecosystems. For example, they may contribute to desertification when confined in areas above carrying capacity; whereas they could help prevent desertification in contexts where they have achieved a steady-state population dynamic and are fulfilling their ecosystem role as seed dispersers.

However, 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.

Recent IFAW research with the Conservation Ecology Research Unit of the University of Pretoria (CERU) looking at the potential impact of climate change on sub-Saharan elephant populations predicts that certain populations, for example in northern Botswana, will become increasingly stressed as a result of less rainfall and incremental increases in ambient temperature over time, resulting in greater calf mortality.  Thus, according to CERU’s modelling, the importance of securing eastern habitats for elephants in southern Africa is paramount.

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 pre-requisite for advancing human development,, carefully designed and appropriately scoped, an African elephant resiliency plan could bring knock-on co-benefits to ecosystems, other species, and humans, achieving biodiversity conservation goals and climate change adaptation, as well as the poverty alleviation targets.

But it is not just 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 amount to well over 1000 per cent return on investment.

In September 2013 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published report identifying the ivory trade, along with human smuggling, heroin and piracy, as one of the top four threats in the Horn of Africa.  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 local communities that depend on them.

To its credit, the Commission has already mobilised 700 million EUR until 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 EUR annually - 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 European 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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