Wildlife economist calls it well-meaning but thin on detail

By Roving Reporters

A new government plan for preserving and harnessing the country’s biodiverse but threatened plant and animal life is well intentioned but the victim of back-to-front thinking.

It pays scant attention to the potential of rhino horn and elephant ivory to fund conservation and its expansive plans to involve rural communities in conservation and eco-tourism ventures could backfire badly.

These are among assessments of the Draft National Environmental Management Biodiversity Bill by conservation biologist and policy expert Michèle Pfab.

Pfab was speaking at the latest Tipping Points webinar hosted by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation “OGRC” on May 30th, themed around the question, “Values vs value: should biodiversity have to pay its own way?”

Alongside her were Howard Hendricks, the managing executive for conservation services at South African National Parks (SANParks), and Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist specializing in wildlife trade and policy.

The discussions, steered by Prof Francois Retief of the Research Unit for Environmental Sciences and Management at North West University, dissected the pros and cons of the draft bill, now open for the public comment. This follows the recent release of the National Biodiversity Economy Strategy by the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE).

South Africa’s biodiversity strategy stands at a critical crossroads. Will it evolve into a holistic blueprint that not only safeguards places like the nature but also uplifts communities, or will it falter, leaving both biodiversity and livelihoods in jeopardy? This photo is of the expansive Vhembe Biosphere Reserve which includes parts of Kruger National Park, as well as several towns and farming communities like Early Dawn.
Image by Martin Heigan |  Flickr.

Hurried pursuit

Pfab said she had taken a good look at the strategy, drawing on her more than 25 years in conservation, including a long spell managing a plan for the Gauteng government to identify and protect sensitive biodiversity areas in rapidly urbanising environments.

She called for a careful examination of the notion, contained in the policy, of including communal land in the “conservation estate” to create jobs and grow the local economy.

She cautioned against viewing communal land solely through a conservation lens, emphasizing that rural communities may not necessarily share the enthusiasm for biodiversity-based enterprises or ecotourism.

Pushing people towards activities that may not align with their interests or economic needs, might inadvertently exacerbate rural poverty, said Pfab.

Michèle Pfab stressed the importance of aligning economic activities with local needs and interests and argues that even small areas of land can form the basis of biodiversity-based economic activity.

One of Pfab’s central concerns revolves around the strategy’s hurried pursuit to meet the global 30-by-30 target, an initiative urging governments to designate 30% of the earth’s land and seas as protected areas by 2030.

She warned that this rush may lead to unintended consequences.
“This is a form of land enclosure and may instead worsen poverty in rural areas,” said Pfab.


She pointed out that biodiversity and wild species required land – habitats – to survive, but many economic activities destroyed this habitat.

“So, a biodiversity economy strategy should surely therefore incentivise any economic activities that have a low impact on habitat and the species that depend on that habitat. Whether this national biodiversity economy strategy will achieve that is, however, debatable,” she said.

“It seems to have things a little bit the wrong way around. It aims to, and I quote, leverage the biodiversity economy to promote conservation and species and ecosystems management, thereby ensuring a positive feedback loop.”

Pfab is concerned that if the policy places too many limitations on land owners, both private and communal, they could simply choose other forms of economic activity, which might result in habitat loss and further harm biodiversity.

“Why is there such an emphasis on ecotourism, to the apparent exclusion of other forms of biodiversity-based enterprises? And why an emphasis only on extensive wildlife systems?”

About 300 villagers live in Soebatsfontein in the Namaqua National Park where succulent plant poaching has become a major problem. The local community is extremely impoverished and have no livelihood options.  What will the National Biodiversity Economic Strategy do for them? asks Michèle Pfab. | Photo supplied

Pfab said there also seemed to be a bias toward iconic species that require large tracts of land.

“But even a small area of land that has some form of biodiversity-based economic activity would contribute to the conservation of species such as reptiles, birds, invertebrates and plants.

“So we really need to sometimes take a little bit more of a holistic view of biodiversity, not just the big, hairy charismatic animals.”


She feared the limitations of the strategy would mean passing up many opportunities to generate livelihoods for rural people.

Also coming in for stick was the strategy’s call for the large-scale establishment of community-owned indigenous plant nurseries.

While Pfab acknowledged a great need to propagate indigenous plants to supply the horticultural and traditional medicines markets, she said there was “much documented evidence that community nurseries routinely fail”. Yet the strategy envisaged “an incredible 1000 community-based nurseries established by 2036” to supply restoration and carbon sequestration projects and a further 150 community-based nurseries for growing traditional medicinal plants.

“Then finally, tacked on at the end of the strategy is the only reference to the rhino horn and elephant ivory trade,” said Pfab.

She said these wildlife products perhaps have the most potential for funding conservation and uplifting impoverished communities, yet the strategy “will have us focus on trying to develop a local market for these products where there is negligible demand but which are highly valuable in international markets”.

SANParks executive manager, Howard Hendricks, says the draft biodiversity bill strives to achieve a balance between conservation imperatives and livelihoods. | Photo supplied

World-class offerings

Hendricks, who has served SANParks for 30 years, noted that Africa’s biodiversity already helped create revenue of about $30-billion (R565-bn) a year and employed about 3.6-million people, mainly in eco-tourism, with the potential to unlock “a lot more”.

However, if we were to achieve this, complex realities must be better understood and managed, including a growing population, education, continuing reliance on fossil fuels, widespread environmental degradation including of rivers, and the dangers of “biocentrism” – an over-focus on the ecological value of biodiversity at the expense of its contribution to the economy, livelihoods and human health.

Education about all forms of biodiversity is key to protecting natural ecosystems, says ecologist and botanist, Emmanuel Nyathi, pictured at the Skukuza Nursery in the Kruger National Park with a team of Southern African Wildlife College youth champions. Photo: Supplied.

 Hendricks stressed the importance of real community engagement as opposed to tokenism.

“We need to pursue convivial conservation-driven development models to uplift people, generate revenue from biodiversity and biodiversity products, as well as establish world-class tourism offerings. It is essential to prioritise equitable distribution of benefits so that those who need it can thrive alongside those with wildlife and seascapes.” he said.

Balancing act

So, what could be done to ensure the benefits from the expansion of the wildlife economy actually reached poor communities? Retief asked.

Hendriks stressed the value of community-based conservation. Active participation in conservation improved protection of wildlife, enhanced social cohesion and fostered job creation and income generation, he said. 

“It’s this kind of fine balancing act between conservation and livelihoods and I don’t foresee anyone has the most perfect answer, but it is important that we do strike a balance.”

‘T Sas-Rolfes said the new policy was “an attempted step in the right direction” , with “some positive aspects, but there are also some concerns”.To provide some background, he contrasted the South African and Kenyan conservation experience over the past 50 to 60 years, noting that since the 1970s when the east African country banned hunting (a temporary measure that was never lifted), it has lost 70% of its large mammal populations.

“Around about the same time, in fact going back to the early 60s, South African private landowners started experimenting with wildlife ranching. Hunting was not banned in South Africa and became a very important part of the wildlife economy.

“South Africa’s wildlife estate has exploded since then. It has grown twentyfold and two-thirds of the conservation of large wild mammals now takes place on private land outside of state-protected areas,” said ’t Sas-Rolfes, who is a research fellow at  Stellenbosch University’s African Wildlife Economy Institute “AWEI”.

South Africa’s approach “way out-performed” Kenya’s, with the implementation of the Game Theft Act of 1991 – which recognised private ownership of wildlife on private lands that were enclosed – assisting with this success.

Factory farming

However, the legislation brought other problems. It led to enclosures becoming smaller, with increasingly intensive management on private land – “wildlife farming, if you will”, of certain high-value species.

He made specific mention of captive lion breeding and the lion bone trade which has sparked public outrage.

“We are testing the boundaries of public acceptability. And the public has pushed back somewhat and we are still trying to figure out where we draw the boundaries around what is acceptable,” he said.

“When does farming contribute to conservation and biodiversity and when does it cross a line where it just turns into factory farming and its environmental footprint is negative?”

 Furthermore, the growth of the private wildlife economy had not included previously disadvantaged communities, “who could not privately own land and who therefore could not really benefit from this”.

This left South Africa in need of “some meaningful transformation, which has only taken place in a small way to date”.

Good wish-list

’T Sas-Rolfes said with all this in mind, the broad goals of the new strategy were sound.

“It emphasises the need for ecological infrastructure, for restoring ecological infrastructure, for open extensive systems, to some extent to try to encourage people to pull down fences and move away from intensive practices, and in that sense is also aligned with international policy that seeks the so-called 30-by-30…
It recognises ecosystems; it recognises the need for social transformation. And importantly, it recognises the need to remove barriers to entry to previously disadvantaged individuals to become involved in the wildlife economy. And it recognises… the economic value of wildlife and the various opportunities that they provide.”

But ’t Sas-Rolfes criticised the policy for lacking detail on property rights, clarity on how partnerships and technology transfers between the established and emerging wildlife sectors might be fostered and how to deal past policy failures.

“Whether for people in local communities living in communal areas or private landowners, they need some sense of ownership. And that again is not very clearly addressed in this policy.”

Conservation economist, Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, describes the National Biodiversity Economy Strategy as a long wish-list but questions where the funding will come from to achieve its goals.

Funding gap

Of real concern, he said, was the “substantial financing gap” which the strategy “glosses over”. He explained there was an “extreme shortfall of funding” for conservation in South Africa, and indeed internationally.

“This leads to a lack of capacity (and) to a lot of protected areas that are paper parks, so in fact, what is going on the ground is not good.”

’T Sas-Rolfes felt the policy stressed subsidies over empowerment and a “meaningful devolution of authority and power and property rights to local communities to really incentivise them”.  

“There is a long wish-list of things we would like to see happen, but it’s not clear where those funds are going to come from,” said ‘t Sas-Rolfes, suggesting more attention be given to attracting private sector partners and financing.

From the discussions arising, it was clear that until these, and other  challenges, are addressed, South Africa’s biodiversity strategy stands at a critical crossroads. Will it evolve into a holistic blueprint that not only safeguards nature but also uplifts communities, or will it falter, leaving both biodiversity and livelihoods in jeopardy?

The answer clearly lies not only in policy but in action – a call to bridge the gap between intention and implementation for the sake of biodiversity and people’s livelihoods. – Additional reporting Siziwe Hlongwa and Charlene Wandera.

  • This story was produced with support from Jive Media Africa – science communication partner to the Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation “OGRC”.

Hlongwa and Wandera are taking part in the Khetha New Narratives training project which aims to improve media reporting on conservation challenges in the Greater Kruger area. Hlongwa is an environmental educator at the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA). Wandera is a natural resource management specialist, story teller and grant writer at the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC).