Why Africa’s Lion Economies Actually Need Lions

Africa’s labor productivity is rising, and trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200 percent since 2000. At least a dozen African economies have expanded by more than 6 percent per year for the past six years, earning the nickname, “Africa’s lion economies.”

Meanwhile, massive infrastructural developments are planned on the continent, with some already underway to facilitate national and regional trade. Major corridors for infrastructure, agriculture and more are being planned and set aside. The Priority Action Plan of the Program for Infrastructure Development in Africa (or PIDA) has identified approximately 50 projects that will require about US$360 billion in investment in this sector.

Africa’s current economic development has the potential to improve the livelihoods of millions of people in poverty across the continent. As Africa develops, however, its wildlife and wild lands are being impacted significantly—resulting in a loss of ecosystem services and the related goods they provide.

Ecosystem goods and services are those benefits provided by nature, such as food, water, clean air and more. Economic development and all life depend on ecosystem goods and services… and Africa’s wild lands represent the last places capable of providing the ecosystem goods and services necessary for Africa’s continued development. Wild lands, for example, provide critical water catchment services to Africa. A third of the 100 largest cities of the world, Nairobi and Cape Town included, depend on protected areas for their water supply. More than 40 per cent of our citizens still lack access to safe and affordable drinking water, and we know demand for water will increase in the future. Africa needs agriculture to feed its rapidly increasing population and to contribute to feeding the rest of the world. Here, too, wild lands play an important role, supplying water, pollination, soil protection and pest control. For local communities who practice subsistence agriculture, the environment ensures food security and supports their other livelihood needs. Africa’s wild lands will also continue to provide opportunities for sustainable natural resource extraction to meet shelter, cooking fuel and other needs for a majority of the population, especially in rural areas.

Finally, as we witness other continents suffering air quality issues from rapid development, Africans can rely on the Congo Basin forests, which acts as the world’s “second lung” after the Amazon.

But the reductions experienced by Africa’s large mammal populations in the last four decades are indicative of the continuing state of deterioration of the continent’s biodiversity. The health of Africa’s wildlife species is a visible natural proxy, a measure for our ability to live in balance with our natural environment. If we cannot solve this very visible problem, how will we learn to solve more hidden problems like climate change and ocean acidification?

Our continent is therefore at a critical crossroads: The decisions we make now—around how we develop the continent and ultimately how we will manage our natural resources—will have lasting impact on future generations. And let us not mistake what we have at stake: The African continent is home to one quarter of the world’s 4,700 mammal species, more than 2,000 species of birds (one fifth of the world’s total) and at least 2,000 species of fish and 950 species of amphibians. The African mainland harbors 40,000 – 60,000 plant species and about 100,000 known species of insects and arachnids. One eighth of the world’s 34 biodiversity hotspots are in Africa. The thousands of valuable plant and animal species found in African wild lands represent natural capital whose loss in economic and ecological terms is not easy to fathom.

It is increasingly clear that Africa’s wildlife and wild lands are central to the continent’s economies. If we want our “lion economies” to continue to roar for decades to come, we must make sure that wildlife and wild lands remain central to the decisions we make around Africa’s future.