The London Conference aims to end wildlife crime. To save elephants from extinction, we must also focus new efforts on securing their habitats, especially across borders, argues Space for Giants’ CEO Dr Max Graham
One stretches from northern Tanzania into southern Kenya, linking the Masai Mara and the Serengeti. In southern Tanzania, linking the Selous to Mozambique’s Niassa, there’s another.
And, perhaps most importantly, there’s one that stretches from Angola’s central highlands, through Namibia, and into the Kalahari and Okavango in Botswana.
These are the vast, connected, continuous, protected cross-border landscapes that are the world’s last major refuges for Africa’s endangered elephants. They are known as transboundary or transfrontier areas, or, more simply, green corridors.
Protecting and securing them is as vital to the survival of major species as ending the poaching and international trafficking of animal parts that is the focus of the London Conference on the Illegal Wildlife Trade starting today.
That meeting, gathering Presidents, princes, politicians, conservationists, and activists, presents us with a rare opportunity to sharpen the international strategy to secure these critically-important habitats.
Massive animals, most notably elephants, need to be able to move freely over vast distances. As human populations grow, and small-holder and industrial agriculture, mining, or logging expands, wildlife habitats are fragmented into smaller and smaller pockets.
That leads to increased competition for limited food and water. Worse, it swiftly reduces the genetic diversity that all life needs to survive, as populations inbreed. The end is extinction, just as inevitably as if the illegal wildlife trade continues.
But if we can protect these vast landscapes, we will secure some of the planet’s most important ecosystems for biodiversity – of all species, not just megafauna. We will have created secure zones where the species that are most in the poachers’ sights can weather the onslaught, and survive to repopulate denuded habitats.
We will also have hedged against the impact of climate change. Firstly because huge biodiverse areas of natural habitat are enormous carbon sinks. And secondly because animals forced from their traditional habitats by new weather patterns will be able to migrate freely, literally searching for greener pastures.
But the protection of these green corridors is complicated by the fact that they require multiple countries to agree and employ shared, consistent actions with common standards and pooled resources. That can be difficult to achieve.
The most promising news here is that Africa’s governments and leaders are already very well aware of what’s at risk, and are already taking huge steps to protect these areas.
Take the Kavango-Zambezi Trans-Frontier Conservation area, known as Kaza and taking in the borderlands of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. More than 220,000 elephants live here – well over half the 415,000 that remain.
Each of the leaders of those five countries, the directors of their national wildlife agencies, the secretariat that oversees the Kaza project, and the men and women who patrol its vastness, are united behind the mission to protect this landscape.
Botswana, Angola, and Zimbabwe have new presidents, all already making clear they will accelerate the good work started by their predecessors. The leaders of Zambia and Namibia, both less than four years in post, exhibit similar dedication to conservation.
What’s missing is the very highest level of international attention to this issue. Technical support, project grants, and conservation programmes all tend to flow from overseas donors to individual African governments, not alliances of them.
A huge step will be to recognise that cross-border issues require a geographical not a political framework, with cross-border interventions.
The British Government, with input from my organisation, Space for Giants, has tabled discussions and key sessions during the London Conference on precisely this issue of green corridors.
There is of course the very pressing need for the Conference to accelerate efforts – starting to bear fruit – to end the illegal wildlife trade to protect endangered species.
But it must also recognise that efforts to end that trade will have been for naught if the habitats that these animals need to thrive is by then little more than a series of small, disconnected pockets.
- Dr Graham is the founder and CEO of Space for Giants, an international conservation organisation operating in eight African countries. www.spaceforgiants.org