Why should biodiversity be Africa’s top priority?

Oct 14, 2021, 2:10 PM

The theme for World Environment Day, 5 June 2020 is biodiversity — a call to action to combat the accelerating species loss and degradation of the natural capital.

World Environment Day urges us to rethink the way our economic systems have evolved to impact the environment. 

Biodiversity loss is a global challenge; the world’s natural capital is under serious threat through a range of anthropogenic actions. Africa is host to remarkable biodiversity, with many endemic and endangered mammals and plants. Africa is also immensely rich with tropical forests, savannahs, montane grasslands, mangroves, deserts, wetlands.

Sintayehu (2018) suggests that the continent contains an estimated one-fifth of all known species of mammals, birds, and plants. Biodiversity has always played a critical role in human development and well-being in Africa. By providing food, health, water supply and many other services, it constitutes the engine for socioeconomic development. As a matter of fact, most African economies are largely dependent on their natural resources such as agricultural lands, forests, water resources, ecosystems and ecosystem services.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005) concluded that African ecosystem supplies multiple ecosystem services required to meet human needs and sustain livelihoods, while regulating diseases and climatic systems, supporting soil formation, and providing ecotourism services.

Despite the potential and great opportunities biodiversity provides for African development, the continent is experiencing an unprecedented decline due to population growth, extensive agricultural practices, rapid urbanization, infrastructure development, illicit trafficking, among others. 

It is estimated that the overexploitation and degradation of the biodiversity ecosystems will result in the loss of 50% of Africa’s bird and mammal species, and 20-30% of lake productivity by the end of the century, as well as decline of wildlife and fisheries (UNEP-WCMC, 2016).

Furthermore, armed conflicts have caused significant damage to Africa’s biodiversity as experienced in many conflict-affected African countries, with enormous impact on protected areas due to military activities and population displacement.  Examples include Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, and the whole of the Great Lakes region which experienced significant decline in their wildlife populations within national parks and reserves.

It is estimated that 70 percent of Africa’s protected areas were touched by war between 1946 and 2010, with elephants, hippos, giraffes and other large mammals perishing as militants and hungry citizens hunted animals for meat and for marketable commodities such as ivory (Daskin and Pringle, 2018). Biodiversity loss also combines with many other environmental problems such as sea and land  pollution by toxic waste, plastics and heavy metals which affect the quality of life.  

Climate change is one of the major threats to biodiversity and ecosystem services in Africa. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change(link is external) (IPCC, 2013), the changing climate is predicted to be one of the worst drivers for the loss of biodiversity over the next 50–100 years and will further exacerbate the effects of earlier threats on biodiversity. Considered as the latest emerging threat to biodiversity in Africa, climate change is a contributing cause in the decline of amphibian populations, due to drastic reductions in the volume of water bodies after persistent dry weather in combination with intensified human activities along the shorelines (Sintayehu, 2018).

The loss of biodiversity in Africa alters the structures and functions of ecological systems, compromising efforts to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 15 which aims to “sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss”.

The decline of biodiversity in Africa is expected to continue and to affect Africa’s development progress and continent’s ability to grow sustainably.

It is important to recognize the efforts made recently by many African countries to protect their natural assets by increasing awareness of their populations and communities on the values of biodiversity and its importance for socioeconomic development, building capacity, improving knowledge, creating protecting areas, conserving biodiversity hotspots and promoting nature-based solutions. However, given the amplitude of the challenges, African countries need to enhance and step up their efforts to reverse the current trends of biodiversity loss. To do so, they need to ensure that biodiversity becomes a top priority in their development goals.

A Guest Editorial

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