Saving wildlife requires a new approach

Sep 12, 2019 | Commentary

By John E. Scanlon AO – Special Envoy at African Parks Network

Keynote address at Business of Conservation Conference, Kigali, Rwanda 9 September 2019

As most of you probably know, the coming year will be a big one on the international calendar of global conferences and summits, especially for biodiversity and climate change. It’s a good time for us to briefly reflect on where we have come from, where we are today, and where we are going.


The UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, marked the start of a long chain of global initiatives to protect our environment, including our biodiversity. Believe it or not, I was there in 1972, not at the Conference but as a young boy visiting my Swedish grandparents!

There have been a series of defining moments for biodiversity since then, including the adoption of the UN World Charter for Nature in 1982, and many biodiversity-related conventions since 1973, most notably the Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992. This Convention has since agreed on global biodiversity targets for 2010, and for 2020, and is now in the process of negotiating a new biodiversity framework for 2030, to be adopted in Kunming, China in October next year.

Given this flurry of international activity, biodiversity must be in good shape, yes? No!

We did not meet the 2010 biodiversity target, and with the exception of achieving the target on the geographic area to be covered by protected areas, the 2020 targets will not be met. 

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WWF’s 2018 Living Planet Report shows a steady and consistent decline in wildlife, with 60% of vertebrates being lost over the past 40 years. A graph presented with the Report shows that this sharp decline in wildlife has been uninterrupted by the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity, its strategies and targets.

And just a few months back, almost 50 years since the Stockholm Conference, the UN IPBES released its Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services, which says that one million species will go extinct within coming decades if we continue on our current trajectory. Among its many other findings, IPBES tells us that 75% of the planet’s terrestrial surface is severely degraded, and that we have lost 85% of wetlands by area, notwithstanding having a Convention on International Wetlands since 1973.

I sometimes wonder whether the adoption of a dedicated Convention on Biological Diversity was a double-edged sword. On the one had it demonstrated political and legal commitment to the issue, yet on the other hand it provided a forum for the global biodiversity community to meet, and agree upon biodiversity strategies and targets, largely detached from the agencies and sectors that determine the fate of biodiversity. There is an old expression that the tail does not wag the dog, and the biodiversity agenda has not shaped the development agenda.


The evidence shows that, despite all these well-intentioned global initiatives to protect biodiversity, something is not working. The time has come for us to use the ‘f’ word, namely, while we can see some successes, global efforts to save biodiversity more broadly have largely failed.

We do need international conventions, global summits, strategies and targets, but they have their limits and their success cannot be measured by how many we have, but by how they are impacting what is happening on-the-ground.

We need a new approach, one that is focused on results

We need a new approach, which is acknowledged by IPBES, and that is what this Conference is all about. There is a lot to do, but there are three specific shifts, which could set us on a new course, namely:

– embed biodiversity into the sustainable development agenda, and the UN Sustainable Development Goals opens-up this opportunity;

– place biodiversity at the forefront of the response to climate change – mitigation, adaptation and building resilience, and, if done right, the renewed interest in nature-based solutions presents an entry point; and

– pursue integrated solutions to biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable development that are focused around long-term commitments to biodiverse rich places. 

It is the third issue where African Parks, as a field-based organisation, is focused. Ambitious, connected, measurable field-based initiatives at scale are desperately needed.


A bright spot for biodiversity over the past 40 years has been the creation of  protected areas across the globe and there are over 8,500 protected areas on the African continent. While these areas have been set aside by countries for conservation, many remain ‘paper parks’, lacking the necessary financing and management.

African government budgets face many demands, including to provide access to education, healthcare, electricity, sanitation and freshwater. Work commissioned by African Parks shows that, while it is cheaper to manage protected areas in African than Europe in dollar terms, the economic cost of protected areas in Africa relative to GDP is 121 times higher than in Europe.

It will take time before countries’ economies are able to absorb the costs of managing their protected areas network. As one President said to us at a recent African Parks event, if he invests too much in conservation at the expense of essential services, he will be accused of loving elephants more than people.

Once African Parks is mandated by a government to assume management responsibility of a park through the public-private partnership (PPP) model, it enables some of these management and financing challenges to be met. While African Parks assumes full management responsibility for a park, importantly, the model fully respects State sovereignty. The government decides to set the land aside for conservation and it decides what sort of protected area it will be – IUCN protected area category I through VI. It determines the overarching rules.


So, what do we do? In setting out our approach, I’ll use the same language I’d use when talking to my family and friends, so please excuse any lack of technical precision.

African Parks creates an enabling environment for attracting investment & achieving multiple global objectives

Within the context of the rules set by the government, African Parks creates the pre-conditions, or enabling environment, that can deliver good results for local people’s security and livelihoods, good results for biodiversity, including wildlife, and good returns for investors.

Within and around the parks we manage, we:

– provide security for people and wildlife and create a sense of stability and law and order. We show that someone is looking after the place. This brings down poaching, snares that are removed are not replaced, and we address acute human wildlife conflict, including using fences strategically – to keep animals in, not people out. We also restore the land and secure the carbon.

– establish good governance and local engagement, including though establishing a board for each park under national laws, with representation from government agencies, the local community and African Parks. We are there for the long term, 20 years plus, which gives us time to achieve conservation and sustainable development objectives. We are not about fly-in fly-out conservation, we are there for the long haul.

– generate local opportunities through employment of local people as park staff, including rangers, tourism staff and guides and we offer local people opportunities through catering, construction, and enterprise, and this is all build on the back of the wildlife.

– create a local economy in and around the park and a constituency in support of the park, through generating decent jobs, local enterprises and facilitating access to education and healthcare. While we get the formal licence to operate from government, we often say we gain our ongoing license to operate from the support of local communities.

– generate revenue for the park, including through park entry fees, tourism and fishing. We seek long term sustainability for the park, financially, socially and environmentally. 

By doing so, we create the enabling environment for multiple global objectives to be achieved simultaneously – for biodiversity, climate and sustainable development. We need to move away from separate and disconnected efforts targeting just biodiversity, or climate, or sustainable development, and to see them converge. This can best happen by focusing on specific places.


These conditions are also conducive to attracting investment from the public sector, including host governments and bi-lateral and multilateral institutions, the private, corporate and philanthropic sectors, as well as from individuals. While they have different motivations for investing, they all seek a return of one sort or another that is related to their own objectives.

Every investor in protected areas wants a return, one that is related to their own objectives

For the private sector, they seek a commercial return. The impact investor will accept a lower rate of commercial return but with a social or environmental dividend. The public sector may seek a return in the form of peace and security, decent local jobs, support for new enterprises, facilitating access to education or healthcare and so on. Corporations may seek an offset, be it for biodiversity or carbon, with many opportunities emerging in this regard, including from the agriculture, infrastructure and mining sectors.


This is not a theory; it is happening in practice. We currently attract investment from each of these sources, and we blend it at the park level across our portfolio of 15 parks in nine countries; from Benin to Mozambique, including here in Rwanda.

Investment coming from multiple sources is blended at the park level

The Akagera National Park, Rwanda is the jewel in the crown. We manage it for the Rwandan Government in partnership with the Rwandan Development Board, and it is a park that has seen the return of wildlife, including lions and rhino, generation of decent jobs, stimulation of enterprise – from honey, to eggs to fish, and in 2018 it attracted over 44,000 tourists, half local and half international. This has enabled it to cover 80% of its running costs. I could say much more if I had time, which I don’t, but I do hope you will visit Akagera for yourselves!

This approach is not limited to African Parks, and it is an approach that can have global application. It is something being further explored by several governments and non-government organisations, including through an initiative known as Legacy Landscapes.


We are here talking of the business of conservation and in doing so we see that conservation is everyone’s business. We cannot stay on the same path we are on. This Conference is leading us in another direction by offering a fresh new approach and perspective.

If we choose to, we still have time to change direction and turn around the current trends.

Thank you.

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