News accounts about environmental concerns in Africa continue to hit the headlines and most, unfortunately, are negative in tone.
Given the general state of affairs across the continent over the past few decades, this could hardly be otherwise. The conservation and environmental record of most African states is poor, and in some instances even shocking.
Nevertheless, there are two crucial facts we should not lose sight of. Firstly, Africa still has substantial tracts of wilderness and most of them continue to carry a wide diversity of species and an impressive large mammal biomass. This is more than can be said for the Americas, Europe and Asia, and is the primary reason why so many people come to Africa for exceptional wildlife experiences.
So yes, we are battling to conserve, but we are relatively well off in terms of what we have left.
Secondly, some countries can boast remarkable achievements and there are positive stories emanating from them. Botswana is the prime example; it is no coincidence that one of Africa’s best news stories is the continued health and vitality of the greater Okavango Delta system.
Since gaining independence in 1966 the country has been better than most at managing and developing its wildlife resources.
There have, of course, been bad decisions and periods of poor management – notably the construction of veterinary fences in the 1980s and ’90s – but in general Botswana can be proud of its conservation record. It’s one that has been built on each successive government’s awareness of the country’s environmental assets and its understanding that a well-managed ecotourism industry is vital to the economy. As a result, low-volume tourism remains a core tenet in the strategies that dictate the management of the wildlife concessions in the northern regions.
Although visitors may end up paying more for their experience, the clamour and degradation seen in so many high-volume destinations across Africa is avoided.
Botswana has also taken the lead in promoting non-consumptive, photography-based ecotourism models rather than trophy hunting.
The example was set in the mid-1990s, when the Kayes family and other new concession holders chose to forgo their hunting quotas – and the income that came with them. These visionary pioneers have since proved beyond doubt that photographic safaris are more beneficial in the long term.
The government deserves recognition for having pushed ahead with policy changes that favour this non-consumptive form of tourism, despite the considerable pressure exerted by outside political and economic interests to keep hunting concessions open for the wealthy and influential.
Less conspicuous are a number of initiatives that will make a substantial contribution to the conservation cause in the long term. Community projects were a shambles until recently, but meaningful efforts to put them on a firmer footing are evident in the government’s introduction of educational programmes and proper trusts, and its promotion of sound joint-venture partnerships.
And a partnership between government policing agencies and ecotourism companies is challenging the growing scourge of poaching along the western edge of the Okavango Delta. Several schemes have also been set up to improve ecotourism standards and diversify the product base, all of which amount to sound investment in the people and wildlife assets of the country.
There may be nothing particularly remarkable about these initiatives, but there are two significant factors that set Botswana apart: a consistency of attitude and a commitment to action that are seldom seen elsewhere on the continent.
Given Botswana’s overall record and the global standing of the Okavango Delta, it may come as a surprise that this wetland wilderness does not yet have World Heritage status. Inscription was mooted in 1989, but no progress was made beyond discussion.
This, it seems, is about to change. Over the past two years, the Wilderness Foundation has been driving a widespread consultation and education process involving all government and private-sector stakeholders.
Support has come from every quarter and the nomination procedure is in its final stages. Success will be a massive boost for the delta, as designation as a World Heritage site will substantially increase awareness of it. This in turn will enhance its conservation status and add an extra curtain of protection.