African parks in peril, say experts

The world is short of about $2,5-billion a year to effectively maintain its existing system of national parks, according to a study released by a team of international experts at the World Parks Congress in Durban on Friday.

Among those hardest hit by the shortfall are some African parks, where the situation is described as ”perilous”.

The study was conducted by the organisations Conservation International, its Centre for Applied Biodiversity Science, the University of Cambridge and BirdLife International.

Their analysis estimates that maintaining and expanding the global protected area network — to conserve many of the most threatened but currently unprotected plant and animal species — will cost about $23-billion a year over the next decade. The figure includes the cost of buying land.

In a statement released on the fifth day of the congress, under way in the port city’s International Convention Centre, the

grouping said tens of thousands of protected areas, especially those in the developing world, were suffering ”a chronic lack of funding”.

This had resulted in a shortage of staff, ranger stations, communications equipment, vehicles and other basic infrastructure.

”The shortfall is leading to catastrophic results for many of the world’s protected areas. In West Africa, for example, funding of many parks is so poor that areas once rich with elephants, hippos and monkeys are now empty.”

Briefing the media, Southern Africa Transfrontier Conservation Areas director John Hanks said human and livestock encroachment into areas designated as ”national parks” in some African countries had transformed vast natural areas.

Species were teetering on the brink of extinction in the very places designed to provide them safe refuge.

”The situation in Africa is perilous. Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to restore and maintain many of the continent’s parks, an amount far greater than was previously thought necessary.

”We are fortunate in South Africa, but go north from here and the situation is very different.”

Hanks said many African reserves were in fact ”paper parks”; they had no money, no infrastructure and no staff.

This was the case in Angola, where the problem was further compounded by a legacy of the decades-long civil war — landmines.

The estimated cost of clearing these from the Luiana Reserve in the south-east of the country was estimated at $15-million.

Another African example was the over-exploited and threatened Congo Basin, which would cost $200-million to restore.

And in Ethiopia, the movement of people into the country’s national parks was so extensive that at least one park was ”finished”, and had ceased to exist as a wildlife sanctuary.

Hanks said African governments — in the face of other pressing and urgent needs, such as health and education and feeding their people — did not see conservation as a priority, and lacked the political will to maintain their parks.

”Conservation is at the bottom of their agendas,” Hanks said.

Asked how this mindset could be changed, he said one way was to make politicians see the obvious economic advantages that flowed from the proper protection of parks. This included tourism.

Another was to show them how the long-term economic benefits derived from healthy ecosystems — including flood and storm protection, watershed protection and the maintenance of forests — far outweighed the costs of protecting them, he said.

Some countries, such as Botswana, had grasped this concept well, and an estimated 60% of the population was involved to some extent in tourism or related activities.

The joint study says the developing world has the capacity to help Africa and other parts of the world close the $23-billion gap.

This figure, it says, is ”significantly less money than Americans spend on soft drinks … each year”. — Sapa

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Richard Davies
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