There are few easy wins when it comes to regional relations in Southern Africa. But on wildlife conservation, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is taking an international lead.
Africa has an often-overlooked history on innovative regional integration, including on conservation. The Southern African Customs Union is the world’s oldest customs union, and in the past century nearly two-thirds of all international water agreements have been signed in Africa.
This history is driven by environmental context, and the pragmatic need to define utilisation rights over valuable resources. Almost 60% of Africa lies within shared rivers and lake basins. The Nile is shared by more than seven nations, the Zambezi by six, and the Congo by nine.
Many countries in the region have significant wildlife economies that are important pillars of transformation, diversification and development.
Since the late 1990s, SADC has promoted several enabling policies and frameworks for the establishment of transfrontier conservation areas in the region. These commit members to promote the conservation of shared wildlife resources through the establishment of cross border wildlife areas, managed in co-operation between partner states.
Presidents Thabo Mbeki, Robert Mugabe and Joaquim Chissano signed the treaty for the establishment of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park in 2002, connecting Kruger Park with Limpopo Park in Mozambique and Gonarezhou in Zimbabwe. A year later, ministers convened to ceremoniously rip border fences down.
From the outset, the parks were a symbol of peace and prosperity (although governments have often disagreed over design and approach).
Organisations such as Peace Parks Foundation and African Wildlife Foundation have been instrumental in fostering international commitment, built around an integrated development approach with communities.
The establishment of a thriving ecotourism sector has been critical for the success of these areas and for regional conservation. The southern African tourism industry is worth over USD 57 billion. This is forecast to rise to over USD 90 billion by 2028. Wildlife viewing is a driver for 80 percent of this.
Developing attractive tourism products has encouraged economic co-operation between states. The Kavango Zambezi (Kaza) transfrontier conservation area has launched the ‘UniVisa’ project. Currently, tourists may stay in Zambia and Zimbabwe, and conduct a day trip to Botswana, all on the same visa.
Nyambe Nyambe, executive director of the Kaza secretariat, said: “In terms of the potential of wildlife for development, it is a big untapped sector. With investments, we could have large achievements”.
But,the prevalence of poaching poses a significant threat to the wildlife and ecosystems that support this industry.
New Chatham House research shows how the illegal wildlife trade has a negative impact on African economies and their development. It destroys ecosystems and biodiversity, undermines institutions, and channels scarce state resources away from critical social programmes.
SADC co-operation on law enforcement against the illegal wildlife trade is a significant building block for wider security engagement. In February 2017, SADC adopted the Law Enforcement and Anti-Poaching strategy to reduce wildlife crime and illegal trade including through integrating local people in natural resources management. In May 2018, six SADC states agreed to deepen co-operation on poaching, particularly that of rhinos and elephants, at the fourth multilateral meeting of defence and security chiefs on anti-poaching.
This week, international leaders will congregate in London for the fourth Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference. At a time when the UK is turning its back on regionalism, representatives from SADC will demonstrate how co-operation on wildlife resources and combating illegal wildlife trade is underpinning the region’s economic aspirations. African political bodies, from RECs to the AU have a central role to play not only in engaging in and facilitating conservation coalitions, but also in ensuring that environmental protection is at the heart of economic development agendas across the continent.
Chris Vandome is a Research Associate at the Chatham House Africa Programme