I was on a video call with John Kahekwa this week and was reminded of something he’d said to me years ago, looking out over the town of Bukavu in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
“Look at all this wealth, all of this comes from the minerals they mine illegally in the forest. That is the problem in Congo, those who destroy the environment get rich while we who protect it remain poor.’
John, as always, had got to the heart of the problem facing wildlife conservation.
There is a lot of money to be made exploiting wildlife, but very little to be made from protecting it.
Not just in Congo, but all over the world.
The fundamental problem is that we spend huge amounts of money on products that destroy the environment, such as oil, but we don’t have many mechanisms to spend money protecting wildlife.
We rely on donations to charity, which we can’t afford to give a lot to, and safari holidays, which we can only go on occasionally.
And with Covid, the safari industry has largely ground to a halt.
So, what to do?
How can we find more ways to generate funds for conservation – not only to pay for essential conservation work, but to genuinely make wildlife valuable?
Many countries that have grown rich from oil have created sovereign wealth funds and/or used the revenues to fund public services, running great schools, hospitals, and building new roads.
Oil is not just valuable in theory, it actually brings in huge revenues that can finance great public services.
We need conservation to do the same.
Imagine if every elephant a country protected generated $1million a year for the citizens of that country, there would be a lot more elephants!
Such a vision may seem impossible, but it is important to ask the question, ‘how could we achieve that?’
For example, maybe a new book, film and play could be created, with revenues given to national parks and surrounding communities; the Lion King has generated over $11 billion, if something like that that was owned by a conservation organisation it could be a game-changer.
Corporate sponsorship of parks, perhaps? Football stadiums in the UK are sponsored, so why not National Parks in Africa and elsewhere?
Or maybe a global net zero fund for conservation, with half the proceeds donated to countries protecting key habitat and species, to support not only conservation efforts but to provide funds for schools, hospitals, and roads, just like oil has for other countries.
Such a fund could be huge; just offsetting air travel (as it was pre-Covid) at about $20 per year would provide around $20 billion every year, and that’s just air travel.
We may not like to put a price on nature, but the reality is that if we want poor people and countries to protect the environment and not exploit it, we need to make sure they benefit economically from doing so.
Oil was the economic king of the 20th century; how great would it be if conservation became the economic king of the 21st?