Protecting wildlife is critical to economic development in Southern Africa


Protecting Africa’s wildlife isn’t only something we as conservationists should be concerned with, it also makes economic sense for the developing Southern Africa region.

There has been a wave of misunderstanding and rhetoric about the real value of wildlife-based tourism in southern Africa recently, and it’s time to set the record straight with some facts and insights. 

At the recent Summit on Africa’s Wildlife Economy, held in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, an organisation called Space for Giants, working with the United Nations Environmental Programme, released a working paper titled Building a Wildlife Economy, which has at its core an ambition to find ways to increase human-wildlife coexistence. It also names wildlife-based tourism as the single biggest driver for tourism growth on the African continent. 

The paper demonstrates that there is a significant financial opportunity available to African governments and communities that protect, market, and develop their natural assets in the right way for the tourism market – and this is predicted to grow significantly in the future. It is, however, based on non-consumptive opportunities because this is considered the best use for long term sustainability of the sector.  

Worryingly, the paper also noted that while Africa’s unique diversity of wildlife has the potential to radically transform the continent’s economy, this exceptional asset is at the same time, under serious threat. 

Wildlife numbers are declining dramatically. A recent paper published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) states that over one million species are facing extinction. We’ve seen studies indicating that the world’s landmass is populated by 36% humans, 60% livestock and only 4% by wildlife.  

In Botswana, we have many well-protected natural assets and wildlife tourism has emerged as a key contributor to economic growth and job creation. The tourism sector employs more than 90 000 people, which is a country of little more than 2.2 million, is very significant. In the northern districts, tourism provides 42% of all jobs. Botswana also has an unemployment rate of 18.10 percent, quite high for this part of Africa. 

Currently, wildlife-based tourism is still only responsible for 3% to 4% of tourism spend globally. This is one of the most encouraging statistics in the report. It hints at the potential we have to grow, to encourage tourism into Botswana and to increase employment significantly. 

International conservation charity Space for Giants recognises the ecological and economic value of Africa’s elephants and their habitats. Recent surveys in South Africa show that tourists come on wildlife-based holidays to see a few species – elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards, and giraffe being the main attraction. Without the potential of seeing those species, they would not travel to Africa and would more likely choose a destination closer to home. 

Wildlife tourism significantly improves the livelihoods of citizens. According to Building a Wildlife Economy, it leverages the key assets of rural lands where the majority of Africans live. It generates 40% more full-time jobs than the same investment in agriculture. It has twice the job creation power of the automotive, telecommunications and financial industries. It also provides significantly more job opportunities for women compared to other sectors, as we have demonstrated in our business.

Other wildlife-based ‘uses’ fall short of this delivery. The ‘game farming’ sector is small and has issues with trade and export in a minor and often saturated market. In South Africa, the breeding of specialised, and unique animals like black impala or golden wildebeest has struggled to survive as an industry and has virtually collapsed. In even the most popular hunting country, for example, hunting revenues have been declining steadily as the popularity of the sport comes under scrutiny and criticism across the world. 

Hunting, in general, contributes less than 0,27% to any country’s GDP. By comparison, wildlife viewing tourism accounts for 96% of all tourism, which for this small country represents 13.4% of all economic impact in Botswana. Wildlife based tourism generates over $40 billion annually in revenues into Africa. 

People from around the world want to come to see the incredible and unique wildlife we have here in Africa for themselves. Should we fail to protect this resource, not only will we be losing these species, but we will also be losing out on the potential wildlife tourism dollars that can grow our African economies and provide much-needed jobs for our communities. Until we have robust community involvement in tourism based on passive use, this is a debate that will continue forever. 


Dereck Joubert is a National Geographic Explorer and the founder and CEO of Great Plains Conservation, which operates luxury game lodges in Botswana, Zimbabwe and Kenya. He is also a world-renowned, award-winning and wildlife filmmaker.