Unpacking new biodiversity strategy: Optimism meets scepticism

Education about all forms of biodiversity is key to protecting natural ecosystems, says ecologist and botanist, Emmanuel Nyathi, pictured here at the Skukuza nursery in the Kruger National Park with a team of Southern African Wildlife College learners. Picture: Supplied / Roving Reporters

Education about all forms of biodiversity is key to protecting natural ecosystems, says ecologist and botanist, Emmanuel Nyathi, pictured here at the Skukuza nursery in the Kruger National Park with a team of Southern African Wildlife College learners. Picture: Supplied / Roving Reporters

Published Jun 18, 2024


South Africa's latest biodiversity strategy, encapsulated in the Draft National Environmental Management Biodiversity Bill, is a mix of ambitious goals and concerning gaps.

While the strategy aims to conserve the country's diverse ecosystems and promote community upliftment through eco-tourism, experts express significant scepticism about its feasibility and potential unintended consequences.

Michèle Pfab, a conservation biologist and policy expert, criticised the strategy during the Tipping Points webinar hosted by Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation on May 30.

Pfab highlighted the policy’s lack of practical details, particularly its omission of potential revenue streams from rhino horn and elephant ivory, which could fund conservation efforts.

“The strategy is well-meaning but thin on detail. It could inadvertently worsen poverty in rural areas by pushing activities that may not align with local needs,” Pfab said.

She cautioned against hurriedly pursuing the global 30-by-30 target — designating 30% of land and seas as protected areas by 2030 — without considering the socio-economic impacts on rural communities.

One of Pfab’s central concerns revolves around the strategy's hurried pursuit to meet this 30-by-30 target. She warned that this rush could lead to unintended consequences, such as exacerbating rural poverty by pushing communities towards biodiversity-based enterprises or eco-tourism, which they may not find economically viable or culturally appropriate. "This is a form of land enclosure and may instead worsen poverty in rural areas," said Pfab.

Pfab also questioned the strategy’s bias towards iconic species that require large tracts of land, noting that small areas of land could equally contribute to biodiversity conservation. “We need to take a more holistic view of biodiversity, not just the big, charismatic animals,” she emphasised.

Howard Hendricks, managing executive for conservation services at South African National Parks (SANParks), noted the potential of Africa’s biodiversity to generate significant revenue.

He stressed, however, that achieving this requires a nuanced understanding and management of complex realities, including population growth, environmental degradation, and the risks of overemphasising ecological values at the expense of economic and social benefits.

“We need to pursue convivial conservation-driven development models to uplift people, generate revenue from biodiversity and biodiversity products, and establish world-class tourism offerings,” Hendricks said.

The discussion, moderated by Prof Francois Retief of North West University, also featured insights from Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a conservation economist specialising in wildlife trade and policy.

'T Sas-Rolfes provided a comparative perspective by contrasting South Africa’s wildlife economy with Kenya’s conservation approach. He noted that South Africa’s wildlife estate had grown significantly due to private landowners embracing wildlife ranching, unlike Kenya, which has lost a substantial portion of its large mammal populations since banning hunting in the 1970s.

“This growth, driven by the Game Theft Act of 1991, has made South Africa’s approach far more effective,” he said. Yet, this legislation also led to smaller enclosures and more intensive management of certain high-value species, which he likened to “wildlife farming.”

'T Sas-Rolfes raised concerns about the public’s acceptability of practices like captive lion breeding and the lion bone trade, emphasising the need to balance conservation and public sentiment. “We are still trying to figure out where we draw the boundaries around what is acceptable,” he noted.

Additionally, 'T Sas-Rolfes criticised the policy for lacking detail on property rights and how to foster partnerships and technology transfers between established and emerging wildlife sectors.

“Whether for people in local communities living in communal areas or private landowners, they need some sense of ownership. And that again is not very clearly addressed in this policy,” he said.

The strategy’s call for establishing a large number of community-owned indigenous plant nurseries also came under scrutiny. Pfab acknowledged the need for indigenous plants but pointed out the documented evidence that such nurseries often fail.

She questioned the feasibility of the plan to establish 1,000 community-based nurseries by 2036 for restoration and carbon sequestration projects, and an additional 150 for growing traditional medicinal plants.

Furthermore, Pfab criticised the strategy’s limited focus on rhino horn and elephant ivory trade, which she argued could have significant potential for funding conservation and uplifting impoverished communities. She suggested that the strategy’s approach to developing a local market for these products was misguided, given their high value in international markets.

Hendricks echoed the need for real community engagement and pointed out the value of community-based conservation. He argued that active participation in conservation efforts not only improved wildlife protection, but also enhanced social cohesion and created jobs.

“It's this kind of fine balancing act between conservation and livelihoods, and I don’t foresee anyone having the perfect answer, but it is important that we do strike a balance,” Hendricks said.

'T Sas-Rolfes concluded by acknowledging the strategy’s broad goals as sound, but criticised its lack of detail and emphasis on subsidies over empowerment. He highlighted the substantial financing gap and the need for more private sector involvement and detailed implementation plans.

“This leads to a lack of capacity and many protected areas becoming paper parks. What is happening on the ground is not good,” he said. 'T Sas-Rolfes suggested that the policy should focus more on attracting private sector partners and financing to address these challenges.

From the discussions, it was clear that until these and other challenges are addressed, South Africa's biodiversity strategy stands at a critical crossroads.

* This story was produced by Siziwe Hlongwa and Charlene Wandera with support from Roving Reporters and Jive Media Africa – science communication partner to the Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation (OGRC).

** Hlongwa and Wandera are taking part in the Khetha New Narratives training project which aims to improve media reporting on conservation challenges in the Greater Kruger area. Hlongwa is an environmental educator at the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (WESSA). Wandera is a natural resource management specialist, storyteller, and grant writer at the Southern African Wildlife College (SAWC).