Today there are probably somewhere between 172,000 and 300,000 chimpanzees living in the tropical forests of Africa. That sounds like a lot but not when we know that the four known subspecies roamed wild landscapes in their millions not so long ago. That knowledge alone reveals the extent of such a staggering loss, but it is the accelerating speed of their demise that makes us wave the red flag ever more frantically. All the more so given that in the 25 years up to 2014, the western chimpanzee population crashed by some 80 percent.
How has this happened? Humans are encroaching deeper and deeper into chimp habitat; access is made easier by the growing network of muddy logging roads carved through the forests. As if the destruction of their homes is not enough, these extraordinary primates are also hunted for a burgeoning bushmeat market. And with increasing human contact comes the risk of disease. While the current Covid-19 pandemic has brought home the dangers of zoonotic diseases crossing over from wild animals to us, we seldom, if ever, stop to consider how we could be carrying viruses into wild animal populations. Many of these might only be mildly inconvenient to us, but they could well prove to be devastating to wild species.
Of course, the plight of chimps isn’t an isolated event, far from it. Take rhinos, elephants, gorillas, giraffes, or almost any of the thousands upon thousands of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, and other life forms in Africa, and you can trace a similar tragedy. Change the characters, and the setting and the Chimp’s sad tale is repeated time and time again.
For the moment, the decimation of wild bounty may be sustaining our human needs, but the rate at which we are consuming it is unsustainable. The larder is rapidly emptying. This situation is, of course, not unique to Africa. Destruction of our natural environment is a global problem, but on this great continent where the journey of Homo sapiens started some 300,000 years ago, it is different.
For all the destruction, Africa still has more iconic animal species and more astoundingly vast and unspoiled natural landscapes than almost anywhere else on the planet. The loss of this wealth would be devastating not only for Africa but also for the world. But how do you stop it?
Well, it seems as though we have finally begun to realize the importance of the natural world, not just because of its aesthetic merit, but in hard financial terms as well. In 2014, a landmark paper set the biosphere’s economic value at an average of USD33 trillion a year. The importance of this was stressed in WWF’s 2018 Living Planet Report (LPR). And then, the LPR 2020 update revealed hard statistical data confirming that our human activities are currently so out of control that we are endangering the proper functioning of the planet, the consequences of which are threatening our wellbeing and life as we know it. The report emphatically states that: “Together this evidence shows that biodiversity conservation is more than an ethical commitment for humanity: it is a non-negotiable and strategic investment to preserve our health, wealth and security.”
Then, in January this year, the penny finally dropped—the unraveling of Nature was not a good thing for the world economy. At Davos, the world’s leading political and economic minds woke up to the fact that some “$44 trillion of economic value generation – over half the world’s total GDP – is moderately or highly dependent on nature and its services and, as a result, exposed to risks from nature loss.”
It was a seminal moment. We are now suddenly talking about business and political leadership shifting us towards a “much needed nature-positive economy.” And, as we start to imagine that the COVID-19 pandemic might succumb to vaccines, so we have begun to accept that “business as usual” is no longer an option. Without delay, we have to change the way we eat, live, grow, build our cities, and power our lives. Only by doing these things will we achieve a global carbon-neutral, ‘nature-positive’ economy, and halt biodiversity loss.
They say that things that sound almost too good to be true usually are. But if the captains of industry are resolute and do deliver on their promises, it will be a mighty good thing for all. Not only will these measures very quickly stop the loss of biodiversity, the natural World, given space and time, will start to heal itself.
This should be excellent news—for chimpanzees and all the myriad of other lifeforms that are so abundant in Africa. But, there are so many socio-economic hurdles for us to clamber over that one’s enthusiasm becomes somewhat muted.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2019 reveals a staggering number of countries that show little to no improvement in tackling corruption. With a collective score of 32 out of a hundred, Africa is the worst-performing region. Somalia and Sudan are at the very bottom of the pile with nine and 12 percent scores, respectively. Sadly, other African countries are not far behind.
Education is in a parlous state—according to the United Nations’ Human Development Report Education Index, 41 out of the 50 worst performing countries are African. Furthermore, while the current fertility rate for the world is 2.448 births per woman and falling, many African countries still have fertility rates of four and above. The worst in the world is Niger, where the birth rate is about seven for every woman, and Mali is not far behind. The sad litany of “worsts” goes on and on, so it is no surprise that many African countries are also amongst the poorest in the World.
If Africa is to enjoy the benefits of a nature-based future economic order, things have to change and fast. The status of women, the education of children, and the promise of meaningful employment have to be substantially improved.
This can be done. But it will take strong, visionary political leadership to succeed. And in Africa, that is sadly in very short supply.