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The Rewilding of Africa

By Lisa Grainger – 12th November 2021

Sunset over Singita-Pamushana - Zimbabwe.jpg

Climate change and Covid are bringing a renewed focus on the conservation of Africa – not only through tourism, but philanthropy and investment in nature. The southeast of Zimbabwe is not an easy place in which to live. With an average annual rainfall of 300 millimetres, temperatures of up to 50°C and poor soils, it’s not prime agricultural land.

There is little industry and few jobs. And with international borders closed during the pandemic and only a trickle of vehicles passing through, desperate vendors have few opportunities to sell their little piles of tomatoes, corn and mangos from the roadside.

In and around Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Nature Reserve, though, life continues much as normal.

Elephant roam the bush, stopping under marula trees for the fruit they so love, and (tagged, monitored) rhino browse the thickets. A team of dedicated rangers patrols the wilderness, alongside electric fences that separate wild animals from people. Between villages, a clinic is open, caring for the sick, testing for Covid and delivering babies. And in the vegetable gardens, women are weeding their beds and driving their cattle to a borehole-fed trough.

That this little pocket of semi-normality exists is thanks to the Malilangwe Trust, the brainchild of Paul Tudor Jones, one of America’s most successful traders and one of its leading philanthropists. Since the trust purchased the former cattle farms in 1994, the game reserve, with the Singita Pamushana Lodge at its heart, has become Zimbabwe’s leading high-end, low-impact safari destination, ploughing millions of dollars a year not only into conservation projects but the community around.

Jones funded the trust, he says, because, like many conservationists, he realised that if governments didn’t have the will or money to save wildernesses, private funders had to step in. “The biggest threat in Africa,” he explains by phone from Malilangwe, “is the extinction of its creatures. Things are disappearing every single day, thanks to population explosion and land encroachment in areas that were formally wild.”

For wildlife to be valued, though, he adds, Africa’s populations have to appreciate its value and benefit from its survival. “You have to take care of the people first, many of whose ancestors lived off that land,” he says. “So, the wildlife has to have a consumptive value.”

Given the rapid growth of the population across Africa – predicted to rise from around 1.36 billion people today to 2.5 billion by 2050 – the need to set land aside is more urgent than ever, he adds. When the philanthropist created the Grumeti Game Reserve in Tanzania in 2002, “there were 10,000 people on our 130km border,” he says. “Now there are close to 130,000.” Which is why he, and other international investors, have ramped up the speed of their work in Africa around national parks endangered by human encroachment – places where animals are being poached for food, ancient forests cut for furniture, brush destroyed for firewood and charcoal-making, and wilderness transformed into agricultural land.

Having already invested in Zambia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Mozambique and Rwanda, alongside philanthropists such as Bestseller CEO Anders Holch Povlsen and the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, Jones is now involved in three big new projects: a reserve around the Kafue National Park in Zambia, and two tracts of land in Mozambique, a 200,000ha private eco- tourism reserve and 130 kilometres of coastline, where he is working with fellow American traders Louis Bacon and Ken Griffin as well as Bedari founder Matt Harris.

While these men are at the forefront of creating new reserves, they are following in the footsteps of others who have spent decades trying to make a difference to conservation and communities. In South Africa, the Getty family has developed Phinda into a leading private game reserve, funnelling profits through its charitable Africa Foundation. In the Maasai Mara, the Norwegian former banker Svein Wilhelmsen has created a lasting partnership with the Maasai through his Basecamp Explorer camps. In São Tomé and Príncipe Mark Shuttleworth, the high-tech billionaire, has invested millions in revitalising the reefs and forests of Bom Bom, alongside its community. And in Mozambique, American voicemail billionaire Greg Carr has invested tens of millions of dollars into trying to restore Gorongosa National Park while uplifting its war-ravaged communities.

Although nature lovers have been buying or leasing land across Africa for over a century, in the past ten years – and particularly since the outbreak of Covid, when people have had more time to appreciate the inter- connectivity of humans, nature and climate – there has been a marked rise in investment in the natural world. If there is a silver lining to Covid, it has been that the number of billionaires has increased, and they are far more aware of climate change and how that impacts their legacy. In the UK, legacy was previously thought of in terms of a wing of a university or an art gallery. But in America, philanthropy has often been driven by landscape and nature. And that’s now catching on elsewhere.” created a lasting partnership with the Maasai through his Basecamp Explorer camps. In São Tomé and Príncipe Mark Shuttleworth, the high-tech billionaire, has invested millions in revitalising the reefs and forests of Bom Bom, alongside its community. And in Mozambique, American voicemail billionaire Greg Carr has invested tens of millions of dollars into trying to restore Gorongosa National Park while uplifting its war-ravaged communities.

Although nature lovers have been buying or leasing land across Africa for over a century, in the past ten years – and particularly since the outbreak of Covid, when people have had more time to appreciate the inter- connectivity of humans, nature and climate – there has been a marked rise in investment in the natural world. If there is a silver lining to Covid, it has been that the number of billionaires has increased, and they are far more aware of climate change and how that impacts their legacy. In the UK, legacy was previously thought of in terms of a wing of a university or an art gallery. But in America, philanthropy has often been driven by landscape and nature. And that’s now catching on elsewhere.”

Nicola Shepherd, founder of The Explorations Company, who has been taking wildlife-lovers to Africa for more than 30 years, says many of her clients got on a plane the minute they were allowed to travel, to show communities their support. For those camps not backed by philanthropists, she says, “the impact of Covid has been enormous. What you have to remember is that one person employed in Africa supports an average of ten people. So losing one job means no food for ten people, no education, no medicine.

In areas that rely on bed levies and entry fees, tourism is essential.” Without them, she adds, many of the community projects supported by camps have also vanished: beehives, schools, clinics, vegetable gardens, beading co-operatives. “For many of those people, Covid has been an utter disaster. Without tourists they’ve had nothing.”

This realisation about Africa’s overreliance on tourism is why so much new energy is being put into finding ways of creating funding. “In the past, tourism has been the one- shot solution for conservation,” she explains. “It has been the go-to methodology for generating the funding and jobs for local communities to make sense of protecting places. What the pandemic has made us realise is how vulnerable it is to be over reliant on one industry. Which is why there is a drive to diversify through other methods: things like carbon credits, biodiversity credits, the rhino bond and philanthropy. We have all realised that as part of reducing carbon, we need to create carbon sinks. And that means preserving forests, peat, grasslands and savannahs. As well as cutting carbon, preserving nature has become a big part of the climate battle.”

 

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