I am the Chief Executive Officer of African Wildlife Foundation (AWF) and a big fan of Africa’s irrepressible youth.
AWF is one of the oldest conservation organisations in Africa. We have been here since 1961, dedicated to protecting Africa’s wildlife and wildlands. Our belief has always been that Africans are the best custodians for their wealth so our role is to empower governments and local communities to carry out that mandate. We believe in Africa.
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Believing in Africa also means believing in, you, young people. Africa is a teenager; the median age in sub-Saharan Africa is 19 years. By the year 2050, the number of people in Africa aged between 15-24 will double, making it the youngest continent in the world.
Our world has been plunged into an extraordinary crisis and I share a deep concern for the impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has already had on people and life as we know it. This crisis is demonstrating how much we depend on each other, as one humanity living on one planet, for our collective health and well-being.
It also demonstrates our vulnerability to diseases that jump from animals to human beings. Just like Ebola, SARS and H1N1, Covid-19 is a zoonotic disease that has infected human beings because of our interactions with wild animals.
A good response to this pandemic therefore cannot stop at just boosting national health systems and reimagining the economy, it must extend to dealing with the root cause of the disease—how people have treated the natural environment.
Wanton destruction of the habitats that wildlife occupy and reckless consumption of wildlife products fueled by the illegal wildlife trade has put us in this position where we are grappling with diseases we should never have gotten. And now we are redirecting the resources that should have been used for economic growth, education, innovations and job creation to fighting Covid-19 just to ensure our survival.
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If there is one thing that I hope that this moment can teach us, it is that things cannot return to “normal”. And it is up to you to ensure that they don’t.
You must redefine development: It can no longer be seen as a zero sum game where we exchange wildlands for highways, but as a negotiation where a pristine natural environment holds the same value as billions in economic growth.
You must interrogate development plans that rob you of national parks, forests and iconic species because you now understand that your very health depends on the health of these natural ecosystems.
Africa needs to reimagine its status. It can no longer view itself as a continent that has been left behind by the rest of the “developed” world, but as one that still has the luxury to decide what its development trajectory will look like. It is a continent that can still hold on to its vast natural resources while ensuring that its population is fed, its industries are running and its young people are gainfully contributing to sustainable economies.
It is your duty to realise these dreams for Africa.
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Your generation is the most educated that Africa has ever had. You have travelled more widely than your parents ever did, and the Internet has opened the world to you in ways that previous generations could not dream of. You are innovative, gifted and unafraid.
This is the perfect time to bring your education, expertise and youthful energy to the table and shape Africa’s future.
The challenge is that you are playing handicap. You don’t – or soon won’t – have the resources that your parents and grandparents had to work with: Clean air, healthy forests and oceans, bountiful wildlife. These are resources that are disappearing right in front of our eyes, mostly as a result of the decisions that my generation is making on your behalf
You are paying the price today.
Therefore, while 60 years ago Africans your age could choose whether or not to fight for independence, today you don’t have a choice. As they say, you haven’t chosen this war. It has chosen you. You have been chosen to be an environmental warrior.
You might be asking why an African youth should be an environmental warrior - be part of the anti-poaching efforts to conserve wildlife and wildlands.
The simple answer is that you cannot afford not to.
This fight is a matter of survival. It is to keep diseases such as Covid-19 at bay. It is recognising that we cannot distance ourselves from the animals we share this continent with. We are losing the battle to protect wildlife and their habitats – the water they need, the grass they eat, the trees whose shelter they require to make a “home” or to nest in.
Remember, it is the same water you will need to drink and the same trees you will use to build your homes and will rely on to give you rain to water your gardens and feed you, and to keep drought away.
So, to be a conservationist is not to necessarily to be a tree hugger, but to be selfish about preserving and rebuilding the natural architecture that will give you a good life.
You need to start this disruption of the way we plan and develop our continent. You have what it takes. It’s time to get to work.