Africa is rich with 30 percent of global biodiversity, yet, baby steps are taken in its conservation. While the solutions lie in Africa, it is the most affected by climate change, and how climate adaptation negotiations are done is a concern to many conservationists. Kaddu Sebunya, CEO of African Wildlife Foundation, in an exclusive interview with The New Times’ Alice Kagina, talks about the current picture of conservation of wildlife in Africa, youth engagement, challenges as well as solutions for the future of humans and the planet. The interview was also held ahead of the inaugural African Protected Areas Congress (APAC) to be held in Kigali from Monday, July 18 which Sebunya talks about. Excerpts: To quote you, Africa has overvalued minerals and by the same token undervalued nature. What are we losing by not changing the drive of this? We are losing ourselves if we don’t change that mindset. We are the people and we cannot survive with only money coming from minerals, we still need fresh water, clean air, and food for our own health. Our wealth in terms of ecology above the ground, the fauna and flora (animals and plants) are really what Africa needs to find an economic means for but besides money, African natural resources define who we are. Most of these animals are only found in Africa and they are African, so, we cannot just make a decision whether they should exist on this continent or not. Africa contributes less than 3 percent of global gas emissions but it now has to turn to climate adaptation. What are we not getting right and how do we correct it? Of course, we are victims. Other countries have polluted the world as they developed their economies recklessly and we found ourselves where we are. For Africa, we need to be realistic about conversations going on with the rest of the world. First, we are the richest continent with 30 percent of global biodiversity and the world needs it to sustain climate even at a bad level. We have been victims but that is in the past and we can’t hang onto it, looking forward we are huge part of the solution to the planet’s problems. The world needs to meet us where we are as we have 30 percent of biodiversity but we need to develop economically, we need good roads, schools, urban centres, and industries, so the world needs to meet us on our aspirations and how we can sustain the global biodiversity. Mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Parks. Expanding the park will be in line of conserving and protecting the population of mountain gorillas. / Sam Ngendahimana We don’t have to go through industrialisation as they did which polluted and killed everything. We need to acquire that technology they mostly have to support leapfrogging as we did with the telephone, from lines to cellphones. We need to leapfrog on energy, on transport means such as electric trains, about how we plan urban centers. There has to be an African model, our model of development is chasing the western world and it’s damaging the ecosystem. Youve been urging African leaders to protect nature and biodiversity, are you getting the desired response? In terms of policies and investments. The will is there but the challenges are many for African leaders, there are no bad guys in these conversations. The challenges leaders have are real; the population is growing, their election cycles are five years, they have to find jobs for young people, they have to grow economies, and find food security. The current global economic model doesn’t reward a country like Rwanda that opts to conserve Nyungwe (National Park). You won’t get money out of that but if you export timber from Nyungwe, you can grow your economy. The choice is hard for our leaders but what I don’t like about it is the idea of “let’s develop, then we can take care of other things” that’s what Europe did and we know what happened. How do things stand on the policy side in regards to protection of wildlife in Africa? This continent has the best policies for wildlife conservation but we are not implementing them, that’s where the challenge is. We don’t need any more policies or capacity building on some of these things, we just have to start implementing and learning skills as we go forward. The future of Africa is the youth of today as per population proportion, are you seeing them engaged in wildlife and rangeland-related activities? When you say Africans, you are automatically talking about young people but their connection with environment is not as strong as it should be. This is because of the models of education they had, and the rewards you get when you’re in other sectors other than conservation. Conservation has been over time dominated by international NGOs and non-Africans, and we haven’t seen other African models in this sector. You hear more of young people, and old people actually, saying that conservation is for white people, wildlife management is for foreign tourists, if you are a conservationist, you like animals more than people, and that mindset has affected young Africans really embracing the conservation sector. We need a change of mindset but also more African models explaining why conservation is important. There have been concerns that wildlife protection could be taking precedence over humans. Case in point is the plan to relocate people to expand the Volcanoes National Park. What would you say about that? Actually, we are involved in that project, we are working with the government of Rwanda which is designing and investing in that work. Yes, some people will move. How they move, where they move to, and what they will do is what media or any person should question but the current situation of economic activities in Virunga is not sustainable for people. If it stays as it is, the animals are likely going to be okay but the people around the park cannot be okay with the current economic activities they are carrying out, agriculture. Each household has a few acres with an average of four to six children. We are discussing with the government to introduce bamboo economy instead of pyrethrum. Bamboo is the food for gorillas and it grows there naturally as opposed to pyrethrum they are growing, and from bamboo, you can get numerous products with higher market that can enrich household incomes and supports the population of mountain gorillas. What major issues are you hoping to be addressed during the APAC? This is the first time Africa is sitting to discuss the conservation of protected areas. It’s exciting. It has taken us so long to do this. We are going to have discussions about understanding the protected areas, where they are, do we need them, because as conservationists we need to realize that we are going to lose some of them for Africa’s development and if so, which ones are we losing, among others. More importantly, we are going to have a Kigali declaration which will set off the real work, and I hope we are going to have an African model of conservation because the current one is not working. The science that international experts bring is right but perhaps strategies and approaches need to have an African dose.