Kate on Conservation

Trophy hunting puts value on a one-time action. How do we create economies that have a sustainable, long term value?

It’s time to look beyond the moral debate of whether trophy hunting should exist, and instead look ahead to the viable alternative ways to bring a scalable economy to local communities across Africa – one that utilises living alongside wildlife, without (over)exploiting it.

That was the message and purpose of ‘Beyond Trophy Hunting’, a special event held at the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) at the end of 2022. The significant and motivating night of discussions focussed on member conservancies, ecotourism, carbon credits and biodiversity credits among other potential solutions, as alternatives to trophy hunting that can provide a viable, transparent, community-lead, economy for local and indigenous communities.

It was noted early on in proceedings that as the fastest urbanising continent on the planet; Africa, will be the most dramatically changing continent of the 21st century – and although trophy hunting occurs across the world, Africa would be the focus of the discussions taking place.

What happened at Beyond Trophy Hunting?

How do you condense such a giant topic into one evening of discussion? And likewise, how does one translate that into a coherent blog post? Let’s give it a try…

Firstly, I absolutely don’t agree with trophy hunting – if you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know I campaign against it, so let’s just get that out of the way now. I’m going to do my best to share here the messages (and my interpretation of them) that were presented at the afore mentioned ‘Beyond Trophy Hunting’ event; which endeavoured to remain neutral to the moral debate and focused on a solutions-based narrative. Even so, the first point that springs to my mind is the simple fact that trophy hunting is built on a model that monetises one moment in the life of an animal; its death. Once the one-time transaction is made, and that is life ended, there is no further money to be made from that single animal at source.

Building an economy around the value of a living creature seems the natural starting point for explaining why there’s a need for alternative solutions to creating wildlife-based income for communities; why this evening of discussions was important; and why it was taking place.

There is also an argument for ending the Neo colonial practice of westerners coming into Africa, killing its wildlife and taking it back to their homes as a prize – but I’m not the right person to tackle that debate. Take a look at Paula Kahumbu’s take on that instead.

To offer somewhat varied representation, the public discussion at the RGS involved panellists: Timothy Kamuzu Phiri, an environmental educator and activist, and Executive Director of Mizu Eco-Care in Zambia; Tom Lalampaa, CEO of Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT) and expert in community-run conservation; Praveen Moman, Founder of Volcanoes Safaris, which is at the forefront of reviving ecotourism in post-conflict Uganda and Rwanda and Dr Ralph Chami, Assistant Director of the International Monetary Fund and Co-Founder of Blue Green Future and Rebalance Earth, chaired by Will Travers OBE, Co-Founder of Born Free Foundation.

Put simply, the take home messages that seemed to resound again and again during the course of the evening were that:

  • Community ownership is key
  • wildlife requires connectivity and corridors
  • tourism must be the prevented from over powering conservation 
  • and that credits (either carbon or biodiversity credits) should not create a culture of ‘business as usual’ excused by offsetting.

Although a wealth of fascinating discussion and audience Q&A took place, I’d like to focus now on the parts that resonated most with me after years of campaigning to see an end to trophy hunting both home and abroad, and what I felt left the most to think over.

Solutions that protect nature must remain in the hands of local people, but with strong structures of governance…

Key to many of the viable alternatives discussed throughout the night was the clear message that local solutions require local people. It may seem obvious, but with traditional means of funding involving multiple stakeholders – often with money coming from wealthy western nations – it can be the case (and often has been) that control of what happens to African nature and wildlife is in the hands of where the money comes from.

One of the stand out phrases from the evening was that we must seek to create “conservation of inclusivity, instead of exclusion”, and this certainly extends to land ownership.

It’s crucially important for the future of conservation that land rights belong to indigenous communities, and panellists implored that western conservationists must support local and indigenous people with building their own structures of funding, transparency and governance.

“We need to change our mindsets to accept that communities might own things,” came one integral comment from the panel.

Among the varying suggestions of ways we can create community owned and transparent means of funding was the proposal from Dr Ralph Chami that carbon credits must become equal in value, ensuring rates of sale and exchange remain the same throughout the chain.

I recently listened to an episode of The Guardian podcast about the discrepancy in environmental value of carbon credits too, and although I didn’t pick up on that being presented at the event, I would personally put forward that that needs consideration also. It at least complements Dr Ralph’s philosophy  that it’s “better to invest in the resilience of the forest, and stabilise communities”.

In terms of governance, Timothy Kamuzu Phiri noted the challenges of parliamentary governance, stating instead that; “the biodiversity and climate crises mean we can’t wait for governments to listen — it will require a bottom-up approach, led by local communities.”

We must look at what wildlife is worth in monetary value

Put simply, conservation has to pay, and we need to utilise a new way of looking at the value of ecosystems. Through suggested means of appropriately managed tourism, carbon credits and biodiversity credits, conservation must pay in order to harness political will and to incentivise local people to retain land ownership.

The conversation turned to the fact that the value must be given to LIVING nature and ecosystems that are valued as untouched, rather than exploited by tourism operators that aren’t ‘biodiversity friendly’ and ‘carbon cowboys’ buying up carbon capture assets from communities. 

For this to happen effectively, indigenous communities who are often in desperate need of finance, likely require money upfront to incentivise holding onto their owned land, rather than selling it for immediate money (often hugely under-priced). This opened up discussion around down payments for land rental.

Ralph Chami likened this to rental deposits on homes, where land is rented to philanthropists simply to remain as is, unexploited.

Panellist Tom Lalampaa was able to speak to the value of retaining land ownership for carbon sequestration, sharing that Kenya’s Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT), of which he is CEO, oversees the biggest soil carbon project in the world with a value of £4.6 million in 2022 from soil carbon credits – all while supporting species restoration.

Praveen Moman compared the value of ecotourism as a means of giving nature economic value. He spoke of the pressures on wild spaces in Rwanda due to new cities being created, which affects the possibility of land being purchased to be kept in its natural state. As cities expand, land is needed to support development, including a demand for supporting services, such as roads, waste disposal, water services, etc.

Utilising land rich in biodiversity as a tourist destination has long been used as a tool to bring money from the west to Global South countries – but insuring that money is distributed rightly among community stakeholders has traditionally been overlooked. It is also worth noting the long term impact of tourism on these destinations – as I’ve covered before on this blog in relation to the Maasai Mara.

Praveen issued the reminder that ‘too much tourism kills, but no tourism also kills’ when it comes to striking this balance.

The solutions will require a multi-faceted approach

It’s abundantly clear that no one-size will fit all when you take Africa on a country-by-country basis – as one absolutely must; and it was duly noted that discussions taking place were happening in the prestigious venue in London, and not on the continent in which we’re all referring to.

However, it seemed clear to me that even with the small handful of countries represented on stage, a multi-faceted approach would be needed even on a per country basis.

Ultimately, what was being proposed was community retained land ownership secured  through a down payment system; structured, community-led ecotourism; monetising the value of intact ecosystems with a ‘Rebalance Earth’ biodiversity credits approach, and carbon sequestration that also recognises the carbon value of fauna interacting with flora — which isn’t just seen as a trade-off to continue business as usual.

Rolling out these alternatives to create tangible, measurable value would involve willingness to participate from multiple stakeholders, first and foremost local people living in these biodiversity-rich environments.

Hypothetically, if the bottom-up approach spotlighted by Timothy Kamuzu Phiri could influence Governmental policy in the desired way, there would still be a need to involve other sectors in these solutions — especially economists, to bridge the funding gap.

 “We must see conversationists educating and working with the Finance sector,” Ralph Chami proposed, noting that the sector had previously been ostracised and so has continued to invest in extractive services.

There’s a funding gap that we need to be more innovative in filling

Ralph’s desire to see economists brought closer into the fold comes from a need to find more innovative ways to finance these solutions in a way that can enable a fairer distribution of wealth.

From his professional standpoint as Assistant Director of the International Monetary Fund, he was able to breakdown the gains that Governments stand to receive in selling carbon credits; and how those gains have the potential to reach indigenous peoples and wildlife, if only the management mechanism remains transparent, and due care is given to the asset that produces carbon.

This is where a Rebalance Earth approach comes in, centring the notion of carbon capture requiring flora and fauna interacting. Rebalance Earth calculates the carbon value of an animal, and equates that to the price of a tonne or carbon – thus calculating the value of animal as a carbon capture service.

“Think of it as paying the animal a salary for a job; in this case carbon sequestration,” he explained.

He added that for carbon credits to truly work in favour of conservation, a legal framework needs to be developed and implemented, as currently ‘carbon credits are not all made equal’.

The current price of carbon dioxide has sky rocketed, currently worth US$100 per tonne, but Ralph explained that a person in Africa at the point of carbon capture may only be paid $11 per tonne.

Purchasing community-owed carbon credits would therefore be preferable, but it can be hard to differentiate between those from privately owned land where governance hides the transparency of the chain and value at each stage. 

“One price of carbon is needed — and blockchain is answer,” Ralph explained.

Another benefit of such a system is that while Governments don’t often recognise ancestral rights, the Rebalance Earth model offers opportunities for ecosystems service to be monetised on behalf of communities, as per Ralph’s mantra; “never sell the asset, lease the service,’ likening it to being a home owner who rents. “Keep the ownership with the indigenous communities.”

Timothy reiterated the need for a bottom up approach, citing that local community leaders are needed as much, if not more than governance.

It was noted that for carbon credits to truly benefit rural populations, their community-led management would require:

  • Transparency 
  • Good communications 
  • Fair distribution of wealth  

He also warned of the negative side of carbon credits, where they offer opportunities to trade-off for ‘business as usual’.

“They can be seen as a free opportunity to carry on polluting and doing all the things that brought us into this issue, as long as it’s traded off.”

Solutions may not be perfect, but they need to start now

“Waiting for fully funded alternatives is not viable in other areas, why is it expected here?” – I believe it was host Will Travers who raised the point, and yes, it does seem necessary to consider and implement midway solutions, like we do when it comes to renewable energy.

The devastation already being caused by the biodiversity and climate crises mean we can’t wait for governments to listen — and we don’t have time to wait for a full and complete answer. We must start now for the sake of biodiversity and fix as we go.

“Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” as Ralph Chami put it. “Implement today, perfect tomorrow.”

Since I attended the Beyond Trophy Hunting evening, the UN published a research paper  purposely ahead of the United Nations Biodiversity Conference (COP15),  formally backing biodiversity credits as a key climate finance tool.

Biodiversity credits were indeed debated at COP15, with analysts suggesting that the most difficult question is how to value biodiversity – a question that Ralph would likely answer with highlighting the importance of wildlife interacting with its environment — for example, as seed dispersers, land fertilisers and ecosystem engineers — and calculating its value as a carbon service. The carbon value he designated a single forest elephant is $1.75 million.

While the COP19 CITES conference took place in November with no economists represented, December’s COP15 was also not without its shortcomings – with participants mainly discussing ‘voluntary markets’ run by the private sector rather than ‘compliance markets’ trading government-mandated investments.

Some doubted that voluntary credits would attract sufficient investment; a point also discussed at the Beyond Trophy Hunting evening.

Audience member Simon Jones, Founder of Helping Rhinos UK, pointed out that 23% of trophy hunting takes place in South Africa (second only to Canada), and mostly on private land.

“How can we take these ideas to private land owners?” he asked.

“Rebalance Earth is a purely investment opportunity,” Ralph answered somewhat confidently. “Make the proposition to land owners, educate them.”

I suppose that only time will tell whether these solutions have enough of an appeal to see mass uptake for the sake of sparing the lives of wildlife currently living as trophy hunting ‘stock’; and indeed biodiversity at large.

And as I’ve learnt in the decade and more that I’ve been writing as ‘Kate on Conservation’, time is, unfortunately, something we simply can’t afford to squander.

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