Wildlife Conservation is Key to the Success of Biden’s African Reset

© Keith Roper

President Biden is seeking to strengthen America’s relationships with African nations. Earlier this month, the White House released a new U.S. Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa and announced a second U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit, convening in December. Both endeavors seek to deepen ties across the Atlantic to protect ecosystems, conserve biodiversity, and confront climate change in ways that foster shared prosperity. 

The Biden administration’s moves signify increased recognition by U.S. policymakers of the important role African nations play in achieving American and global ambitions such as curtailing wildlife trafficking, preventing extinctions, and sequestering carbon. Notable in the strategy is a new emphasis on listening, partnerships, and the ability of the United States to mobilize private capital to achieve shared aims. This pivot from the sometimes paternalistic past of U.S.-Africa relations has great potential to improve global conservation for the better.

To be successful, however, Washington must also be pragmatic. Southern African nations contain large deposits of the minerals, such as manganese, needed to build out renewable energy capacity and reduce the carbon emissions fueling climate change. The region is also home to some of the continent’s largest wildlife populations, the use and management of which have been a source of friction between the United States and the African nations that deal with the impacts of U.S policies. 

Reducing this friction may prove important to the ability of the Biden administration to improve access to African mineral deposits necessary to achieve its renewable energy and climate goals. This is where the strategic shift towards listening will be critical—even if American officials may not always like what they hear.

Recent years have seen African governments and their people become increasingly confident in voicing grievances around issues like wildlife trade and U.S. approaches to the conservation of threatened and endangered species. In particular, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and other countries in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have not been shy in voicing their frustrations with the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), the only global treaty governing trade in live wildlife, hides, bones, horns, and hunting trophies. These frustrations emanate from bans on the legal trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn, as well as looming trade restrictions on giraffes. The United States has supported all of these restrictions, as have Central and East African countries, including Kenya and Gabon, where these species have been in decline. 

By contrast, the SADC countries have leveraged sustainable use to produce some of Africa’s largest populations of elephants, rhinos, and giraffes. The bloc feels that these trade barriers punish them for successful conservation by preventing them from realizing all of the financial gains that can accompany their success. This sentiment is so strong that at the last CITES conference, in 2019, SADC countries issued a statement questioning whether their continued participation in the agreement was still worthwhile. While no country has yet left the convention, government officials in Botswana and Zimbabwe have continued to say that their countries are prepared to exit if their concerns are not heard.

A task ahead for the Biden administration will be to heal the wildlife trade rift between the U.S. and the SADC, and try to smooth things over between the bloc and other African nations, to help restore collective confidence in CITES. An opportunity will come just weeks before the U.S-Africa Leaders Summit—at November’s CITES conference in Panama. Both Namibia and Botswana have placed proposals on the agenda to relax trade restrictions on their populations of southern white rhino. The extent to which the U.S. can help broker a resolution that satisfies all African partners will signal the extent to which America is willing to listen to and find a balance among African voices. It will also reveal the Biden administration’s ability to build productive partnerships around a shared interest in conserving biodiversity.

African frustrations, however, do not stop at CITES. U.S. wildlife trade barriers stemming from the Endangered Species Act have also been a source of concern for many African nations and their rural communities dependent on income from trophy hunting. The barriers include regulatory restrictions and permitting hurdles that hinder Americans who wish to import legally acquired African hunting trophies. These barriers can discourage Americans from hunting on the continent, which denies wildlife agencies the revenue needed for everything from anti-poaching efforts to national park management. It also denies rural communities of jobs and income related to international hunting, which are critical to economic development.

While trophy hunting is an emotive issue for many Americans, research shows that these trade barriers produce marginal conservation benefits. Indeed, additional research shows that the absence of trophy hunting can produce severe, negative impacts on endangered species, such as the African lion, as economic incentives for habitat conservation and wildlife law enforcement disappear.

For its part, the Biden administration has already begun to relax some of the hunting trophy import restrictions that had been imposed by President Trump. While this easing was to comply with the settlement of a lawsuit brought by American hunters, it cracks open a door for further dialogue between the White House and its African counterparts on an issue that is increasingly politically difficult for leaders of both American parties.

In this dialogue, the Biden administration will need to balance recognition of the conservation and development benefits of trophy hunting with the growing drive within Africa to decrease dependency on tourism, including the hunting trade, to fund conservation and related rural economic development. The former can be delivered by committing to minimize U.S. regulatory and permitting requirements on hunting trophies and other products for species under consideration for listing. These include giraffes, hippos, and other African wildlife. 

Decisions over endangered species listings would also benefit from more input by subject matter experts outside of the U.S. government, especially those working in Africa. The Biden administration should seriously consider committing to revive the Department of the Interior’s International Wildlife Conservation Council with a broad-based charge and membership spanning the wildlife conservation profession. Reestablishing this federal advisory committee would also signal the degree to which the United States is willing to listen to African voices to achieve shared conservation goals.

The latter drive, to move beyond trophy hunting, is an outgrowth of the Covid-19 pandemic. Africans realize that relying on tourism of any type to finance wildlife conservation makes it highly vulnerable to global shocks, such as pandemic shutdowns. A great deal of African conservation is already grounded in private enterprise and parastatal agencies, so a foundation for engaging U.S private capital to diversify conservation funding already exists. The challenge will be in identifying and creating investable projects that are not tourism-dependent.

To meet this challenge, the Biden administration can task USAID and the International Development Finance Corporation with aiding their African counterparts to develop projects that, like the marine conservation bond pioneered by the Seychelles, can both attract investors and achieve shared conservation ambitions. It could also use the White House’s convening power to muster U.S. financial institutions toward developing a public-private biodiversity finance plan for Africa, modeled on similar efforts underway to address climate change. 

The Biden administration has made conservation and climate central to American relations with Sub-Saharan Africa. This is a positive step, but success will involve listening to African voices in what will sometimes be difficult conversations. It also depends on doing the hard work of finding solutions capable of bringing countries together and developing the innovations needed to secure a shared future that is both verdant and prosperous. The opportunities to do so are there. Whether the White House will take advantage of them remains to be seen.

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