It is high time Africans start talking conservation

In Africa, the conservation story has long been told from an external perspective – the perspective of science, and the West. We need to change this.

Giraffes cross under a bridge of the Standard Gauge Railway (SGR) line, inside the Nairobi National Park in Nairobi, Kenya May 25, 2020 [Baz Ratner/Reuters]

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is a direct consequence of our broken relationship with nature. Scientists have long been warning us that humanity’s destruction of nature, left unchecked, will result in the spread of deadly diseases, droughts, famines and other disasters. For decades, amid the hustle and bustle of our daily lives, these warnings fell on deaf ears. But we no longer have the luxury to ignore the deep interconnection between human health and nature. The continuous loss of biodiversity is threatening the existence of all living beings, including us.

This is where conservation comes into play. Conservation is the strongest weapon we have to protect the planet we call home. But while conservation is crucial for our survival, its importance is not being communicated to masses in an efficient way, especially where it matters the most – in Africa.

In Africa, the conservation story has long been told from an external perspective – the perspective of science, and the West. The African peoples, cultures, heritage, knowledge and aspirations have only been a small part of the conversation, an afterthought. We need to change this, and reclaim our role in the fight to save the planet and the future of humans.

Africa’s human population is expected to double by 2050. That would be 2.5 billion people, meaning more than a quarter of the world’s people will be in Africa. And almost 70 percent of Africans will be under the age of 40. This will undoubtedly add to the momentum of the continent’s development.

But nature is already being destroyed at unprecedented rates in Africa in the name of development. The way we produce and consume food and energy, coupled with the blatant disregard for the environment entrenched in our economic system, have already brought the natural world of the continent to a breaking point. A rapid increase in population is likely to speed up this destruction.

However, it is still possible to build a future in which the continent’s biodiversity is protected, its peoples are fed, industries are running, and its economies are sustainable and prosperous.

To achieve this, we need to make conservation a primary concern for all Africans. And perhaps more importantly, we need to realise that we are not the only Africans. It is arrogant for us to think other species sharing this continent with us should pay the price for our development. Giraffes, for example, are only found in Africa, and they are as African as we are. They have a right to exist as much as we do. And their survival is tied to our survival.

Africans can only truly understand this, if they are exposed to content underlining the importance of biodiversity and conservation frequently.

It is no secret that television programmes, newspaper articles and social media determine what we talk about in our homes, workplaces and local eateries. We are what we watch and read.

This is why it is high time the media – both traditional and social – steps up to its role of setting the agenda and turns its focus to what really matters: the environment. The people who have the ability to reach millions of Africans on a daily basis and shape the narratives in African households also wield the power to ensure that wildlife thrives in modern Africa.

I know that content exists, but we need to see more of it. If Africans begin to see more content on nature and wildlife, the conversation will definitely begin to change. Especially if other Africans, who are equally invested in the wellbeing and the development of the continent, tell them conservation is important.

Today, young Africans, who stand to lose the most as a result of nature’s destruction, dominate the media – both social and traditional – on the continent. They are members of the most educated generation Africa has ever had. They travelled more than their parents ever did and the internet has opened the world to them in ways that previous generations could not even dream of. They are innovative, technologically savvy, and even braver than the generations that liberated us from colonialism.

And they are the best chance we have to change the way the continent talks about and perceives conservation. They are the best chance we have to ensure Africa and all its inhabitants – human or otherwise – have a future. Can you imagine, the  impact Nelson Mandela, Kwame Nkuruma, John Nyerere, Patrice Lumumba and other renowned young Pan African leaders would have generated, if they had WhatsApp, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram? They were also young when they started their struggle. Today’s youth is perhaps facing an even bigger challenge than they were – but they also have more power.

If there is one thing that I hope that the COVID-19 pandemic can teach us all, it is that the health of humans is one and the same as the health of nature and wildlife. When this pandemic is finally over, we cannot afford to return to “normal” and continue ignoring the destruction we have been causing in the name of development. And it is up to the African youth to keep us all on the right path.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.