To Conserve African Wildlife, a Push to Benefit African People

Fletcher School graduate Kaddu Sebunya leads efforts to protect elephants, lions, and other endangered animals while also responding to human needs on the continent

When it comes to bringing people together to save Africa’s remaining elephants and lions, Kaddu Sebunya, F02, has what may seem like a counterintuitive approach: Leave animals out of the conversation entirely.

“There’s a misconception that conservation is about managing animal populations,” said Sebunya, CEO since 2019 of the Kenya-based African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), where he has worked since 2002. “But conservation is really about: How do humans manage our species in order for animals to survive?”

Organizations from outside Africa have led much of the effort to protect the continent’s wildlife, but the historical approach of setting aside large tracts of land strictly for animals has created a divide in public opinion, pitting concern for animals against human needs, Sebunya said.

"When I talk to my fellow Africans,” he said, “they say things like: ‘Why should I care about wild animals that are loved by Hollywood and international tourists? I get more benefits from a chicken than I do from a lion. I don't consume lions. They don't help pay for my child’s school fees or my medical care the way a chicken can.’”

Sebunya, who’s from Uganda, says that’s why AWF has put people at the center of habitat conservation since the organization’s founding 60 years ago: “Africans should benefit from everything we do.”

When approaching heads of state, Kaddu Sebunya positions wildlife conservation as a political, social, and economic issue. “How can conservation help with the things they promised their people: new jobs, better health systems, and new educational opportunities? This is what they all want to know,” he said.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

In approaching habitat conservation, Sebunya draws on what he learned at The Fletcher School. “Africa’s leaders are the ones making the decisions that are going to determine why, how, where, and if native wildlife and wild places survive on this continent,” he said.

When approaching heads of state, Sebunya positions wildlife conservation as a political, social, and economic issue. “How can conservation help with the things they promised their people: new jobs, better health systems, and new educational opportunities? This is what they all want to know,” he said.

Take deforestation, which threatens endangered species from the African forest elephant to the bonobo. Tree cutting also reduces the amount of rainwater recycled back into the atmosphere, and on a drought-prone continent, every drop counts. But on the other side of the issue, many people depend in the short term on clearing trees for logging, agriculture, and mining.

To thread the needle, Sebunya works to connect household concerns to policy. “If countries don't invest in proper forestry practices, there won’t be enough rain for agriculture,” he said.

In fact, Sebunya sees drought as the greatest threat of all. “In Kenya, we've lost far more wildlife to drought than to poaching,” he said. And then there’s the loss of livestock and the blow to the agricultural sector, which formerly accounted for as much as 90% of jobs in some African countries. Farming’s collapse on the continent has resulted in an estimated 1.1 million people leaving their homes. That exodus has fueled both Europe’s migration crisis and an international security threat from groups like the terrorist organization Boko Haram, which recruits disenfranchised and impoverished youth, Sebunya said.

Solving all of these problems requires addressing the root causes of drought, which Sebunya believes can only be done through better stewardship of Africa’s natural resources. “But we have never really discussed conservation as the solution to security threats and other global issues,” he said. “That's what we are trying to change.”

Putting Resources to Work for All

To protect those natural resources, AWF has pioneered local and international efforts that benefit both people and wildlife. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, AWF has trained hundreds of women in tailoring and soap-making, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). By reducing dependence on the forest for farmland, firewood, and meat, AWF is helping to preserve vital habitat for wildlife.

Meanwhile, in Uganda, AWF and USAID have helped farmers establish a new market for chilies. The peppers produce an oil that repels crop-raiding elephants from nearby national parks. In addition to reducing human-wildlife conflicts, the chili oil has helped many households double their past income from farming.

AWF also ties economic development directly to conservation efforts. In Rwanda, for example, the foundation helped develop the country’s first luxury tourism facility wholly owned by the community. Since its opening in 2008, visitors coming to see the area’s protected mountain gorillas have generated more than $3 million for local services.

Sebunya believes Africa has a huge opportunity to shape the world’s future. Home to close to 30% of the world’s biodiversity and a third of the planet’s fresh water, the continent will account for a quarter of the world’s population by 2050.

“Africans are custodians of an incredible global resource,” Sebunya said. “But the global community cannot conserve this resource unless Africans lead, manage, and understand the importance of investments in nature.”

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