The decline of Africa’s rich ecological biodiversity threatens millions of livelihoods, increased food insecurity, land conflicts and the transmission of zoonotic diseases that could lead to new pandemics.
The African continent (20% of the planet’s land) is home to a quarter of the mammal species and a fifth of the planet’s bird species . At least one-sixth of the world’s plant species are endemic to Africa. The continent also has 369 Wetlands of International Importance.
More than 62% of people in rural Africa depend on the continent’s diverse natural ecosystems for food, water, energy, health and livelihood security . This biodiversity constitutes an arsenal of genetic capital beneficial not only for the people living in these ecosystems, but also for the whole world.
The continent also has about a sixth of the world’s remaining forests, including those that make up the Congo Basin, a 240 million hectare rainforest that straddles eight African countries and supports 80 million people in the region. Often considered the second green lung of the world, the Congo Basin absorbs 4% of global carbon emissions each year , offsetting more than the annual emissions of the entire African continent.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), natural forests provide 21% of rural household income in 11 African countries and wild-harvested food (including fisheries), thus contributing to the health of millions of Africans.
Two marine ecosystems located along the west coast of Africa – the Benguela Current in the southeast Atlantic and the Canary Current in the northeast Atlantic – have enormous societal and economic importance for adjacent countries as well as for the global food supply . Together with the eastern parts of the Pacific Ocean, they contain a continuous upwelling of nutrient-rich deep waters which results in extremely high biological productivity providing 20% of the world’s fish harvest.
After tropical rainforests, coral reefs are a valuable resource for coastal communities and account for 25% of marine life . More than 500 million people worldwide depend on coral reef ecosystems for food, tourism and fishing income, and coastal protection. Coral reef systems stretching from Egypt to South Africa provide millions of Africans with food and coastal protection.
Drivers and accelerators of biodiversity loss
Africa’s rich biodiversity is being challenged by the continued loss of species and habitats. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), more than 6,400 animals and 3,100 plants are threatened with extinction in Africa . Surveys of African bird populations reveal a decline over the past 25 years, a pattern likely similar to that of fish and plant populations, although data are limited. Overall, populations of vertebrate species in Africa are estimated to have declined by 39% since 1970.
Africa is home to 9 of the world’s 36 biodiversity hotspots (defined as regions with more than 1,500 endemic plant species and having lost at least 70% of their primary native vegetation). On the island of Madagascar, for example, 82% of plants and 90% of animals are endemic and together create irreplaceable ecosystems. According to scientists, overexploitation alone threatens 62% of the vertebrates on this ecologically unique island, while unsustainable agriculture threatens 57%. Together, these two phenomena endanger 90% of all plant species in Madagascar. Of the 40,283 plant species known to be used by humans worldwide for medicine, food and climate change mitigation, 5% (1,916 in total) are found in Madagascar. Of these, 1,596 are endemic.
Destructive practices in agriculture, mining, logging and fishing are major drivers of ecosystem decline and biodiversity loss in Africa.
It is estimated that around 20% of Africa’s land surface (6.6 million km2) is degraded due to soil erosion, salinization, pollution and loss of vegetation or fertility soils. The Congo Basin, for example, loses between 500,000 and 1.2 million hectares of tropical rainforest each year. This has resulted in an approximately 30% decrease in tree cover over large swathes of the African tropics since 2001.
Regarding wildlife, an IUCN assessment of five taxonomic groups (mammals, birds, amphibians, corals and cycads) found that all deteriorated steadily between 1993 and 2016.
Africa’s blue economy – which includes ports, fisheries, tourism and other coastal economic activities – is conservatively projected to grow from $296 billion in 2018 to $405 billion by 2030. However, repeated episodes of massive coral bleaching in East Africa and the poleward migration of marine fauna and flora out of their habitats could lead to a 30% contraction of this sector, which will would result in the loss of the livelihoods of millions of African fishers.
Although not the main driver, climate change is exacerbating human-induced biodiversity loss. At global warming levels (GWL) above 1.5°C:
Half of the species assessed by the IPCC are expected to lose more than 30% of their population or area of suitable habitat.
More than 10% of plants, vertebrates and invertebrates in 90% of Africa are threatened with local extinction.
The catch potential of marine fisheries will decrease by more than 12% in several West African countries. According to other estimates, the decrease in fish biomass in the intertropical belt around Africa would be 30% by 2050.
Beyond 2°C GWL, the risk of sudden and severe biodiversity loss becomes widespread across much of Africa, including:
Potential destabilization of the African rainforest carbon sink
Risk of local extinction of more than 50% of species of plants, vertebrates and insects in one fifth of Africa.
Risk of total extinction of a third of freshwater fish and more than 90% of warm-water coral reefs. Some of the most seriously threatened reefs are found in Madagascar, the Comoros and the Mascarenes.
The loss of marine biodiversity in Africa is also accelerated by global warming. The ocean absorbs about 23% of annual CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. Increasing CO2 concentration leads to ocean acidification , which endangers fisheries and aquaculture and weakens coral reefs, which affects coastal protection. According to the IPCC, this has resulted in a 20% reduction in phytoplankton biomass in the western Indian Ocean since the 1960s (which could lead to reduced tuna catches). This is expected to have serious repercussions on around 30 species of estuarine and marine fish (including anchovies, sardines, hake and lobster).
The coral reefs of East Africa – from Kenya to South Africa – cover 11,919 km2 of reefs and represent 5% of the total area of coral reefs on the planet. Massive coral bleaching events in the Western Indian Ocean in 1998, 2005, 2010 and 2016 have already left coral cover at only 30-40% of 1998 levels.
Coastal ecosystems, which include mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs, provide critical habitats for fish breeding, carbon sequestration and shoreline protection. An acre of mangroves can store 5 to 10 times more carbon than an acre of rainforest. Their disappearance will have an impact not only on African coastal communities, but also on the entire planet.
Security threats from biodiversity loss
Food insecurity, increased incidents of conflict
The conversion of natural habitats to low-yield cropland is the main driver of biodiversity loss in Africa. In arid and semi-arid regions, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation affect soil and vegetation quality , which impacts agricultural production. The disappearance of grass-dominated biomes further reduces rangeland, impacting ranching. Growing land pressure is contributing to population displacements and escalating conflicts between farmers and herders .
Due to changing ocean conditions, some fishing exclusion zones and seasonal restrictions may no longer serve their purpose. When fish stocks move from one area to another, fishermen may be tempted to venture into these marine protected areas, which can harm the vulnerable resources they contain. Illegal , unreported and unregulated fishing can also occur when stocks cross national borders and end up in the fishing grounds of other countries. A few conflicts of this type between local and foreign fishermen have already occurred in West Africa.
The edges of tropical forests are an important launching pad for new human viruses . These edges appear when man builds roads or clears forests for timber production and agriculture. Humans and their livestock are more likely to come into contact with wildlife when more than 25% of the original forest cover is lost. Hunting, transportation, farming and trade of wild animals for food, pets and traditional medicine aggravate these transmission routes and closely follow deforestation. For example, bats are likely reservoirs of Ebola, Nipah, SARS, and the virus that causes COVID-19. WHO has found thatthe number of zoonotic epidemics in Africa (particularly in DRC and Nigeria) increased by 63% during the decade 2012-2022 compared to the period 2001-2011.
The ways of the future
While many species have already disappeared, it’s not too late to improve the future of many endangered animals and plants. Initiatives focused on entrepreneurship, education and biodiversity-friendly sustainable agriculture programs would help protect Africa’s biodiversity and its citizens. Alongside these citizen-driven initiatives, African governments and their international partners can also focus on biodiversity-friendly governance.
Enforce and enforce existing conventions and laws. Many African countries are already parties to various regional and international agreements against the trafficking of natural resources such as wildlife and timber. Bridging the gap between frameworks and effective implementation – harnessing the power and knowledge of local communities, civil society and law enforcement – would achieve beneficial outcomes for biodiversity and the communities that directly depend on it.
Develop the use of carbon credits to facilitate the preservation of ecosystems. Gabon issued carbon credits to help protect its rainforest in October 2022 – the largest issuance ever and potentially worth over $2 billion. Using these carbon credits and other conservation-based revenue systems can help protect nature reserves while generating revenue for local communities. With citizen control, these funds could be a source of investment in economic diversification and sustainable livelihoods.
Intensify data collection to inform policy making. Despite impressive recent progress in tracking trade in biodiversity products and biodiversity loss, much is still unknown about areas at risk. Not the least are the biodiversity-rich primary forests of the Congo Basin and the coral reefs off the eastern coast of Africa. Devoting more resources and attention to data collection and strengthening the science-policy interface within government institutions is essential to raise awareness and guide effective policy.
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Source: Africa Center for Strategic Studies