Kaddu Sebunya: “The extinction of wildlife will be a terrible blow for Africans”

The Ugandan conservationist on gorilla encounters, losing iconic species and his hopes for the next decade
By Graeme Green
Kaddu Sebunya is CEO of the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF). He’s worked in conservation for more than 20 years, including with Oxfam UK, World Conservation Union, IUCN and Conservation International. The AWF is working to combat the destruction of Africa’s habitats and wildlife, via community projects right up to government policies.

Numbers of many African species are declining rapidly. Is Africa on the wrong path to save them?

Africa’s wildlife is currently on the wrong path. The numbers are going down, whatever species you look at, whether it’s elephants, giraffes, lions, pangolins, rhinos…

We need to change the way we work. We can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

Photo by Billy Dodson / AWF

It’s been predicted that Africa could lose iconic species, such as lions and elephants, in the next few decades. Is that possible?

We have less than 400,000 elephants left. We lose 35,000 annually. Do the maths – they’re going to be extinct, perhaps in my lifetime.

With lions, it’s half the population there was in the 1970s, with less than 25,000 lions left.

We’re losing more than 1000 rhinos annually and we have less than 20,000 left. They’re extinct in a number of countries, including my country, Uganda.

Yes, the threat to wildlife is real.

What would it mean for Africa to lose these iconic animals?

It’s a shame. We’re not doing our work just because wildlife has to exist, though that’s part of it. We also can’t survive on this continent without wildlife and wild lands because of the ecological services nature provides for humans.

But it’s also about our culture, our heritage. My name, Sebunya, is from the black and white colobus monkey. That’s who I am, my name, my clan. And my totem is the sitatunga (antelope). So I have to protect wetlands where sitatunga are found and forests where black and white colobus monkeys are found. Once they’re extinct, what can I tell my grandchildren?

Wildlife is our brand. It’s what differentiates Africa from all other continents and defines us as Africans. The extinction of wildlife will be a really terrible blow for us as Africans.

Photo by Billy Dodson / AWF

Rhinos are close to extinction. What action’s needed?

It’s about protection. Rhinos require 24-hour protection.

As with the drug trade, as long as there’s so much demand and so much profit to be made from the illegal wildlife trade, as well as high level corruption that allows it to flow, no amount of protection, patrols or work on the ground can stop it, can it?

It can’t be done with protection alone. I totally agree with you. Until the demand stops, the killing won’t stop. Until the demand stops, the corruption won’t stop. The countries that demand these resources… That needs to stop.

It was recently reported that Kruger National Park in South Africa, which has the world’s largest rhino population, lost 70 per cent of their rhinos in the last decade. The main reason is poaching, with people pointing to a ‘web of corruption’ in parks and ports, and among police, senior officials, judges and politicians. How can that corruption be tackled?

It’s about building a system of transparency. Corruption is very much alive in South Africa and other countries but governments respond to people. Politicians will need to respond as they do with human trafficking. As long as the pressure for conservation in Africa is not as strong or high in numbers, politicians aren’t going to pay as much attention to corruption in wildlife, because many people think it’s not a serious crime, that ‘It’s just a rhino.’

With human trafficking or terrorist groups, we’ve seen more awareness from judges, we’ve seen increased penalties, we’ve seen transparency, we’ve seen a reduction in corruption. But it comes from the demand from citizens. That has to be part of the solution.

Photo by Billy Dodson / AWF

Skukuza Regional Court in South Africa, which successfully prosecuted many rhino poachers, has been shut down since 2019. Do you want to see Skukuza reopened?

Absolutely. It was very effective. We need all tools in our toolbox to fight this war because rhinos are going to be extinct.

What first got you into conservation?

I was working with WaterAid and they posted me in a rural fishing village in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda. I was the only one in that village who’d spend a minute looking at wildlife or taking photos of giraffes, lions, elephants… Everyone was asking “What is he smoking? What is it with this Ugandan and wildlife?” I came to the conclusion that if Africa’s going to protect wildlife, people in villages like this need to care. So how do we get people to care?

What’s been your greatest wildlife experience?

It has to be the first time I saw mountain gorillas. The first time I saw a Silverback was overwhelming and humbling. It reduces you to zero stature when you’re in front of it.

Photo from AWF

What’s the greatest threat to Africa’s wildlife currently?

Right now, it’s habitat loss. We need to start the negotiation for space for wildlife and people. We need to decide what we need to protect and leave for wildlife and wild lands, and what’s needed for human development and aspirations. The decisions we make around agriculture, urbanisation, population and education are going to determine what space we’re going to leave for wildlife.

What would you like to see change across Africa?

The simple reason we are where we are with conservation in Africa is the history of conservation on the continent. Conservation was introduced on this continent by kicking African people off land and creating national parks without any discussion about it. You look at Latin America, where it’s worked, and conservation is a human rights issue. It’s about indigenous people and their rights to their land. It’s not all about animals, as it is on this continent.

The Number One change I’d like to see is Africans getting involved in conservation and taking ownership and leadership of the managing, utilising and benefitting from wildlife. Africans can’t leave it to foreigners, as it is now, or to charity organisations. This is our primary responsibility as Africans. We need to take on that responsibility.

Photo from AWF

Why is African leadership so important?

The target is to widen the conservation tent to include African leaders from other sectors and for us to have a conversation about the Africa we want. As a conservation sector, we’ve been talking among ourselves for a very long time. And when we’re not talking about ourselves, we’re bringing in celebrities from the UK or Hollywood to come and tell Africans why elephants are important. We haven’t expanded that tent to include African CEOs, African means of finance, African means of supply and pan-African institutions.

There’s pressure for Africa to preserve wild spaces, including from the UK, USA and other countries that have already destroyed a lot of their nature and wildlife with industrialisation and agriculture. How do you feel about that?

I would call it a lie. Many countries around the world haven’t been transparent enough about the price they’re paying for the destruction of their natural resources. There hasn’t been an openness about the consequences and costs Europe or North America or China have paid for that. Three years ago, I was told by a senior official in Beijing that they spend 1.3 billion dollars annually on pollution. How many people know about that? Amsterdam spends billions of Euros maintaining the wetlands where their city sits. New York City spends billions of dollars maintaining drainage systems.

We need to stop chasing the Western world in terms of the Africa we want. We need to ask ourselves, as Africans, what is the Africa we want and that we need to leave to our children?

Photo by Billy Dodson / AWF

Around the world, conservation often loses out to big business, large-scale agriculture, oil and energy industries. How optimistic are you that it will be prioritised?

I don’t think we have a choice. I admit it: it’s going to be very difficult. But we have no luxury of not trying to do this.

But it also makes business sense for corporations. It’s not the case that we’re trying to stop development happening. I’ve been told I like animals more than people, that I’m a tree-hugger, that I hate development. We’ve been telling Africans why elephants and rhinos are important, without explaining to people why conservation is so important to agriculture or food security.

How important is it to reduce poverty?

Poverty is a big issue. Poverty and inequality are the main drivers of harm to wildlife. A hungry person with a family will make choices to feed their family. Until people value a lion more than a chicken, they’re not going to take care of it.

In Uganda, the population has doubled in my lifetime, and 70 per cent of those people are poor. They earn less than a dollar a day. People use natural resources to survive. In our projects where we’ve addressed poverty, we’ve seen an increase in the proper management of natural resources and people relying less on land and natural resources to survive.

What are your thoughts on Africa’s booming population?

Population is only a problem if you can’t feed and take care of your people. In Uganda, the issue with population is the way the government plans around the resources they have. If you look at any economic development plan in Africa, it’s industrialisation. Why? Because they have low employment rates. They’re looking at growing their economies, and it doesn’t matter to them how that comes: mining, pollution…

This isn’t just an African issue. It’s a problem in the United States and many other countries.

Photo from AWF

You’ve said Covid-19 could reverse 30 years of conservation gains. How bad has the last year been for Africa?  

The impact of Covid has been enormous. The tourism industry closed down. Africa has 1200 protected areas and we’ve lost 70 per cent of the revenue needed to protect them. We’ve seen a spike in poaching. We’ve also seen rural economies collapse because of the tourism shutdown.

Covid’s also highlighted the vulnerability of all of us, in terms of how we use nature and our survival on this planet.

What would you like to see come out of this crisis?

As we’re making recovery plans and resetting our economies, the conversation needs to be based on the proper management of natural resources. We can’t go back to ‘business as usual’.

That conversation needs to factor in the causes of Covid. How much money are we paying for Covid vaccines? If it’s true that Covid came from pangolins and other wildlife from Africa, then the situation better change. Otherwise, we’ll need to pay for another vaccine.

Photo by Graeme Green

The conservation picture often looks bleak. Are you hopeful for the future?

I wouldn’t be doing this if I wasn’t hopeful. We’ve seen many good things. Where we invest smartly, with proper strategies, with African leadership, conservation has been successful. But it’s been small-scale. We need to scale that up very quickly with the vast involvement of people. That’s the challenge we have. I’m extremely optimistic about it.

For more on the African Wildlife Foundation’s work, see and follow @africanwildlifefoundation  

NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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