In reality, today’s Africa is one of rapid development, characterized by rising economies, expanding technology, and increased innovation. According to Steve Radelet, chief economist for USAID and author of "Emerging Africa," the per capita GDP of 17 non–oil exporting countries in sub-Saharan Africa grew by an average of 2 percent between 1996 and 2008, while another 5 experienced similar increases.

Recent developments

“In some of these ‘emerging’ countries, people may have increased their incomes by 50 percent,” Radelet related at an invitation-only presentation on his research in Washington, DC, this past April. He added that poverty rates in these nations are falling by about 1 percent each year.

These developments are encouraging, to say the least, for a continent where half the population was still living in poverty as of 2005. But a modernizing Africa also puts strains on the environment—no small concern when the continent contains some of the most diverse landscapes and wildlife populations in the world. Africa is home to the world’s largest wildlife migration, four of the five great ape species, the world’s largest elephant population, awe-inspiring large cats, and a host of other wildlife. So how do we juggle development and economic growth while still conserving these natural resources?

The key to an emerging community

According to Patrick Bergin, AWF’s CEO, the key is ensuring that those living alongside wildlife actually benefit from their presence. “When you’re struggling to feed your kids and pay school fees so they can get an education, and you have elephants eating your crops or lions preying on your livestock, the last thing you want to do is save marauding wildlife,”  he explained. “But if your community is getting income from tourists who are coming to see those lions, or your child’s school gets ongoing support, provided your community conserves a corridor for elephants—then you’re much more likely to engage in practices that protect their existence.” It becomes a win–win, for both people and wildlife.

“In some of these emerging countries in Africa, people may have increased their incomes by 50 percent.”

Sustainable solutions

One such conservation enterprise is Satao Elerai, a luxury lodge on a 5,000-acre communally owned conservancy at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. AWF helped broker a partnership between the Entonet/Elerai Maasai community and Southern Cross Safaris, a leading safari operator, whereby the community owns the lodge and the safari company operates it. As part of the project, the community broke down fences and set aside the surrounding area for conservation. The conserved land now draws wildlife, which in turn, draws tourists. A portion of lodge revenues goes back to the community, which decides for itself what development projects would best benefit the residents.

Satao Elerai is located near a critical wildlife corridor that stretches between Amboseli National Park and the Chyulu Mountains and hosts lions, elephants, cheetah, zebra, and giraffe, among other wildlife. Here, AWF provided local landowners an appealing alternative to selling off their land for development, which would have provided local residents only short-term gain and eroded the natural resources in their region, with lasting negative consequences for the community. Instead, AWF has signed land easements with landowners, paying an annual, mutually agreed-upon fee to lease the land. (Per landowners’ request, payment is often timed to coincide with when school fees are due.) Landowners in exchange agree to keep the land open for wildlife use.

With innovation and extensive community engagement, development and conservation need not be conflicting goals. As businesses increasingly invest in Africa, they can do so with the understanding that investment in Africa can also mean investment in its wildlife—and its people.