Africa’s wildlife economy is a truly sustainable industry if understood and nurtured

Analysis in brief: Africa’s tourism industry is the most well-known segment of the continent’s so-called ‘wildlife economy’, which is economic activity defined by profiting from the exploitation of nature’s flora and fauna without harming the source of this wealth. Wildlife economy has the potential of sustaining national economies (if professionally managed) and has many aspects to entice investors.

Defining the term, recognising its potential and acknowledging the challenges

Africa supports one-third of the earth’s biodiversity. Within all African countries, there are areas where these are still abundant within pristine natural conditions. The ways that this flora and fauna – and the often breathtaking beautiful environments in which they exist – can be commercially exploited, a notion as old as the fascination the international community has with Africa’s natural wealth. Safaris mounted to bring foreigners to big game have been operating for two centuries. Recent technological advances in transportation allow visitors to access remote areas and, upon their return home, purchase wild game shipped frozen via air freight from their recent destinations.

Since the rise in global popularity of ecotourism, the wildlife safari industry in Africa has become a US$ 12.4 billion enterprise, generating an additional US$30.5 billion in the form of taxes and visitor spending in other sectors. To maintain the source of this and the other forms of the wildlife economy, nothing needs to be done; the land and its wildlife need only be preserved. Any plant or animal use must be undertaken in a sustainable manner.

However, Africa’s unspoiled land is coveted by developers for non-sustainable uses, including mining, fossil fuel extraction, heavy industry and housing for an ever-growing human population. Africa’s 8,400 protected areas make up 13.8% of the continent’s land area. So erratically are protection regulations followed and so routinely do developers possessing great wealth get their way, these areas are shrinking in size annually. The number one threat to the giraffe species is not natural predators or human killers but habitat loss. The same holds true for a lengthy list of African animals and plants. Tourists do not travel to see factories in formerly pristine areas. However, because of corruption and tepid political will, local and national governments tend to yield to developers’ craving for cheap land rather than invest public money in centralised industrial parks, sustainable agriculture and human population growth policies.

At-a-glance statistics on the state of Africa’s wildlife economy and the challenges it faces.
Source: Conservation Mag, 2022


As an ideal industry for Africa: sustainable, job-creating and by its very nature green, promoters of tourism note that in Africa, tourism already supports 24 million people with employment and contributes 9% to Africa’s economy. Globally, ecotourism is growing at between 10% and 12% per year, which is higher than overall growth in the broader tourism sector. By 2030, the number of tourists in Africa is projected to double from 62 million who visited in 2022 to 134 million.

Nature-based tourism provides more jobs per invested dollar than farming and other industries. These are good jobs, all requiring skills of varying degrees. Community-based tourism has brought jobs where none previously existed. Many of those employed are women, and a substantial number are youth. Expanding employment for women and youth is a necessity for every African country.

All of this is jeopardised by the loss of animal and plant habitats. Throughout Africa, four out of five tours are mounted for the purpose of viewing wildlife. (The remaining 20% go to see antiquities, archaeological sites and urban or cultural attractions.) When the international tourist makes the long trip to come to Africa, it is African wildlife they wish to experience. Ecotourism generates higher revenue than other forms of leisure tourism. This because international visitors who comprise the bulk of ecotourists within the wider leisure tourism market are greater spenders. One of the strongest economic arguments to be made to ensure that not one more kilometre should be taken from Africa’s 8,400 protected areas is that these nature reserves and national parks generate US$48 billion in tourist spending every year.

Interpretive dancers mimic a giraffe. Ecotourism, in which visitors interact with nature in various ways, is the engine that is driving Africa’s tourism industry and wildlife economy
Image courtesy: Tebongo Mogashoa

Additional benefits

Tourism alone is sufficient to make the wildlife economy an attraction for investors and an economic sector worth prioritising by governments. However, this industry has other thriving segments. Wildlife ranching finds exotic but non-endangered species like impala being bred to be processed into meat and other products for export. In South Africa alone, the sale of wild meat generates US$56 million annually. Although fishing is often included as part of a country’s blue economy, by definition, fisheries in the wild as opposed to fish raised through aquaculture industrial methods are part of the wildlife economy. Because of lack of policing and corruption, international fishing fleets have so encroached into Africa’s fisheries that 25% of all marine catches in Africa are done by non-African countries. The rest that is harvested by Africans earns US$24 billion a year. Carbon markets are another way to exploit wildlife environments for economic gain, although this means of raising revenue is impossible if the asset – nature – loses its value through development.

One of the most valuable commodities of Africa’s natural environment to find commercial success is honey. After Asia, Africa is the second-largest producer of honey in the world. Africa’s 2022 honey production of 450,000 tonnes was 20% of global production. Five countries produce more than 80% of Africa’s honey output: Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda. In these countries as well as continentally, honey production is being propelled by sustainable and organic beekeeping practices, often undertaken by community co-operatives. Almost all African honey is consumed locally, despite a growing global demand for the product. African honey for export is the next investment attraction as it dawns on African governments that they possess a sustainable source of wealth in their wildlife economies, if they simply preserve the source of this wealth.

The critical points:

  • Africa’s wildlife economy is driven by tourism but is broader, encompassing all commercial exploitation of indigenous lands, flora and fauna
  • Nearly all international tourism is drawn to Africa by the wildlife economy
  • Sustained use of nature and the preservation of protected lands are the essentials to ensuring a sustainable and profitable wildlife economy that grows further