Defuse Africa’s Population Bomb to Save Its Elephants, Lions, and Rhinos

The continent is projected to have 4 billion people by century’s end, leaving no room for wildlife.
Lagos, Nigeria. (Photo: George Esiri/Reuters)
Aug 21, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Richard Conniff is the author of House of Lost Worlds: Dinosaurs, Dynasties, and the Story of Life on Earth and other books.

Ask any serious conservationist to name the most pressing issues for African wildlife today, and right at the top of the list, you’ll almost certainly hear about the wholesale killing of animals for the bush meat trade, or the slaughter of 33,000 elephants a year to make ivory trinkets.

But the truth is, these are symptoms. And if they sound hard to fix, take a look at the much larger underlying problem, the one nobody wants to talk about: Human populations in some of most revered habitats on Earth—notably including Kenya and Tanzania—are on track to quadruple or even quintuple in this century. Nigeria, already almost ungovernable with 160 million people in an area the size of France, will grow to just under a billion people over the next 85 years.

Across sub-Saharan Africa, according to the latest United Nations forecast, the population will rise from 960 million today to almost 4 billion by 2100. Population density will match that of modern China. That’s bad news for human populations, but it’s catastrophic for wildlife.

So what can we do to slow that rate of growth? How do we reduce the likelihood of an Africa with not much room for people—and none for wildlife? The answers come down to four basic steps, and they aren’t necessarily the ones you might expect.

The first step, said Adrian Raftery, a University of Washington population expert who contributed to the U.N. forecasts, is to persuade governments and societies about the good news of the “demographic dividend.” It’s stunningly simple: One of the fastest ways to improve a national economy is to encourage a rapid drop in the birthrate. That translates almost immediately into fewer dependents for the working age population—meaning families and societies don’t have to spend as much on school fees, clothes, health care, and other child-rearing expenses.

But this dividend also pays off long term if a country takes some of that freed-up wealth and uses it to invest in infrastructure for further education. That’s because it’s easier to build a prosperous economy on a more educated upcoming generation. It’s also easier to build better security for a family. “One reason people have six kids is so there will be someone to support them in their old age,” Raftery said. “But if you have four kids and two of them get white-collar jobs, you are going to be more secure than with six field workers.”

The demographic dividend is already paying off for Ireland, Thailand, India, and Brazil, among other nations, and it’s starting to be talked about among African academics and bureaucrats. “The important component they’re not talking about so much is that massive investment in education is necessary,” said Raftery. “You have to invest in people, they have to be prepared to have jobs, and the jobs have to be available.”

Second, improving educational opportunities for girls leads to lower fertility short term. That’s because having more of their kids go to school and stay there longer, said Raftery, “reorients” the thinking of the parents: “Instead of trying to have more children, they begin to invest more in the children they have.” Long term, those better-educated girls grow up to get better jobs and see wider opportunities for themselves beyond raising six kids. They are also more prepared to find and use family planning information. And yet, in Nigeria today, more than a quarter of girls do not even complete elementary school.

Some African nations have begun to invest more heavily in education, said Raftery. But because their populations are growing so fast, they can wind up “paying more to stand still.” UNICEF, CARE, and Let Girls Lead all have programs aimed at educating girls in sub-Saharan Africa—and accept donations.

Third, contraceptives and family planning programs need to be more widely available. “Something like a quarter of women in sub-Saharan Africa who are in a relationship—and don’t want to have more children—are not choosing contraception, partly because of difficulty of access, and also because of concerns about health and side effects, or sometimes because their partner might not agree,” Raftery said.

So why isn’t better family-planning access at the top of the population to-do list? The fertility rate in sub-Saharan Africa now is about five children per woman, said Raftery. But the desired fertility rate is only slightly lower at 4.5. Getting down to the replacement rate of 2.3 births per woman requires something much bigger than contraception—the profound shift in expectations that comes only with improved education and wider opportunities. Even so, donations can help. The International Planned Parenthood Federation is one group working to reach the 220 million women in the developing world who “want contraception but can’t get it.”

The fourth step is probably the hardest one: We need to consume less of almost everything. For starters, everybody should know by now that bringing ivory trinkets home from your trip to Hong Kong makes you complicit in the slaughter of elephants. (And yet, U.S. travelers are still a major market for ivory.) Beyond that, we need to take fewer trips, burn less fuel, waste less food, live in smaller houses, and focus more on the people, places, and experiences close to home. The world cannot afford the grandiose “American way of life” even now. But if we make it a model for a world of 11 billion people—all of them desperately hoping to become upwardly mobile—it will be the death of wildlife everywhere, and ultimately of us too.