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Study reveals huge potential for increasing transboundary conservation across Africa

Aerial Photo of Wildebeest at Maasai Amboseli Park Game Reserve Kenya

New research has mapped existing and potential transboundary conservation areas (TBCAs) across Africa, revealing:

  • There are at least 27 existing TBCAs in Africa, covering an area of 847,158 km2
  • There are 8,481 potential TBCAs, made up of possible combinations of 2,326 individual protected areas (PAs), which would in total cover nearly 2,000,000 km2 - an area equivalent to the size of Mexico, or half the size of the EU.
  • By assessing size and ecological connectivity for each potential TBCA, priorities for further investigation and consideration have been highlighted.

TBCAs are cross-border, cooperatively managed conservation areas, consisting of formally protected areas (PAs) and other multiple-use areas. They are essential tools for nature conservation and safeguarding ecological integrity, enabling the uninhibited movement of species between countries, as well as promoting peacekeeping between countries.

Africa is home to the world’s largest populations of highly mobile and migratory large terrestrial mammals, many of which – from elephants to hippos to buffaloes and big cats – range over multiple countries and would benefit from additional protection that might be provided through TBCAs.

In the first scoping study of its kind in more than 15 years, PA and ecological connectivity experts from the UN Environment Programme World Conversation Monitoring Centre (UNEP-WCMC), alongside partners including the University of British Columbia and WWF-US, set out to map African TBCAs and identify PAs that could benefit from harmonised management as newly formed TBCAs.    

Using the World Database on Protected Areas – a platform managed by UNEP-WCMC which tracks global PA coverage – they created an inventory of existing PAs that are spatially adjacent across country borders. They then identified potential TBCAs based on proximity of PAs across borders and prioritised them based on size, connectivity and apparent ease of establishment.

The methodology from the study – published in Frontiers in Conservation Science– found there are currently at least 27 existing TBCAs in Africa, with majority of them in southern Africa and some pockets in west and eastern Africa.

Previous studies have shown that TBCAs provide benefits to species conservation. An example is the Greater Virunga Transboundary Collaboration – located between the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda – the creation of which has reduced deforestation and prevented the extinction of some of the world's last remaining populations of endangered mountain gorillas.

In addition, the team’s analysis uncovered 8,481 potential TBCAs, made up of possible pairings and combinations of 2,326 individual PAs. The approximate total area of all possible TBCAs to be 2,000,000 km2. However, the researchers stress the preliminary nature of their spatial analysis work, and that new TBCAs must be established based on robust ecological assessments, cooperative engagement and wider social and political considerations at local and landscape levels.   

These findings and new methodology are particularly relevant for countries, not just in Africa but worldwide, to incentivise greater and more efficient investment in the creation of appropriate and effective TBCAs. They will also contribute towards increasing the coverage and effectiveness of PAs as part of progress towards the global ambitions of the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework adopted by the UN Biodiversity Conference in 2022.  

Transboundary conservation has various benefits, not only for biodiversity but also socio-economic and cultural benefits, including promoting peace and helping to strengthen relations between neighbouring countries.

Our findings provide a useful gateway to guide future analyses on transboundary conservation in Africa that can help countries achieve various national and global conservation targets.

Vignesh Kamath, Study co-lead and UNEP-WCMC Science Associate Programme Officer

Our research provides an important springboard to encourage countries to connect at all levels and sectors - from local communities, municipalities, conservation agencies and government departments, to agriculture and tourism - and to think of natural ecosystems as a connected whole, rather than individual protected areas.

TBCAs can be costly initiatives to establish and a clear business case is needed to ensure greater and more sustained support. To make this happen, stakeholders themselves need to be better connected and work cohesively, both to ensure effective governance for nature and that there is equitable access to the resulting outcomes of healthy, well-connected systems.

The investment in designating and managing TBCAs should be recognised as an investment in securing the sustainable future of a shared ecosystem for both people and wildlife.

Dr Nina Bhola, Study co-author and UNEP-WCMC Deputy Head of Digital Transformation

The TBCA research contributes towards a larger UN Environment Programme project “Cross-Regional Wildlife Conservation in Eastern and Southern Africa and the Indian Ocean” and involves support from the Convention on Migratory Species.

Main image: Adobe Stock

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