Africa’s biodiversity wealth is an important feature of its environment (UNEP 2002). Biodiversity plays a role in poverty reduction through contributions to food security, health improvement, income generation, reduced vulnerability to climate change and provision of ecosystem services such as the cycling of nutrients and the replenishment of soil fertility (WEHAB Working Group 2002). This wealth of biodiversity is unevenly distributed throughout Africa. South Africa, for example, has over 23 000 plant species, compared to Cameroon’s approximately 8 260 species and Kenya’s 6 500 species (Groombridge and Jenkins 2002). Some African countries, such as Madagascar, the DRC and Cameroon, are known for their rare internationally recognized plant and animal species. Some of Africa’s plant species have also contributed immensely to the world’s pharmaceutical industry. Noteworthy among these are Ancistrocladus korupensis (Cameroon), Pausinystalia yohimbe (Nigeria, Cameroon and Rwanda) and Catharanthus roseus (Madagascar), which are being used in pharmaceutical research in industrialized countries. This also is the case in Botswana and South Africa, where indigenous peoples’ and rural communities’ knowledge and use of a cactus (Hoodia gordonii) has become the basis for substantial investment in developing a dietary drug.

There are of course microbial and other species that offer potential for scientific development in agriculture and medicine. The diversity of fish species includes some of the most economically significant species such as Thunnus thynnus (tuna), Tetrapturus albidus (white marlin), Makaira indica (black marlin) and Istiophorus albicans (billfish). In countries such as Namibia the fisheries sector contributes substantially to both GDP (over 35 per cent) and employment. The Eastern Afromontane Hotspot is an extremely important area for freshwater fish diversity, with more than 620 endemic species (CI 2006b).

Africa’s dryland ecosystems are also rich in biodiversity. Although the diversity of species in the drylands is quantitatively lower than in other ecosystems, that diversity is marked by its tremendous qualitative value. There are exceptions to this: some areas with harsh climates including the Namib Desert and the Karoo in the west of South Africa have an estimated 4 500 plant species, a third to one-half of which are endemic (Davis and others 1994). The ecological conditions within drylands require species to become resilient or tolerant to drought and salinity, to be able to grow readily and to set seeds within a very short time frame. Such genetic traits are of global value and are particularly important to populations living in drylands (Kingdom of Swaziland 2003). Some of the plant species in the drylands of Ethiopia and Madagascar, for instance, are valuable alternative food sources during drought.

Figure 4: Biodiversity hotspots Overall, Africa is home to eight of the 34 internationally recognized biodiversity hotspots in the world. These are the Cape Floristic Region, Coastal Forests of Eastern Africa, Eastern Afromontane, Guinean Forests of West Africa, the Horn of Africa, Madagascar and the Indian Ocean Islands, Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany and the Succulent Karoo (CI 2006a).

Biodiversity has influenced the culture and development in the region over centuries. There is a correlation between centres of biodiversity richness and human settlement. Historically, biodiversity has been at the core of livelihoods, and this remains true for many peoples, especially those who have maintained a traditional lifestyle, including forest dwellers in the Congo basin and the nomadic peoples of Eastern Africa and Southern Africa. At the regional level, biodiversity has played an important role in food security by ensuring the availability of a genetic base for improved local varieties, both crops and animals. In the tourism sector, which is a major income earner for many countries in the region, it is the foundation on which tourism is built. These resources are also supporting vibrant fisheries and pharmaceutical industries.

Disturbance and loss of habitat has, however, resulted in the loss of species and, combined with agricultural practices which focus on a few crops, is narrowing the genetic base. The impact of genetic modification of these resources remains uncertain. Invasive alien species pose a significant threat to biodiversity and to the survival of many native species, causing substantial economic losses and threatening livelihoods. The erosion of Africa’s biodiversity wealth arising from human activities is a serious problem. In the 1990s threats to higher plants included loss of 67 species in Cameroon, 69 in DRC, 125 in Ethiopia, 130 in Kenya, 255 in Madagascar, 326 in Tanzania, and 1 875 in South Africa (WRI and others 2000).

In response, African governments have, among other things, established protected areas, of which there are, for instance, 405 in South Africa, 68 in Kenya, 54 in Uganda, 45 in Madagascar and 39 in Ethiopia (Secretariat of the CBD and others 2001). In some countries, the management of the protected areas has not been effective because of the tendency to focus heavily on biodiversity protection at the expense of people’s livelihoods, therefore turning the affected communities against conservation. Another response has been the ratification of biodiversity-related multilateral environmental agreements (MEAs) such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Ramsar and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). However, for many of these reporting and implementation remains weak. For example, until the year 2000, performance on CITES reporting requirements was mixed.

However, most biodiversity occurs outside of protected areas, and if it is to be effectively conserved then alternative measures need to be adopted. The integration of conservation measures into other land-use systems is essential, and ensuring a fair and equitable sharing of the benefits from biodiversity use is a fundamental component of this. Experience throughout the region has demonstrated the value of community involvement in biodiversity conservation and ensuring its sustainable use.

Although some countries have incorporated the MEAs into national policies and framework laws, few have succeeded in achieving the enforcement of policies and laws. Similarly, while 37 countries in Africa have ratified the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (CBD 2006), less than ten have put in place mechanisms, including the legal and institutional frameworks, to operationalize it. The implementation of the national biodiversity strategies and action plans (BSAP) by a number of African countries has yet to generate the expected impacts in terms of conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits accruing from commercial transactions on biodiversity.