Wildlife’s role in food systems

Ways of including animals and plants into the food system while still supporting conservation were discussed at a recent African Food Dialogue panel discussion at Stellenbosch University (SU). The event was hosted by the SU Faculty of AgriSciences and the Southern Africa Food Lab.

Team members of the African Wildlife Economy Institute (AWEI) hosted by the SU Department of Animal Sciences served on the panel. The discussion, with interesting questions form the audience afterwards, was facilitated by Prof Kennedy Dzama, Distinguished Professor in Animal Sciences and Deputy Dean for Research, Postgraduate Studies and Innovation in the Faculty of AgriSciences.

“At AWIE we have this vision of Africa surviving and thriving through the sustainable use of its nature. We see landscapes that survive and thrive and are conserved by being used to create inclusive economic opportunities, social well-being, respecting the people that live there and supporting them,” said one of the panelists, Ms Deborah Vorhies, who is also interim Chief Operating Officer for AWEI.

AWEI Director Prof Francis Vorhies discussed the use of wild species to conserve areas, while Dr Wiseman Ndlovu, a postdoctoral fellow at AWEI, elaborated on the markets available for sustainable wild animals. Ms Vorhies, who also serves as CEO of a standards and certification programme for wild plant products, FairWild, discussed how a market for related products can be created through their certification as sustainably harvested products.

Prof Vorhies believes it is not enough to only keep wildlife within protected areas and fund their conservation through so-called “photo tourism”, wildlife viewing and to a lesser degree through hunting tourism. Such approaches do not create an inclusive economy based around the use of wildlife for livelihoods.

“There is more to it than just living next to nature. We must also learn to live with nature. The use of wild resource for food to benefit people is a priority, an opportunity and a reality,” noted Prof Vorhies, an extraordinary professor in the SU Department of Animal Sciences and a distinguished academic with international experience in conservation economics and finance.

Prof Vorhies highlighted international policies and discussions that are guiding the wild foods sector in Africa. He explained how the recent Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity, in Montreal in late 2022, launched “a new global biodiversity framework” with a commitment to the “sustainable use of wild species.” within the context of trade across Africa, and globally. It ties into programmes on sustainable wildlife management and biotrade under the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

He indicated how the outcomes from Montreal affirmed the policy of the conserving wildlife through sustainable use for human benefit.

“There was a strong endorsement of the use of wildlife and the creation of wildlife-based businesses for livelihoods and for food. Explicit mention was made of food security, and how wild harvesting for food can be used to mitigate climate impacts and other environmental concerns.”

“That’s important, because many people in the conservation sector where I come from into the space of wildlife economy often think that the only way to save nature is through protecting it from people, e.g., through protected areas.”

Prof Vorhies believes that the wildlife sector can learn much from the fisheries industry, which allows both big players and members of the public to participate in activities, depending on the quotas set.

“Fisheries are in effect a form of wild harvesting, of aquatic hunting, where food is gathered from the wild.”

He said that in North America, millions of Americans and Canadians harvest everything from wild mushrooms and berries to wild animals. It is a major source of food in these countries, Further, a closer look is needed of the wild food opportunities within agricultural areas, because “not every hectare on a farm can be farmed”. Food can be collected from the wild areas in farmlands.

“This can be extended by scaling up the collection of wild food in protected areas too,” he believes.

He said in some areas “farming” with wildlife rather than cattle for food purposes might be better for ecosystems.

In some protected areas, some meat production is already happening. In Kruger Park, there is a game meat abattoir at Skukuza for processing game such as buffalo. Processing game in other parks, like lechwe in Malawi, is also being considered.

Such endeavors would enable protected areas to support the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the UN to combat aspects such as poverty and food insecurity. In other words, parks can be managed for food as well as for tourism.

“The globe is under strain because 8 billion people have to survive and thrive. And nature
must survive and thrive too, otherwise there will be nothing,” Ms Vorhies added in her discussion.

She continued by saying that the use of voluntary standards and certification that gives consumers assurances about the sourcing of products they buy are valuable tools in the wildlife economy. These could include assurances about whether products were harvested sustainably, contributed to the well-being of the landscape, or whether those doing the harvesting were respected and properly remunerated.

“We can never take for granted that all of these good aspirations will happen. We have to find mechanisms to make sure that they do happen.

“Such voluntary standards and private certification standards help to empower the consumer to make good decisions, and to connect with stakeholders who are part of the chain.

According to Dr Ndlovu, the sustainable use of wildlife is key to ensuring that wild animals do not go extinct.

An analysis of the value chain involved, like that of fresh produce, is important to make sure that there is a sustainable market available for a product.

“It’s about total quality management through the total sustainability and management of related animals or animal products.

“Most researchers focus mainly on the aspect of protection and conserving animals. At AWEI we look at things systematically to see how we can retain sustainability within the wildlife economy and throughout the entire value chain.”

Article by Engela Duvenhage