The state of Africa’s protected areas and how Conserve can help if we act now

A recent scientific journal article in Conservation Letters by Robson et al. 2021 has revealed worrying evidence on the true state of Africa’s conservation areas. With global targets for the protection of land and seas set at 30% by 2030, and 50% by 2050 (and with less than 15% currently under protection globally) nobody should be under any illusions about how big the job will be to turn things around. However, this peer-reviewed paper has brought to light the true level of crisis that Africa is currently facing. The study completed by Robson et al. 2021 – based on a Conservation Area Performance Index that measures the adequacy of protected area budgets, management efficacy, and threat levels – found that a staggering 82% of Africa’s conservation areas were in a state of deterioration or failure, with only 10% in a state of success or recovery.

As co-founder of Conserve, Stephen Cunliffe, observed: “The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated. With just 7% of surveyed conservation areas being managed effectively, the need for collaborative management organisations like Conserve to step into the breech is beyond contestation. And the fact that Conserve is one of the few non-profits focusing on protected areas ‘beyond national parks’ makes our value proposition that much more compelling.”

Fig 1. A breakdown of country specific conservation area performance categories. Pie charts show the percentage of the total assessed conservation area in each performance category and are scaled by the total assessed area in each country. Grey areas on the map are surveyed conservation areas

Robson et al. 2021 concludes: “Investing in the effective management of existing conservation areas— potentially through well-structured collaborative management partnerships— should be prioritized urgently.” To preserve and prevent further biodiversity loss, and to maintain and improve the status quo, effective conservation management is essential, and this is at the core of Conserve’s mission.
While there are many African countries that theoretically have a large percentage of their land under protection (much more than the global average), these areas are invariably under-resourced, mismanaged and/or experiencing escalating threats. The study assessed 347 protected areas covering ~1.4million sq km and 169 community conservation areas covering a further ~186,000 sq km, representing 62% of all conservation areas in the 25 sample countries, and found was that “in total, ∼372,700 km2 (∼24%) of surveyed areas had no budget at all, and ∼260,000 km2 (∼16%) had no active management”.

Fig. 2 Conserve’s focal landscapes span six countries across Sub-Saharan Africa and account for nearly 30 million acres. These focal landscapes overlap substantially with Robson et al. 2021 areas of crisis demonstrating the need for Conserve’s involvement.

Robson et al. 2021 used lions as an indicator species of the success, recovery, deterioration or failure of the protected areas surveyed. His study shows that conservation areas in Central and Western Africa are on life support, and that – while Eastern and Southern Africa are faring better – the rate of deterioration is terrifying. Within the areas where lion populations are succeeding and/or recovering, there are typically NGOs or private sector partners supporting the communities and/or government to provide reliable financing and improved management. However, it is becoming clear that those collaborative management partner organizations are not going to solve Africa’s conservation crisis alone. The sheer scale of the conservation areas under imminent threat is daunting and without a concerted effort from governments, communities, private sector, and a growth in the number of collaborative management non-profits, like Conserve, it is unrealistic to expect an improvement.

We cannot wait any longer to act decisively and it is Conserve’s intention to turn this crisis into opportunity to recover and restore protected areas that are on the brink of passing the point of no return. By 2030, it may well be too late; these key conservation landscapes ‘beyond national parks’ beg to be secured without further delay.

We believe that the best way forward is through strategic partnerships and collaborations, with hands on management underpinned by a robust financial model that will ensure we can remain active in these landscapes for as long as necessary to create the enabling conditions – good governance structures, a local talent pipeline and sustainable financing – for our eventual exit.

The countdown is on, and we are up for the challenge. With our Tondwa project site recently secured, and operations underway in northern Zambia, we believe the next five years are imperative to arresting the decay and re-directing the trajectory of conservation in Africa.


Robson, A., Trimble, M., Bauer, D., Loveridge, A., Thomson, P., Western, G., & Lindsey, P. 2021. Over 80% of Africa’s savannah conservation land is failing or deteriorating according to lions as an indicator species. Conservation Letters, e12844, a Journal for the Society of Conservation Biology,