The fundamental characteristics that determine a region's inherent conservation value are vulnerability, irreplaceability and contribution towards global ecosystem services. Properly managed protected areas are the epicentre for sustaining the very ecosystem services on which mankind is dependent for survival. These include watershed protection and hydrology, the conservation of biological diversity and subsequent applications in medicine and agriculture, and their critical role in mitigating, and allowing natural systems to adapt to, climate change. In Africa in particular, properly managed protected areas are some of the continent's greatest economic assets, providing great opportunity for economic development and poverty alleviation, and often are the only source of employment sustaining communities living in remote areas on the periphery of protected areas.
African Parks recognises the global conservation value of the parks under its management on different levels:
Lying in the heart of the world's second largest tropical rainforest Odzala-Kokoua National Park in the Congo Republic is an unmatched carbon sink, and has a role in helping to curb global climate change that is in itself a compelling enough reason for its preservation. Yet the benefits of the rainforest ecosystem stretch even further, from the promise of medicinal discoveries to the hundreds of additional species yet to be described. The rainforest also represents a scale of biological diversity difficult to comprehend. Odzala provides refuge for 114 mammal species, more than 400 birds and in excess of 4,400 varieties of plants.
The significance of biodiversity conservation is increasingly being realised and many of the parks under African Parks' management are rich in diversity. Despite its relatively small size of 1,122km2, the biological diversity of Akagera National Park is remarkable with a particularly rich avifauna of 525 recorded bird species. This is as a result of its position at the confluence of different vegetation zones and due to its extensive papyrus swamp and freshwater lake habitats.
Nevertheless, the plight of individual species balancing on the precipice of extinction cannot be ignored. African Parks places great emphasis on the preservation of habitat for key species. Large mammal species such as the western lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, the forest elephant, bongo, black rhinoceros and black lechwe are represented in many of the parks managed by African Parks. Rare and endangered birds also protected include the shoebill, wattled crane, glossy ibis, forest wood-hoopoe, grey-headed broadbill, rock pratincole, ground hornbill and many raptors. A strategic focus on such high profile, charismatic species act as an umbrella for the conservation of other, often overlooked species that would equally benefit from the preservation of habitat. Not only species, but also ecological processes such as the wildebeest migration in Liuwa Plain National Park would be lost to the world were it not for AP's conservation partnership with the Lozi people and Government of Zambia.
In ecology, size matters. The larger the system the greater its resilience. Many of our parks, such as Liuwa in Zambia and Zakouma National Park in Chad, represent areas with the potential to either be extended or to connect to other existing parks through corridors, increasing their intrinsic value to the region and to the globe. This is especially necessary where large scale migrations and seasonal movements of animals extend beyond the boundaries of protected areas.
Conservation entails not only preservation but also restoration, an undertaking firmly embedded in AP's mandate. In 2003 when AP accepted responsibility for the management of Majete Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, it was nothing more than a wasteland, devoid of wildlife, lost and forgotten. Under AP's lead, Majete underwent a renaissance. To date, more than 2 500 animals belonging to species that previously occurred in the area have been reintroduced. The park now attracts more than 4,500 tourists annually and Majete today is considered the most successful park in Malawi.
It is increasingly being realised that the continuity of conservation endeavours can be hugely influenced by the attitudes and actions of the local community. Only when conservation initiatives can directly contribute something towards answering the needs and prerogatives of local people will they act in the interest of conservation. Throughout our portfolio of parks, community outreach has always been intrinsic to our conservation endeavours –education centres instil an environmental consciousness through explaining the importance of conservation efforts, community funds help provide social infrastructure and small business enterprises, community camp sites provide direct economic opportunity within our parks. The greatest benefit of all is the provision of employment opportunities and training. In some places African Parks is the largest local employer of staff, and each job usually has a huge knock-on effect supporting extended families.
Through all African Parks' projects, we aim to maximise the employment potential offered by the park. This will help to change the perception of local people that the protection and sustainable use of the park does not exclude them and does not lead to further impoverishment, but instead provides the very means to improve their livelihood. Long term conservation success further lies in the ability to find and train competent and passionate people from local communities to take the reins. In this way the APN mandate embraces all the social dimensions of conservation and recognises the pluralistic nature of conserving. It is within this vision that people-centred resource use and conservation effort come together.