This story was original published on National Geographic Cat Watch on January 15th, 2016.
With the closing of 2015 comes the end of a big chapter for Africa and its spectacular wildlife. Looking back on the year, we reflect on the big wins and big changes for wildlife conservation in this huge, unique continent. Here are the top seven milestones for African wildlife in 2015.
By Deirdre Leowinata
- The U.S. Government listed African Lions under the Endangered Species Act.
To cap a year that won the world over in a fervor of lion activism, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service announced in late December that it would put the king of cats on the U.S. Endangered Species Act. This means a few things, especially for hunting permits and conservation aid, but the significance is that lions have a new and influential official guardian.
- Cecil the Lion spurred policy changes and donations to wildlife conservation.
#CeciltheLion was by far the most famous animal of 2015, and is right up there with Mickey Mouse on the list of animals that have become a household name. The poaching of Cecil the Lion by Minnesota Dentist Walter Palmer triggered a global outcry for lion conservation unlike any the world has seen. And it worked. Not only did Cecil ignite a rush of donations to big-cat conservation and other wildlife conservation groups but it affected policy as well. New policies in place or in the works include commitments to ban the import of lion trophies by France and Britain, and banning the transport of animal trophies by more than 40 airlines. Whether it affected the U.S. decision to list lions on the ESA is unknown, but it probably didn’t hurt.
- African nations pledged to restore 100 million hectares of forest by 2030.
In a massive United Nations initiative officially referred to as AFR100, more than a dozen of Africa’s 54 countries pledged to restore their forests in a continent-wide effort to combat climate change and protect ecosystems. These countries include hosts of some of the continent’s most precious landscapes, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Madagascar, both of which house the last remaining populations of some of the world’s most unique species.
- U.S. and Chinese governments joined forces to put a final ban on the ivory trade.
In September, the U.S. and Chinese governments announced an agreement to work together toalmost completely ban the import and export of ivory. If it plays out, the agreement is a monumental decision for African elephants. China is the world’s top ivory consumer, and stopping the trade could save 30,000 elephants a year.
- Pope Francis issued an encyclical on the environment, encouraging the entire Roman Catholic church to care for our planet.
Okay, we have to say it: Pope Francis has done a lot for everyone this year, but this is a big deal. The encyclical, “Laudato Si” (Praise Be to You), is a papal document that every bishop and every priest of the Roman Catholic church has an obligation to read, and every member of the church has an obligation to recognize. And not only does this papal document recognize manmade global warming but it also speaks to issues of pollution, water, biodiversity, human life, equality, and the ethics of it all.
- The UN recognized wildlife trafficking as a transnational crime.
After a UN General Assembly decision in July of this year, wildlife trafficking officially became a serious crime. The United Nations Environment Programme executive director, Achim Steiner, called the resolution “a historic step forward,” and it could well be a defining moment. The resolution not only called on nations to legislate and cooperate on illegal trafficking enforcement but also recognized its link with organized crime and suffering in local communities. It could mean the world to species such as the rhino that are on the brink of extinction.
- NGOs and Chinese Internet Kingpin Tencent joined forces for elephants.
The Nature Conservancy and the International Fund for Animal Welfare have partnered with Tencent, a major Chinese Internet company, to battle online wildlife trafficking and promote the conservation of elephants. In the bigger picture, the collaboration is the first conservation project Tencent has partnered on. It, along with the recent U.S.-China partnership, may be a sign of China’s changing attitudes on wildlife conservation, which could mean a whole lot more for wildlife from 2016 onwards.
And as a fun bonus…2015 also brought Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” music video, featuring a slew of beautiful African wildlife, including her very own lion friend. Now, celebrity endorsements can be a bit shallow, and the video may misguide viewers about the behavior of wild lions (we of course do not promote lion handling), but there’s something to be said for the reach of a music video with over 300 million views. An influencer is an influencer, and out of all the celebrities, Ms. Swift and her video are not bad to have on your side. Plus, all of the funds generated by the video went to the African Parks Foundation of America. Until now Swift has been very generous to humanities, but this is the first time she has donated to conservation efforts. Perhaps this could be the beckoning call we needed.