A conservation scientist at the University of Helsinki and honorary research fellow at UKZN’s School of Life Sciences, Dr Enrico di Minin, contributed to a recent study that focused on how a number of socio-economic factors, most notably population density, affect Africa’s ecosystems.

In the context of projections that Africa will be home to nearly 2.8 billion people by 2100, researchers collaborated in the study to examine the environmental impacts of population density, variation in the distribution of wealth among citizens, and a country’s overall economic activity across the African continent.

Researchers say the study is the first Africa-scale assessment of the socio-economic correlates of environmental degradation. Their results suggested that dedicated family planning to reduce population growth and economic development that limits agricultural expansion are needed to support environmental sustainability on the continent.

The study, published in the Nature journal Scientific Reports, involved collaboration between Flinders University and the University of Helsinki. Researchers developed sophisticated modelling to determine which socio-economic indicators best explain the relative environmental performance among countries by ranking countries’ environmental performance by ecological footprint, species threat, freshwater removal, forest loss, livestock density, cropping intensity, and greenhouse-gas emissions.

‘Our finding that the strongest predictor of environmental performance among nations in Africa is population density means that countries with the most people suffered relatively more environmental degradation on average,’ said lead researcher, Professor Corey Bradshaw of the Global Ecology Laboratory at Flinders University.

‘Dedicated family planning and government policies that attempt to limit population growth and promote economic development that does not compromise environmental integrity are needed to support sustainability across Africa,’ said Bradshaw.

The findings come after a new United Nations report found that the fastest population growth on earth is most likely to occur in sub-Saharan Africa, which is expected to double its population in the next 30 years.

‘Given the rapid growth of its population, Africa stands to lose many of its already threatened species and ecosystems over the coming decades, especially as overseas demand for timber, minerals, fuels, agricultural products, seafood, and wildlife increases,’ said di Minin.

Di Minin highlighted that while there were many policy levers that African nations could use to improve the future state of their environments and the societies that depend on them, limiting excessive human population growth would probably produce the best results.

Bradshaw also highlighted positive strides being made in the environmental sphere by countries such as the Central African Republic, Botswana, Namibia, and Congo, who fared well in the factors examined in their study.

Bradshaw warned that densely populated countries, including South Africa, faced the greatest challenge in their environmental performance.

‘As pressures on the environment grow, most African nations will have to focus on mitigating the negative interactions of high population growth and unsustainable development if they want to have any chance of maintaining the beautiful, rich, and unique animals and plants for which Africa is famed,’ he said.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Enrico di Minin