Brian Huntley can’t help but remember his first conservation expedition to Angola in September 1971. He and his partners—hired as state ecologists—were stationed in an abandoned restaurant that overlooked the Cuanza floodplains. Every morning, he would look out from the building’s veranda and watch herds of elephant, red buffalo, and bushbuck graze on the miles of swamp grasses below.
These vistas don’t exist anymore. Instead, in Huntley’s most recent book, Wildlife at War in Angola, the South African biodiversity consultant solemnly describes a landscape teetering on the brink of ecological ruin—a nearly fallen Eden. Rusting tanks and live landmines litter the bush, serving as grave markers for the species that have been hunted to local extinction. The country is at a crossroads, grappling with competing calls to preserve cultural tradition, intensify economic development, and save the few animals that remain within its borders.
“Since 1975, most, if not all populations of large mammals have been severely reduced, if not eliminated,” Huntley explained in an advance copy of his book provided to The Politic. “Wholesale slaughter of elephant, rhino, eland, roan, oryx, springbok, zebra, bushbuck, reedbuck, lechwe and many other species occurred in all parks and reserves.”
Huntley is not alone in noting Angola’s decimated wildlife. But decades of proxy war and civil conflict have all but prevented conservation groups from accurately assessing conditions on the ground. That is, until recently. Last July, the Associated Press published a story detailing the conclusions of a pair of research surveys launched by National Geographic and Panthera, a New York-based big cat preservation group. Their findings confirmed Huntley’s fears.
“The common ungulates are largely thinned out,” Dr. Paul Funston, Panthera’s senior director, stated grimly in an interview with The Politic. “All the wildebeest, all the buffalo are almost non-existent, and once those prey animals disappear, the lions and hyenas tend to blink out quite quickly. The situation is not good.”
It is difficult to chronicle how Angola found itself in its current plight, but most explanations start with the country’s long history of exploitation—500 years as a slave state, a penal colony, and an agricultural outpost for the Portuguese.
“The colonialists brought a hunting culture with them to Angola,” Funston asserted, “so what we see today is first a legacy of killing wildlife for sport.” White settlers viewed the nation’s fauna as little more than a source of recreation, while subjugated, native peoples increasingly turned to poaching for basic subsistence. This model persisted for centuries, but the environmental abuse didn’t devolve into a full-blown crisis until much later.
Shortly after securing independence from Portugal in 1971, the southwest African state slipped into a power struggle between its two former liberation blocs: the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) and the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Despite a shared mission to end colonial rule, the organizations found themselves divided along ethnic lines. The former faction drew its support from the Mbundu and the Mestiqos, who comprised the country’s bourgeoisie, while the latter was buttressed by the Ovimbundu, who tended to be geographically fragmented but united by a right-wing militancy.
Tensions were further exacerbated when each party acquired Cold War patrons. The Soviet Union and Cuba came to back the MPLA while the U.S. and apartheid South Africa moved to make UNITA their proxy. With battlelines drawn, Angola erupted into three decades of civil war.
Historians disagree on the sheer human cost of the conflict, although most estimates indicate some 500,000 lives were lost. An additional four million people—approximately one-third of Angola’s total population—were internally displaced.
“Most of Angola’s infrastructure and roads were either destroyed or provided no maintenance during the war,” explained Vladimir Russo, President of Fundacao Kissama, an Angolan conservation group, in an interview with The Politic.
“At the same time,” Russo continued, “the natural parks and wildlife areas had no protection.”
These factors, coupled together, resulted in what Funston called an “intense utilization” of Angola’s fauna; game reserves were attacked from all sides. The MPLA and UNITA subsidized their military operations through the ivory trade, gunning down elephants from helicopters and selling their tusks on the black market. Meanwhile, civilians had no choice but to rely on harvesting bushmeat—much less a practice of bloodlust than an outcome of people’s will to survive.
The aerial killing campaigns eventually came to an end as the rebel groups settled on a peace agreement in April 2002. But bushmeat—or carne de zaza in Portuguese—is still commonplace, if not traditional, after so many years. This is particularly true in the underdeveloped, southeastern portions of the country that were less impacted by the growth of Luanda’s petroleum sector throughout the 1990s.
“Everyday you see people cooking bushmeat and drying it on racks…there’s no sense in people’s minds that this is a problem,” Funston said while recounting his most recent visit to Angola.
Huntley communicated a similar experience from an expedition in 2014, noting how a rural commercial hub was rich with “a wide range of forest animals…bushbuck, blue duiker, monkeys, and pangolin staked out fresh, wet and bloody.”
Decades of aggressive poaching have precipitated what ecologists call a bottom-up trophic cascade: a process by which the removal of primary consumers causes a ripple effect across an ecosystem. In Angola’s case, the relative absence of common ungulates like wildebeest and red buffalo has severely reduced the number of top predators—particularly lions.
“At some point in the last 200 years, there must have been around 1,000 to 1,500 lions in the ecosystem,” Funston stated with regard to the 32,000 square mile Cuando Cubango province in southeast Angola.
“Right now, there are between 10 and 30 across the entire region.”
Given these realities, Huntley, Funston, and Russo believe conservation groups face a two-pronged challenge. The need to restore and fortify Angola’s nature preserves goes without saying. The more difficult task is convincing local populations to reject the resources that have traditionally brought them food security and adopt more sustainable development goals. In effect, it would entail getting communities to stop hunting the animals they have relied on for generations.
“Protecting wildlife is really the solution for long term socioeconomic empowerment,” Funston stated in reference to booming ecotourism sectors in Botswana, Kenya, and Tanzania. The short-term value of bushmeat is undeniable; a single roan antelope can sell for 250 dollars in Angola’s larger markets. But Funston argues that moving away from a subsistence economic model is critical for the development of the country’s remote regions.
In 2014, the African Development Bank (AfDB) estimated safari-related industries reaped in more than 43.6 billion dollars across the continent. In short, conservation has tremendous commercial value—particularly for a country like Angola that needs to reduce its economy’s reliance on volatile diamond and petroleum revenues.
There is, however, a troubling undercurrent in the calls for economic transition. Practically speaking, it would require Angolans to abandon long-held cultural practices in favor of a service-based economy that would primarily cater to wealthy tourists. Some find this notion, assessed alongside the country’s history with the West, more than slightly disconcerting.
Still, the financial prospects have been more than enough to win over the Angolan government.The country’s recent pivot towards conservation has been aggressive. Hundreds of former rebel soldiers have been re-trained as wildlife rangers over the last ten years, and authorities in Luanda have worked to shut down popular bushmeat markets and the poaching operations that supply them.
“The biggest challenge is still management,” according to Russo. He notes that most of the parks’ infrastructures—including roads and bridges—need to be rebuilt. Dozens of agricultural settlements must be removed from protected areas, and demining missions across Angola’s 31,000 acres of confirmed minefields have proceeded slower than expected.
Even after sixteen years of peace, in Huntley’s eyes, the country is just beginning to recover. But the steps toward conservation—and economic security—are promising. Species that have endured up to this point can flourish with proper protection, and those caught as casualties of war can be reintroduced with time.
In the conclusion of his book, Huntley calls on a popular Angolan motto: esperança é a última coisa a morrer—hope is the last thing to die.