Across Africa, states that deal with China often trade short-term financial infusion for their long-term fiscal health. Leasing fishing rights to China, for example, might win corrupt leaders grants or kickbacks worth millions of dollars but the unsustainable practices of Chinese fishermen often leave shoals permanent maritime deserts. Chinese miners often dump waste and chemicals in rivers, poisoning the water supply for thousands. Too often, African leaders lower environmental standards to attract Chinese investment.
There are exceptions. Rwanda had become the poster child of conservation and environmental mindfulness; it has largely kept China’s investment contained and has even turned to alternatives like Turkey in recent years. Leslie Stahl, a correspondent with the prestigious American news show 60 Minutes, recently documented Rwanda’s success conserving its mountain gorilla population while efforts in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo flounder because of poaching, encroachment on habitats by farmers, and generally weak rule-of-law.
In the Horn of Africa, Somaliland has also made great strides in environmental protection. Whereas China sometimes approaches the region with the environmental sensitivity of a swarm of locusts, Somaliland’s Taiwanese partners have worked to promote sustainable farming and agriculture.
Environment Minister Shukri Haji Ismail has been fearless in pursuing her mandate. The United Arab Emirates is an important diplomatic and trade partner of Somaliland, but Shukri refused a lucrative request to allow Emiratis to use Somaliland as a hunting ground, especially when the sport could harm endangered species. She has even refused to stand down when visitors connected to the Emirati royal families seek to use their wasta to ignore local conservation laws.
Somaliland’s efforts to preserve the region’s native cheetahs have earned the country international acclaim. Many smuggling networks target the region’s cheetahs. There remains a huge market for the cheetahs in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and East Asia where the rich and elite see exotic pets as status symbols. Other times, farmers worry that cheetahs will prey upon their livestock if not their family members.
When smugglers take cheetahs, it is often a death sentence for the animals even if they want to keep the animals alive for trade. Smugglers have separated unweaned cubs from their mothers and boxed others up for transport by land or sea without any sense of care; many do not survive. The arrest, prosecution, and imprisonment of smugglers show that Somaliland puts its laws above clan connections.
Enter the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF). Founded in Namibia in 1990, the Fund now operates directly in Somaliland where its veterinarians care for confiscated cheetahs in collaboration with the Environment and Rural Development ministry and the local university. CCF also works to educate the public about the importance of conservation; this is already apparent in growing sensitivity of the younger generation to environmental concerns. CCF rightly keeps its operations professional and often private so that locals understand they assist injured or orphaned animals but are not a zoo operating for profit or entertainment.
CCF, however, is a victim of its own success; its facilities are quickly running out of space for its cheetah rescue. Somaliland does not yet have a refuge or a national park into which rescued and rehabilitated cheetahs can be released back into the wild. This should change.
Across the African continent the South Africa-based African Parks is one of the biggest managers for game parks, with operations in Angola, Benin, Chad, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. The non-profit organization promotes private-public partnership to give local communities incentive to respect protected areas. This is crucial to successful conservation. When I visited Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda earlier this year, for example, guides and park rangers might have been poachers in a different situation. The tourist income, however, that eco-tourists brought their families obviated the need for such activity and, indeed, created an incentive for them to participate in conservation.
In the past African Parks may have avoided operating in Somaliland less because the country remains unrecognized—after all, many other international companies—Coca Cola and DP World, for example—and non-profits like the CCF work in the country without any diplomatic complications—but rather out of concern about the country’s willingness to honor its political compacts and contracts. Elections in May 2021 should put an end to such concerns. Electing a new parliament (albeit 15 years late) demonstrated that the system would triumph over personalities and their desire to maintain their positions of power.
That an opposition coalition defeated the president’s preferred candidate for parliamentary speaker underscores Somaliland’s maturity further. Simply put, Somaliland’s demonstrated ability to combine democracy with consistency of law across administrations surpasses that of most other African states. That does not mean Somaliland’s business climate has no room for improvement: Political micromanagement of airline schedules, for example, undermines the reputation of Somaliland’s broader business climate. This problem will decline as the integration of Somaliland into the international community proceeds.
Somaliland is an ecological treasure that, like the Sultanate of Oman or Rwanda, could encourage high-end tourism as a means to both further its conservation effort, reduce unemployment, and pump much needed hard currency into the local economy and government’s coffers. Both countries—and Bhutan in Asia—often encourage niche tourism rather than the budget or backpacking crowds also because it is easier to ensure respect for local society. It is a model that works.
It is time for Somaliland to take the next step. It should set aside a broader preserve and invite African Parks or a like-minded organization to manage it. Just as the follow-on impact of DP World has transformed Berbera and given birth to new hotels, new restaurants, and improved infrastructure, a game preserve that showcases cheetahs in their natural habitat, gerenuks, elephant shrew, desert tortoises, antelope, ibex, leopards, and even potentially giraffes, could transform northern, highland portions of the country. Camels may be commonplace for Somalilanders, but tourists pay high dollar for camel treks in the deserts of Oman; there is little reason why they could not in Somaliland. Nor is Somaliland’s flora and fauna its only attraction. Tourists might also pay significant fees to visit Laas Geel, money that could be reinvested into efforts to preserve and excavate other Neolithic sites.
Somalilanders know their country is special; it is time the broader international community did as well, no matter what the position of cynical or shortsighted diplomats in Mogadishu or Washington. Not only CCF but also the leaders of Somaliland’s three major political parties have all shown that Somaliland has the political capital and will to succeed.