Africa from the Air

The world isn’t really making any more wild places, so we must do what we can to preserve the ones we have.



Bobby Neptune

Read Time

7 minutes


I’ve lived and worked in East Africa for more than a decade now and I had a sense that change was occurring, but I don’t think I understood the scale until I was above the landscape looking down at the monumental shifts in land-use.

For the past three years, I’ve flown my motorized paraglider across much of East Africa, photographing large landscapes from the air. My original goal was to photograph specific watersheds throughout the seasons and look at the associated human and wildlife migration that occurred. However, as I started flying, I began to see how dramatically humans had altered these landscapes. There were, it seemed, very few truly wild corners left to be photographed. The project quickly morphed, and I instead aimed to show people the pristine beauty of Africa’s remaining wild places while providing a record of the immense developmental, environmental and ecological pressures these landscapes faced. 

In particular, Kenya’s rangelands — an area covering 88% of Kenya’s land area — lost more than 70% of its wildlife. Attributed mostly to habitat loss, the shift toward a landscape dominated by livestock was made clear by aerial surveys completed between 2011-2013. This showed a livestock biomass of 8.1 times that of wildlife. Between 1977-1980, this ratio was 3.5.

While wildlife population declines can be attributed to both poaching and poverty, the dominant force has been land transformation and habitat loss. As East Africa’s human population exploded through the last half-century, the need grew for new space to feed, house and water that expanding human footprint. In 1977, Kenya was home to 15 million people. By 2016, that number was 49 million — a 325% increase in people while wildlife declined by 68%. Current projections of human pollution growth put the 2050 number at 100 million people in Kenya. What will that mean for wild spaces and wildlife? 

Most of that was done by taking wild spaces and creating peri-urban sprawl and dewilding for agriculture. Centuries-old wildlife migration corridors were quickly cut off, essentially creating island ecosystems. At present, the increasing lack of connectivity between wilderness areas is beginning to force the loss of genetic diversity among wildlife. 

As we look toward the future, any sustained loss of wildlife vaguely resembling the numbers from the past 40 years will have a devastating impact on the survivability of all species, not just those that are critically endangered. 

There must be a change. Many short-term conservation solutions have been enacted in the last half century that will help slow the loss of these spaces and species, including habitat protection, predator compensation funds, law enforcement efforts to deter poaching and an overall increase in awareness. Many of these have been funded from outside the region, by the EU, the US and other multilateral and private donors. However, the long-term solutions have often been overlooked in exchange for short-term gains. 

There is a major disconnect between the urban hubs of political power and wealth and these wild spaces. For example, in Nairobi, Kenya, there is an increasingly emerging middle class that would prefer to fly to Dubai for holidays rather than engage with what Kenya’s wild spaces have to offer, no matter how luxurious the experience might be. Sadly, there also seems to be an ever-decreasing political will to see these wild places exist for future generations, and this presents a major problem for long-term conservation. The international will is there, and yet the local will has yet to reach a critical mass. 

I see a breaking point in the next decade without a tide shift in the political focus on the importance of wildlife and wild systems. Without that, I fear we will end up losing them forever. 

At the moment, tourism is our stopgap. The amount of revenue brought into the region by tourism is currently the greatest mechanism for the conservation of wild spaces and biodiversity. Because it makes up such a large chunk of our economy, governments are forced to bow a bit toward tourism and maintain, at minimum, a semi-functioning wildlife service that oversees wildlife conservation efforts. 

However, in 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world, we saw a fatal flaw arise. With tourism revenues faltering, we noticed that very few reasonable and viable alternatives for valuing wildlife and wild spaces exist outside of the fickle tourism markets. This is worrisome because there is not an overarching sense of national natural heritage, and no revenue to otherwise deter land-use changes. As a result, we saw increases in poaching incidents and critical conservation corridors migrated to agricultural land. Just last year, plans evolved for the one remaining elephant migration corridor between two major ecosystems in southern Kenya to be turned into an avocado farm by an international firm. The march of development threatened to sever the functional integrity of a critically important ecosystem, with consequences likely far beyond what we could understand in the short term. Thankfully, due to a massive grassroots uprising in the conservation community, the project was halted; however, this begins to show you the system’s tremendous vulnerability. 

I once heard someone say, “In conservation, all of our successes are temporary and all of our failures are permanent.” Once these spaces go, it’s unlikely they will ever be successfully rewilded. The world isn’t really making any more wild places, so we must do what we can to preserve the ones we have. It is my hope that these images paint a picture of both the immense beauty of our landscapes as well as the immense loss projected over the coming years if the current momentum is not altered.

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