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Protecting the world’s last wild places

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Protecting the world’s last wild places

17 September 2019
Costa works with local communities of the Okavango to conserve wildlife and ecosystems. Photo by UN Environment Programme
Photo by UN Environment Programme
Costa works with local communities of the Okavango to conserve wildlife and ecosystems. Photo by UN Environment Programme

When twenty-nine-year-old wildlife ethno-conservationist Adjany Costa was younger, the beach was the only natural place safe to go. Civil war, which plagued Angola for three decades until 2002, made exploring impossible.

“We couldn’t venture too far because of the fighting and landmines,” recalls Costa. “But every weekend, my father would take us to the beach, and it became my place of solace. It sparked in me a great respect for nature.”

Since that time, much has changed. Now the war is over, and as communities return home, Costa felt compelled to explore the remote wilderness.

Then came the opportunity to join an unprecedented National Geographic exploration deep into Angola’s Okavango Delta. It was a journey from which she would not fully return.

What she found in the remote Luchaze community, living in Angola’s highlands and Miombo woodlands at the headwaters of one of Africa’s largest river systems, the Okavango, was a world healing its wounds.

“The Cuito River, where the Luchaze community live, is critical to maintaining water levels in the Okavango across three countries,” she explains. “Studying biology, what struck me most is the profound way in which all nature is linked.

“I realized, working with the community, that if they protect the woodland areas and the rivers, and nurture its wildlife, that is fundamental to the upkeep of the whole ecosystem. But it also struck me that because of the war, these communities have lost their connection with their surroundings.”

Some children have never seen an elephant, iconic of the region. The community are only just starting to feel at home again, and younger generations are only now exploring the landscape and understanding how it works and fits together, she reflects.

“If you ask anyone in the community what they want, they say: salt, soap, oil, a nurse and a teacher. But over time, I realized that what they really want is a future.”

“These communities have had no access to healthcare. They have been stripped of their land and led to believe that their values, medicines and culture are worthless. It’s difficult to make decisions about the future, when you are focused on making ends meet in the present.”

And this is what Costa wants to change. “Protecting the landscape, and working with communities to make a long-term future in it, is my goal,” she explains. “I am working with them to own the land they were striped out of.”

Visual communication is a powerful tool for Costa in raising awareness about environmental protection. Photo by UN Environment Programme
Visual communication is a powerful tool for Costa in raising awareness about environmental protection. Photo by UN Environment Programme
Maxwell Gomera, Director of Biodiversity and Ecosystems at the UN Environment Programme, said: “Adjany’s work shows that individuals can make a difference. “We live in an age where we need more action to avert the nature and climate crisis. The choices are tough. But we can rise to the challenge by acting, not out of self-interest, but out of common interest to help nature and people thrive together.”

Part of this work is through visual storytelling. Costa is working on a series of graphics and books to both document the heritage of the community and educate younger members.

The “Mythological stories of conservation value,” for example, is a book project with the elders, to document oral storytelling around mythical river and forest guardians, relating powerful environmental messages. An adaption will be made for younger people, to teach them about different forest and river stories to help them connect with their surroundings.

“One picture in my previous book, shows elephants fleeing the forests during conflict. Communities can relate to that, to build a relationship with the landscape,” she says. “But it should be the other way around: younger generations should be telling their own stories.”

Part of Costa’s work involves working with the community over time to establish trust. Then, to empower them to take back control over their resources. Only when they believe the land is theirs, will they truly protect it, she says.

On average, 200 unique species go extinct every day. A recent Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services report warns that one million more species are at risk, threatening the last wild spaces and indigenous communities that depend on them.

Over a million people depend on the Okavango River, shared by Angola, Namibia and Botswana. Its delta, in Botswana, is home to an abundance of iconic wildlife including one of the world’s largest elephant populations.

“We depend on ecosystems for survival, and more so do poor rural communities. We must be mindful about how our way of living impacts our environment and work with indigenous communities that depend on them,” she notes.

The Young Champions of the Earth Prize, powered by Covestro, is UN Environment Programme's leading initiative to engage youth in tackling the world's most pressing environmental challenges. Adjany Costa is one of seven winners announced this year! Stay tuned to apply in January.

“What the Luchaze community want most is a future. They have cared for the environment for generations. This is the only place they want their children and future generations to inherit.”