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Africa Uses Sports to Fight Environmental Degradation

A baby lowland gorilla rides on his mother's back at the primate sanctuary run by the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund in Mefou National Park, just outside the capital Yaounde, March 21, 2009. During the women's Africa Cup of Nations football tournament in Cameroon, the Sports for Nature campaign will call attention to endangered animals.

Activists are using the women's Africa Cup of Nations tournament in Cameroon to campaign for the protection of the continent's forests and animal species.

The campaign, called “Sports for Nature," is spearheaded by conservationist groups who say some of Africa's natural resources are on the verge of going extinct.

In Yaounde, birds sing at a makeshift park near the Ahmadou Ahidjo stadium, one of the sites of the 2016 women's football African Cup of Nations.

Conservationist Nevielle Tanyi points toward a crocodile walking nearby and describes the danger it poses to workers trying to maintain a pond.

"When we provoke the crocodile to leave the pond area, it goes toward the side where there is no water and it normally rests in that area,” Tanyi said. “When we go in to clean the pond, we have to drain the water out because the crocodile is perfectly adapted to live in water. In water, the crocodile is extremely fast because it will use the tail to swim and the back feet are wet. So, in water it is at home."

Not a bright future

Tanyi and fellow activists fear a day when they will not be able to marvel at crocodiles and the thousands of other animals that roam the African continent.

Professor Zac Tchoundjeu of the International Center for Research in Agro Forestry elaborates.

"Just imagine that in 20 years, you only show photographs to your child,” Tchoundjeu said. “It will be a disaster."

Losing battle for animals

Organizers of the "Sports for Nature" campaign hope to prevent that disaster by convincing Africans that protecting the continent's abundant wildlife is in their best interests.

The World Wildlife Fund says national parks and wildlife reserves in Africa have lost between 60 to 80 percent of their lions, elephants, buffalo and other protected species since 1980.

The WWF and other conservationist groups say some species may disappear entirely unless poaching, global warming, population growth and unregulated development are brought in check.

Don’t forget the trees

Janet Mukoko of the World Wildlife Fund is one of the organizers of the campaign. She says safeguarding trees is equally as important as protecting animals.

"The forest is like the heartbeat, anything that you bring down in the forest has a negative impact on the environment,” Mukoko said. “If we cut the forest, we do unsustainable logging, we are destroying the key things that we are supposed to enjoy in the environment. We are saying that whatever we do on the environment, we should do it with some care so that we leave this planet better than we met it."

Not all soccer fans attending the tournament agree with Mukoko's view. Kelvin Sama says environmentalism is a waste of resources on a continent where poverty levels and unemployment are high.

"Many Cameroonians are suffering, many of them are sick,” Sama said. “They can not afford to be taken care of, but we spend so much money to feed just reptiles, it is not good."

Wildlife can bring jobs

But Tchoundjeu argues that Africans can benefit by protecting the environment.

"We are trying to say that through the protection of the wildlife, we could even improve livelihoods,” Tchoundjeu said. “In Kenya, people pay a lot of money to go to the parks. If you explain to the people that wildlife will attract tourists, protect and restore the landscape, then they start to understand."

The tournament in Cameroon ends Saturday.