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Photo: Two rhinos in a meadowWhen ecologist Jeff Sayer started his career as a field researcher in Zambia in 1969, rhinos dotted the country's plateaus and he regularly witnessed herds of elephants trundling across the Luangwa Valley. Today, just a handful of elephants straggle around near the tourist lodges. Rhinos have disappeared completely.

"I never dreamed of how much would be lost in such a short time, " says Sayer, blaming environmental mismanagement and political chaos for the destruction.

Now the ecologist sees a new unpredictable threat on the horizon for the continent. That's because - in spite of the recent commodities slump - Africa still has a lot to offer. Around 30 percent of global mineral deposits remain in the continent's ground, say Sayer and his colleagues at the Centre for Tropical Environment and Sustainability Science at Australia's James Cook University.

That wealth of resources remains largely untapped. Australian, Canadian, US and particularly Chinese firms are all vying for a piece of this promising market, wanting to invest in diamond, gold or manganese mining, say the researchers. Between 2000 and 2009, investment by Chinese firms alone quadrupled to more than 0 billion (90 billion euros).

Chinese construction worker supervises the building of a road (Source: ddp images/AP Photo/Karel Prinsloo)For businesses, the financial returns are potentially huge, particularly as hunger for consumer products like mobile phones, tablets and jewellery grows. But so too is the threat to the environment.

Arteries for Africa's economy

Rhinos and elephants are disappearing in Zambia

The program that aims to push Africa toward prosperity is #link: PIDA# (Program Infrastructure Development for Africa) and was adopted in January 2012 in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. According to program participants, which include the African Development Bank, the African Union, the United Nations and various countries, pipelines and streets will make it easier for people, water and energy to get around, making the continent more attractive and competitive. To this end, around 30 million square kilometers of land have been surveyed and plans for the #link: continent drawn up#.

And the plans are ambitious. They foresee the expansion of a road network known as the Trans-African Highway. Running to an overall length of 56, 683 kilometers - and stretching from Cape Town in the south to Cairo in the north, Dakar in the west to Djibouti in the east - it will serve as an artery for the economy. Times are changing.

"The new oil and gas discoveries across Africa have added further impetus for the need to modernize Africa’s infrastructure, " says Shem Simuyemba, Chief Infrastructure Economist with the African Development Bank.

As such, new roads connecting African states and arming the continent for competition with the rest of the world aren't the only things on the agenda. Ports in Benin, Lagos, Ghana and the Ivory Coast are planned, as well as river dredging, new cables for telecommunications and energy, and hydroelectric dams.

Firms from around the world but particularly from China are racing to get a piece of the African market

It's a costly undertaking. The projects planned as far as 2040 come with a price tag of $400 billion (350 billion euros). The African Development Bank is looking to private investors at home and abroad to raise the cash, including through the China-backed multilateral Africa Growing Together Fund (AGTF) and the #link: fund Africa50#, says Simuyemba. Development banks can't carry these sums alone - a "new global partnership" is necessary to find financing quickly.

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