D100….The Plight of Wildlife in Africa.

Blog — By on December 30, 2012 2:00 pm

Some time ago I penned this note on the ‘Plight of Wildlife in Africa’. Here are some personal thoughts and observations on the decimation of all large mammals in Africa.

I would ask a simple question before plunging into the heart of this topic. Is it important? Do we really care?

I would suggest that to observe nature in its undisturbed form is one of the greatest pleasures in life. There is nothing more compelling than seeing a magnificent bull elephant at a waterhole. There is nothing more exciting than watching lions on the hunt. There is nothing more graceful than catching impala bounding just for fun. There is nothing more impressive than to view a large crocodile, a predator that has survived the dinosaurs.

On a more moralistic level are we humans so arrogant as to believe that only we should inhabit this planet. We are so dominant a species that it is entirely in our power to eradicate all large animals with ease. There are many places on earth where we have already accomplished this.

And finally on a spiritual level, this is where we come from. Humans were forged in Africa, fought and survived on equal terms with the biggest and strongest Africa had to offer and finally emerged from Africa as the apex predator. I think that one feels an affinity for Africa when one is immersed here in the bush. It is in our DNA.

So let’s concentrate on what is eradicating African wildlife. Why most elephants North of the equator have been wiped out, why the lion will soon become an endangered species, why the rhino has all but been made extinct, why there are few massive crocodiles left anywhere, why vultures and wild dogs are persecuted and endangered.

It is all very simple.

Animals and people do not mix. Animals always come second. They cannot coexist.

Where we have seen people in Africa we have seen no wildlife. No species is a more effective hunter than man. Wherever there are settlements, and particularly if there are cattle, sheep or goats the wild animals disappear for 3 reasons.

Firstly animals are an excellent source of food. All the herbivores make good eating. So impala, kudu, bushbuck, wildebeest, zebra, buffalo…everything on the hoof is a target. And it is not just guns that are used. In Gorongosa National Park (Mozambique), whilst we were there, the guides found a 1 kilometer line of snares in the centre of the park. The animals were being slaughtered professionally. It was very noticeable that in the 20km buffer zone between Gorongosa National Park and the local communities there were simply no animals, even though the park was unfenced. As soon as the animals strayed near the villages they were in the pot. That said the long line snares are found in the middle, not on the edges, of the park.

Apart from the pressure this puts on the herbivores, it of course has a similar impact on predators as their food source dries up.

Secondly anything that threatens human life, or their livestock is the enemy. So all ‘threats’ are shot or snared or poisoned (remember we are very efficient hunters). Lions, leopard, hyena together with vultures, wild dogs etc are not tolerated, irrespective of any laws. There has been no exception to this behaviour in our first 10,000 kilometres. From South African farmers to Mozambican villagers, they all have a scorched earth policy on such threats. Interestingly in Mozambique, where we travelled North for 1000 kilometres on the main through road, the local people had occupied every single kilometer. They have burned much of the vegetation and planted the odd scrap of maize. We didn’t see a single animal.

Thirdly when humans are in proximity to animals and there are prizes to be had, some people cannot resist the temptation to kill for money. In Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, the slaughtering of rhino became so endemic that the decision was made to evacuate all remaining rhino rather that attempt the futile notion of taking on the poachers. In Hwange, Zimbabwe again, one of the iconic parks in Africa and certainly Zimbabwe’s top park, the rhino have been wiped out. Completely. In the Makgadigadi, Botswana, 20 per cent of their rhinos have been killed this year. Even in South Africa they have lost over 500 rhino this year to poachers, some of whom have used helicopters.

So those are the three main reasons that wildlife comes second when it is confronted by man. Food, threat, money. Maybe this could be tolerated if the population of humans was constant. Sadly in places like Mozambique it is exploding and this puts huge pressure on wildlife. And there are many countries like Mozambique in Africa.

There are a couple of other threats.

Hunting is still rife in Africa. There are still people who get a kick out of killing for fun. They take big guns and feel heroic when they shoot a defenceless animal. Apart from the obvious pressure this puts on certain species, like lion and elephant, it causes more long term damage. One of the keys to the success of nature, brutal though it may seem to us, is that the weak are weeded out. We have seen it plainly this holiday. The weaker elephants at Hwange didn’t make the end of the dry season. I believe only 1 in 7 adult male lions makes it to pride chief. Only the strong prosper and therefore breed. This keeps the species on top form. Hunting targets the opposite. They want to shoot the strongest lion and the biggest bull elephant. A story I have heard a couple of times is worth hearing. Often National Parks are bordered by hunting concessions. Male lions and prides will roam. They will follow the game, they will look for better hunting, they will explore. So inevitably at some stage a pride will stray into the neighbouring hunting concession. Which lion do you think our cowardly hunter will choose to shoot? Yes the magnificent, big maned dominant male. And the consequence? The pride becomes stressed and maybe breaks up. Eventually another male will show up and take over. What does he do? He immediately kills all the cubs, even the 1 and 2 year olds. This is maybe a third or half the pride. It then takes another 2 or 3 years before his progeny are safe. So the death of one male lion has been hugely destructive in that pride.

The other threat is simply destruction of habitat. For Greggs 40th birthday we went to find the Green Oriole, an extremely rare bird. He is a lifelong birder and this is one of the few species he has never seen. It is found in only one place in the world, the Gorongosa Highlands. We were lucky and crowned Greggs day with a sighting. But sadly all we could smell was burning. The bird is only found in this one place because it is a unique, but small, rainforest. Extraordinary to walk through. Huge towering trees, vines and creepers as thick as a mans waist and birds of extraordinary colours. It will not be there in 10 years time. And there will no longer be a Green Oriole to celebrate a significant birthday. The local people will have burned it all down.

Is there a solution to this rather depressing story? The answer is yes and it is not terribly complicated. It simply needs a will and one or two African country presidents who believe it is important. And they can take an economic view, rather than my more philosophical thoughts expressed at the beginning, if they wish. By economic I mean tourism. If you look at an economy such as Botswana their economy is founded on copper, diamonds, beef and tourism. At the other end of the scale even an economy as large as France relies significantly on tourism.

So to the solution.

Adopt a zero tolerance to poaching in designated wildlife areas. It requires some army personnel (or equivalent) with a clear mission together with formidable sentences. Botswana leads the way in Africa.

Erect fences between parks and people. Stop people getting into parks and animal escaping to their death out of parks.

Compensate farmers for livestock damage or losses, so instead of poisoning the lions that occasionally kill their livestock, they can claim compensation.

Ban hunting. There is no justification to kill animals for fun in today’s world. Particularly when we have already wiped out ninety percent of them. Botswana has done this as did Kenya some years ago.

There is a lot of marginal land in Africa that is of little use to humans. Some tribal lands, old hunting concessions, land that is not used. This should be given a higher legal status as conservation land where animals and the environment should be protected.

Conservation education should be taught to all the children in local schools. If they develop a passion for wildlife and conservation, and begin to recognise the economic benefits this can bring to their country or community, there is yet hope.


1 Comment

  1. Robin C-H says:

    If only it were this simple. The threats are different for different species – for example, rhino and elephant are killed mainly because they are worth so much more dead than alive, because of demand from Vietnam, China, Yemen etc etc. Other species are threatened because they threaten agriculture or livestock etc.

    Fencing has been tried – it can work, unless it crosses migration routes or cuts off access to eg a waterhole, when it won’t last long.

    I don’t know about SA or Botswana, but further north in Tanzania (which has a larger percentage of its area set aside for wildlife than any other country on earth) people with a huge stake in the issue believe that you have to make animals more valuable alive than dead and to give the people living close to the animals a stake in their conservation – eg in the Selous Game Reserve there is much less elephant poaching in the southern hunting concessions than in the northern ‘photographic’ areas – the people who own the hunting concessions don’t have a business if animals are poached, so they kill the poachers. I could never shoot a wild animinal, but do know the hunting debate is very difficult; the ban on elephant hunting in Kenya has not significantly reduced poaching, and I believe that the re-introduction of so-called ‘trophy hunting’ is being considered.

    Part of the problem with relying on tourism is that the benefits usually do not end up with the communities around the reserves, whose livelihoods are actually threatened by straying animals. There is also a technical issue over the ownership of wildlife – cattle generally are not poached because someone owns it. There is no such clear vested interest in wildlife.

    Forgive this long comment. But it’s such an important subject.