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Africa’s iconic animals under threat

While the world’s media spotlight is firmly focused on South Africa’s ongoing battle with rhino poaching, threats to some of the sub-continent’s other critically endangered and threatened species are largely being ignored. It is a little known fact that poaching is not the major cause of concern when it comes to conserving Africa’s fauna and flora – it is loss of habitat which presents the greatest threat.

The rapid expansion of human settlement and development of land for habitation and industry throughout Africa has had a severe impact on wildlife.

In this respect, two particularly iconic species have been exceptionally negatively affected – elephant and lion. Whilst the elephant is not regarded as endangered, current estimates suggest that somewhere between 470,000 and 600,000 live in Africa.

During the 1970s and 80s ivory poaching decimated existing populations, apparently killing half of Africa’s elephants at the time. This led to the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) placing the elephant on Appendix 1 of the convention in 1989 and banning international trade in ivory.

Africa has half the number of elephants it had 40 years ago.

In southern Africa the elephant populations seem to be holding their own, and in some cases expanding their ranges, but in west, central and east Africa forest elephant and some savannah populations are severely threatened, losing habitat rapidly.

The forest elephant, for example, is now recognized as a separate species to its savannah cousin, and is found mostly in Gabon and the Congo basin.

Deforestation due to logging and poaching of its unique, hard pinkish-coloured ivory has slashed populations across its traditional range of equatorial west and central Africa.

In some southern African countries poaching continues to threaten elephant populations. In Zambia, for example, poaching is still rife in certain areas causing a steady, slow decline in numbers.

Genetic mapping of seized poached ivory can now determine where that ivory originated, and recent hauls have indicated that Zambia is very much a focal point for poaching in southern Africa.

Likewise northern Mozambique and southern Tanzania have become the targets for large, organized poaching syndicates. The sad fact is that Africa has half of the elephants it had 40 years ago.

Lions have suffered a similar fate, with numbers in Africa dropping drastically due to habitat loss and human infringement on traditional ranges. The total number of lion left in Africa could be as low as 15000. Twenty years ago it was as high as 250,000.

Listed as “vulnerable” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red Data list, whilst imminent extinction is not on the cards for Africa’s lions, populations are dropping rapidly.

As Africa’s apex predator, and perhaps its most popular tourist attraction thanks to Disney’s “Lion King”, the decline in lion numbers is cause for alarm. Most lion deaths occur at the hands of stock farmers in revenge for loss of livestock.

In Kenya this has been particularly problematic in the great plains regions where Maasai tribesmen traditionally graze their highly prized cattle, right in the heart of “lion central”.

Areas such as Amboseli and the Maasai Mara have seen huge losses in lion numbers as a result of stock thefts, but recent initiatives to educate and change the mindsets of the Maasai people, whose men traditionally had to kill a lion with a spear to attain adulthood, have begun to bear fruit.

Compensation for stock losses, combined with programmes paying Maasai morans, or warriors, to guard lion populations and aid in scientific research are making steady inroads into rebuilding pride numbers.

That same research has begun to show that lions are not public enemy number one when it comes to attacks on cattle, accounting for as little as 14% of stock losses. Indeed, the major culprit in the Amboseli region of Kenya has emerged as the spotted hyena.

Human-wildlife conflict is the byproduct of loss of habitat, and is perhaps the over-riding issue for conservation of wildlife in Africa. As human populations expand into wilderness areas they come into contact with the animals which live there, often with tragic results and fatalities on both sides.

Human settlement invariably happens next to or close to permanent water sources such as rivers or lakes, which are also crucial to the survival of wildlife.

In Zambia’s Lower Zambezi Valley, for example, local communities are based on the banks of the Zambezi river which, being the fourth largest river in Africa, is Southern Africa’s most crucial and pivotal water system. This puts communities in direct conflict with a number of dangerous animals such as elephant, hippo and crocodile.

In the dry season, which lasts from April to December each year, Elephants go to the river at dawn and dusk each day to drink. Their well-trodden paths are also used by villagers who also get their water from the river, usually at the same time as the elephants.

Their fields and crops are prime targets for the elephants, with the result that crop raiding has become the single biggest issue in human-wildlife conflict in the Lower Zambezi. “Problem” animals are invariably shot.

As is the case with most conservation issues, education is key to a turnaround in cases of human-wildlife conflict. Organizations like Conservation Lower Zambezi, an NGO working closely with the state-run Zambian Wildlife Authority, are slowly making headway with educational programmes and anti-poaching patrols, but progress is slow as it invariably involves changing traditionally held beliefs and mindsets.

Lions are under threat through loss of habitat and hunting as a result of stock theft.

In Amboseli in Kenya, the Mbirikani Predator Compensation Fund is making similar headway with the Maasai communities which live on the periphery of the Amboseli National Park and Amboseli plains region.

Spearheaded by local conservation hero and safari lodge owner Richard Bonham, who established the Maasailand Preservation Trust of which the fund is a small part, mindsets are slowly beginning to change and the lion guardians, or “simba morans” are now protecting the very lions they used to kill.

All of these initiatives, and the future of species like elephant and lion in the wild, depend on money, and no small amount of it at that.

Private and government funding is desperately needed to ensure the future preservation and conservation of Africa’s fast-disappearing wild places and to halt the downward spiral caused by habitat loss.

To paraphrase the late, great Anton Rupert, one of South Africa’s most prominent conservation pioneers, without money conservation is just conversation.

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