Warming Threatens Safari Game
Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Saturday, May 29 / 10
Those magnificent big game animals that hung out with Tarzan, frolicked in the Jungle Book and grazed majestically in Disney’s The Lion King are coming to a museum of extinct species near you!
Recent studies by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and various universities from around the world, show disturbing trends on the African plains that will mean the weakening, numerical decline and ultimate endangerment of much of its wildlife. As well, this parallels similar challenges that climate change is posing to the survival of our own legendary big game, such as polar bears in the Arctic.
The KWS’ Biodiversity Research Unit has issued a report saying that new weather and migration patterns – extremes in rainfall leading to short-term drought followed by downpours and flooding – are forcing wildlife into more developed areas.
This vagabond wildlife, under its own ecological pressures, is killing domesticated animals such as sheep and goats, in the case of big cats, or destroying food crops, in the case of elephants, rhino and buffalo.
Not only does this mean that more “rogue” wildlife are being killed by farmers, but also that these animals are being victimized by diseases that they would not normally encounter. Again, this is also happening with migration of bears, big cats and moose out of our Canadian national and provincial parks into farm, tourism and even suburban areas.
A decade ago, 1.5 million wildebeest lived and moved about the 10,000 square mile expanse of East Africa’s main game parks – the Serengeti and the Masai Mara – migrating with the predictable rain clouds.
Wildebeest play an important role in the African ecosystem, eating down the grass and fertilizing the soil while providing food for big cats, hyenas and so forth – and even crocodiles when the wildebeest ford streams and rivers – that depend on them for protein.
Today, wildebeest numbers are down to 1.2 million, a 20% drop, due to population growth in East Africa, increased deforestation, poaching, and the unpredictability of rain, causing famine not only for the wildebeest but for their predators and for the human population.
Along with climate change, another factor in this process of weakening the sustainability of African wildlife is the use of chemicals in agriculture. Studies have shown that the genetic traits that make up the most aggressive and dominant features of lions are dwindling. The lions with dark manes are known to be the alpha males, as this is indicative of high testosterone levels. Dark-maned lions eat more of the pride’s kill, have a longer reproductive life-span and a higher level of offspring survival.
At the same time, report KWS scientists, as mean temperatures have risen almost a degree Celsius in their environments, the dark-maned lion has proven to be more prone to the ill effects of these rising heat levels, leading to less food intake and lower sperm count in hot months. Chemical pollutants in Africa and around the world have led to a so-called “feminization” in some species, particularly documented in fish.
Males are more profoundly affected by these pollutants and the extrapolated future of many species reads like something out of science fiction.
Of course, ordinary people are also the victims of the current changes in climate. Tourism operators and employees face dislocation with the changes in migration patterns and the decrease in animal numbers.
Seventy percent of the population in East Africa lives by farming, so changes in rainfall, production numbers, exports and income effect the most vulnerable, the poor rural workers. The loss of the icecap on Mount Kilimanjaro – 82% of the glacier first surveyed in 1912 in now gone – which feeds many rivers in the area, aiding agriculture and human habitation, is reason for great concern. Humans, like wildlife, are impacted by the rains and waterways available.
Climate change could create troublesome patterns of human migration, along with the animal variety.
Africa occupies twenty percent of the earth’s land surface and contains 20% of all known species of plants, mammals and birds, and one-sixth of all amphibians and reptiles.
As an example, 90% of the antelope species on earth are concentrated in Africa and the predicted change in weather will profoundly affect them.
Earlier this year, the KWS moved to avert a disaster by relocating herbivores into select national parks in order to feed lions that would otherwise come into conflict with human domestic populations. They are also banning human population which had been moving into sensitive habitat in wildlife parks, to avoid increased deforestation and polluting of water sources, and are undertaking a major tree replenishment initiative.
Human activity has profoundly affected our planet. With a population of over six billion and counting, with the pollutants that we’ve mixed with the air, water and land, and with our not wanting to make profound changes in how we treat the Earth, signs are now becoming apparent of the damage caused.
If we read those signs properly and take swift action, we may avert the worst of what is on the horizon. There is no more beautiful horizon than that above the African savannah, in the Serengeti and Masai Mara. Profoundly, it is the area from which humans first emerged.
And it has a message for us about our future hanging in the balance.
Zack Gross works for the Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.
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