Why did the animals go

Africa is home to many animal species. So much so that it gave rise to the stereotype of Africa as a jungle inhabited by all kinds of exotic animals. This is however no longer the case. The animals are gone. Where did they go?! Why did they go?!!…

The biodiversity in the continent was impressive. Africa was unfazed as animal species were previously decimated in Europe, Asia and the America’s. Western Africa boasted large populations of lion, buffalo, antelopes, leopards, crocodiles and several other species.

Man has always been interested in his fellow animals with which he shares the planet. The flood narrative that is recounted in many cultures gives both man and animal recognition as God’s creation. The story as recounted in both the Bible in Genesis and in the Quran as Safina Nuh (Noah’s boat) required Noah to give safe refuge to all varieties of animals in existence.

Modern man has not shown the restraint and care exhibited by Noah; he has been a poor caretaker of other creatures.

Plummeting animal numbers and variety

We can clearly observe an accelerated loss of animal numbers and variety. The threat of extinction looms over many species. Western Africa suffered disproportionately compared to other regions in the loss of its animals? Where have the animals gone? Why have they gone?

Loss of wildlife creeps up on us like a thief. The loss starts as a trickle, and then it balloons, becoming a torrent. And then, seemingly abruptly, there are no animals any more….  We can only ask, “What happened?!”

Habitat depletion

The first cause of loss is loss of habitat.

Hunting and poaching..

Poaching may be defined as the illegal hunting or capturing of wild animals. It is usually associated with land use rights.

Poaching may be considered from different perspectives. Poaching may be performed by impoverished peasants for home consumption so as to supplement their diets, or as a commercial activity. People also poach for commercial gain. This involves the sale of animal meat or parts of its body for trophies. Other people hunt due to the thrill in killing wildlife, or claim a traditional or cultural right to hunt. Body parts of animals are also used for traditional medicine and ceremonies.

An international market for poached wildlife ensures the existence of well-organised gangs of professional poaches. These form part of crime syndicates with complex international networks. The high cultural demand of ivory in China has led to massive poaching of elephants.

Trophy hunting targets all species, including those not traditionally eaten such as lions.

Bush meat

Bush meat is a vexing issue. It is usually considered a subset of poaching.

Porcupine bushmeat in Cameroon

There are two sides to bush meat hunting. Bush meat provides an important source of animal protein for human beings. Hunting is the main source of protein for many local communities. Issues are aggravated in cases when control of their land has been taken away from them, such as to make a national park. This immediately turns hunters into poachers. The difference between hunting and poaching is one of permission. Poaching is hunting without the approval of whoever controls the land.

See: Bushmeat, Wildlife-Based Economies, Food Security and Conservation

It is intimately tied to human development challenges such as food insecurity, poverty, unemployment, emergent zootonic diseases and change of land-use. Though previously sustainable, increase of human populations has made bush hunting unsustainable. Human populations have expanded into wild lands. This has been made worse by industrial scale of hunting including use of firearms and motorised transport. Bush meat hunting is a complex issue to solve, since it is not linearly tied to poverty; it is sometimes observed that increase of affluence sometimes drives tastes in non-conventional and exotic meats!

Consumption of bush meat brings in the added risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases, like Ebola Viral Disease. Outbreak of Ebola virus in the Congo Basin and Gabon in the 1990’ was associated with the butchering of apes and consumption of their meat. This mirrors the outbreak of SARs in Hong Kong.

Game may also spread disease to domestic animals. Wild animals also spread diseases to livestock. Eating un-inspected game meat may increase the risk of contracting tuberculosis. Handling and eating of game meat by humans exposes them to new microorganisms and contaminants, resulting in the emergence of new diseases.

So, where did the animals go? Into our stomachs? If this were the case, it would be forgivable. Use of resources is acceptable, as long as it is done in a sustainable way.

Unsustainable hunting

Animals are hunted and trapped. The main targets in hunting are primates, even-toed ungulates, rodents and carnivores. The primary reason for hunting is to acquire meat for human consumption, medicinal products, ornamental use of body parts and pet trade. Harvesting of wild animals for meat is referred to as ‘wild meat hunting’, or ‘bush meat hunting’. Ornamental use includes ivory, horns, skins. These are mainly obtained from trophy hunts.

See: Illegal Hunting & the Bush-Meat Trade in Savanna Africa: drivers, impacts & solutions to address the problems

Bush meat hunting is often unsustainable in modern times.

Effects of poaching

Poaching has detrimental effects. Predators, herbivores and other animals cannot recover as fast as they are hunted, leading to a rapid decline of their populations. This can result in  an ecological cascade, e.g Decimation of fruit eating vertebrates may lead to with disruption of the pattern of seed predation and dispersal in a forest.

The looming danger of extinction

Western Africa risks joining Mauritius with the extinction of the dodo, and northern America with the extinction of passenger pigeons. Passenger pigeons initially counted their numbers in billions!. From the dodo in Mauritius, several extinctions due to human activity have been recorded.

Human beings are playing a pivotal role in the current extinctions. They achieve this through overharvesting, introduction of invasive species in the wild, pollution. We convert forest land and  wetlands to farms. Urban areas have gradually made incursions into areas previously occupied by various animals. Extinction can have a cascading effect on the survival of other species.

The situation is bleak.

The western black rhino has fallen particularly hard to poaching. Its population had fallen to hundreds by 1980. By 2000, only about 10 roamed in the wild. Surveys in 2006 failed to locate any, and it was declared extinct in 2011. The last survivors were observed in Cameroon.

The Cross River gorilla is a unique primate. It differs from other gorillas in physical appearance, diet and culture. It is the most endangered of the African apes. It was listed as critically endangered in 2013 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Only a few, estimated at 300,  are now remaining in the Nigerian-Cameroon border region in the Guinean Forests. The species faces danger from familiar sources: poaching and loss of habitat due to human encroachment. This has fragmented forests, reduced connectivity between several sites and isolated the species, thus reducing gene flow.

The pangolin is a unique creature. The armour-plated animal that feeds on ants and termites with their long tongues  has the dubious distinction of being the most illegally trafficked species in Africa. They are hunted for their meat, scales and other body parts. The scales are used in traditional medicine in parts of Africa and Asia. They are also victim of traditional belief; in some areas it is believed that sighting a pangolin will lead to drought, and the only way to avert this is by killing it.

A pangolin

See: Scales from 11,000 pangolins seized in Hong Kong from Nigeria

See: Attempted smuggling of 357kg pangolin scales discovered at Vietnam’s Noi Bai Airport

And who knows that lions once roamed western Africa? Lions roamed from Senegal to Nigeria. Only an estimated 250 adult lions now occupy a tiny fraction of this historic range. Lions are now found in only four isolated populations: one in Senegal, two in Nigeria and a fourth on the borders of Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso. They have suffered habitat loss. The lions have also lost their potential prey to the bush meat markets; depressed economy and depletion of fish stocks at the coast have forced hungry people to hunt animals in protected areas. Lions have also been killed by communities in retaliation for loss of livestock to the big cats.

The African Wild dog and several other species are disappearing. These threats are not only posed to land animals. The sea fauna is also at risk. The sea is particularly hard hit by the changing acidity of water. This dissolves shells of many marine animals.

The West African dolphin is a little known humpback sea mammal, only found along the western African coast of the Atlantic. It is now considered to be one of the continent’s most endangered mammals, and its status has been elevated to ‘critically endangered’. These dolphins are highly susceptible to human activities like entanglement in fishing gear, offshore construction and hunting for human consumption.

See: West African dolphin is now listed as one of Africa’s rarest mammals

Sea horses are widely exported globally for traditional medicines, aquarium display and curiosities. They are found along the western African seashore off the coast of Senegal and Guinea. These creatures are now widely exported to Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan.

Going, going….

Going, going, gone! Like the auction cry in an auction, will we bid when we can still make a difference? Or will we raise our voice after the hammer has already fallen? The choice is ours.

time is running out on our ability to protect the animals. Will they survive? close of the bid in an auction, the time is ticking for the other species.

Extinction is natural to some extent. Changes in habitat and poor reproductive trends that make a species’ death rate to be higher than its birth rate will eventually lead to its decimation. Rapid human population increase has resulted in the ruining of natural habitats. This has caused a precipitous drop in the number of all types of animals. Some are being driven to extinction.

Perhaps the most celebrated extinction is that of the dodo. This bird was first observed by westerners  in 1581 in its Mauritius home. The dodo’s went extinct in mid to late 17th century directly due to human activity. The flightless birds were isolated from predators. Then humans brought in dogs, cats, bloodthirsty pigs. They were vulnerable and easy targets.

From billions to none

Extinction can be abrupt. Perhaps one of the more amazing extinctions is that of the passenger pigeon. Passenger pigeons that once blanketed out the skies in northern America in billions suddenly became extinct over just a couple of decades! They were hunted on a prodigious scale to extinction. Their meat was used to feed slaves and the poor. Tens of millions were slaughtered each year. Humans also destructed their food sources and blocked their migration to the west.

See: From five billion to zero: the passenger pigeon – and other beautiful animals driven to extinction

Many scientist believe that we are going through a period of heightened extinction risk and rates. This latest mass extinction is the first one caused by a specific species: man. Over 300 terrestrial mammal species are threatened due to hunting by humans.

See: Humanity has wiped out 60% of animal populations since 1970, report finds

What next?…

More aggressive measures should be put in place to assist in conservation. Stronger legal deterrents should be put into place to contain illegal hunting. Existing laws should be applied consistently.

Legal frameworks should be put into place to enable communities to adequately benefit from wildlife management. Innovative approaches should be used to enable wildlife-based land uses so as to provide for legal production of bush meat. All this will require a high degree of cooperation between stakeholders: policy makers, communities, scientists and business people. Conservation is hard-wired into us as human beings.

The Garden of Eden and all creation stories across cultures emphasize the unity of man and nature. If we let this continue, the loss of biodiversity will come back to haunt us.