Andreas Späth

Saving our big game

2013-08-26 12:49

Andreas Späth

South Africans are proud of their wildlife conservation heritage. And with good reason: there are few countries anywhere in the world where you can as easily observe such a wide variety of wild animals - the Big Five and many others - in their natural habitat.

But as human populations and activities, from settlements and roads to mines and farms, continue to encroach on wilderness areas, how secure is the future of these wild animal species and their environments in the long run, especially outside of the large and well-maintained national parks? What is the viability of the many much smaller conservation areas and the animals they are home to?

Earlier this month, a new paper published in the peer-reviewed, open-access publication PLoS ONE, tried to address some of the issues involved. A group of international and South African researchers employed sophisticated computer modelling techniques to evaluate the risk of extinction facing a number of large South African mammal species under a range of different conservation scenarios, and attempted to evaluate the most cost effective approaches to maximise the chances that our grandchildren and their grandchildren will be able to see them in their natural setting.

As the subject of their study, the researchers chose the so-called Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany biodiversity hotspot in KwaZulu-Natal, an area known for its wealth in wildlife, including many species that occur nowhere else.

The region has witnessed significant conservation successes over the past, most notably the widespread re-establishment of a large population of southern white rhinos, centred on the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park, recovering from less than 20 individuals in 1895 to over 17 000 today.

Other large mammal species, although once common throughout the region, have experienced major declines, becoming extinct in many locations. The researchers focused specifically on conservation actions that might benefit six large game species: the black rhino, African wild dog, cheetah, leopard, elephant and lion.

Currently, small populations of these animals are present in a patchwork of many small, heavily managed and fenced reserves, and one of the questions the study attempts to address is whether that is the best way of ensuring their survival in the region.

Some of the key findings are as follows:

- The current situation, involving many small, adjoining but fenced-off reserves was found to represent the least effective way of reducing the extinction risk for all of the six species investigated.

- While elephants, leopards and black rhinos are currently at a very low risk of extinction (less than 5%), that threat is significantly greater (above 25%) for cheetahs and African wild dogs.

- Increases in poaching and diseases pose the most important threats to black rhinos, leopards and elephants.

- Larger, more connected, protected areas represent the most efficient way of reducing the probability of extinction for all six species. Connections can be established by incorporating suitable habitats that are not currently designated as conservation areas (especially where other land-use options are less financially viable than wildlife conservation). In the absence of corridors of land connecting existing reserves, translocations of individual animals plays an important role in enhancing gene flow, particularly for those species that are unable to cross electrified game fences (black rhinos, cheetahs, lions and elephants).

The researchers recommend that in the short term, the fences between adjoining reserves should be removed to increase connectivity and conservation area. In the longer term, efforts should be made to link such more-connected patches to each other.

The fight against poaching is highlighted as a major obstacle to improved conservation strategies, as is the lack of capacity and funding, particularly in poorer communities. What’s required to tackle these challenges are effective partnerships between local communities, government, private landowners, NGOs and conservation agencies.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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