African wildlife and what we think about them is eternally fascinating. Everyone knows something about elephants, lions and giraffes even if it is just that they are cute animals.
No so many know that elephant numbers in Africa have declined by over 50% in less than 50 years to around 500,000 and that there are now just a handful of lion populations that wildlife biologists consider stable.
The story of wildlife in Africa is a symbol for global change and a typical major environmental issue — the problem of balancing human needs and opportunity with values that have no obvious commercial value.
Africa is a populous place. There are 54 nation states and over 1 billion people with population growing at the fastest rates in the world. Nearly half of these people live below the “poverty line” and 300 million struggle with extreme poverty.
Yet this is not how it was.
200 years ago there were no countries in the western sense and far fewer people. Great herds of grazing animals roamed the savannas and the dense forests felt the low rumble of elephants.
In 1989 I flew into into Entebbe airport in Uganda on a rattling and clearly ancient Kenyan Airways Boeing 707. On the runway was a British Airways 747 the biggest passenger plane of the time resplendent in fine new livery. It was an odd sight.
In my hand as I gazed out the window was “The White Nile” a book by Alan Moorehead that recounts the story of Livingstone and Stanley the Victorian explorers who had ‘found’ these lands just 130 years before.
Theirs was intrepid exploration battling heat, dust, mud, endless damp, disease, and insects alongside the obvious dangers of animals with teeth and people with spears.
Yet on that day I landed in a jet that had flown in an hour across an expanse of country that the early explorers took months to traverse.
So much change in such a short time — in less that the lifetime of a leadwood tree, technology and people had arrived into the heart of Africa... and completed changed it and its people.
When Burton and Speake explored on foot [their horses died early on of sleeping sickness carried by the voracious tsetse flies] there were no roads, railways, or runways. Arab traders had moved about creating a network of trails and a market for metal tools, cloth and people but generally there was little technology.
Few in numbers, the human population lived off the land, some livestock and the African wildlife.
Kenya in 1860 was a country of around 2 million people.
When my flight left Nairobi in 1989 there were 23 million Kenyans and today there are 43 million. Cities have expanded and everywhere land has been converted to grow food.
As these changes have gripped Africa, so African wildlife has been squeezed by development, especially for agriculture. Animals are hunted for fun, food and profit and yet still revered for their intrinsic, cultural, and commercial value.
Many of the iconic species are in serious decline because they need space or have valuable horns or tasks.
These days if you want to see ‘the big 5’ [lion, elephant, buffalo, rhino and leopard], you will need to visit more than one national park or wildlife reserve; possible in more than one country.
But this is just the start of the environmental issues…
In other words any ancient balance has shifted to accommodate the increasing number of people with basic needs and lifestyle aspirations — more people means less space and more opportunity to exploit wildlife.
This is an abrupt change, about as rapid and system changing as it gets in nature. Flood, droughts and eruptions are locally severe but they have always been there as part of the way of things. Nature expects a disturbance or two and keeps an army of opportunists to step into damaged lands so that recovery is swift.
Massive and persistent population growth in one species is not what usually happens. Nature allows population booms in favourable times — Africa has many of its own from locusts to quelea — except that these are followed by busts. Populations crash when the food or water runs out.
So far humans have delayed the bust.
Indeed we seem to have mastered the process of boom and stabilization, what demographers call the demographic transition
Although the transition can be complex it can be summarized quite simply. If affluence grows more children survive to adulthood and so mothers have fewer children.
Levels of poverty in Africa are still some of the highest in the world and so are family sizes. The demographic transition in Africa still has some ways to go.
Landing in Entebbe next to that British Airways 747 was quite surreal.
It was only 130 years earlier that the explorer John Hanning Speke, now fetted with a monument in Kensington Gardens, London, had walked this way, the herald of extraordinary change.
Speke could no more imagine a great airplane than his grandfather a great steamship.
What he also probably didn’t realize was the extent of land clearing for agriculture both industrial and subsistence that would accompany the technology, nor the consequence of turning the vegetation and soils of Africa into human food factories would have on African wildlife.
Most of all he could not have dreamed that the change would happen so quickly — or that the abundance of wildlife he passed could ever diminish.
What even a brief look at African wildlife provides is an insight into why environmental issues appear. They are the result of us and our growing numbers, aspirations and resourcefulness.
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