Where special requirements meet spacial requirements, it’s the poorer countries that do more for the conservation of large mammals, not the wealthy western nations.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a recent survey by the respected Panthera organization, a respected NGO renowned for the scientific study of the world’s remaining big cats, and Oxford University.
Of course, one can say that the world’s remaining critically endangered large mammals — from rhinos and elephants to lions, leopards and cheetahs — are more apt to be found in African countries than those in the northern hemisphere.
Even so the idea that, say, Tanzania has done more for its indigenous wildlife — in terms of setting aside wide open spaces for the animals to roam— than the U.S., which is considering removing protections from several national monuments, many of them established under Barack Obama, is not just sobering but worrying to anyone who cares about the planet.
Recent surveys show that 59% of the world’s remaining predators and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores are facing extinction square-in-the-face.
You can argue the numbers if you want, but some truths are obvious to anyone willing to look past next quarter’s profit statements.
Large herbivores like rhinos and elephants need large spaces in which to find enough water and food to sustain them. Rhinos have a gestation period of 16 months, and only give birth to one calf at a time; it’s easy to see how their numbers could dwindle rapidly in a relatively short period of time, even without the recent spike in poaching that has seen their numbers crash in just the past five years.
Apex predators such as lions and tigers need both space to find enough prey animals to hunt, but also find suitable mates that are genetically diverse enough that inbreeding doesn’t become a problem.
Naturally, the bigger or more dangerous the animal, the harder it can be for people in the area to live with them. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where towns, villages and big cities rub up against ecologically sensitive wilderness. Carnivores and herbivores alike can and often do pose a direct risk to human life, crops and livestock.
Panthera researchers created a “megafauna conservation index” in which to measure 152 countries, based on three factors: the percentage of land occupied by large species; the percentage of that land set aside for protected, officially recognized conservation areas; and the amount of money spent by each country on conservation, relative to that country’s GDP.
Interestingly — crazily, you might say — African countries in general make more effort toward the conservation of large mammals than any other region on the planet, despite facing, in many cases, poverty and social instability, whether caused by drought, famine, flooding, tribal conflict, war or bad governance.
Of the five top performing nations, four are in Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Yes, Zimbabwe.
There’s a lot of negative reportage about conservation efforts around the world, and with good reason: The planetary environment is a mess, and the current U.S. administration is going to do little to change that.
Even so, the Panthera survey found small but bright beacons of hope. The survey isn’t just an exercise in numbers crunching: Researchers sought to find out why the top-performing countries are doing as well as they are in the battle to save the planet’s remaining megafauna.
These beacons of hope include “rewilding” of landscapes, by reintroducing large mammals to areas where they had disappeared — the desert-adapted rhinos and elephants of Damaraland in northwestern Namibia, for example, or Kenya’s recent reintroduction of critically endangered rhinos into Lake Nakuru and Nairobi national parks.
Other beacons of hope include setting aside more land as protected areas — in other words, the exact opposite of what the current U.S. administration is considering — and investing more in conservation, both at home and abroad. (Germany and the U.K., despite facing ecological and environmental pressures of their own at home, have always punched above their weight overseas; many of the most pro-active conservation organizations in Kenya and Tanzania are financed in large part from northern Europe.)
Yes, planet Earth is a mess right now — there’s no way top sugarcoat it — but as the Panthera survey points out, and as Jane Goodall keeps saying, there’s reason for hope.
More information about the Panthera-Oxford study can be found here, and by following Panthera on Twitter at @PantheraCats: