Conservation parks: wastelands or legitimately protected areas?

South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa recently declared the South Atlantic Oceans of Prince Edward Island and Marion Island would become Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).

These become South Africa’s and Africa’s first MPAs. Prince Edward and Marion were previously best known for an alleged Vela nuclear test conducted in 1979 by the Israeli and South African military. The incident was never proven. This declaration is a landmark for South Africa’s oceanic conservation. The islands form part of the 180,000km2 MPA, which is the combined size of Swaziland, the Free State and Lesotho.

The islands once hosted a settlement that shipwrecked crews, sealers and guano hunters used as a temporary base. The introduction and rapid reproduction of cats on the islands midway through the 20th century had devastating consequences for native bird species. Researchers eliminated the cats during the 1990s and today the island acts as a research station for the local bird, ocean and plant life such as albatrosses, penguins, killer whales and Patagonian toothfish stocks. Unsustainable fishing practices affect the islands fauna and resulted in significant economic and ecological losses to South Africa.

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The islands are uninhabited today, hence the ease of making it a MPA. Yet just declaring uninhabited land a conservation area is not necessary a step forward in dealing with human-wildlife conflict. This is because most conflict occurs where animals are in some kind of competition for a particular resource – in most cases this is living space.

Two examples stand out. Namibia’s Dorob National Park, the world’s first conservation area that stretched a nation’s entire coastline was declared in 2011. At the same time, massive uranium finds occurred within the boundaries of the new park. Subsequent development around uranium mining in the coastal towns Swakopmund and Walvis Bay has put pressure on local wildlife and plants. There is also concern some desert landscapes will become destroyed, unusable or uninhabitable. Additionally, the growth of commercial interest in the towns has led to mooted construction of a chemical plant; also, the much-publicised environmental damage caused by the filming of Mad Max on the desert’s fragile gravel plains have undermined the parks existence as a conservation area.

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Above: A chameleon, while a small and relatively common animal, plays an important role in fragile ecosystems such as the Namib Desert. This one just avoided getting squashed by one of Mad Max‘s outlandish vehicles. Source: http://mongabay-images.s3.amazonaws.com/13/0411namib-chameleon.jpg

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Above: The vehicle tracks have scarred the the gravel plains and can take decades to disappear. Source: Namibian Sun

But it is definitely a stride in the direction. Bikini Atoll is a World Heritage site – a destroyed remnant of the dawn and decay of the nuclear age. It forms part of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean and endured 23 American controlled nuclear explosions during the Cold War cowboy-days of weapons testing. Today, almost 70 years after the first native people from Bikini Atoll were relocated so safer areas outside the blast and radioactivity range, the islands are still uninhabitable for lengthy periods due to the radioactive poisoning of the plants, animals and land. The explosions permanently destroyed coral reefs, obliterated the islands and radioactivity spread to neighbouring inhabited islands, leading to pregnancy miscarriages for women and increased levels of cancer among people. Islands such as Bikini Atoll were far from civilisation and thus places where irreparable environmental damaged caused by the enormous blasts could be forgotten and ignored.

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Above: The explosion of a hydrogen bomb on Bikini Atoll. The paradisiacal foreground contrasts markedly from the destruction waiting when the dust settles. Source: National Geographic 

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Above: Bikini Atoll today – with a massive crater in the middle of the lagoon, along with radioactive waters. Source: www.nuclearclaimstribunal.com

Another example that has emerged recently is the USA’s federal approval to allow uranium mining to go ahead under 10 kilometres from the Grand Canyon National Park in 2014. This is despite a ban on new hard rock mining imposed by the Obama Administration during 2013. Conservationists as well as Native American groups have filed lawsuits against the Canadian uranium mining company. Many old uranium mines are scattered in the vicinity and were abandoned after the end of the Cold War during the 1990s as the the price for uranium plummeted. In the last 5 years however, the uranium industry is booming again and has led to many companies reopening mines. It appears that this particularly harmful form of mining will threaten a member of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World in terms of radioactivity poisoning.

While the declaration of the MPA on the Prince Edward Islands looks good on South Africa’s conservation credits, a similar government-endorsed declaration in areas where humans and nature have a vested interest would be much more meaningful. Declaring land uninhabited by either animals or humans is reminiscent of the San and Khoi people being forced to live in the unproductive desert regions of the Kalahari by late 19th century colonists. Governments thus need to consider the needs of the endangered fauna and flora when choosing potential conservation areas if their intentions are really to maintain and protect natural biodiversity.

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Ivory Trade: Has CITES inadvertently doomed Africa’s elephants?

Cites agreeing to allow Southern African nations Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe to sell off their ivory in once-off auctions to Japan in 1999, and again to Japan and China in 2008, may have been the catalyst in the recent spike in ivory poaching and seizures of illegal ivory.

This auction broke the zero tolerance trade embargo on ivory that Cites had put in place in 1990, leaving ivory traders and buyers “unaware” of the legality surrounding the trade. Unscrupulous traders, with the help of corrupt officials, can blur the lines of legal and illegal ivory. National Geographic’s article in 2012 claims that at least 25000 elephants were illegally killed last year. This id based on the reported number of elephants killed that have been found by officials, as well as being calculated on the amount of ivory that has been confiscated. The figure thus does not take into account the un-confiscated ivory or elephant corpses that were never recovered. In effect the number of dead elephants could be much higher. Also worrying is the manner in which the elephants have been killed.

Last year, Chadian and Sudanese poachers slaughtered around 650 elephants in a matter of weeks in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. This year another 89 were killed in Garamba National Park in Chad. These single large-scale killings made headlines because of their enormous size. Particularly victims of this recent jump are the forest elephants in central Africa, because ivory carvers in the Far East prefer their harder tusks for creating sculptures. The sculptures are stunningly intricate and are sold as works of art. In China, where the popular conception is that tusks, which translate into Chinese as “teeth”, grow back. In effect, harvesting the teeth of live elephants is not actually cruel, and an IFAW study has claimed that many Chinese and Buddhists, where ivory is a recognisable symbol of religious following, do not know that the acquisition of ivory entails the killing of the animal.

Because of ivory’s high value, it must be asked what African states’ policy is with regard to losing the ivory. Essentially the ivory trade can be compared to the trade in blood diamonds. Like diamonds, the ivory resources are forming integral parts of non-African economies. The ivory, like diamonds is often gained illegally. It is difficult to trace ivory and diamonds once it has been successfully smuggled and cut.

But at the end of the day Africa is losing wealth. The wealth it loses takes the form of poached ivory that flows out of the continent. Additionally, every set of tusks involves another dead elephant – which constitutes a loss in tourism money, biodiversity and jobs. The key to African states protecting the elephants or ivory wealth lies in its recognition that it is not just losing many expendable animals, but is seeing potential millions of dollars flowing off the continent. If this loss could be measured, perhaps Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe would think twice about opening the door for extermination of the African elephants.

I’m almost extinct, do I deserve some attention now?

DSC_0614Ever heard of a pangolin? A scaly anteater perhaps? Or a creature whose ancestors have walked this Earth for 40 million years, one of the Earth’s earliest modern mammals?

Doesn’t ring a bell? You’d be forgiven. Hardly anyone sees them in Southern Africa. They are nocturnal or crepuscular mammals that survive off eating ants. They have no teeth; their tail, body and head seem to merge into one; they can’t run and they roll themselves up into a ball when they feel the situations is getting dodgy. It is also an animal can be compared quite comprehensively to the rhinoceros.

National Geographic Footage of a pangolin

Follow the Spoor wildlife YouTube blog on pangolins

So why has no one heard about the pangolin? And what is so remarkable about this little mammal weighing a maximum of just 12 kilogrammes to be compared to the fierce and majestic rhino?

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolin rolled up

Pangolins exist in Africa and Asia, much like rhinos. Tree dwelling pangolins are more prominent in Indonesia, China and South East Asia, while ground pangolins live in Africa. Pangolins and rhinos have few natural predators – not much can penetrated their thick outer layers. The most telling comparison however is what can kill them and why they are being killed.

For the rhinos it is their horn. For pangolins it is their scales. Both scales and horns are illegally poached and traded as traditional medicines and aphrodisiacs. The main market for these commodities is South-East Asia, and the business is growing significantly.

The rhinos and the pangolins share one more common characteristic – their only defence mechanism is also their one-way ticket to extinction. What separates the pangolins from the rhinos is that the pangolins are going that way without as much fanfare – and thus much faster.

This pangolin's armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

This pangolin’s armour was severely damaged after a poacher kept the animal alive and clipped the scales

In December 2012, Chinese customs officials seized 9 tons of pangolin pieces, comprising 2, 032 frozen individual animals and 325 kg of pangolin scales. This one seizure comprises of more poached individual animals than the number of rhinos poached in South Africa during the last 20 years!

What makes this seizure even more worrying is that while conservationists in Asia and Africa have a fairly accurate idea of how many rhinos exist, there are no such available data for pangolins. A recent survey conduct by an Ivy League researcher conducted in rural Namibia, once though to hold viable populations of pangolins, found that while many farmers knew what a pangolin was, they could not recall seeing one in the last 15 years, giving an indication that pangolin population are dropping drastically.

There is no telling how detrimental the pangolin trade is to the species. The lack of scientific data is due to two factors: the difficulty in observing the pangolins; and the lack of interest in the creatures beyond their commercial value.

A female pangolin

A female pangolin

The pangolins drew the short straw when it came to society deciding which animals it would idolize. This brings the question of what society deems is “worth saving”. The main problem I have here is not that the pangolins are being poached – rhinos, tigers and elephants share my sympathies. It is the fact that they are being killed in outrageously high quantities without the attention they deserve.

Are the pangolins just not newsworthy? A possibility. Cape vultures, Wild dogs, Riverine rabbits and Geometric tortoises also fall into this bracket. While rhinos face extinction in a storm of news coverage, these animals are disappearing very quietly.

Am I not pretty enough to save?

Am I not pretty enough to save?

The danger lies in deciding which creatures society will make an effort to conserve. If pangolins and rhinos are poached to extinction for almost identical reason, and society chooses to focus on one but not the other, we must ask ourselves to consider the real reasons for us supporting an anti-poaching initiative. Is it because we like the animal being poached? Is it because we don’t like the people behind the poaching? Or is it all a bit fuzzy, but it just happens to be easier to be anti-rhino poaching because there’s already a bandwagon waiting?

If this is the prevailing attitude, we’ve already lost the entire conservation cause. Taking a stand for something is not easy. It takes consistency, commitment and discipline. Society cannot, without a cloudy conscious,  choose to defend one and not the other  if the same injustices are being suffered by both.

Some of Africa’s most critically endangered animals are not getting enough media and conservation attention.

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Cape vulture – perceived threat to livestock

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Riverine rabbit – severe habitat loss

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Geometric tortoise – habitat loss

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Wild dogs (the painted dog) –  perceived threat to livestock.