Conservation: The current state

We all face what is likely to be penned into the history books as the tipping point for many of the great species which inhabit our planet. Not since the demise of the dinosaurs have we seen population declines at such a ferocious rate. Most of us are not capable of comprehending the passage of time which falls behind us, where the rise and fall of flora and fauna transcended millions of years. What we are seeing now has occurred across only a handful of decades, and it has occurred on our watch.

We don’t have to look back very far in our history to see the consequences of human impact when controls are non-existent. Turn the clock back to the early part of the 20th Century and the abundance of North American game we enjoy today was nowhere to be seen. Gone were the moose, and pronghorn. Gone were the black bear and much of the water fowl. All decimated by the growth of a young country fuelling its ambition through the relentless pursuit of market hunting. Our ancestors knew no better. The focus was on profit and this meant taking as much wildlife as possible. Today you would think we had learnt from these mistakes.

At the time it seemed the supply was endless and everlasting, but before too long this was proven wrong. From a population of some 30-40million bison, we were left with less than 100 individuals. They were on the brink of history. They were teetering on the very edge of extinction.

For some species however, it was too late. There was no return. We could find no redemption for our actions. The passenger pigeon at one point numbered some 1-2 billion birds. Their vast colonies were unlike anything which crosses our skies today. When they arrived, darkening the skies, they could take days to pass over. We blew them up, shot them, poisoned them and eventually, decimated one of the largest populations of a single species in our history.

What this history does tell us however, is that given the chance to survive, protected and conserved by humans from humans, the wildlife will return. More than that it will flourish as we see with the growing populations of North America today.

Despite this example of success, all around us our wildlife and habitat is slipping through our fingers. Our coral reefs disappear by the day. Pangolin skins and body parts remain the most traded illegal species on the planet, with no firm population estimates or real understanding of their decline. Their long-term survival could be measured in years not decades. The bush meat trade in Africa threatens any and every species, thriving where unrest looms. From monkeys to snakes, the volumes of game being ripped from the wild escalates with the ever-increasing human populations of those countries.

Two of the planets most iconic species, brought back from declining populations to thriving numbers only a few decades ago, today stare into the future with uncertainty. The longevity of the African rhino and elephant has never been more precarious.

The daily onslaught of poaching for both rhino horn and ivory is known to be funding both civil conflicts and international terrorism. Be in no doubt that these are complex, well-funded and trained organisations. This is not a series of one off opportunistic instances of poaching. It is planned. Strategic, and carried out with every intention to stop any one, or anything which may intervene in their success. Their methods have adapted and technology improved. Some now even have the use of night vision. In the last year we have seen a move to tranquilising so as not draw unwanted attention with the sound of gun fire. Then, lying motionless and defenceless, the poachers will proceed to hack off the animals face to retrieve their prize. A couple of kilograms of horn, no different in make up to our own fingernail and of no medical function. Left sedated, gurgling in its own blood, most die, coming around in unfathomable pain until their wounds overcome their final strength.

For all their might. For all their grandeur and strength. These colossal animals need us, and they need us more than ever before.

Continental Situation 2016: Elephant

The elephant population of Africa has suffered its worst decline in its history in the last 25 years – mainly due to poaching [1]. The IUCN’s African Elephants Status Report paints a bleak picture of the continent’s elephant populations, having looked at the numbers and distribution of elephants across 37 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. It suggests that there were 91,000 fewer elephants in 2015 than there were in 2006, though the addition of 18,000 animals from previously uncounted populations suggests the decline might be closer to 111,000 [2].

The IUCN therefore puts the continental population at around 410,000 individuals [3] and reveals the recent 10-year surge in ivory poaching is the worst seen since the 1970s and 80s and has been the main driver of the species’ decline.

Southern Africa is host to most of the remaining population, with an estimated 70 per cent of the continent’s species. Eastern Africa is home to 20 per cent of the remaining population, Central Africa 6 per cent, and West Africa under 3 per cent [4]. One example of the impact poaching has had on Africa’s elephants comes from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has seen its once-significant population of forest elephants reduced to a fraction of its former size, while those in the Central African Republic have almost completely vanished [5].

Small, fragmented populations become increasingly vulnerable and are at risk of being wiped out completely, as has happened to 12 populations in Côte D’Ivoire Sierra Leone, Guinea, Ghana, Guinea Bissau, Togo and Nigeria in the years since 2006 [6].

The poaching threat is growing all the time, as the elephant population in Southern Africa is starting to come under increasing pressure. That said, it is believed the populations in Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa are stable or increasing, and further work on surveying the largest single elephant population in Africa – the KAZA trans-frontier group – is on-going. There is evidence that, where a co-ordinated and effective protective approach is in place, elephant populations can thrive. While ivory remains such a valuable commodity to its end users however, engaging in poaching activity will always be seen as a worthwhile risk to take for the rewards it brings, and protection programmes are likely to be required until ivory is no longer such valuable contraband.

While poaching has been the primary reason for the reduction in elephant numbers, habitat loss poses an equally concerning long-term problem, and therefore any solution to the poaching crisis will have to work for the communities that live alongside them. Reducing poaching will only protect elephants for the decades to come if they have the habitat required to support them available, which means ensuring that the benefits of conservation – economic, environmental, and social – are felt on the ground.

Ref: 1-5 IUCN African Elephant Status Report

Continental Situation 2016: Rhino

The rhino has been under sustained pressure from poachers for years – and while 2015 saw the first decrease in numbers of rhinos poached, the population that remains is still subject to heavy losses. 2016 saw a reduction in the number of rhinos poached once again, but without a sustained and co-ordinated effort to protect them the poaching pressure could easily increase once more.

1,054 rhino were poached in South Africa alone in 2016 [1], and while this is down from a 2014 high of 1,215 rhino, other African nations such as Kenya, Zimbabwe and Namibia have reported recent increases in poaching incidents. Rhino are targeted because their horn – which is used in several Asian countries in ‘medicinal’ cures for a range of conditions, and as a status symbol – fetches a considerable price. With such a high value to its end user – despite there being no scientific evidence of its medicinal value – poachers at the bottom end of the supply chain can be convinced to take the risk of entering areas with rhino populations and smuggle the horn back out.

After widespread decline of rhino numbers in the 20th century, including a reduction of black rhino numbers from around 100,000 in 1960 to a low of 2,408 in 1995, populations stabilised thanks to improved protection and biological management. Overall numbers of rhino in Africa had doubled by 2010, but in the wake of escalated black rhino poaching the average population increase from 2012 to 2015 slowed and is now below the 5 per cent target growth rate [2]. White rhino numbers, after increasing from 1992 to 2010, have levelled off after the upsurge in poaching.

Increased law enforcement effort, with the financial investment to back it up, has seen an effective reduction in the numbers of rhinos poached since 2015. The multi-faceted approach to rhino protection includes increasing the numbers of rangers on the ground in poaching hotspots, engaging with the local community, and a targeted effort from law enforcement to prosecute those caught with an involvement in wildlife crime. It works – sites with sound monitoring experienced half as much poaching as those with only moderate or basic quality rhino monitoring [3] and, combined with other initiatives such as moving rhino to safer areas, has seen success – but the fight is far from over. The crime networks that supply the East Asian markets are sophisticated, organised, rich, and operating globally.

Partnerships have proved vital in the protections given to rhino so far, in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya [4], and are also proving increasingly important in co-ordinating conservation efforts on private reserves as landowners join governments in tackling the poaching problem. However, the growing cost of security and the risks poachers present to park management and their staff threaten to put off private landowners from setting aside land for rhino conservation [5], especially in areas where state and donor funding is minimal, and landowners have to raise their own funds, while the threat of poaching also reduces the potential value private parks could realise with rhinos as a tourist attraction.

The rhino poaching crisis a multi-faceted problem and so there is, in short, no single solution. Effective collaboration between parks, landowners, governments, law enforcement agencies, conservation organisations and local communities works – but if there is a high value attached to rhino horn the risk is likely to remain, and co-ordinating protection schemes across large areas requires financial backing, local engagement and a long-term commitment to rhino populations and their habitats. Where effective measures are in place the numbers of rhino poached can be brought down, showing that rhino conservation is far from a lost cause.

The light on the horizon may very well lie in the sale of rhino horn, which we saw legally achieved only a matter of days before this article was submitted. I will bring a report on this is the next issue.

The survival of these species lies within our grasp. It is true that the bigger picture of protection for these species in the long term requires international support and a re-education program. This however cannot be expected to have an impact in the short term. What we do know, is that what we are faced with at the present. That is the task of protecting the populations we have left. History has shown how remarkable recovery can be, but we must create this opportunity. Be in no doubt that the future of these animals lies in the actions we take today, because tomorrow may just be too late, and ESPA forms the very core of delivering the expertise at the coalface of this war against extinction.

1 -

2 - Knight 2016 Pachyderm 57 (2) p.143 - Knight 2016 Pachyderm 57 (2) p.17

4 - Knight 2016 Pachyderm 57 (2) p.16

5 - Knight 2016 Pachyderm 57 (2) p.17

With thanks to Shane Mahoney who has shaped much of my thinking on global conservation and to whom I likely borrow prose un-intentional, such is the gravity and impact of his work.