[N]o matter how fecund nature is, humans are more so. With Africa’s human population set to double to 2 billion by 2050, new thinking is needed to preserve the continent’s remaining biodiversity.
Image: In order to protect the last remaining northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) from poachers, conservationists must keep their horns filed down. Although “a slight recovery was recorded in 2003[,] when 30 [northern white rhinos] were counted[,] . . . by 2006 only four were left.” After the rhino’s last known stronghold—the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo—succumb to war and civil unrest, the remaining northern white rhinos haven’t been seen since. The individual below represents captive individuals that were translocated to Ol Pejeta in order to improve their fecundity. Image via Wikipedia
The Economist has an interesting piece on how economics can be a major driver of species extinctions—particularly when demand and value are high for animals or certain type of animal parts (e.g., poaching for medicinal purposes or poaching live specimens for the pet trade). The article begins by giving a somber assessment of the northern white rhino.
Certainly, if economics can destroy nature, then economics can also be used to save nature. For example, hunting is “a potential bonanza for local communities.” Therefore, as a product of that idea, the authors mention that anti-hunting efforts may hurt conservation efforts. The article also highlights another problem facing conservation efforts—human expansion—and briefly mentions how culture can be a factor in accelerating biodiversity loss, which is an interesting idea.
To save species, particularly in Africa, the authors don’t necessarily promote the fortress model towards conservation, but they offer several alternative ideas that seem to have success or potential for success. For example, (1) conservationists should place value on biodiversity; (2) the management of Africa’s national parks should be modernized; (3) the privatization of land through wealthy conservationists, local communities (i.e., community-based conservation), or organizations, with access to adequate resources (e.g., monetary, indigenous knowledge, international donors), may be successful at conserving wildlife and landscapes; (4) employing “‘non-use’ earnings, where large numbers of people around the world pay small sums to buy shares in African biodiversity not to use it, but simply because they believe its protection is important to the planet, may achieve conservation goals; (5) addressing social issues such as poverty, illiteracy, and alcoholism can reduce pressure on natural resources; and (6) “looking at wildlife, rather than shooting it” can be a model for successful conservation. Of course, the idea of sustainability looms over all of these ideas.
There’s another issue at play, and it’s more of a philosophical consideration, but it raises important questions nonetheless. Even if hunting, or any other type of wildlife management scheme can successfully boost wildlife numbers or achieve conservation goals, then humans are undoubtedly creating nature or merely socially constructing nature. Consequently, we’re not saving the wilderness as it’s typically idealized in our minds or the first nature before humans (it’s impossible to know what that exactly looks like). We’re either saving what we think nature and wilderness should be or we’re shaping nature, wilderness, landscapes, or ecosystems to better fit our agenda. Essentially, the ideas we determine are fit to achieve conservation goals will paint the picture of nature or have a direct impact on the “natural” landscape. Perhaps, chewing over the idea of a socially constructed nature when considering conservation goals is meaningless, since nature has been, and will continue to be, socially constructed. Via The Economist (emphasis added):
ONLY eight specimens of the northern white rhino are left alive on the planet, and they are all in captivity. The handful that remained in the wild in Congo have not been seen in years; they are almost certainly dead. A final effort to save the sub-species earlier this year saw four northern whites shipped from a zoo in the Czech Republic to the Ol Pejeta conservancy on the Laikipia reserve in Kenya.
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[T]he chances of saving the northern white are remote. Short of re-engineering it from frozen samples in the future, the best hope of preserving its genetic stock is to breed the last individuals with southern whites. That means the end of a creature that has probably been distinct for a million years. Indeed, the decline of the African rhino—which includes the black rhino as well as the white—is among the sorriest and most instructive tales in conservation.
When President Theodore Roosevelt came to east Africa in 1909 an estimated 300,000 rhinos roamed the region. Now there are perhaps 2,000. The problem is not that the rhinos are half-blind, lumbering, and often infertile—which they are. It is economic: the ornamental and medicinal value of rhino horn makes it hard for the rhino to pay its way alive.
The value of rhino horn in China, ounce for ounce, is higher than gold. It is likely to keep rising with an ageing population; in Chinese medicine the horn is ground into a powder to alleviate fevers and pain, particularly for terminally ill patients. With more Chinese contractors working in Africa, the risk of poaching seems to have increased. Market forces are insistent. Even at Ol Pejeta, which is protected by electric fences and armed guards, the horns of the four northern whites have had to be filed down to limit the risk of poaching. An inside job at one private ranch in Kenya last Christmas saw a rhino killed and its horns hacked off. The Kenya Wildlife Service later tracked down the culprits and recovered the horns, along with $8,500 in cash the poachers had been paid, with the balance payable on delivery. Sold in 10g increments in Guangzhou, the seven kilos of horn would be worth $250,000.
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Some countries have had success with hunting. Namibia, for instance, has increased the absolute numbers of its game animals by allowing oryx, hartebeest, kudu and springbok to be hunted and harvested as high-protein low-fat meat for regional supermarkets. Peter Lindsey of the University of Pretoria argues that animal-rights groups are denying Africa the wise use of its elephants—whose ivory is a resource, in his view, because elephants’ fertility suggests it could be harvested sustainably. He reckons trophy-hunting in Africa is worth $200m a year: a potential bonanza for local communities.
But animal-rights organisations like the Born Free Foundation object to hunting on ethical grounds. They argue that many hunters who start with gazelles end up going after predators, often illegally. And the money does not reach the locals: much of what is generated is taken offshore. The debate is bitter. The pro-hunting lobby complains that animal-righters have a lot of money to splash around, and are even writing legislation in several African countries in return for donations to government wildlife services. Hunters say their activities complement tourism: their clients are happy to stay in shabby, dusty places as long as they get their kill. But the bloodthirsty history of big-game hunting in Africa means that hunters still need to show that they have an economic value.