Africa’s Vanishing Wildlife—Will It Survive?
IT IS morning, and all is calm on the African savanna. A bull elephant is browsing among the shrubs. Curling his outstretched trunk around small plants and shoots, he uproots them, shakes the dirt off, and places them in his mouth, chewing contentedly; he is well on his way to consuming his daily 300 pounds (136 kg) of vegetation. He doesn’t know it, but he has seen 40 years pass on these grassy plains; his big tusks reflect his age. He may well continue to sire calves for another ten years and live for another decade beyond that.
A shot rings out, shattering the morning’s quiet.
The bullet comes from a high-powered rifle; it penetrates deep into the old bull’s side. He lets out an unearthly scream, staggers, and confusedly tries to lumber off, but more bullets come. He sinks at last to his knees and falls over. A small truck pulls up, and a band of men sets excitedly to work. They butcher the elephant’s face to get at the tusks from their very roots in the skull and hack them out quickly. Within minutes the poachers are gone. Silence returns to the savanna. The once lordly old bull elephant is now a mere 14,000 pounds (6,300 kg) of meat, left there to rot.
Sadly, this is far from an isolated case. In fact, estimates on the number of elephants killed annually by poachers range from 45,000 to 400,000. Wildlife surveys indicate that the total number of African elephants has dwindled from its former millions to near 900,000 animals. If poaching continues at its current pace, that number will be cut in half within the next ten years. As old bulls, or tuskers, become increasingly rare, more and more younger males and even females are shot.
Why the carnage? Africa’s $50 million-a-year ivory trade, coupled with the easy availability of automatic weapons, has made the elephant an irresistible target for poachers.
The African rhinoceros is in even greater danger. Heavily hunted throughout the past century, its number had already dropped to about a hundred thousand a generation ago. Today, they are a mere beleaguered 11,000. Between 1972 and 1978, 2,580 rhino were killed each year; many biologists fear that they will be extinct by the year 2000.
Why the slaughter? Again money figures prominently in the answer: The rhino’s horn may bring over $5,000 per pound ($11,000 per kg) in retail sales. It is sold in powdered form all over the Far East as a medicine for headaches and fevers, even though tests indicate that it is quite useless in this regard. An even larger market for the horn is in North Yemen, where newly wealthy young men yearn to possess a ceremonial dagger with a prestigious rhino-horn handle—even though a cow’s horn would serve the purpose just as well.
High in the volcanic mountains of Rwanda and Zaire, and in the nearby Bwindi forest of Uganda, live the last of the mountain gorillas. Their numbers have dwindled to the very brink of extinction. At present only about 400 of them remain in the wild. Why? They are killed by poachers for trophies. The gorilla’s head may be sold on the black market for up to $1,200 to adorn a wall, his hand for $600 to be used as an ashtray!
The world’s fastest land animal, the cheetah, is also thought to be nearing extinction. Only 20,000 of them remain in the wild. Scientists further warn that this small population is dangerously inbred, so the rate of infant mortality is high among the cheetahs. Thus, they are even more vulnerable to the pressures of a shrinking habitat.
In fact, the need of living space for Africa’s wildlife poses complex problems. For instance, a wild elephant passing through and feeding on a small farm may easily threaten the farmer’s very livelihood. And yet, if too many elephants are confined within the borders of a park or reserve where they won’t threaten farmers’ crops, they may swiftly turn the park’s forests into grasslands with their voracious feeding habits. Since the elephants can’t move on, the forests don’t have a chance to grow back.
Conservationists, rangers, and scientists have all struggled commendably with these problems and have some successes to their credit. In South Africa, for example, the white rhino recently numbered only about a hundred. Effective steps were taken to protect them, so now they number about 3,000.
And yet the danger persists not only to the African rhino and to Africa’s wildlife but, rather, to all wildlife the world over. Both the elephant and the rhinoceros in Asia are in greater danger of extinction than are the African species we have discussed here. Still more disturbing, some studies indicate that one entire species of life passes into extinction every day. Another report noted that between now and the end of the century, species will disappear at the rate of one an hour!
Can we afford this kind of loss? Can the market of human needs, whether real or imagined, possibly justify such insatiable destruction?