The population of the world’s terrestrial species comprising mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians has halved in the past 40 years due to increased human activity, a new analysis by environmental scientists reveals.
Scientists from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who conducted the study on terrestrial species over the past 40 years, say that the global trend shows no sign of slowing down, even though campaigns on environment conservation have been stepped up.
The analysis found that Africa is among continents where a sharp decline in terrestrial mammals has occurred, raising serious concerns about the future of some of the continent’s most valuable mammals, among them elephants and rhinos.
For many years, terrestrial mammals have played a significant role in the continent’s economic growth, attracting millions of tourists who bring in the foreign exchange that countries use to pay for imports.
The analysis attributes the loss of wildlife habitat in Africa, as in other parts of the world, to increased human land use, particularly for agriculture, urban development and energy production.
Environmental scientists now warn that some of the animals listed as most endangered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) may be headed for extinction in the near future if the trend continues.
“When habitat loss and degradation is compounded by the added pressure of wildlife hunting, the impact on species can be devastating,” the conservation organisation warns in its analysis.
The WWF arrived at this damning conclusion after studying population trends for 1,562 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians from a wide range of habitats.
The study helped the scientists calculate the global living planet index (LPI) — which assesses the population of mammals and other living organisms over a given period of time.
The forest elephant
In Africa, elephants and rhinos are among a group of mammals facing extinction due to human activity.
In the category of the former, the forest elephant, a sub-species of the African elephant, distributed throughout fragmented forested areas in West and Central Africa, faces the highest risk.
Due to the rapid loss of their traditional habitat, with studies showing that forest elephants had been restricted to a mere 6-7 per cent of their historic range as early as 1984, their numbers too have declined rapidly.
“Recent analysis suggests that across the forest elephant’s range, the population size declined by more than 60 per cent between 2002 and 2011 — primarily due to increasing rates of poaching for ivory,” the scientists who conducted the analysis said.
In general, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) the possible number of elephants killed in Africa per year is in the range of 20,000 –25,000. WWF puts Africa’s elephant population at between 470,000 and 690,000.
The decline of forest elephants has been partly blamed on the Sudanese Janjaweed and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) who continue to poach the mammals throughout Central Africa and neighbouring countries.
The Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) has also been accused of poaching elephants and rhinos to fund its resurgent insurgency.
In East Africa, fingers have been pointed at the militant group Al Shabaab, who poach the wild animals and sell their tusks, then use the money to buy ammunition and fund terror attacks in the region. Corrupt public officials with connections in Asia have also been linked to poaching.
According to the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), as at early September this year, the country had lost 116 elephants. Last year, 302 were killed.
In Tanzania, though the exact number of elephants killed this year is unknown, it is believed to be higher. Tanzania is one of the countries with the highest elephant population in the world.
But recently, Tanzania’s Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism Lazaro Nyalandu admitted that the country’s elephant population, particularly in the Selous Game Reserve, decreased by more than 60 per cent between 2009 and 2013. The Selous Game Reserve had 43,000 elephants in 2009.
Also under serious threat of extinction according to the WWF analysis, are Africa’s two species of rhinos— the black and the white rhino. The black rhino has suffered heavy losses compared with the latter. Unlike 40 years ago, the majority of the species are now restricted to four countries — South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya.
“There are fewer than 5,000 black rhinos and about 20,000 white rhinos left in the wild,” the scientists said.
In South Africa, the country with the highest rhino population in the world, more white rhinos were killed illegally last year than in any previous year.
According to government figures, a total of 1,004 animals were poached, representing a 50 per cent increase over the previous 12 months.
Killings in South Africa
Much of the killing, according to the South African government, took place in the Kruger National Park, which borders Mozambique. The area is believed to be the base for poachers who kill and distribute the horn to Asia.
“Killings are unsustainable and we may struggle in the near future to find a rhino in the wild,” said Kenyan conservationist George Kirenga.
Mr Kirenga said if the killing of elephants and rhinos continues, it will affect the thriving tourism sector not only in East Africa, but also in other parts of the continent.
According to WWF, the illegal wildlife trade is by far the biggest threat currently facing both the black and white rhino populations due to the growing demand for their horns in Asia, particularly in Vietnam.
The organisation adds that this is further exacerbated by weak governance and poor law enforcement in countries with rhinos; and the rise in corruption and emergence of crime syndicates driven by the high profits from the rhino horn trade.
Apart from poaching, the high human population growth has reduced wildlife habitat tremendously, making it difficult for the endangered species to multiply and move freely. In Africa, for example, where population growth is the dominant force behind total footprint gain.
The ecological footprint is a measure of human demand on the earth’s ecosystems. It is a standardised measure of demand for natural capital that may be contrasted with the planet’s ecological capacity to regenerate.
“The footprint growth is almost entirely driven by population gains: The number of inhabitants have increased by 272 per cent, but per capita footprint has remained essentially unchanged,” the WWF said.
According to Kenya’s Environment Principal Secretary, Richard Lesiyampe, though KWS faces hurdles in securing every inch of the country’s protected lands, lack of space remains the major challenge.
Mr Lesiyampe added that increased pressure on land, mainly for agriculture and human settlement, has made it difficult to effectively conserve wildlife.
The problem, according to demographers, is that population is unevenly distributed across the planet: 25 per cent of the world’s 233 countries hold 90 per cent of the population.
According to the United Nations Department of Economic Affairs, half of all future population growth is expected to occur in just eight countries: Nigeria, India, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Uganda, Ethiopia and the US.
Of these countries, Nigeria will experience the most growth, and is expected to become the third most populous country in the world by 2050 (behind China and India). This will add enormous pressure on the remaining wildlife on the continent, according to the UN organisation.
“While the first seven countries have relatively low per capita ecological footprint, the US has one of the world’s highest,” said WWF.
The organisation warns that population and consumption trends will inevitably increase pressure on limited available natural resources, ecosystems, societies and economies — and lead to further disparity in resource availability with consequences that will be felt locally and globally.
“There will be no future for humanity if environmental degradation is not addressed since so many people depend on resources for their livelihood,” said Marco Lambertini, the director-general of WWF International.
According to Mr Lambertini, though poverty is considered a driver of environmental degradation, in actual sense it is more of a consequence. He said it is almost impossible to effectively tackle poverty if one does not address environmental degradation.
“We need leadership for change. Sitting on the bench waiting for someone else to make the first move doesn’t work,” he said.
“Heads of State need to start thinking globally; businesses and consumers need to stop behaving as if we live in a limitless world.”