A group of leading conservationists has declared that an extinction crisis is facing the worlds largest wildlife. In a new report titled Saving the Worlds Terrestrial Megafauna, they found that 59% of the worlds largest carnivores, including big cat, and 60% of the worlds largest herbivores, face dramatic population and range loss. The Conversation Africas Samantha Spooner spoke to one of the authors, Peter Lindsey, about the findings.
How serious is the threat facing megafauna?
The threat is severe and accelerating. Approximately 60% of the worlds largest carnivores and herbivores are classified as being threatened with extinction in agreement with the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species. We are at serious hazard of losing some of our most iconic, charismatic and beloved species.
In some examples, species may not inevitably run wholly extinct, but vanish from vast areas where they resulted. For example, African elephants are facing a massive poaching onslaught, 75% of local populations are declining and their scope is shrinking fast.
African elephands are rapidly decling.Villiers Steyn/ Shutterstock
What are megafauna, where are the biggest populations and why are they important?
Megafauna are large animals. For instance, mammalian carnivores of 15 kg or larger like African wild puppies or lions, and herbivores of 100 kg or larger such as elephants, rhinos or hippos. Significant populations occur in a number of places in the world, including Africa, Northern america , northern Europe and parts of Asia. The highest densities of megafauna probably occur in parts of southern and East Africa.
Megafauna species are very important for a variety of ecological, social and economic reasons. They play a vital role in ecological processes such as predation( preying on other animals ), nutrient cycling, seed dispersal and through the engineering of soil and vegetation. For instance, large herbivores ingest and trample plants, which can maintain open areas in otherwise dense vegetation. This can be crucial for other species to gain access.
Large mammals are also important to human societies as emblems and totems. A great number of people derive enormous value from the simple knowledge that large, charismatic, and sometimes dangerous species still exist. And in some cases cultural values bestowed on megafauna translate into economic values through tourism industries.
What is threatening them and what is the extent of the threat?
Many species are taking strain from growing human population pressures. Key menaces include habitat extermination for agricultural and urban expansion, excessive harvests for meat or body parts and persecution due to conflict with humen over crops or livestock.
The extent of these threats varies greatly from country to country and from species to species. But on the whole. pressures on megafauna are severe. Thats why we are seeing dramatic continuing decline and range contractions.
Why are they particularly at risk?
Megafauna often occur at very low densities and have very large area requirements. Some species need huge tracts of natural habitat to survive. Due to their large size, many species breed comparatively slowly. This means that they are less resilient than many smaller species and less able to handle persecution and harvest.
In Africa, what are the greatest challenges in protecting megafauna?
There are several key threats to megafauna on the continent. The one that arguably affects the widest range of species is the illegal bushmeat trade. Hundreds of thousands of large mammals per year are poached, with traps or automatic weapons, for meat to fuel an increasingly commercialised trading in bushmeat. This can decimate wildlife populations if left unchecked.
Poaching is a huge threat.Svetlana Foote/ Shutterstock
Targeted poaching for body parts is also causing rapid deteriorations in some species. For instance, elephants are poached for tusk, rhinoceroses for their horns and leopards for their skins.
Habitat destruction and encroachment of wild lands by people and their livestock is another major and growing issue. This also happens in many formally protected areas. As human and livestock populations expand, human-wildlife conflict is a growing issue. This invariably aims badly for the wildlife involved.
What can be done? Are any groups getting it right?
We need to do three key things to save Africas megafauna.
Long word financial and technical support must be provided to wildlife authorities to help them manage protected areas. There is a strong case for greater international support for Africas protected area network. Firstly, many African countries have protected region networks that are much larger than the global average and that are beyond their economic means to protect. Integrate efforts to promote conservation and human development. Meaning, wildlife preservation becomes a vehicle through which subsistences and welfare are improved.