/ 12 December 2016

See the Big 5 before the climate wipes them out

Sunset on Okavango Delta
Sunset on Okavango Delta

It’s 42°C in Skukuza, the main administrative camp at Kruger National Park. The jewel, and cash cow, of South Africa’s public conservation network is coming out of the other end of two years of drought. Hundreds of animals died in what the park’s authorities say is an insight into the sorts of challenges that will be brought on by climate change. That change could wipe out 60% of the species in the park, in one of the many challenges faced by the park this century.

Those challenges are echoed by parks across southern Africa. Looking after species of plants and animals, while balancing societal needs for development, is going to be a tough task for the region.

For now the attention is on the wave of poaching threatening the extinction of elephant and rhino across the continent. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (Cites) estimates that an elephant is killed every 15 minutes – more than 100 000 in the last decade. Rhino have been wiped out in 22 of the 33 range states where they used to thrive.

With around 9 000 white rhino in Kruger, the park holds the fate of 40% of the species in its hands. Over 800 were killed in the park last year, in a conflict that is becoming increasingly militarised. This is peak month, as poachers work overtime to get more spending money over the festive season. That is, according to the anti-poaching crews faced with the onslaught. Kruger is using every method that it can to stop the poaching, deploying helicopters, drones, spotter planes, tracking dogs and the army. It has just launched the Postcode Meerkat, a wide area surveillance system that tracks movement across large areas and warns its operators when it detects humans.

This multi-pronged approach is working, with rhino deaths holding steady. But Kruger is the darling of international aid efforts: the Meerkat exists thanks to UK lottery funding.

Other parks are facing this poaching, and dramatic changes in their climate, with little funding. The smaller the country, the more acute the problem faced by conservation groups.

Few come smaller than Swaziland. In its last national communication to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the country said temperatures have increased by “way above 3°C” since 1960. Invasive plant species have thrived, displacing indigenous species and sucking up scarce water. This will only get worse as the country predicts that half of its grassland and bushveld biomes will disappear. Its entire lowlands will be too hot for human habitation by the end of the century. It said: “This has significant implications on biodiversity and people’s livelihoods as most of the country’s vegetation types and species are likely to experience notable declines.”

Swaziland noted in the communication that 69% of its population lives in poverty, so it “does not have the financial capacity to to fund climate projects without external assistance”. This is why developing countries are so adamant that the developed world help them adapt to the climate change that was caused by the global north.

Without outside funds, the landlocked kingdom is putting its money into adaptation for communities instead of conservation. National parks have to make their own way. In desperation, these tabled a proposal at the last Cites meeting in October for permission to sell its rhino horn stockpile. This noted: “Proceeds from horn sales will also provide for a host of other important conservation needs, while benefiting a wide diversity of other wildlife species as well.”

The proposal was defeated. Ted Reilly, from the country’s parks authority, said this was a “huge blow” for Swaziland’s conservation efforts in a rapidly changing world.

That problem is echoed across southern Africa. The United Nations Environment Programme – based in Kenya – says southern Africa will get the same amount of rainfall, but this will come with increased variability. More water will fall in shorter and more violent spells, followed by drought. Central and eastern Africa will have more rainfall and less frost, temporarily aiding vegetation growth. The programme notes that these changes – coming too quickly for species to adapt – will lead to “significant extinction of plants and animals”. Island states and cities around the continent will be hardest hit, with rising sea levels, storm surges and warm oceans bleaching coral.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report echoes this fear, saying that change is “occurring at a faster than expected rate”, particularly in southern Africa. It concludes that that the number of mammal species in national parks in the region could drop by between 24% and 40% this century. But even this is a guesstimate, because data on current animal populations is hard to come by. Most national parks outside South Africa and Botswana have little information on species in their boundaries, and the impact climate change will have on them.

With its resources, Kruger Park does have the data. The first comprehensive research, done in 2001 by the South African National Biodiversity Agency, said temperatures in the park would increase by 3°C by mid-century. This could kill off 59% of mammals, 40% of birds, 70% of butterflies, 80% of other invertebrates, and 45% of reptiles in the park. In 2008, then-environment and tourism minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk warned: “The damage to one of South Africa’s most celebrated and conservation areas could be shattering.” This was under a business-as-usual scenario. New projections, based on better adaptation plans and lower global emissions, project less of a die-out in Kruger.

The biggest challenge is changing rainfall patterns. The park’s north, along the border with Mozambique and Zimbabwe, is projected to get much drier. Large mammals, such as elephant, won’t have enough water to survive. Its south will get hotter and more humid, which will kill off cold-blooded animals.

Similar changes are a problem across the countries along the Tropic of Capricorn. Botswana’s Okavango Delta, sprawling across the north of that mostly desert country, holds 10-trillion litres of water in a wet year. That accommodates vast herds of elephant, gnu, hippopotamus, and other species. These attract 50 000 visitors a year and make tourism the second-largest sector of the economy. But the rivers that supply the Okavango, like the Chobe, are projected to dry up. According to research by the University of Botswana’s Department of Environmental Science, rainfall has been steadily dropping, shifting water channels and changing flooding patterns. Less rainfall means the delta’s swamps will dry out, and forests will be replaced by grasslands. Without these biomes, species will die out, as will the tourism industry.

In its national communications to the UNFCCC, Botswana has said continuing global carbon emissions will make it increasingly hard for the country to make its conservation sector resilient to climate change.

The loss of income from climate change overtaking species has not been quantified for southern Africa. But there is a current example that gives an insight into that future: elephant poaching. Research published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature last month estimated that the continent’s tourism industry was losing R343-million a year from dropping numbers.

That leaves conservation in a bind. Most countries cannot afford to keep species alive unless they pay their own way. Human pressures and the changing climate mean it will become harder, and more expensive, to keep those species alive.

For Skukuza, the 42°C heat and drought have meant hundreds of animals dying. But this will be a mild day by future standards, with temperatures predicted to float into the 50s on a more regular basis. The scale of change brought about by that might just be something the park cannot adapt to.

Say goodbye to these little and big friends

Mountain gorilla: This is a species that should be an example of how to cover all your bases when it comes to climate change. They eat 140 different species of plant so can survive a lot of change. But their central Africa range has been overrun by human settlements, with only 800 now left in the wild. As climate change and population growth puts more pressure on these settlements, projections are that hunting will increase and their habitat will be cut and burnt.

African elephant: Elephants have adapted well to live across the continent, surviving in nearly 40 countries. They eat all sorts of plant species and live in both wet and arid conditions. But they need 300 litres of water a day to survive and their reproduction is linked to rainfall. Populations in central Africa – where more rain means they should actually be safe from the worst of climate change – are being decimated by poaching, while their safer strongholds in southern Africa will become inhospitable with increasing drought and temperatures.

Giraffe: Numbers have dropped 40% in the last 30 years, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s latest “red list” of endangered species. The drop in numbers by 60 000 giraffe means they are now listed as vulnerable. The union blames habitat loss through farming and deforestation, as well as hunting for meat during armed conflict. Their demise is a study in how the less valuable a species is for tourism, the harder it is for governments to justify their survival.

Cheetah: Population levels have dropped 30% to 7 500 in the last 40 years. They used to range the continent, but have been hemmed into small areas due to human expansion and their perceived threat to livestock. For rural communities, cattle, sheep and goats are more valuable – and cheetah a threat. That means they have to survive in wildlife reserves, where they must compete with lion and hyena for food. But a warming planet is hampering their chances. Their speed means they can get to prey quickly, but they overheat quickly and then struggle to defend their catch from other predators. They also do not run when temperatures pass 50°C, a temperature that will become increasingly normal in places like the Kruger National Park.