By Sipho Kings
Conservation of celebrity animals draws resources away from ensuring the survival of other less sexy species threatened by habitat loss and trade.
The estuarine pipefish is critically endangered. The only known population group left in the wild lives on the sandy bottom of the East Kleinemonde estuary near Port Alfred in the Eastern Cape.
The brown, translucent, snake-like creatures rely on phytoplankton in the estuary fed by inland rivers. These rivers are being destroyed by development and dam building.
Declared extinct in 1994, the tiny population of the 13cm-long seahorse (Syngnathus watermeyeri) was rediscovered in 1996.
Professor Alan Whitfield, of the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, has catalogued the fate of the species for several decades.
Their small numbers mean entire population groups can vanish with small events. In several instances heavy rains have wiped out their entire ecosystem in an area, he said.
Most of the data on the species comes from his research and Whitfield seems to be their only public voice. His is also the only resourced group working to conserve the pipefish, after non-governmental groups closed their doors in recent years.
The pipefish is listed as critically endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Seventeen countries, of which South Africa is one, have 70% of the world’s biodiversity.
Most of these countries are developing states and conservation is poorly funded. The IUCN says many species in these countries are at risk because of habitat destruction and harvesting for medicinal purposes.
The critically endangered species of yam, Dioscorea strydomiana, for example, is believed to cure cancer. There are only two populations of about 200 plants in the wild – in the Oshoek area of Mpumalanga. An additional threat is that an application to mine in the area is pending.
There is little funding for conservation of these species. South Africa has adopted a sustainable use approach, which means species have to pay their way. Their worth is related to how much they can earn for their own conservation. This is most obvious with rhino. Conservationists whom the Mail & Guardian spoke to said so much money and effort was going into saving this species that it was jeopardising other species.
“Rhino are an iconic species. We have the stickers on our cars, and the media reports constantly on their plight. So obviously their conservation has become a focal point,” said an official at South African National Parks.
“You tell a ranger that they must stop poaching by joining a shooting war, and the inevitable result is less time for other things,” said the official, who was not authorised to comment officially.
He said it was difficult to be seen to question the objectives of rhino conservation publicly, but it was as important to conserve other species.
“What we are looking at now is a situation where you manage to save a few rhino, but at what cost? There are many more endangered species being taken out of our country.”
Major General Johan Jooste, head of the Kruger National Park’s antipoaching operation, said more than 70% of a ranger’s time was now spent on fighting poaching. Over 1?000 rhino were poached last year, and 42 poachers were shot dead.
A contractor, who declined to be named, involved in training rangers and antipoaching teams, said rangers were being given the skills to survive combat. “The traditional skill set where you look after the general biosphere is being lost out of necessity,” he said.
A section head in Kruger confirmed this, saying there was less time for other conservation work. “It is not so much about looking at our whole ecosystem now it is about making sure the people hiding in the bush do not kill a rhino, or you.”
Rhino are not listed as an endangered species.
Birth rates among South Africa’s 20?000 rhinos marginally exceed death rates, and both the black and white rhino species are growing in number.
This is likely to change. The department of environmental affairs says its projections have shown that at current rates – only 13 were poached in 2008 – this trend would reverse by 2016. Dr Gerhard Steenkamp, of the veterinary science faculty at the University of Pretoria, said that at current rates the species could become extinct in the wild by 2020.
Michèle Pfab, scientific co-ordinator of the scientific authority at the South African National Biodiversity Institute in Pretoria, said people also needed to focus on other species that were “flying under the radar due to all the attention focused on the rhino”. The amount of public and media attention placed on the rhino meant the government was under pressure to do everything it could to save the species, she said.
Her authority collates data on all the species in South Africa, and has seen an increase in theft of all kinds of plants and animals. Species such as cycad were facing immediate extinction and needed support, but there was scant funding, she said.
The IUCN asked in 2012 whether people only cared about saving “charismatic” species. Its research report, Priceless or worthless, said that in countries where species were becoming extinct it was either because of their value to buyers, or because they were not “cute” enough to garner the funds were required to protect them.
A 2013 research paper by the University of Queensland found there were 20?000 endangered animal species in the world. But only 80 were being seriously conserved because they had been adopted as flagship species by nongovernmental organisations.
“These flagship species, such as panda bears, tigers, lions and rhino, are charismatic and have high marketing appeal, leading to the success of sponsorship programmes,” said Professor Hugh Possingham, one of its authors.
Andrew Taylor, of the Endangered Wildlife Trust in South Africa, said there was limited information about which species were dying out, either through illegal trade or from habitat loss. “We know there is a huge trade in all our species, from pangolins to rhino, but we have no idea what is going out of our country and through what ports.”
Where there were resources, they were skewed towards “celebrity” animals, he said. The smaller species had nobody to champion their survival.
“The rhino is drawing money away from conservation of other species. You see it in the Kruger Park where other species are basically being ignored and that is devastating over time.”
With so much focus on one animal, the chances of survival for other species keeps getting lower.
“We need to talk about the smaller animals. We are losing them at this increasing rate and at the moment nobody is paying much attention.”
Endangered species that get scant attention
The creature is in demand for traditional medicine, and 70% of its habitat has been destroyed by hunters. Numbers in South Africa are unknown, but the population in North West Province has already become extinct.
Known as the giant dragon lizard, it is being stolen to feed the international pet trade. They need large areas for their habitat, which are being destroyed by agriculture and mining.
Beetle collectors have driven the species to the point where they are critically endangered.
Urban development and overgrazing resulted in population numbers of this plant species to drop 96% between 1986 and 2007. Found to the east of Polokwane in Limpopo, none of the species are in formal conservation areas.
The seven species of vulture found in South Africa are all facing varying levels of danger. Because of the space they need to hunt, and obstacles to flying such as power lines, extreme pressure has been put on their ability to breed.