By Alex O. Awiti
Last week global leaders, led by Prince Charles, gathered in London and pledged to end the immoral slaughter of wildlife. Illegal trade in tiger body parts, rhino horns and elephant tusks underwrite criminal trade worth $19 billion dollars annually.
At the London summit Japan and China, two nations with the largest illegal and legal markets, for ivory and rhino horn agreed to ensure that poaching and trafficking are treated as serious crimes, similar trafficking humans, drugs and weapons. The summit also delivered an crucial milestone by bringing African countries to a convergence on the question of ivory trade: four key African elephant range states – Botswana, Chad, Gabon, Ethiopia and Tanzania – agreed to extend a moratorium on ivory sales as well as measures to put ivory stocks beyond economic use.
Tanzania, Botswana and other southern African countries previously argued that they had healthy elephant populations, which no longer meet the criteria for being listed as requiring the highest protection. Botswana threatened to pull out of CITES in 2010, and remove elephants from the list of species under protection. At the 16th Conference of Parties of the Convention on International Trade on Endangered Species (CITES) held in 2013, Tanzania submitted a proposal seeking to downlist its elephants from the highest protection category so it could sell more than 100 tonnes of ivory to China and Japan.
Tanzania, Botswana and other southern African countries have always argued that their position on ivory trade meets the critical goal of sustainable conservation and sustainable community development for the benefit of the elephants. But conservationists believe that any form of trade in ivory, rhino horn or tiger parts would ratchet up poaching and illegal trade.
The conservation community believes animal trafficking is reaching unprecedented levels and species such as rhinos, elephants and tigers are under threat of extinction. Britain's Foreign Secretary, William Hague, described the London summit as a turning point in saving endangered wildlife species and in the fight to defeat ruthless criminal gangs, which run the illegal trade.
But, in my view, to blame the precipitous decline of elephant populations to poaching is absurd. It is dishonest and detracts from the complex and urgent challenges, which face conservation. Do not get me wrong. Poaching presents a real threat to wildlife conservation and must be eradicated. The decline of habitat quality and the unprecedented rate of habitat fragmentation constitute a significant threat to the viability and persistence of wildlife.
Today less than 35,000 wild lions remain in the wild. Recent analyses have shown that the African lion has lost circa 75 percent of its original habitat. Long-term data for 69 large mammal species from 78 protected areas in Africa revealed a 59 percent decline in large mammal population between 1970 and 2005. The declines have been linked to habitat degradation and fragmentation due to land use change in adjacent pastoral ranches. Studies suggest that in semi-arid areas elephants need a minimum reserve size of 1000 square miles to attain 99 percent probability of population persistence for 1000 years.
Climate change combined with habitat fragmentation and degradation is a bigger threat to elephants, rhinos and tigers than poaching. Dr. Richard Leakey shares this view. Spending Ksh.160 million pledged by the Canadian government to combat poaching is like piling all our eggs in the same basket. The impact of climate change, in combination with habitat fragmentation will exacerbate the decline wildlife, wiping out elephants and rhinos right after we save them from the poachers. We should spend such resources to create dynamic systems of protected areas to address the real and urgent threats posed by climate change, rangeland degradation and habitat fragmentation.
In the face of climate change we must direct financial and human resources to move conservation to a dynamic landscape scale, away from the fragmented park or reserve scale. Central to the landscape scale approach is working with landowners to purchase or lease land to create corridors connecting isolated protected areas, thus building integrated networks of ecologically viable habitats. Integration is key to harnessing ecological dynamics among multiple protected areas.
Anti poaching campaigns are laudable but an obsessive focus on preservation of charismatic species could, inadvertently, orchestrate mass extinction of biodiversity. We must take a holistic view of biodiversity and ecosystems conservation. An integrated biodiversity and ecosystems approach will enable seasonal migration and dispersal, conferring resilience to wildlife and their habitat under a changing climate.