Renowned for being one of the world’s most megadiverse nations, South Africa is home to more than 100 000 known species of plants, animals and fungi. It also hosts some of the world’s largest land mammals such as the African elephant and rhino, which form part of the iconic Big Five alongside the lion, leopard and the African buffalo.
But, this rich natural heritage is under increasing strain as a result of poaching, snaring for bushmeat, human wildlife conflict, and habitat loss. These challenges are further compounded by planetary-wide issues such as air, soil, and water pollution, and the growing impact of climate change, particularly for the global South. The convergence of these threats, together with a growing human population, is a cause for existential concern not only for our wildlife, but also for the health of natural systems that sustain human life into the future.
Wildlife Conservation Day provides the opportunity for us to reflect on the benefit of wild species in our ecosystem and economy, and to take action on issues threatening the planet’s biodiversity.
Today, South Africa ranks 20th globally for the most endangered species. National Red List assessments have found that 17% of its mammals and 15% of its birds are threatened with extinction. Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of South Africa’s terrestrial ecosystem types are threatened with 55 critically endangered, 51 endangered, and 14 vulnerable.
The animals most at risk of extinction include the black rhino, Southern white rhino, cheetah and the African wild dog, whose population is currently less than 650. Wild dogs have declined through loss of habitat and habitat fragmentation, infectious diseases from domestic dogs, injury and death from snares set for bushmeat poisoning from farmers who believe them responsible for killing livestock. Cheetahs, too, are targeted by farmers for preying on their cattle.
Moreover, the country’s rhino poaching challenge continues, with over 1,000 rhinos poached every year between 2013 and 2017, and 231 rhinos poached for their horn between January and June 2023. While the African black rhino population is recovering from its 96% decline between 1970 and 1993, it is still critically endangered with just over 6000 in the world remaining.
Around the globe, the number of endangered species continues to increase year after year with an estimated 16 000 different species at risk of becoming extinct in the near future including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, molluscs and other invertebrates.
Conservation of key species is critical to safeguarding South Africa’s natural heritage – and the natural systems on which we depend.
Protecting our natural heritage by ensuring that our native fish, plants and other wildlife do not go extinct is vital to ensuring healthy environmental ecosystems and facilitating a more sustainable future. The loss of just one species can cause an ecological cascade effect, with a series of secondary extinctions triggered by the primary extinction. Predators like lion and cheetah control prey populations, the latter of which, if their populations are left unchecked, can cause overgrazing, erosion and increase flood damage vulnerability. Mega herbivores, like elephants and rhinos, are considered ecosystem engineers, clearing vegetation to allow sunlight into dense areas and dispersing seeds too heavy to be carried by the wind. Elephants, by giving trees the chance to grow larger and keeping forests healthy, help to sequester carbon, something wildebeests do as well through their grazing that prevents wildfires.
By protecting the biodiversity of our wildlife ecosystems we are also protecting a key driver of the country’s economy through its contribution to the travel and tourism sector, as well as the job opportunities that the sector provides within the wildlife economy. South Africa’s wildlife economy comprises elements such as visits to national parks and private game ranches, recreational fishing, ecotourism, filming and photography and more.
Additionally, recent research suggests that by preserving habitats and ensuring healthy environmental ecosystems, we help create a sanitary barrier that limits the spread of disease. Rampant habitat loss could leave us susceptible to the outbreak of diseases in line with the severity of the recent Covid-19 pandemic. As such, protecting the ecosystems of our wildlife ultimately improves our resilience to future pandemics.
We have a collective responsibility to preserve our wildlife ecosystems
According to the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, government allocates 0.93% of gross domestic product (GDP) to the biodiversity sector with investment in natural resource management totalling R16.6 billion from 1995 to 2018. Meanwhile, South Africa has more than 400 private organisations which focus on conservation, wildlife and the general environment.
However, the growing threats to our country’s biodiversity necessitate that we all work together to play a part in the conservation of our local wildlife. For ordinary citizens this means visiting national parks and supporting conservation through entry fees. SANParks depends on this kind of income for 75% of its budget – making tourism essential to the maintenance of 21 parks across the country. The public can also report wildlife crime, say no to bushmeat and advocate for alternatives, promote solutions to human-wildlife conflict, reduce plastic usage and pollution, and a myriad more smaller actions that collectively can turn the tide on extinction and biodiversity loss.
At a government level there is a need for consistent and strong laws that protect wildlife, and enforcement measures that can ensure these laws are adhered to. This also means ensuring that conservation agencies have the human and resource capacity to carry out their important work – especially in the face of increased snaring in many of the country’s parks.
Furthermore, the wellbeing of the rangers working in high-stress environments, who risk harm from both poachers and wild animals, is inextricably linked to the wellbeing of the animals they protect. It is important that we empower those who protect our natural wildlife with the skills and tools to deal with the stress and trauma of their jobs, ensuring their emotional and mental resilience. Programmes like SANParks’ Project Embrace are doing this critical work, by providing rangers access to psychologists, social workers, pastors, nursing professionals and doctors, enabling them to deal with the challenges and risks that come with their roles, but these projects need scale, public support and funding.
These are just some of the measures we can take, and are necessary for the management, protection and wellbeing of the abundant, unique and globally-significant wildlife heritage we have in South Africa. As we observe World Wildlife Conservation Day, now is the time for us to tackle the threats that wildlife faces to preserve the natural beauty of the country, protect our local ecosystems, support and grow our economy, and safeguard a future where our children, and their children can experience and engage with wild animals.