What Threatens The Survival Of Africa's ''Big Five''

War, famine and poaching are taking direct aim at the signature five beasts of Africa's savannah that Ernest Hemingway once made legendary. What can be done now to save them?

Mural in Nanyuki, Kenya
Mural in Nanyuki, Kenya
Laurence Carame

More than a thousand rhinoceros were shot for their horns in 2013 alone. And tens of thousands of elephants have been slaughtered to supply the illicit ivory trade in Asia. The illegal animal trade in Africa is booming as never before, leading scientists to predict that some of the big five may soon be extinct.

They are the iconic beasts of the savannah — elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and cape buffalo — the big game Hemingway described in The Snows of Kilimanjaro in the 1930s. But now, all but the buffalo appear on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of species threatened with extinction.

Ernest Hemingway hunting on safari in 1934 — Photo: JFKLibrary

Since 2007, the number of rhinoceros killed for their horns has increased six-fold. A single horn sells for around $500,000 (370,000 euros) in Asia. According to scientist Richard Emslie, co-president of the IUCN’s working group on African rhinos, if this pattern continues, the black and white rhino populations — already reduced to around 25,000 individuals — will go into further decline in the next two years.

South Africa, home to 80% of the global rhino population, is on the front line in the battle against extinction. So far the country’s relative wealth compared to its neighbors has not allowed it to successfully combat the traffickers, as their violent attacks have discouraged some wildlife reserves from protecting the rhino.

1,004 rhinos were killed by poachers in 2013 — Photo: S. Nelson/Save the Rhino

The international moratorium on the ivory trade, established in 1989, has also failed to protect African elephants. Although the elephant populations continue to grow in Botswana, South Africa and Namibia, elsewhere on the continent it is a different story. Poaching thrives in war-torn central Africa. In the last 10 years, the number of forest elephants has dropped by 60%, and another decade could spell extinction for the species.

Alongside these more visible crises, which attract the world’s attention because they are tied to issues of regional security, other species are quietly slipping away. Lions are steadily disappearing from East Africa. In fact, a study published in January in the scientific journal PLOS ONE revealed that there are only 400 lions spread across five countries: Senegal, Nigeria, Benin, Niger and Burkina Faso.

Few left — Photo: Save the Lions

The king of the savannah is in decline due to increasingly frequent confrontations with farming communities. In a continent whose human population is set to double by 2050, competition for space and access to natural resources is heating up. The governments of East African countries have had too many other struggles to pay much attention to conservation, and the continent’s wildlife is suffering.

War trumps conservation

The deterioration of the political and security situation in Saharan and Sahelian Africa has rendered vast swathes of land inaccessible. “Protected areas are declining,” says the French Global Environment Fund’s Julien Calas. “We don’t have access any more. More and more, my travels are dictated by war reports rather than activities to promote biodiversity.”

In the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country long plagued by civil war, national parks like Virunga are being exploited for bushmeat and the animal trade. “Apart from mountain gorillas, all ape populations are in decline,” says the National Museum of Natural History’s Sabrina Krief. “Subsistence poaching is being replaced by international networks.”

Does this pressure on the iconic species of Africa mask a wider rift in the animal world? For Jean-Christophe Vie, deputy director of the IUCN’s species program, the answer is clear. “This is only the tip of the iceberg. Behind the big five, there are other species at risk of extinction.”

Some NGOs have coined the term “bushmeat crisis” to refer to excessive hunting that they claim threatens to destabilize ecosystems and intensify global food shortages. But this term remains controversial. According to researcher Christian Fargeot, who has studied commercial hunting in central Africa, the situation is not so dire.

Men with elephant tusks in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, early 20th c. — Photo: Frank G. and Frances Carpenter

Philippe Chardonnet, director of the International Foundation for the Conservation of Wildlife, agrees. “Africa is not one homogenous entity,” he says. “Although there have been failures in conservation and these appear widespread, there have also been successes such as in Namibia, where wildlife protection is also a development project.”

Poaching thrives because of poverty,” he insists. “The world of conservation has made enemies by too often using coercive methods to protect nature. In Africa, the vast open spaces are going to become rarer. That’s unavoidable. But that doesn’t mean species will inevitably become extinct, as long as populations get some advantage from this cohabitation.”

One question remains unanswered, though. Who will foot the bill for this cohabitation between humans and the big five?

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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