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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.

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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.

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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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