Saving mother Africa

James Honeyborne and Nick Easton

From the team behind David Attenborough

There are more of us on the planet than ever before and yet we are all – each and every one of us – connected to Africa by one simple thought: “You only truly know who you are if you know where you’ve come from.” Africa’s wilderness areas are our ancestral home and for this reason alone you’d think they might be valued and protected. Yet Africa has changed more in the last 50 years than in the past two million.

When we started to make the Africa television series four years ago, we were well aware that Africa’s relationship with its wildlife may have reached a tipping point. With a billion people on the continent and rapid economic growth, the timeless Africa of childhood stories is at risk. We wanted to capture a snapshot of wild Africa in high-definition, before it changed forever.

The sheer scale of the continent took even our seasoned research team by surprise. We’d seen the map – North America, India, China and most of Northern Europe will fi t inside its outline – and heard the numbers – Africa is 7,000 km North to South, and 7,000 km East to West – but these don’t mean much until you try to fi t the best landscapes and animal stories into just six hours of television.

This great landmass contains within it an almost infinite diversity, but when we partitioned Africa according to wilderness habitat, fi ve distinct regions emerged: the ancient deserts of the South West; the teeming grasslands and swamps of the Eastern savannahs; the dark, tropical forests of the Central and Western belt; the unique coastline of the Southern Cape; and the brutal deserts of the North. The fi rst fi ve episodes were named after an iconic place contained within each region. In the sixth episode we took a view on the future of the whole continent and asked what future its wildlife might face.

Taking a new perspective on familiar places revealed previously unseen stories; remote cameras placed in a nest substantiated the ‘Cain and Abel’ reality of siblicide behaviour in shoebills – suspected by scientists but hitherto unconfirmed. Technological advances also gave us a window into a previously unfilmable Africa.

One of the very first high-definition, starlight sensitive cameras revealed a surprisingly intimate, gentle and social side to the character of one of Africa’s most threatened and, so it seems, misunderstood beasts. At a very secret waterhole, the black rhino’s solitary and rather grumpy nature simply faded away under the light of the moon and the stars.

The first five episodes examined the wildlife in such a way that the casual viewer might have been forgiven for thinking that people simply do not inhabit the continent. Our intention with the sixth programme was to counter that with a film that shows Africa’s human population is growing at nearly double the global rate. We always knew our series would be set against the context of rapid economic and population growth, begging the inevitable question: what role does wildlife play in the new Africa?

But of the many reasons to be hopeful, the sheer resilience of this place and its wildlife has perhaps inspired us with the most optimism. Africa has always been a place of near constant change, ever shifting at the surface. As such, its wild creatures have developed a diamond-like resilience. We captured an elephant mother’s real-life tragedy, as she watched her starving calf take its last breath, but we also filmed the same elephants’ unprecedented ‘baby boom’ a few months later when the rains returned.

In the Sahara desert, silver ants – like living drops of mercury – endure the dangerous world of the midday sun. When their predators have retreated, these ants use the precious, searing moments to collect enough prey before they’re cooked on the sand. Resilience is their niche. Mountain gorillas, once emblematic of threatened wildlife, are recovering. These giant apes are the product of a very different, bygone Africa, but they possess that unavoidably African trait. Resilience.

Another consideration is the sheer size of Africa. The continent holds 45 percent of the planet’s remaining wilderness areas and as such it gives hope that it may be possible for wildlife and economic growth to co-exist. For now Africa remains perhaps the greatest wilderness on Earth.

And being on the ground for four years allowed us to meet the people who, at a local level, are doing so much for conservation. There is a knowledge, passion and determination to look after the wildlife across all parts of Africa that can give us all hope for tomorrow. To every threat there are many potential local solutions just waiting their moment.

The main threats are:

  • Habitat destruction
  • Predator destruction
  • Bushmeat hunting
  • Overfishing
  • And poaching

Habitat destruction, by way of deforestation, over-grazing and urban spread, is a widespread problem across the continent with an obvious consequence – wild creatures cannot survive without somewhere to survive. The scale of the problem in some parts of Africa can be difficult to comprehend: the Congo basin loses 1.5 million hectares of forest every year, and as much as 50 percent of the area has been allocated for logging.

For wildlife, decreasing habitat inevitably means increasing conflict with farmers and local people. Elephants, in particular, often conflict with local people in their search for food and water. Growing settlements can block historic routes of animals, for example, on the shores of Lake Malawi where elephants now encounter farms on their way to water.

However, we had the privilege of filming at Mount Mabu in Mozambique, a pristine wilderness unknown to science until it was spotted on Google Maps. The surrounding rainforest is now known to be the largest in Southern Africa. Further South, Pedro Muagura and his teams of helpers have planted almost 100 million trees, (100 million!) on the slopes of Mount Gorongosa. Even the resurrection of an entire ecosystem is possible – the restoration of the rest of Mozambique’s Gorangosa National Park demonstrates how a whole wilderness can be revived, given the willpower and resources.

Predator destruction is a problem best illustrated by one of Africa’s iconic species: lion populations across the continent have decreased by perhaps 80-90 percent in the last 35 years. For predators, habitat loss is particularly acute as they require not only areas to hunt but also sufficient natural habitat for sufficient numbers of their prey to thrive.

The alternative is starvation. But the risk from disease is increasing, and it is a problem that intensifies as the numbers fall and the gene pool shrinks. Lions and other predators are also being poisoned, often by farmers attempting to protect their livestock. However, the ‘Lion Guardians’ of Southern Kenya are now turning traditional Maasai culture on its head. Historically, when lions and people shared the savannah on more equal terms, young Maasai men would kill lions as a rite of passage. But the Maasai Lion Guardians are using their knowledge of their home environment to help track and ultimately protect the big cats.

Bushmeat hunting is a particular threat for forest dwelling mammals such as primates, elephants and rare forest antelope like bongos. Subsistence hunting has morphed into a vast business – every year more than a million tonnes of wild meat is sourced from Africa’s tropical forests. But filming for Africa we were able to witness the amazing work of the villagers of Itsamia on the Comoros islands off Mozambique. Sea turtles have the unlucky combination of prized meat and ease of capture (they must beach to lay their eggs). Likewise in Kenya, we met Kahindi Changawa, who has the patience and passion to rehabilitate turtles injured by poachers or fishing boat propellers.

Overfishing has the potential of completely collapsing fish stocks of several African countries and bordering seas, for example tuna stocks in the Mediterranean. Much of the fishing is the enterprise of large, multinational companies from the EU, Russia and other parts of Asia and can generate enormous revenues, very little of which is seen by the African nations themselves. But in Northern Kenya, trends have been reversed and fish stocks are reportedly on the rise. The threat of Somali piracy may have had at least one positive consequence for the local marine life.

Poaching is another consequence of economic growth and a cause for greater concern for  conservationists. The threat is particularly acute for elephants and rhino. According to Patrick Omondi, head of species management at the Kenya Wildlife Service, elephant poaching more than doubled last year, coinciding with a growing demand for ivory in China and a one-off UN sanctioned ivory sale of stocks captured from poachers. Perhaps worse than that, 2013 is already set to be the worst year on record for rhino poaching, their horns now fetching at least their weight in gold. As we write this, two rhinos a day are being killed in Southern Africa alone.

In making the series, it became obvious that there are many other – less headline grabbing – issues of economic growth and development that can also cause problems at a local level. Waterways pollution and road building are good examples. Plans to build a road through the Serengeti National Park are still under consideration: if it were to go ahead the consequences for the migration of big game can only be guessed at.

Other issues, such as global climate change, are much larger in scale and not just Africa’s concerns. You have only to look at the depleted permanent ice on Kilimanjaro’s summit to see that all is not as it once was.

Perhaps something significant can still be done. The problems of integrating an economically viable and environmentally sustainable future are not Africa’s alone. These problems could be shared by all who hold Africa dear within their hearts.

It would be fitting perhaps if we – Africa’s most successful species – were to unite to find and support new solutions to the greatest threats, before we lose the wild places that were our ancestral homelands forever.

About the author:

James Honeyborne produced and Nick Easton directed the six-part David Attenborough series Africa for BBC and the Discovery Channel


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