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Animals going extinct in Africa: What this means for the ecosystem

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Picture: PA via Reuters – Many of Africa’s most recognisable and prolific species like the Black Rhino are listed as critically endangered or endangered due to poaching, war, habitat destruction, hunting for food and climate change, says the writer.

By Dominic Naidoo

Only 1% of all organisms which have ever lived on Earth are still alive today. From giant dinosaurs to the tiniest bacteria, which roamed our planet since the dawn of life itself, 99% have gone extinct, with only their solidified bones left to tell us their stories.

But, as National Geographic explains, the rate of extinction is far from constant, with at least five mass extinction events occurring over the last 500 million years. During this time, 75% to 90% of all species on Earth disappeared in what can only be described as a geological blink of an eye.

By their very nature, these mass extinctions are deadly events, wiping out thousands, sometimes millions of species within a short period of time, such as the theorised meteor which wiped out the last of the dinosaurs.

The most studied mass extinction, which marked the boundary between the Cretaceous and Paleogene periods about 66 million years ago, killed off the non-avian dinosaurs and made room for mammals and birds to rapidly diversify and evolve.

Many scientists believe that we may be living through the sixth mass extinction as numerous known species have been lost since the evolution of man. The World Wildlife Fund believes that, unlike previous extinction events caused by natural phenomena, “the sixth mass extinction is driven by human activity, primarily the unsustainable use of land, water and energy use, and climate change.”

According to the 2020 Living Planet Report, 30% of all land that sustains biodiversity has been converted for food production, with agriculture being responsible for 80% of global deforestation and accounting for 70% of the planet’s freshwater use, devastating the species that inhabit those places by significantly altering their habitats.

Along with the rest of the world, Africa has been experiencing its own share of wildlife extinctions. Globally, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 902 modern species of flora and fauna as extinct since the list was established, with Africa’s share of that being 186 species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) established their ‘Red List of Threatened Species’ in 1964. This Red List has evolved over the decades to become the gold standard for understanding the conservation status of all animal, fungi, and plant species globally, providing critical information about the range, population size, habitat, and ecology of all potentially threatened species.

Each year, the Red List places species into one of nine categories: Not Evaluated, Data Deficient, Least Concern, Near Threatened, Vulnerable, Endangered, Critically Endangered, Extinct in the Wild, and Extinct.

Two species, the Kihansi spray toad from Tanzania and the Scimitar-horned Oryx with a home range spanning much of West and Central Africa, have been declared extinct in the wild by the IUCN in 2014 and 2016, respectively. They now only exist in captivity.

The IUCN lists 850 species of animals in Africa as critically endangered. The designation of “critically endangered” means that a particular species is facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. An animal or plant is not considered extinct until there is extensive research and surveys done on it and submitted to the IUCN for vetting and approval.

Many of Africa’s most recognisable and prolific species are listed as critically endangered or endangered due to poaching, war, habitat destruction, hunting for food and climate change. These include, but are not limited to, the Black Rhino, the Cross River Gorilla, the Eastern and Western Lowland Gorilla, the African Penguin, African Wild Dog, the Bonobo, the Chimpanzee, the Giant Ground Pangolin, the Mountain Gorilla, the White-bellied Pangolin, the Scaly-foot snail, the Bearded, White-headed and Egyptian Vultures and the Pygmy Hippopotamus to name a few.

The WWF points a finger to how our food is produced as one of the biggest human-caused threats to species extinction and our ecosystems with unsustainable food production and consumption being significant contributors to greenhouse gas emissions which are causing atmospheric temperatures to rise, wreaking havoc across the globe.

The climate crisis is causing everything from severe droughts to more frequent and intense storms. It also exacerbates the challenges associated with food production that stress species while creating conditions that make their habitats inhospitable. Increased droughts and floods

have made it more difficult to maintain crops and produce sufficient food in some regions. The intertwined relationships among the food system, climate change, and biodiversity loss are placing immense pressure on our planet, the WWF explained.

A question that I get asked quite often is why should we care if a tiny frog or spider or bird living somewhere in the world we’ve never even heard of goes extinct?

Species, whether it is a plant, insect, animal or bacteria, do not live in isolation. We do not live in isolation. We are all interconnected within this brilliant machine called Earth. A single species interacts with many other species in specific ways which produce immense benefits to humans, such as clean air, clean water, and healthy soils for efficient food production.

When one species goes extinct in an ecosystem or its population numbers decline so significantly that it cannot sustain its important function, other species are affected, impacting the way the ecosystem functions and the benefits it provides.

For example, when wolves were hunted to extinction in Yellowstone National Park in the US in the 1920s, the entire Yellowstone ecosystem had fallen out of balance. Coyotes ran rampant, and the elk population exploded overgrazing willows and aspens. Without those trees, songbirds began to decline, beavers could no longer build their dams, and riverbanks started to erode.

The impact of Africa’s declining vulture populations is not limited to the realm of ecology. There are currently seven African vultures listed as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable by the IUCN.

Vultures are highly efficient consumers of carrion, sometimes locating and consuming carcasses within an hour before other forms of decay can set in. Their stomachs are highly acidic, killing nearly all bacteria or viruses that may be present in carrion. Combined with the fact that vultures rarely come in contact with humans, vultures serve as a barrier to prevent diseases from proliferating in dead animals and spreading to humans.

For example, The University of Utah found that following the decline of vultures in India, there was a strong increase in feral dog populations by an estimated seven million. This increase in dogs potentially feeding on disease-ridden carcasses, is thought to have at least partially caused the rabies outbreak that was estimated to have killed 48,000 people from 1992-2006.

These deaths may have been avoided if not for the disappearance of vultures.

Monitoring these trends of endangered species is vital because they are a measure of overall ecosystem health. Serious declines in populations of species are an indicator that the ecosystem is breaking down, warning of a larger systems failure.

Currently, the species extinction rate is estimated between 1 000 and 10 000 times higher than natural extinction rates. This is the rate of species extinctions that would occur if we humans were not around.

While extinctions are a normal and expected part of the evolutionary process, the current rates of species population decline and species extinction are high enough to threaten important ecological functions that support human life on Earth, such as a stable climate, predictable regional precipitation patterns, and productive farmland and fisheries.

The WWF implores that if we do not make the necessary corrections, the Earth will continue to lose life-sustaining biodiversity at an alarming rate. These losses will, at best, take decades to reverse, resulting in a planet less able to support current and future generations.

Naidoo is a environmental multimedia journalist and activist

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.