Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

The international importance of African wildlife

National Museum, Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia

MAN is faced with the international problem of expanding population and the troubles that will overtake him unless he learns to live more wisely within his means. From a long-term international point of view, the wildlife resources of the world may be a comparatively small part of the total renewable resources, but in some parts of the world they must ultimately assume considerable significance.

It is hard to imagine our lives today without any domestic browsing and grazing animals. All around us is evidence of some way in which man has utilized animals. Our food, our clothing, indeed much of our economy is still greatly dependent upon domestic animals, the same domesticated species that have served mankind for 7,000 or 8,000 years - namely, cattle, sheep, pigs and goats.

We have advanced a long way since the days of the Swiss lake dwellers who were among the first people known to have domesticated animals. If it were possible to show one of these primitive men of about 7,000 years ago our present so-called western civilization, he would no doubt be amazed. There would be very little he could recognize- except our cattle, sheep, pigs and goats.

We have bred considerable changes into our domesticated species, but nearly 7,000 years after these species were first domesticated our most advanced animal husbandry research is still chiefly concerned with these same four domestic animals. From the viewpoint of developing improved carcass quality, of improving techniques of milking, or of harvesting an increased number of animals from limited areas of land, particularly in temperate regions, we have been amazingly successful. But in considering our, for the most part, excellent relations with domestic animals we are apt to overlook the fact that some aspects of the element of animal domestication in our present culture can cause serious trouble. There are a few phrases with which everyone is familiar, such as: "World populations are increasing, while land is being eroded out of production because of exploitive mismanagement practices or simple lack of understanding". Overgrazing, decrease in vegetation, and consequent increase in soil loss are terms familiar to nearly every informed person in the world today. The dangers associated with failure to satisfy conservation requirements are familiar to the public of most countries, but not many of us are able to recognize the role played by our traditional practices of domestication in contributing to this trouble.

The areas most susceptible to disturbance by domestic animals are mountainous areas and areas that border zones now successfully in use. Over the centuries, different breeds of domestic animals have been developed to suit mountainous or and environments. There are, however, vast areas where it seems impracticable, to raise cattle or sheep without putting the land out of production by loss of vegetation and induced accelerated removal of the soil. In an alarming number of mountain and areas the trend is for land to go out of production under domestic animal management. In planning for the utilization of animals in these marginal areas, would it not be simple common sense to search for the most suitable animals for a particular area? Not just a new tick-resistant, heat-resistant, veld-adapted, broader-beamed breed of cattle, but an entirely different species or combination of species.

FIGURE 1. - In the Rhodesias, weekly cattle dipping is necessary to minimize tick infestation. This and many other expenses required for the ranching of domestic animals would not be required in the management of wild animal population.

Courtesy for all photographs, Thane Riney

There is a vast amount of additional knowledge to acquire and understand before we learn to use marginal areas wisely, not only in order to keep them in production but to bring more and more poor land into some form of economic utilization. In each critical, each marginal area, we need to understand enough about the basic resources of soil, vegetation, and browsing and grazing animal relations to prevent humans from continuing to deplete these areas, which are of such vital importance to them. This is not a job exclusively for soil scientists, or botanists, or zoologists, or animal breeders, although all these and many other types of specialists will undoubtedly make large contributions. Before we can stabilize these deteriorating marginal areas there will have to be a type of ecological approach and integrated teamwork which we have yet to see in biological or agricultural science. It will take time to acquire this knowledge and understanding. Perhaps 50 years, perhaps 200 years. How much do any of us understand of the basic animal, the cow or sheep, on which we have for centuries been superimposing our man-made ideas of domestication? Where domestic animals are concerned this may call for studies of free-ranging unmanaged populations much as one would study a population of wild animals, in order to assess the natural tendencies of our domestic breeds under different types of environment and so compare them with wild animals in the same environment. Are there basic principles of behavior and utilization to be learned from wild animals which may contribute to our understanding of domestic animal economies on marginal lands? There is already enough evidence accumulating on wild browsing and grazing animals to answer this question with a positive "yes".

FIGURE 2. - The demand for meat in Africa is stimulating research as to the best methods of utilizing the African large mammal populations. One hundred natives reduced five carcasses of elephants shot for damaging maize near a remote village to bone and strips of drying meat in somewhat under three hours. The photograph was taken about 20 minutes after skinning operations had started.

FIGURE 3. - In the Rhodesias steenbok are associated with shrubby or forested areas bordering grasslands, for the bulk of their diet consists of low shrubs and herbs. They are thus a factor in reducing shrub encroachment and should be encouraged in many types of land use where management aims at the maintenance of perennial grassland.

Areas of research opportunities

On an international basis several parts of the world have research opportunities which, when exploited, may result in major contributions to the eventual understanding required.

North America constitutes one of these areas. It is a north temperate area that, especially within the last 200 years, has gone through a period of colonization, of overuse of the land by colonizing European pastoralists, of devastation of vast areas particularly in the dry western regions. Eventually it has become the subject of government concern, intelligent public pressure and programs of research, of demonstration and of education at all levels aimed at achieving increased stability of soil and vegetation. It is here that, within the past 50 years, the subject which is called range management has developed. This development may well be a major contribution already under way toward this eventual understanding that is so urgently needed. Here in temperate and Mediterranean-type climates a study has developed not of vegetation alone or of cattle or sheep as subjects on their own but a study of the ecological relations between these animals and their environments. Range management deals with such problems as determining the permissible balance between numbers of cattle on the open range, and the amount of range grass produced each year to carry these cattle, and ensure their survival, while maintaining the value of the land, even in severe winters or in drought years. Various techniques have been developed for placing these relationships on an objective basis and already a great deal of technical literature has built up which deals with animal-vegetation-soil relations in temperate regions. This does not imply that work accomplished in Canada or the United States should be duplicated everywhere in the world. It does, however, form a convenient body of reference in the literature which can serve as a criterion for other areas and it is important to mention it as a basis for wildlife management, for wildlife increases the economic value of many of the rangelands in North America, where animals such as deer, bear and antelope are incorporated within many types of land-use programs.

In parts of western and northwestern Europe certain forms of land use, including forestry, pastoralism, and wildlife utilization, have been in existence for several centuries, and large areas have remained under continuous human occupation without loss of productivity or destruction of conservation values. An understanding of such areas is very important and it is to be expected that when appropriate ecological studies produce information on these important relations between soil, vegetation, climate and patterns of continuous land use including browsing and grazing animals, the nature of this stability can be compared with, and add to, the significance of similar information in many other parts of the world.

At the 1960 conference of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources in Poland, the delegates were enabled to visit a large forest which had been undisturbed for several centuries and were delighted to see that the Polish scientists are doing very thorough and painstaking work of broad scope in trying to assess the complex but comparatively balanced economy of this primeval forest. They are using it - as many countries could well use their national parks - as a biological check against adjacent utilized lands.

Although it may seem somewhat academic for eventual understanding of browsing and grazing ecology on an international basis, Australia should be mentioned as a potentially important area for study. In the north temperate regions and in Africa there is a great variety of species of browsing and grazing animals, yet almost all of these are ungulates of various types and most are deer or antelope. While generalizing about browsing and grazing animals on an international basis Australia must be included, for here, in a quite different zoological group, the marsupials, we have browsing and grazing ecological niches occupied almost entirely by marsupials. Here, wallabies, phalangers and kangaroos take the place in the environment of deer, squirrels and antelope in other parts of the world, and already marsupials are being considered as a potential harvestable resource in certain Australian regions inhospitable to present forms of pastoralism.

FIGURE 4. - Bushman rock painting of man feeding eland. This ancient record does not of course imply that the Bushmen were aware. of the. potentialities for domestication as we. understand them today but it scents likely that they well knew the ease with which eland can be tamed.

FIGURE 5. - On several Rhodesian ranches, eland and cattle are being herded together on an experimental basis. This eland, in its second year, is shown returning to the kraal in the kite afternoon after having spent the day in the vicinity of the grazing cattle. In the, dry season, in this area, the eland feed largely on shrubby material, while the cattle feed on the sparse grass cover.

FIGURE 6. - Although the giraffe eats grass, especially in the early part of the wet season, it browses during the period of the year when grass is critical to mammals like zebra and wildebeest, which are largely grass-dependent. Moot of the giraffe's food comes from levels starting near the upper levels of browse for other species and continues up to over double that height, thus utilizing a layer of shrub and tree twigs that could otherwise be. reached only by elephants.

New Zealand is a very small area by comparison with these other areas, but is nevertheless an important area for study. It is an almost perfect test tube for certain types of fundamental studies of browsing and grazing animals, for before human occupation, New Zealand had no native mammals except two bats. Into this animal vacuum as it were, all the domestic animals were introduced, and ten different species of wild ungulates, mainly deer. This is an ideal opportunity for studying liberation behavior between a variety of browsing and grazing animals, the selection of habitat, the types of dispersal exhibited by the various species, the beginnings of migration and the development and definition of animal problems.

Campaigns to eliminate animals have been operative for over 20 years, during which time some consistently shot populations have increased and others have decreased, while few have been eliminated. New Zealand thus provides excellent demonstrations of response of wild deer populations to various intensities of shooting and to various shooting procedures. The principles formulated from this evidence should be of value to other countries who wish to develop schemes for harvesting wild populations so as to achieve maximum productivity.

Since in many parts of New Zealand only one or two species of mammal occur, there are available for study extremely simplified ecological situations where it is possible to conduct types of investigation that would be far more difficult, expensive and time-consuming elsewhere. Because these islands have a great variety of climatic conditions they are ideal places to study the effects of temperate environments on free-ranging wild ungulate populations and on free-ranging feral cattle, sheep, pigs and goats.

But Africa offers the ultimate opportunity for studying large mammals. From Africa may well come the greatest contribution of all for, while New Zealand holds the simplest of ecosystems, Africa offers the most complex. The amazing thing about Africa is that for the past million years there has been a galaxy of life which has survived virtually intact up to the present century, with very little change in form since the Pleistocene. These animals have survived in the presence of African populations and their various ways of life, in spite of drought years and flood years, and in spite of periodic fires. In the process certain parts of Africa have been producing weights of animals per square mile that not only compare favorably with domestic animals on the same type of land, but which have caused practically no damage to the land during this entire time. This phenomenon of comparative stability in and areas is worth understanding while it is still there to understand.

Each of the African species fits like the pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle into its own place in the total environment. Some animals, like the sitatunga and lechwe, prefer wet ground; others, like the gemsbok and addax, tolerate extremely dry conditions. Eaters of grass like the wildebeest and zebra exist together, each following its own pattern of life. Browsers like the steenbok and duiker utilize the lower vegetation levels; kudu, buffalo and eland use higher levels, and the tree topping giraffe has special advantages for high altitude browsing. Predators not only help to reduce upsurges in animal numbers, thus preventing overuse of vegetation, but also contribute to wider distribution of feeding activities. The world's first forester, the elephant, often becomes a dominant influence in the environments where it is found. Elephants push over trees for their own use, but incidentally make higher leaves available to smaller animals and the fallen branches often protect bits of ground on which grasses and young shrubs and trees can establish themselves. Elephant droppings spread the seeds of many trees, as do the droppings of many antelope. Elephants digging for water in dry stream beds often make water available to different species who would otherwise be without. There is no end to these countless complexities and interrelations. Practically none of these relationships have been properly worked out and documented or understood.

FIGURE 7. - The buffalo is one of the species that can subsist largely on shrubby material near the end of the dry season, weighs more than cattle, and like many other large African mammals is more suited to drought conditions than cattle, as well as being more tick-resistant and indifferent to the decimating effects of the tsetse fly.

The land in turn responds in a somewhat different way to each species and throughout the entire complex system a stability of existence has continued in many parts of Africa since the Pleistocene.

Wildlife use

How can a growing knowledge of this age-old stability and productivity of the land best be utilized? The concepts of national parks to preserve land and its plant and animal communities for recreation and study are already known and used in many parts of Africa. In addition, the idea of domesticating wild animals or of harvesting wild populations of African mammals has been growing in popularity in recent years, particularly in areas where domestic animals are unsuited to the African environment, in marginal areas and in many areas still unallocated to any form of land use. This positive approach may involve the use of wild animals to add supplementary values to existing forms of land use in certain areas. On a national basis the concept of utilization means supplementing (not replacing) the very real economic and aesthetic values achieved by protecting indigenous populations in national parks and reserves.

A new species can be domesticated for meat and skins and other products; the wild populations can be harvested and it is possible to be optimistic that something more suitable will eventually be devised for many of the critical and mountainous areas in the world. Animal utilization as a science is as yet in its early stages. At present man is using the same pastoral animals that were used 7,000 years ago. Yet wild animals the size of sheep and larger are widespread and numerous. They occur naturally throughout the temperate and tropical regions in nearly all types of country and situations. Reindeer and caribou, for example, extend north nearly to the furthest limits of land. Several antelope in Africa are apparently very well adapted to water-scarce regions. One breed of wild sheep is found as high as 20,000 feet up the slopes of the Himalayas.

An important consideration for the increased utilization of African wild species is their better adaptation to the African environment, better even than that of the latest domestic breeds of cattle or sheep. This adjustment is one well proved over a testing period of thousands of years. Many wild species are perfectly adapted to kinds of country that cattle or sheep either cannot tolerate or barely tolerate, yet there are many mountainous or desert environments which can tolerate a wild species indefinitely. In many of these same areas only a few domestic animals can disturb the environment so much that vegetation does not, renew, soil loss accelerates, less water is retained in the soil, the water table lowers, streams become dry progressively earlier in the sea-son and eventually the land goes slowly or rapidly out of production. Unfortunately, it is possible to continue to produce cattle or sheep in good or fair condition, on an economic basis, all through the early stages of this process of degradation of the land. It is on the basis of soil-vegetation stability that all future types of land use must be built, whether this means a slight change in pastoral economy using the domestic animals of today, whether it includes wild animals as an accessory form of utilization, or whether it means the development of wild animals as a major form of utilization on some lands.

There is a Bushman painting from a cave in eastern Cape Province, South Africa, which shows a Bushmantype figure holding out a bunch of aloes to an eland. Dr. Livingstone, about a century ago, noted the African eland in his journal as an animal well adapted to the country and suitable for domestication. This large antelope has been domesticated by interested ranchers in many parts of Africa but as yet no serious attempt has been made fully to exploit its great economic possibilities. Cattle and perfectly tame eland have been seen herded together, yet hardly competing for food, for the cattle concentrated on grasses, while the eland browsed on shrubs and trees. It is conceivable that in some types of forest country now steadily deteriorating under some form of cattle-raising program, cattle could be reduced sufficiently to allow processes of recovery to start, and the raising of eland would still allow the environment to be used on an economic basic. This is an example of the kind of practice that might expand when we learn to work within the limitations of our critical environments rather than going against them.

Springbok, impala, eland and ostrich are utilized for their meat, biltong and skins in South Africa as domestic or semidomesticated animals. One of the major activities south of the Limpopo is the restocking of species locally extinct, back into the areas from which they have been eliminated.

The further domestication of wild animals should at no time be considered a panacea for automatically solving all pastoral conservation difficulties, Any new domestic animal is a potential source of trouble, just like the present ones and for the same reasons. After all, this business of domestication means having the animals nearby under usually intensive management, to suit man's needs. Animals are moved in and out from kraals and changed from one enclosure to another at certain intervals. They are sheared, polled, dipped, docked, inoculated, but most important of all, concentrated in a smaller area than usually happens with wild animals. The unfortunate result is that, particularly in mountainous or and regions, colonization with a pastoral European economy commonly results in steady degradation of the land.

FIGURE 8. - This sleeping lion is seen resting in Wankie National Park, Southern Rhodesia, about 50 yards from a buffalo killed the previous evening. Some of the ranches proposed for the utilization of large mammals border national parks where, under the total protection starting about 30 years ago, overpopulations of many large mammals have already been built up. Under these conditions, and as a measure to protect ranches more remote from the par", a certain percentage of the large predators could probably be included as they are excellent distributors of grazing pressure.

Domestication of a wild species is but one of the two main potential types of utilization. The other approach is to develop systems of harvesting wild populations without domesticating them, using at the most a light management program. This is not a new idea. Animals have probably been hunted, snared, speared, dropped in pits, transfixed with arrows or hamstrung for as long as man has been on this earth. But with today's jeep, helicopter, and refrigeration facilities, the potential uses of wild populations in Africa are on a plane which would have been unimaginable even a few years ago. There are many practical obstacles to overcome in the development of the utilization of wildlife, just as there are at some stage in the development of any other renewable natural resource. Future broad avenues for development will involve development of marketing, transportation and preservation techniques, the modification of existing, and development of new, harvesting techniques, and the continuing development of techniques for maintaining a stable and suitable habitat for the most productive combinations of harvestable animals.

There are also enormous educational tasks ahead: education at various levels of administration to stimulate group thinking by men dealing with many forms of land use, each with its own marginal land utilization problems; education at an almost disheartening variety of cultural levels, for conservation must develop in an integrated way that makes sense to the society in need of conservation practices or the educational effort has little chance of being effective; education for a variety of cultures outside Africa to stimulate intelligent help in the form of tangible help, with research specially adapted for the immediate needs of the country in question. The task is admittedly enormous, but it is vital. Research on large African mammals has considerable urgency. The urgency results partly from the expanding population in Africa and the consequent priority attached to searching for more suitable forms of stable and productive land use. Many large mammal species have been eliminated over vast areas by a combination of shooting and drastic changes in habitat associated with the comparatively recent introduction of large-scale exploitive forms of land use. The great variety of species available in areas where rich assemblages of large mammals still abound is to be duplicated nowhere else in the world, yet knowledge gained in Africa, through elucidation of basic ecological principles involving different combinations of browsing and grazing animals, may significantly contribute to the understanding and solution of marginal land problems in many other parts of the world.

Although at present the actual numbers of research workers in the field are small, they are increasing, and future research on these large African mammals may prove to be one of the most important fields of study biologists will have to deal with in the present century.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page