Endangered Species Handbook

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Grasslands, Shrublands, Deserts

Drylands of the World: AFRICA: Footnote

*Proteas are featured in two beautiful film, “Flower from the Flames” (BBC), showing their pollination by iridescent sunbirds and ecology in coastal South Africa, and “Namaqualand.  Diary of a Desert Garden” (Nature, PBS), which also shows the superb wildflower displays in this desert of southwest and western South Africa and its wildlife.  These ecosystems are described in detail and illustrated with color photographs in Wild South Afria (MIT Press, 1998), a book in a series that focus on the biodiversity, reserves and conservation of various parts of the world.  
 
     Only about 51 percent of the original 74,000 square kilometers of habitat remains in its natural state, and only half of this is in a pristine state. Moreover, certain portions of the ecosystem exist only in isolated fragments among pesticide-treated farmland (Cowling and Pierce 1999).  Farmers have even planted tea crops in mountain habitats, displacing native plants (Cowling and Pierce 1999).  Sheep and cattle grazing is a major problem as well.  Remnant habitat patches are also being invaded by the Australian tree, Acacia saligna, which is replacing native vegetation in many areas.  Other exotic plants from the Mediterranean and a pine from California have also taken over as much as 36 percent of the habitat, depleting scarce water supplies (Cowling and Pierce 1999).  All these factors combine to threaten 1,406 plant species listed by the IUCN Red List, of which nearly 300 are close to extinction and 29 are already extinct in the wild; added to this, six species of butterflies, seven fish, five amphibians, five reptiles, 12 birds and 21 mammals of the region are threatened with extinction (Cowling and Pierce 1999). 
 
     A change in attitude toward nature in South Africa has resulted in the establishment of 244 nature reserves and parks covering 14,060 sq. km, but 95 percent of this land is in mountain areas which are among the least threatened (Cowling and Pierce 1999).  Less than 5 percent of lowlands is conserved, and the government has insufficient funds to buy critical areas (Cowling and Pierce 1999).  However, in recent developments, alien plants are being removed to restore the water and habitat, with 48,043 hectares (118,714 acres) already cleared of exotics.  New protected areas have been declared, including the Cape Peninsula National Park, the Cape Agulhas National Park and the West Coast Biosphere Reserve, and $6 million has been donated for plant conservation (Cowling and Pierce 1999).  This rugged region may also become a tourist attraction, especially the habitat closest to Cape Town, with its spectacular ocean views and growing populations of native animals such as the Jackass Penguin colonies.
 
     Africa has the greatest diversity of hoofed mammals in the world, the majority of which inhabit grasslands, shrub, shrubland and desert.  This superb variety is under threat throughout the continent, as habitat disappears, even in national parks.  The Table, “Threatened Mammals of Africa's Savannahs and Deserts,” lists the startling count from the 2000 IUCN Red List Species, encompassing all but a very few grazing and predatory mammals of these habitats.  The 84 mammals, 41 of which are in higher categories of threat, have evolved over thousands of years in intricate adaptations to various food sources, habitats and climates.  Within each habitat many species coexist, each exploiting a different habitat niche, such as tall plants or shrubs, grasses or woody vegetation.  Predator and prey have evolved together, each benefiting the other.  Grazing animals vary from the tiny Silver Dikdik, only a few feet tall, to the Giant Eland, rhinoceroses, and the largest, the African Elephant, weighing several tons.  Some can scramble up vertical cliffs, and others leap in 30-foot arches over the savannah.  Cheetahs, Leopards, hyenas and foxes are among the declining predators.  One of the biggest surprises of the 2000 IUCN Red List Species was that even species that are relatively common, such as the White-bearded Wildebeest, Giraffe, Lion, many gazelles, zebras and antelope, have become Conservation Dependent, surviving only through conservation programs or in national parks. Should all these animals fade to near-extinction or totally disappear, they will represent an enormous loss similar to the mass extinctions of large mammals of the Pleistocene.  Imaginative solutions are needed to conserve these beautiful animals in the face of expanding agriculture and livestock grazing, which daily usurp more and more of their territory.  The value of ecotourism to economies, especially when spread throughout neighboring communities, is one solution that is being adopted in a growing number of places.  The teaching of better farming methods that consume less land, and environmental education, are other solutions.  As in many parts of the world, the wildlife that is taken for granted by local peoples in Africa as uninteresting and not worth saving, is considered a great biological treasure by biologists and naturalists around the world.


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