Categories: Africa Features

Conversation with a Conservationist: A Future for Africa’s Flora and Fauna

“We must think about human communities, animals, the environment, and the economy in a joined-up, sustainable way. We’re all part of one ecosystem.”

Rabat – Almost since the day he was born, my son has loved to spend time outside. As a tiny baby, the sound of birdsong calmed him. Now, at nearly 6 months old, he is mesmerized by flowers and leaves as Essaouira wind gently moves the bougainvillea in our garden. He loves to watch sheep trot down our lane and to listen to the European turtle doves singing outside the window.  

Naturally, as a new mother, I cannot help but worry sometimes about my child’s future, imagining what he might be when he grows up. Sometimes I worry about politics and how my little half-Moroccan boy will fare in an ever more nationalistic Europe. Sometimes I wonder what the state of the earth itself will be when he is my age. 

Will he be able to sit in a garden somewhere, listening to the call of the birds and watching the trees bend in the wind? Will he be able to see elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and lions as I have been lucky enough to do?

Climate change is calling this future into question.

Henry Bailey is a conservationist and consultant with nearly a decade of experience managing habitats and ecosystems in East and Central Africa. He gave me an insight into the effect the climate crisis is having on wildlife in Africa and how we can we can preserve the earth’s natural resources for the next generation.

Honestly, I expected Bailey to talk to me about baby giraffes, lions, and the amazing big game I saw when I visited Kenya. However, he did not talk about his night-time anti-poaching operations or the time he rescued an elephant calf from a well dug by trespassers. Nor did he concentrate on flashy stories, like the time he had to wrestle a buffalo. Bailey mostly wanted to talk about grass. 

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Speaking from a national park in Chad, Bailey explained that man-made climate change is nothing new. But, further contributing to the climate crisis, we are now using the earth’s resources faster than it can replenish them. 

Even through the patchy internet call, I could hear the beeping of a Chadian frog and the calls of a choir of native birds. Over the birdsong, he told me how humanity’s unsustainable use of the earth’s natural resources is leading to a rate of climate change faster than nature can adapt.  

The conservationist explained, with infectious enthusiasm for his subject, that wildlife and plants have an innate ability to adapt to change. But, with man-made climate change, sometimes they cannot keep up. 

“As long as their habitat remains intact, some species like insects and mice, which reproduce regularly, adapt and evolve rapidly and may be able to go step for step with some of the demands of man-made climate change.” Meanwhile, “trees and megafauna like elephants are not able to adapt to the rapid change. In a longer time frame there may be extinction.” 

Here’s where the grass comes into it

Grasslands and the soil they grow from are an important habitat for many African animals, but they are under threat from bad land management. 

We were talking to each other shortly after Earth Overshoot Day. Bailey explained that while nature has “an insurance policy,” the speed of man-made climate change has caused this policy to backfire against humans who depend on natural capital. The insurance policy works like this: When nature is overused and depleted, it fights back, making the land less productive for humans as nature attempts to replenish itself.

Bailey talks with pastoralists in Chad about collaborating on conservation

Extreme overuse, therefore, leads to desertification. So, our exploitation and poor management of natural resources is “squeezing what is left of wildlife habitats into smaller and smaller areas, and our mismanagement of the landscape is exacerbating man-made climate change.”  

Read Also: These Core Policies Position Morocco Among Global Climate Leaders

What he said next really made me sit up and listen. I had been thinking conservation was about preserving endangered species. However, I was beginning to see that it is not only animals who benefit from conservation. We are very much all in it together.

“The other day I was talking to a nomadic pastoralist,” Henry Bailey recounted. “Their way of farming is completely reliant on the cycle of nature. The sun’s energy is harnessed by grasses, eaten by cattle, and then converted by cattle into milk, which is then consumed by humans. They’re essentially consuming the energy of the sun.” 

Nomadic pastoralists allow their cattle to graze, and when they have eaten all they can and left their manure and urine, they move on. The manure fertilizes and revitalizes the land, and the grass is replenished. Due to a growing human population trying to graze more cattle in the same limited area, the grass and soil no longer have time to replenish. This causes desertification, which contributes to a harmful cycle by shrinking the available grazing land.

Bailey uses a dung beetle to show the importance of every living organism in an ecosystem

“When the model of nomadic pastoralism was initially adopted it imitated nature and was entirely appropriate. But that model, and also modern farming techniques, are now not working within the system of nature. They are imposing upon it. And, it is from there that many of humanity’s problems stem,” he explained. 

The nomadic farmer told Bailey that the Sahara desert is encroaching further and further on their traditional grazing lands. As the grasslands disappear, pastoralists are turning to protected conservation land to graze their cattle. This in turn encroaches on and damages the habitats of native wildlife. “The precarious balance of man’s interplay with nature is destabilized.”

Looking for a solution

He went on to explain that as the population grows and humanity “mines” the earth’s resources, this destabilization will only worsen. “Animals will die out if they don’t adapt or change their location; this is where they may come into conflict with people who are also migrating to find a food source.”

At this point the conversation was interrupted, allowing me to more easily imagine Bailey as a sort of Indiana Jones-style conservation hero. 

Over the crackling connection I heard several park rangers, asking their boss in a mix of Chadian French and Arabic when he would be ready to set off to take provisions to the team monitoring the rhino population. The car would not be able to access the difficult terrain, rapidly flooding during the rainy season, so, they explained, they would have to go on horseback. He told them to saddle the horses. 

A few weeks later I caught up with Bailey again in London. I asked him if there is a solution to this seemingly irresolvable conflict between the needs of man and those of nature.

Cattle under the new management system at Mugie

“Community has to be at the forefront of all conservation efforts,” he explained. For conservation projects to be lasting and effective, they have to work in partnership with local communities and address not only the needs of the animal population, but also the plant life and human population, he added. 

“Our relationship with nature needs to be symbiotic,” he said.

As an example, Bailey told me about Mugie Conservancy in Kenya, where all conservation projects are rooted in collaboration with local communities and pastoralists. 

In 2017, desperate for grasslands to graze their cattle, pastoralists turned to conservancies like Mugie. The increased pressure on the environment from the unmanaged influx of cattle, combined with drought, led to the deaths of hundreds of buffalo and other wildlife including lions and Jackson’s hartebeest. There was not enough food and water to go around. 

This desperation also led to instability and insecurity within local communities. Criminal elements seized upon this instability to exploit natural resources and take advantage of local communities. Poaching of elephants and other big game and attacks on conservancies ensued. 

Responding to the crisis

In response to the crisis, Mugie Conservancy offered to manage the cattle for the pastoralists. The new management system meant that the pastoralists had fattened cattle and that no area was over-grazed. It also ensured that the local community was invested and engaged in the conservancy and its security. This in turn helped to control big game poaching. 

The conservancy’s response to the crisis was led by a deep understanding of the communities and the human and animal habitats affected by it. 

Josh Perret, general manager of the conservancy, told me, “The future existence of these wild areas is in the hands of those living and working on the ground. Too often people living in developed countries or urban areas get too emotional about what they think is right, but can consequently have a negative effect on the development or accelerate the deterioration of an area or local community.”

Elephants at Mugie Conservancy

Speaking to the two conservationists gave me reassurance that, if humanity can try to live in “symbiosis” with nature, our children and our children’s children may still be able to see the wonders of the African landscape and its ecosystems. It is essential that we listen to experts like Bailey and Perret and the communities they work with and realize that climate crisis conservation is not only about the environment. It is about everything.

Bailey assured me that people like me can take meaningful action to protect and preserve our habitat—planet earth. From installing a bug hotel in your garden to limiting your use of single-use plastics, wherever and whoever you are: If you do one little thing you can make a difference to our planet. One thousand small actions like yours can lead to one big change.