I have been very fortunate in my 45 years working with wildlife to have seen a whole lot of different animals, in different areas and other countries. My specialty has been with cheetahs, for over 30 years. In this I have been very lucky, for as the graph below suggests, maybe in 10 to 15 years time, cheetahs will be extinct in the wild. Can you imagine telling your grandchildren that there used to be a big cat that could run across the plains at over 100 kph? They would not believe you. And it is not only cheetahs that are in danger of extinction, most of the large mammals in Africa are in a perilous position. One major reason is they cannot reproduce quick enough to make up for the losses. An elephants gestation is 21 months (645) days. The latest report said 90 elephants a day are killed throughout Africa That means 58,000 are killed in the time it takes for 1 to be born.
Rhinos average 500 days, start breeding at 7 years and have young every 3 – 4 years. Over a thousand Rhinos were killed in South Africa last year
Life is a big cycle, remove one piece and the circle, over time, will collapse. Imagine if all predators were removed, or even a large percentage. The grass eaters and browsers would increase. Then overgrazing would occur, together with today’s weather changes. Too little food for too many animals, soon they would die off. Again Nature compensates in such cases, it sends out “pioneer” plants. Most inedible but enough to hold the soil together. A huge problem in South Africa where overgrazing has occurred is the growth of Sickle bush (Dichrostachys cinerea). It has good food value in its pods but soon forms an impenetrable barrier so nothing can penetrate it or grow under it.
All part of a living cycle that we are destroying at an alarming rate.
As I mentioned before being sidetracked again, I have worked with a huge variety of wildlife, mostly in captive conditions. But the proper captive facilities are going to be what could possibly save some of our wildlife, as long as they are well managed, have a plan and work with others going in the same direction.
Whilst working with cheetahs I approached the IUCN Release and Reintroduction group, asking if releasing cheetahs could be done in the future. The answer was an emphatic yes, but done properly. As the representative from IUCN said, many zoos and captive facilities have a dream. Breed an endangered animal and return it to the wild. But unless done properly the animal would be released to a slow but sure death,
At de Wildt we did 2 practice releases, both done over 2 years, with a Zoology student following every move of the released cheetahs. The first step was to have an ecologist evaluate the land for release. Work out how many “prey” species could be put on this piece of land, taking into account they will be preyed on but also breed. Once that was worked out, how many cheetahs could we release without hurting the antelope population over the planned 2 year period. This was 1.5 cheetahs so the problem was which half of the cheetah to put on, the front eats, but needs the back to eliminate. We decided on 2 males as they eat from the same carcass.
The Zoology student, studying for her Masters degree spent 24 hours a day, almost, following the cheetahs. Everything was written down, how, why, when, where, how much, in which way. After 2 years this was written up as a Thesis and gave a huge amount of interesting information. A second release was done in a similar way but on a very much larger piece of land 4,000 hectares. Again with a student to write down what she could.
This was the way to do it, we would still need to do another couple of practice runs before we know what we are doing but it was a step in the right direction
That was for cheetahs, what about all the others we know we can breed in captivity and are rapidly diminishing in the wild. African Painted Dogs (Lycaon pictus), second most endangered carnivore in Africa, after the Ethiopian wolf. The Riverine rabbit is number 1 in South Africa. I have had the pleasure of working with them but they are not easy and not rabbit like, giving birth to only 1 young at a time. But the list we know of goes on, Gorillas, Chimpanzees, Rhinos, black and white, even a small reedfrog. But these are what we know of, the large mammals and lucky frogs. What about all the other lesser known, birds, mammals, insects, reptiles? Who is going to look after them if all the money and time is spent on the glamorous species. Who wants to save a funny little insect?
It gets very disheartening at times but then you read stories of success in release or breeding previously difficult species. As I said, I’ve seen a lot, done a lot, wished I could have seen and done more. My grandchildren have been with me on many occasions so they have at least seen many of the animals I have worked with or been on trips with me to see them in the wild.
What are you going to tell your grandchildren?