By Hu Berry
Fragile flamingos link with portly pelicans and lions, forming an unusual connection in Namibia’s effort to secure their survival through international conservation agencies.
Namibia is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), also known as the World Conservation Union. Thus far about 1.75 million different species of organisms worldwide are scientifically described. This is but a fraction of the number of species thought to be in existence. Estimates range from 5 to 50 million species, based on research ranging from tropical rain forests to the oceans, where a mere 1% of the latter’s vastness is well documented.
Despite significant strides in technology and knowledge over the past few de-cades, biologists now realise that, by and large, we know only the obvious species. Still mostly unknown to science is the world of terrestrial insects, spiders and mites, roundworms, algae, fungi, bacteria and viruses. Add to this the undiscovered organisms of the oceans and it becomes apparent that we have only scratched the surface.
Obviously, nearly all of the larger mammals and birds have been identified, but the fact that many of them are threatened with extinction serves to emphasise that we are losing other species before we even know that they exist. The IUCN makes the grim prediction that the rate of extinction due to human activities is now 10 000 times higher than it was before our technology made us the dominant and most destructive species on the planet. This equates to 20% of all living species becoming extinct within the next 20 years or, to put it more succinctly, on average, one species disappearing every 20 minutes.
Can we hope to slow or even reverse this deadly destruction of organisms on which we depend for our own continued existence? Namibia is in the fortunate position to still have large tracts of relatively natural wilderness where habitats and their wildlife are intact. By international standards, the country is sparsely populated and largely unharmed by modern technology.
It is a compliment that the IUCN recognises many conservation areas in Namibia to be globally important. Etosha, the Namib, Waterberg, Khaudum, Mahango, Fish River, Cape Cross, Walvis Bay Lagoon and Hardap Dam (because of the pelicans) are favourably viewed in the international conservation arena. Moreover, according to the IUCN, at least 80 wild-animal species in Namibia are of critical importance to conservation internationally. Listed are our antelope species, some of which we consider common, to the point of eating them without a thought of their significance. Black-faced impala, Damara dik-dik, gemsbok, red hartebeest, kudu, steenbok and springbok are considered priceless assets in our spectrum of wildlife. Add to this our rhino, elephant, giraffe, Hartmann’s zebra, brown hyaena, cheetah, African hunting dog, Cape fur seal and African penguin. More Namibian ‘specials’, such as the Cape Vulture, Damara Tern, Greater and Lesser Flamingo, dwarf python, blind cave catfish and Otjikoto tilapia contribute further to our favourable conservation image.
When a species’ survival is threatened, it becomes a Red Data candidate. The IUCN uses categories to classify its chances of survival, and the terms sound ominous as they ascend the rungs of risk. ‘Vulnerable’ means the possibility of extinction in the medium term. The pangolin has reached this level. ‘Endangered’ signifies a high risk of extinction in the near future (the African hunting dog) and ‘Critically Endangered’ indicates a very high risk of immediate extinction. Sadly, our tiny population of Cape Vultures is accorded this last ranking.
Lions have recently entered the arena of concern. From a thriving population of 100 000 half a century ago, Africa’s great cat numbers have dwindled to somewhere between 16 500 and 30 000, with an estimate of 23 000 free-living lions now on the continent. Africa’s top cat carnivore has given way to Africa’s dominant predator. Looking at the reality of the statistics the question arises: What chance does this ever-decreasing number of lions stand against the estimated 800 million humans in Africa who are diminishing its habitat with agriculture, human settlement and poisoning? To assess this reality, Namibia was invited to become a member of the African Lion Working Group, which is affiliated to the IUCN.
Flamingos once boasted thriving populations in Africa. During the 1960s Greater and Lesser Flamingos totalled between four and five million, with the greatest number of four million in East Africa alone. The current maximum estimates for East, West and Southern Africa are 2.8 million, according to surveys by members of the Flamingo Specialist Group, which is co-ordinated from the Wetlands and Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, United Kingdom. Members in Namibia and other African countries maintain close contact with these experts because the sharing of local knowledge is essential for the future of flamingos. With the flamingo sanctuaries at Lakes Natron and Nakuru and other sites in East Africa coming under increasing threat from human development and pollution, the Southern African populations of both species are increasing in importance. They are regarded as vulnerable because of the threats to breeding sites. Namibia especially has a major role to play in their future conservation. The Walvis Bay Lagoon and Etosha Pan are wetlands of international importance for birds, especially flamingos.
The Great White Pelican soars on a wingspan of 3.5 metres, using hot-air thermals to carry it hundreds of kilometres in search of suitable nesting sites. The population estimate for Africa is 150 000, with 15 000 resident in Southern Africa. The smaller Pink-backed Pelican numbers merely a few hundred in Southern Africa and has only two core populations: the Okavango Delta and KwaZulu-Natal. Both pelican species are regarded as vulnerable in Namibia.
The winged hygienists of the skies, vultures, soar thousands of square kilometres daily in their quest for carcasses. A dedicated team of experts, namely Vultures Namibia, closely monitors their breeding success and their demise due to poisons. The results make the red light flicker for all species in Namibia: Cape Vultures are Critically Endangered, Lappet-faced Vultures are Vulnerable, White-backed Vultures are Near Threatened and the Rare Egyptian Vulture is locally Extinct.
Surely these pointers are sufficient to tell us that Namibia must continue holding the ‘golden thread of conservation’. Frail flamingos, portly pelicans, vulnerable vultures and powerful lions may no longer grace our seascapes and landscapes if this thread is broken, as the dreaded word ‘extinction’ translates as irrevocably lost.
This article appeared in the 2008/9 edition of Conservation and the Environment in Namibia.
Hu Berry was a scientist, conservationist and specialist tour guide. He was one of Venture Publications' most valued authors. Sadly he passed away in July 2011. To read more about him click here.