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Centre for Environmental Rights – Advancing Environmental Rights in South Africa

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On #WorldWildlifeDay2019, a changing climate threatens our already threatened wildlife

4 March 2019 at 9:45 am

African Wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) (Photo: The EWT)
African Wild dogs (Lycaon pictus) (Photo: The EWT)

South Africa has spent the better part of the last decade developing a policy on wildlife centered on what has become known as the “sustainable use” approach to wildlife conservation. This is a policy under which a significant wildlife breeding, hunting and trading industry has developed with few benefits for conservation, few benefits for local people, but heaps of benefits for a small group of operators – and at the cost of far more rational and effective conservation initiatives, particularly in view of a changing climate.

South Africa’s wildlife heritage – our majestic wild animals, small and large, over which we are the public custodians – has become just another commodity.

This situation has been facilitated by a lack of appropriate laws to look after the welfare and possession of wild animals. Such legislation as we have is poorly monitored and enforced by provincial environment departments and conservation agencies with very limited resources. Often, it is non-profit organisations like the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a body with statutory powers but no state funding, or non-government conservation organisations like the Endangered Wildlife Trust, that have to step in to stop the unacceptable treatment of wild animals in captivity. For a more detailed analysis of this pressing situation, see the CER/EWT May 2018 report Fair Game: Improving the Regulation of the Well-being of South African Wildlife.

Only towards the end of 2018, under the leadership of Environmental Affairs Portfolio Committee Chairperson Philly Mapulane, did sense start to prevail in relation to some of the worst practices. The public outcry over canned lion hunting and the associated export of lion bones has now resulted in tourism authorities reconsidering their promotion of these activities (and linked activities such as interactions with lion cubs), and the Minister of Environmental Affairs has just announced the establishment of a panel to review policies related to management of elephant, lion, leopard, etc. In the past few months, public concerns about the welfare of wild animals kept in South Africa’s zoos have also started to gain traction, and will hopefully result in greater oversight and better treatment.

These concerns about treatment of animals in captivity, and how the practice of breeding, hunting and trading in wild animals affects species conservation, are however put in stark relief by the threat that climate change poses to our wildlife. In October 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark scientific report warning that there are only 12 years left for action if global warming is to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. Beyond 1.5°C, even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. Even an increase of 1.5°C, which now looks increasingly ambitious, will have dramatic detrimental impacts for South Africa and its people and wildlife, putting at risk water and food security, biodiversity, human health and economic development.

A March 2018 report by WWF entitled Wildlife in a Warming World warns that even a 2°C rise in average global temperature will lead to widespread biodiversity losses.

Consider for a moment one already endangered species in South Africa particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change: the African wild dog. WWF notes that “African wild dogs are heat-sensitive typically hunting in the cooler periods of the day. Climate change will mean hotter days, potentially mean shorter hunting periods and less food, which has the knock-on effect of reduced pup survival. A 2°C increase would contract its range, while current climate pledges could see it disappear from the region almost entirely. Wild dogs live in highly social packs and are susceptible to various diseases – climate change may increase the spread of some wildlife diseases. … As conflict for natural resources, including water and land, increases due to climate change, species like African wild dogs are likely to face even more pressures in their struggle to survive.”

Only approximately 250 African wild dogs remain in the wild in South Africa.

The Southern African Wildlife College, where many conservation professionals in southern Africa obtain their training and qualifications, has also expressed grave concern about the impacts of climate change on wildlife.

WWF concludes that conservation efforts are crucial. “Climate change adds to the existing pressures – such as habitat loss, poaching and unsustainable harvesting – that are already putting species populations under huge strain. Redoubled local conservation efforts will be needed to strengthen species’ resilience to climate change, to protect and restore biological corridors that support dispersal, and to secure those areas that will remain as suitable habitat – known as ‘refugia’ – even as temperatures rise.”

South Africa’s own National Climate Change Response Policy confirms that South Africa is “extremely vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change. While CER already allocates much of our attorneys’ time to limit and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to mitigate the worst effects of climate change, we are also increasingly looking at those natural resources we have left in South Africa, and what we can do to protect those resources and strengthen the country’s resilience to the irreversible impacts of climate change, which include – not only temperature increases – but also increased risks of droughts and floods in certain parts of the country, extreme weather events for example. This includes protecting ecosystems and habitats that our wild animals need to survive.

If you care about these issues as much as we do, consider supporting the CER and its biodiversity and wildlife work.

You can also contact our Wildlife attorney Aadila Agjee on [email protected].