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Author: Hayley Komen - Endangered Wildlife Trust

( Article Type: Overview )

Wildlife has value. Intrinsic value, from a point of view that believes all living creatures have a right to life regardless of their value to humankind, but also instrumental value to people. It has financial value through activities such as tourism and trophy hunting, subsistence value where animals are hunted as food, aesthetic value when it inspires us, therapeutic value when it soothes us, cultural value as many cultures place great importance on animals as symbols, and scientific value as wild animals provide us with clues about the world and allow us to improve our own wellbeing. However, perhaps its greatest value is simply that it is part of our global biodiversity.
Biodiversity sustains all life. It is the complex network of living organisms and systems that allows each life form to exist and reproduce and, quite simply, our lives depend on it. A loss of biodiversity impacts drastically on our livelihoods, our health, economies and our way of life. The services and goods that nature provides and that we take for granted such as the food we eat, the water we drink and the air we breathe, will be lost if biodiversity is lost, and wildlife is an integral part of this biodiversity.
Each wildlife genus and species plays a particular and crucial role in the global ecosystem. Birds dominate the diurnal sky, bats the nocturnal sky. Mammal habitats and lifestyles are more diverse than for any other vertebrates and this class fills several diverse niches. Insects, amphibians, reptiles, micro-organisms and all other life forms each have their specific place in the system. The loss of just one species can impact on other species in many and often unpredictable ways. As far back as 1400, the Haast’s Eagle Harpagornis moorei, the largest eagle ever to have existed, became extinct because of imbalances in the ecosystem caused by the loss of a single wildlife species at humankind’s hands. The eagle’s prey consisted mainly of big flightless moas, birds that were hunted to extinction by humans living on the South Island of New Zealand. The loss of this food source caused the eagle’s unintended and unpredicted demise.
To build environmental resilience, a number of species need to fill similar niches. In this way, sudden environmental changes won’t completely extinguish the functional role of that group. For example, if all fish were adapted to living in temperatures below 25°C, a rise in sea temperature by just a few degrees as a result of climate change could cause this class of animals to become extinct and their functional role in the ecosystem would be lost. Predators feeding on fish could starve and become extinct, while fish prey species would multiply to unhealthy numbers, with associated problems such as disease and inbreeding. People dependant on this ecosystem for their livelihoods and survival would similarly face serious difficulties such as food shortages. Having a range of species able to fill similar roles, but with a variety of environmental adaptations, therefore tempers the impact of losses.
Wildlife acts as an indicator of the health of bigger systems. It is a simple, tangible representation of a highly complex and abstract system and lets us measure how well that system is doing.
Endangered species in particular act as early warnings of environmental degradation. For example, the Vaal Orange Largemouth Yellowfish Labeobarbus kimberleyensis, listed as Vulnerable in the IUCN Red Data List, quickly declines in numbers in the presence of water pollution, habitat destruction and harvesting pressure. A study is underway to better understand the species’ behaviour so that fishery and habitat management protocols can be developed to ensure its survival and so maintain a healthy ecosystem. As such, the ecosystem on which this Yellowfish depends for survival can be better protected, with benefits to all the organisms in that system.
Common species can however also help us monitor environmental quality. Conservationists widely regard the increase in the number of Black-backed Jackals Canis mesomelas on Karoo sheep farms to be the result of relentless persecution of this species by farmers. Jackals can and do sometimes attack livestock and farmers are often extremely intolerant of them. However, the jackals are territorial and live in pairs, and alpha females keep younger females away. If their male mates are killed, vagrant jackals will chase these alpha females away, allowing younger females to breed and so producing more pups. The increase in the numbers of this common species is therefore an indicator that there is an imbalance in the system. The elevated jackal numbers lead to even more conflict between the jackals and farmers, while there is also an unnaturally high predation rate on indigenous wildlife, with subsequent impacts on the entire ecosystem.
Wildlife helps conservationists to communicate biodiversity conservation principles. Endangered species are particularly powerful communication tools, as strong emotive appeals can be made based on the imminent extinction of a species. By strategically selecting certain species for communication purposes, conservationists can therefore protect entire ecosystems. Highlighting Critically Endangered Wattled Cranes Bugeranus carunculatus as indicator species for wetlands therefore allows conservationists to raise awareness of the importance of wetland conservation without delving into the complexities of wetland ecosystems. People who are removed from the wetland itself may be drawn to the crane’s intrinsic worth and see the result of conservation through the bird’s continued existence. However, the crane will not survive without the wetland, and through this species, the wetland’s importance can be brought home to people. These same people also benefit from the clean water supplied by pristine wetlands. Using species to communicate
conservation issues must however be done carefully. Too much focus on a few species with particular human appeal could lead to reduced interest in the myriad of other fascinating creatures, to their detriment and ultimately to the detriment of the planet. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species categorises species by threat levels and risk of extinction. This has become a key tool used by conservationists to define global and regional conservation priorities, so guiding governmental and NGO conservation activities. Globally, 1 131 mammals, 1 240 birds, 594 reptiles, 1 898 amphibians, 1 851 fish and 2 904 invertebrates are listed as Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable. Thousands of species have already become extinct at the hands of humankind and biodiversity is being lost at 100 times the rate of previous extinctions documented in fossil records.
The result, if this continues, will be catastrophic for us.
Whether you’re moved by wildlife or whether you have a utilitarian view and believe nothing has an inherent right to exist without having a purpose to something else, wildlife has undeniable value. The loss of just one species can have devastating effects on ecosystem services, those components of nature that allow us all to survive. But in the same way that a leaf doesn’t live for long without a tree to nurture it, a species can’t function for long without all the other parts of the system in place. Wildlife conservation therefore requires a holistic approach, looking after each individual species, but also taking care of the system to ensure that each species can fully contribute to the health of the entire planet.

Associated Sustainable Development Articles:

African Environmental Tradition

Associated Organisations:

50/50 SABC , Africa Geographic , African Indaba , African Lion Working Group , Bateleur Raptor Rescue Centre , The Bateleurs - Flying for the Environment in Africa , Cape Leopard Trust , Cat Conservation Trust , Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF) , Cheetah Outreach , City of Cape Town Nature Reserves , Conservation Force , Drifters Adventours , Elephant Specialist Advisory Group - ESAG , African Rhino Conservation Company , Endangered Wildlife Trust - USA , Ford Motor Company of Southern Africa , Freeme Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre , Friends Group , Game Rangers Association of Africa , Global White Lion Protection Trust , International Council for Game and Wldlife Conservation (CIC) , International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) , KwaZulu-Natal Crane Foundation , Namibia Nature Foundation , People for Wildlife , Seal Alert-SA , South African National Parks , Treverton College and Preparatory , Vervet Monkey Foundation , White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp , Wilderness Action Group , Bergplaas Nature Reserve , WESSA (Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa) , Wildlife Ranching Association SA , Wildlife Translocation Association , Wildlife Translocation Services CC , Wildnet Africa Properties , Endangered Wildlife Trust , The Jane Goodall Institute South Africa , West Coast National Park , Augrabies Falls National Park , Bontebok National Park , Camdeboo National Park , Garden Route (Tsitsikamma, Knysna, Wilderness) National Park , Golden Gate Highlands National Park , Karoo National Park , Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park , Mapungubwe National Park and World Heritage Site , Marakele National Park , Mokala National Park , Namaqua National Park , Mountain Zebra National Park , Tankwa Karoo National Park , Kruger National Park , |Ai|Ais-Richtersveld Transfrontier Park