Overkill: The plight of Africa’s wildlife

Saturday December 9 2017

An elephant family in Tsavo East.

An elephant family in Tsavo East. PHOTO | JOHN FOX 

The sub-title of James Clarke’s book, Overkill, is “The Race to Save Africa’s Wildlife”.

Well, if it is a race it is a stuttering one, and one more difficult to spectate than even our own Safari Rally, because the route to be covered is across every continent – and all the way to China and Vietnam.

James Clarke, a science writer living in South Africa, is a committed conservationist with an eye for history – and, no doubt, with many notebooks full of statistics.

He tells us that 90 per cent of the world’s megafauna – its big creatures – have disappeared since we humans migrated from Africa and spread out across the other continents of the world. “Within a short time,” he says, “the megafauna – mammoths, mastodons, woolly rhinoceroses, as well as the huge carnivores that preyed up them – were extinct.”

He describes how the animals saw no reason to retreat from “these strange little aliens” – who turned out to be “super predators” and who triggered the extinction of animals and the destruction of habitats across almost every continent and almost every island. The only exception was Africa.

Ironically, but explicable from historical and cultural perspectives, Africa, the origin of homo sapiens, is the only landmass that has kept most of its megafauna species. James Clarke tells us how this happened; he traces how humans have impacted on the animals of the land and also on the creatures of the sea.

And what about his statistics? “Overkill” records how some of the “big game” approached oblivion. By 2016, the lion population in Africa had fallen to somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000. In only a few years the population of elephants fell by 100,000. Rhinos were being slaughtered at three a day. Even the giraffe population dropped to around 100,000.

I trust James Clarke’s figures are to be trusted. I hope they are more accurate than his writing about Kenya’s conservation policies and practices. He describes a week’s visit he made to Kenya in 2012. He went to the chimpanzee and rhino enclosures in the Ol Pejeta Conservatory – and he misinterprets the purpose of both. He went to animal orphanages at the Nairobi National Park and at the Mount Kenya Safari Club.

“This can hardly be the future of conservation in Africa,” he says. True. And it isn’t the present state of conservation in Kenya either. It’s a pity he didn’t stay longer, visited more places, and talked to a few more people. But there are some very good things in his book.

He explores the psychology that led to the overkill phenomenon. I’m not sure I agree with what he says about foxes and the “henhouse syndrome”. He says that if a fox gets into a chicken coop he will kill all the chickens in there. I thought it was only if they panic – and then he is programmed to kill any bird that moves. Perhaps I am just trying to understand my fellow foxes.

As for humans engaging in the overkill syndrome, James Clarke tells many stories – like how the spear enabled the first humans who arrived in North America to kill off the mammoths, mastodons and woolly rhinoceroses; how, much later, the gun enabled the slaughter of the bison there; how, in the name of sport, white hunters shot every animal they saw on the African plains.

He then goes on to analyse the change in consciousness about the treatment of animals, and about the way organisations have sprung up to work for the cause of conservation. He describes the situation of the species under threat in Africa – particularly lions, elephants, rhinos – and in doing so he discusses the conservation policies of various African countries – South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Angola and, as I have said, Kenya.

With regard to those countries that are in the way of implementing a comprehensive and effective conservation strategy – China, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Laos, Thailand and Japan – James Clarke pulls no punches. This is a taste of what he says about China and Vietnam: “Every country south of the Sahara has been pillaged.

In the last few years, 90 per cent of the contraband (he is talking about parts of poached animals) has gone to China and Vietnam, with their governments’ full knowledge. The cost to Africa has been enormous.” But there are also some reasons for hope. On last New Year’s Day, China made a dramatic announcement that it would end ivory sales.

And Vietnam is also showing signs of curbing the trade. (I have thought it could be a good publicity stunt if a group of Africans say they are going to China to shoot a panda. It might well hit home in China because, there, anyone who poaches the panda gets a life sentence.)

James Clarke’s optimistic conclusion is that, since Africa’s wildlife has reached its lowest ebb, it might be the turn of the tide.

John Fox is Managing Director of iDC