Why what happens in the Aberdare Forest could save or kill all humanity

Wednesday May 25 2011

Somehow, a few years ago I ended up on the mailing list of Rhino Ark, the conservation group founded by Kenyans in 1980 to help end the deadly poaching of the black rhino in the Aberdare Mountains.

We all get dozens of pamphlets, booklets, newsletters, and immediately throw them into the trash basket.

There are a few of them, though, that are worth paying attention to — the ones from Rhino Ark being among them.

Their latest, Aberdares and Beyond, chronicles the Rhino Ark’s 21-year-old crusade to build an elephant-proof electric fence around the Aberdare Forest.

The fence was designed to protect the animals and the forest itself, but also to end the conflict between the people of the area and the animals, as the beasts would stray into their farms and eat their crop.

The fence was completed last year and is 400 kilometres long. How impressive! It is the longest conservation fence in the world.


More than Sh800 million ($10 million) was raised for the building and maintenance of the fence.

This story is important, at the end of the day, for very different reasons. For reasons that we won’t dwell on, conservation is one of the most difficult things to do in Africa.

It is also a very tough job raising money for conservation because it is sometimes too abstract an idea to many people.

If you went around among your friends, you are more likely to raise Sh1 million for a wedding than Sh100,000 to save flamingoes or 10 rare trees in a park somewhere.

And, of course, the lethal mix of corruption and parochial politics only complicates things.

Many a minister of Agriculture and Forestry will see the job as an opportunity to use his position to allow his friends to invade a forest and log illegally.

And, at election time, even in East Africa, there have been cases of the president allowing villagers to encroach on a forest in exchange for votes.

Therefore, to be able to raise $10 million for the Aberdares, a good chunk of it from Kenyan individuals and companies, tells us that there has been a significant social shift and progression, even though it might not be obvious. You might say it is a tiny but crucial step in evolution.

What happened in Aberdare is tangentially related to an event that was to happen Saturday May 21, and received big international media coverage.

US “prophet” and radio personality Harold Camping had predicted that the world would end on Saturday, the “Rapture”, he called it.

Nothing happened (now he says we should book it for October). Quite a few fellows had believed him, despite the fact that he made similar wrong predictions in 1988 and 1994.

The world will end, or rather will witness another extinction. But it will not be the result of an angry bolt from the heavens sent by God. We are doing a good job of destroying the world without God’s help.

Extinction is necessary and inevitable because it is the way the Earth reboots. The world experienced its biggest mass extinction about 250 million years ago.

It is estimated that 95 per cent of marine species and 70 per cent of land species were wiped out. That extinction, scientists believe, was set off by giant volcanic eruptions.

However, most of those interested in these things are more familiar with the extinction of 65 million years ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. There are endless movies and TV documentaries about it.

Until recently, the general view had been that the extinction was caused by a combination of giant volcanoes, again, and a mega giant asteroid impact with the Earth.

Lately, though, there are more voices in science saying climate change caused the extinction of 65 million years ago.

On Tuesday evening, I watched a TV documentary that was a dramatic elaboration of how humans can cause huge environmental disasters.

The documentary explores why Ancient Egypt collapsed. Its conclusion is that a deadly drought, caused partly by the early Egyptians’ abuse of water and other natural resources, wiped it out.

Egypt was not the first, nor was it be the last, great power to collapse in an environmental crisis.

For what it is worth, the Aberdare conservation tells us that we can avoid Ancient Egypt’s fate — and postpone our extinction by a few centuries.

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