Many people worry that the future of Africa’s dwindling animal conservation zones is in jeopardy due to the presence of large herds of hungry domestic cattle. However, is it possible that farming and pastoral communities may contribute to the solution?
Dr Liza (Elizabeth) le Roux, an ecologist, is pursuing a significant study project to investigate the intricate relationships between people, animals, plants, and cow excrement. In the human-dominated anthropocene, where the last pockets of untouched environment are under constant strain from economic growth and shifting climatic patterns, this is a crucial question.
Le Roux’s love for the outdoors was first sparked when she went on bushveld vacations north of her Pretoria home as a young kid. It was later rekindled while she was studying ecology and spent two years living in a trailer in the Kruger National Park. She continued to live in the bush for an additional two years while pursuing her PhD in Zululand’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi game reserve.
Le Roux and her fellow ecologists have grown more concerned about what will happen to Africa’s remote protected areas in the long run because many of them are now viewed as conservation “islands” trapped in drastically transformed environments.
Co-existing is possible
“There will always be people in nature. So, if we are to save a significant number of viable wild spaces, our focus should not be on wildlife, but also on people… Otherwise it’s just a matter of time before these areas shrink and shrink and eventually disappear,” says Le Roux, the 2022 recipient of the $150 000 Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer (JWO) Research Grant.
Her winning research proposal, “Cattle corridors: Aligning ecological processes and local livelihoods”, was among 332 applications from young African scientists who impressed the JWO grant expert panellists, made up of representatives from Oppenheimer Generations Research and Conservation and Philanthropies as well as external experts in various scientific disciplines.
As things stand, wildlife populations in Africa’s protected regions are getting smaller and more dispersed. As a result, many species, including plants and insects, have little room to move about and less genetic variety, which leads to genetic bottlenecks. Some wildlife managers have intervened by moving specific endangered animal species to other reserves using a meta-population method in order to address the issue of genetic inbreeding.
“I believe we must relinquish the ‘either-or’ proposition of wilderness vs rangelands and work towards the protection of both, for the benefit of people and wildlife,” she says.
Le Roux points out that genetic diversity is necessary for species to maintain their capacity for long-term survival, particularly in an era of shifting climatic trends. Cheetahs and even elephants can be moved frequently, but how can you move the countless types of insects, plants, grasses, and trees that make up nature’s intricate tapestry?
To test the hypothesis, Le Roux hopes to set up a large interdisciplinary and highly collaborative science programme to answer questions such as:
- Under which conditions does the presence of pastoralists and the movement of cattle through rangelands help to connect isolated wilderness ecosystems?
- Is there a sweet spot where the mix of wildlife and livestock is compatible with biological diversity, ecological resilience and cultural integrity?
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