Is Conservation a Lost Cause? from B.C. to Africa

Article excerpt

Serengeti: A World Heritage

The single most important problem facing the world today for the future survival of mankind is the loss of biodiversity. Historically, conservation has protected biodiversity by setting up protected areas. UNESCO established the first list of protected World Heritage sites in 1972 at the Stockholm conference. The attending countries at that meeting listed the areas they would like to see protected in perpetuity. Canada has put forward a number of such places and some of those are now on the list. However, the site that was agreed upon as being number one in the world is Serengeti. I will tell you something about Serengeti in the context of some hard questions we must ask concerning conservation. Serengeti is unique, with open plains, active volcanoes, ironstone hills, limitless parklands of umbrella Acacias and a vast array of wildlife. The large mammal fauna is the last holdout of the Pleistocene, two million years old. Of the 28 species of large grazing mammals, the wildebeest is the dominant. The size of a small cow, it moves in great herds in an annual migration. When the plains are green, the wildebeest can be seen in long lines following the little paths that have obviously been made over the centuries. They congregate on the plains, sometimes in one herd of a million animals or more.

Some years ago I spent my time looking at these herds; I was interested in what determines the numbers of animals, their births, and what kills them. To study them I would camp alone on these plains, usually by some small rocky outcrop. In the morning I would go out to watch for vultures, because vultures find the dead animals early in the day. As the sun warms the air, thermal updrafts develop and vultures take off to use them, soaring over the great herds searching for dead animals. When vultures see a carcass they close their wings and drop like a stone. Others follow and a stream of birds comes plummeting downwards. These dropping birds can be seen a long way off, and the sight sets off a great race - I drive flat out for the carcass; the hyenas (who are also watching the vultures) are racing too, and hopefully I get there first. And if the lions get there, then we all leave.

At dawn one morning, having slept in my small tent by one of those rocky outcrops, I saw in the half-light some animals coming straight towards me. I was drinking my coffee outside my tent, and because of the poor light it was not until the last moment I realised they were lions. With an explosion of action, I dived into the vehicle and then saw that I had left the tent open. The lions slumped down around the tent and despite encouragement, they were not about to move. I had my work to do and so I left them to it, deciding to come back later. Just as I was leaving, one of the males climbed up on the rock, and started to roar - his answer to my attempt to get rid of them. By midday, my work complete, I returned to the tent. I was somewhat disconcerted to find one of the lions sitting in the tent, and the rest of them lying around it and on the rocks behind. The tent being the only shade around, they had taken advantage of the open tent. No amount of shouting and banging would move them, and the stalemate continued for sometime. Finally I chivvied the one in the tent - a female - sufficiently to move out, and she joined the rest on the rocks. I decided it was time to strike camp but every time I got out of my Land Rover the surrounding lions crouched and snarled, and would not let me near the tent. Indeed, the female that I had finally managed to evict kept running down and chasing me back again. Needless to say, I was not about to go into the tent, unable to see what was going on outside, so there was a bit of a stand-off. Eventually, I realised they were trying to tell me something: clear out. I backed off, my favourite lioness went behind the tent, into the bushes, and retrieved two small cubs. She carried them up into the rocks and I was at last able to take down my tent and leave. …