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Icon of Africa at risk

Icon of Africa at risk

Wildebeest and icon of Africa
Wildebeest and icon of Africa

By Shelley Cox


The comical-looking blue wildebeest (Connochaetes taurinus) is synonymous with the vision of an Africa with abundant wildlife, wide-open spaces and landscapes of open grassland savanna.

Renowned for travelling vast distances in swarm-like numbers, they define the ecosystem as they crop the grass and fertilise the land with their droppings. They are the largest migratory species amongst the antelopes and seldom have permanent territories. Their dependence on short grass, together with their need to drink at least every other day, results in continual movement, during both night and day, to seek out favourable supplies of sustenance.

Although wildebeest are classified as a ‘species of least concern’ on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, ongoing research continues to show declining numbers. Whilst wildebeest do suffer natural periodic population declines due to environmental factors such as drought, it is apparent that the effects of poaching and the claim on their habitat by human settlement with its attendant livestock and agricultural pursuits, are causing an unnatural decrease in their numbers overall.

Probably the most significant threat to wildebeest populations is the effect human activities have in severing natural migratory routes and seasonal ranges of the species. Fencing in particular has had a profound impact on wildebeest numbers (amongst other species) with one of the worst disasters occurring during the infamous drought of 1983, in which the controversial Kuke Fence prevented herds of wildebeest from entering the Okavango Delta. This had catastrophic results in which, according to estimates, a staggering 65,000 animals died.

With an ever-increasing human population, it is evident that habitation and development across the African continent is fragmenting natural ecosystems and wildlife populations. Pressure on the remaining wildlife habitats, both outside and inside protected areas, threatens the long term survival of all megafauna and it is vital that we take responsibility to ensure their and our own survival, as well as of the diversity of the ecosystems upon which we are reliant.

Whilst valiant efforts are underway by various organisations and a few select governments to conserve historic migratory routes and open up vital wildlife/migratory corridors outside protected areas, there is a pressing need for cooperation and buy-in from local communities, private landowners and the general public to make these initiatives successful. Collaboration between governments as well as these stakeholders is key to ensuring these noble efforts are successful.