“Wilderness”… What does this mean to the modern human being? Why should we value it in our day and age? Why is it there? Is option value enough for people, who will never see it, to protect it? The ambiguity of our relationship with wilderness was illustrated very well by Roderick Nash: “On one hand, “wilderness” is inhospitable, alien, mysterious, and somewhat threatening. On the other, beautiful, friendly, and capable of elevating and delighting us”. The preservation of wilderness areas that are undisturbed and truly “wild” is imperative, not only for future generations, but also for the landscapes themselves. The wild plant and animal communities dependent on these ecosystems did not arise through “sustainable management” or conservation interventions, but rather through millions of years of natural selection and evolution in the absence of modern man. The declaration of World Heritage Sites around the globe is recognition of our responsibility to preserve our natural and cultural heritage by being mindful of the way in which we interact with these places. Our research expeditions across the Okavango Delta supports the Wilderness Foundation’s lobby for World Heritage Status. A step in the right direction that will stimulate positive change for the wilderness hidden within this vast inland delta… Here I discuss some of the dynamics that historically protected remote “wilderness” areas in Africa and put forward some ideas about why we should care and what we need to do…
It is interesting to note that the probably the greatest conservationists of all time in Africa were and continues to be the tsetse fly, the buffalo, and the lion. The tsetse is a super-abundant, almost indestructible blood-sucking fly that tirelessly harasses human beings and their cattle when given the opportunity. They spread sleeping sickness to livestock and people, making it almost impossible to exist in areas with lots of tsetse flies. “Tsetses” are the agents of the wilderness and are now being eradicated throughout Africa by aerial spraying and trapping campaigns. To keep existing tsetse fly populations at high levels you need rain and big herds of buffalo. For big herds of buffalo you need wide-open untouched grasslands that can support local migrations in search of grazing. If there are buffalo, there are lion, and lions do not mix well with people or livestock. This triumvirate, the tsetse, lion and buffalo, have protected Africa’s wilderness areas for millennia, keeping people and their cattle at bay. The historical distribution of the tsetse fly and its associates can be perfectly matched to the distribution of national parks and reserves established across subtropical Africa in the last 125 years. Today, all three are falling victim to human-wildlife conflict on the boundaries of all our conservation areas.
“The remaining wilderness areas are ring-fenced by commercial logging, the charcoal industry, poaching for bushmeat, hunting, slash-and-burn agriculture, and creeping settlements, villages, outposts and farms, bringing the end of “wilderness” in Africa and the world ever closer. Soon only ineffective “fences and fines” will be the only thing holding back people, livestock, roads and development from civilizing these last wild places. Lost forever…”
Wilderness areas around the world, in the Amazon, the Congo, our poles, the Kalahari, and our deepest oceans, are all ancient refuges for life on earth, life that eventually resulted in us, life that has survived climate change, meteor strikes, and mass extinctions. These wilderness areas have moved and changed slowly and sustainably with the shifting continents, drifting poles and periodic ice ages, always finding a stable ecological balance capable of supporting continued life on earth.
“When you spend time in a true, remote wilderness area you have opportunity to take yourself back 100,000 years like you are undoing everything that we have been done and this place, this wilderness, is perfect again. Playing out this fantastical dream is the essence of any wilderness experience. The invigorating feeling that you are not in control of your surroundings, that you are a refugee in a place that is far greater than us, a place with teeth, tusks, claws and horns, a place in the wilderness that will make you believe in “God”…”
“It is our responsibility as a global community of Earth’s citizens to reach out to those who do not have the opportunities we have for reflection on the changes happening around us, on the imminent threat to species survival in our forests, at our Poles, in our oceans, and across remote, untouched landscapes. Credit crunch or not, we need to tighten our belts, live with less, and give more. I am not necessarily talking about donating money; I am talking about investing your mind power and energy in a new future. We do not need to riot or burn things. We need to act for the good of each other and break the cycle of mistrust that fuels the current destruction of our planet. Think about other people, think about climate change, live a mindful life that recognizes the impact of your decisions and actions.”
As stated in Henry David Thoreau’s dictum: “In wildness is the salvation of the world.”
For the last five years I have split my life between research projects in the Amathole Mountains of the Eastern Cape (South Africa) and the Okavango Delta (Botswana). In the Amatholes, we study the Critically Endangered Cape parrot and the degraded Afromontane mistbelt forest patches they depend upon. In the Okavango, on the other hand, we study the abundant and widespread Meyer’s parrot that frequents most of the remaining wilderness areas in subtropical Africa. Now the comparison between Vundumtiki Island, our primary Meyer’s parrot research site, and the remote Amathole Mountains, our research site for the Cape Parrot Project, drives home the realization that “wilderness” is fragile and that once the fundamentals that support an ecosystem have been drained, dammed, broken, burnt, cut, managed or fenced, there is no going back. Small pieces of that ecosystem can be “restored” through constant management, but an ecological balance that took eternity to evolve cannot be recreated. It will forever be our responsibility to manage altered, degraded landscapes… As a scientist and conservationist, I know that we are only just starting to acquire the necessary knowledge and tools to do this. We are in a race against time, economics, and booming population numbers. We need to establish a “World Environmental Organization (WEO)” financed by the United Nations and World Bank that is on a par with the World Health Organization (WHO) and World Trade Organization (WTO). The United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) simply does not have the resources to deal with the scope of the global environmental issues we face today.
Thousands of years after the human species is gone a new “wilderness” WILL rejuvenate this planet. As long as we are here, we must know that, if we do not save our last-remaining wilderness areas, on land and in our seas and oceans, we are doomed.
“Our generation will see the last wilderness areas (like the Okavango Delta) lost to development, booming populations and managing hand of man within the next 10-15 years.”
In 2025, global population levels will be nearing 9 billion, and by 2050 population levels will be so high that there is no way that existing natural resources could supply demand. All the mathematical models developed to predict natural resource use based on current consumption and development patterns across the globe demonstrate an impossible future for human beings and our only planet within the next 50 years.
“If we do not accept this “inconvenient truth”, “wilderness” will disappear before many of us ever knew it. We need to collectively decide to live with less and share more with each other and the natural world … In “wildness” will be the salvation of us all”
Steve Boyes has dedicated his life to conserving Africa's wilderness areas and the species that depend upon them. After having worked as a camp manager and wilderness guide in the Okavango Delta and doing his PhD field work on the little-known Meyer's Parrot, Steve took up a position as a Centre of Excellence Postdoctoral Fellow at the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. He has since been appointed the Scientific Director of the Wild Bird Trust and is a 2014 TED Fellow. His work takes him all over Africa, but his day-to-day activities are committed to South Africa's endemic and Critically Endangered Cape Parrot (Poicephalus robustus). Based in Hogsback Village in the Eastern Cape (South Africa), Steve runs the Cape Parrot Project, which aims to stimulate positive change for the species through high-quality research and community-based conservation action. When not in Hogsback, Steve can be found in the Okavango Delta where he explores remote areas of this wetland wilderness on "mokoros" or dug-out canoes to study endangered bird species in areas that are otherwise inaccessible. Steve is a 2013 National Geographic Emerging Explorer for his work in the Okavango Delta and on the Cape Parrot Project.
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