Upgrading ecosystems and why we should save top predators

Where I work in Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, species that have co-evolved over millennia still roam and interact freely together in a protected wilderness.  Gorongosa is among the fortunate, twenty-six years after a devastating civil war and the relentless hunting for meat and ivory and skins tore this ecosystem apart, the Park now brims with life – tens-of-thousands of antelopes, crocodiles, elephants and other species roam free.  The Park is the very living and breathing definition of ecological resilience.

Painted Dogs are highly efficient predators, leaving very little behind once they make a kill. In gorongosa, these dogs hunt an entirely different spectrum of prey to other predators, leaving their unique signature on the ecology of this ecosystem.

Unfortunately, wild places like Gorongosa are becoming exceedingly rarer on our planet especially as top predators – our big cats, wolves, bears, sharks – continue to be squeezed out of existence by an ever-growing human footprint.  Globally, our ecosystems continue to “downgrade.”

“Downgrading” is a relatively new term to describe an ecosystem’s fall to a less resilient state and is strongly coupled with the decline or loss of top predator populations. In turn, disease cycles, plant community structures, bio-geochemical cycles all shift trajectory.  A destabilization of sorts sets in.

Upgrading” is now the counter term we use to describe the opposite effect: this is the “180,” when an ecosystem’s top predators are allowed to recover and the system is in turn restored to a greater state of wholeness, intactness.  It usually involves a more hands-on approach, but sometimes all it takes is to stop the killing of a species to push an upgrade – see our paper just published on the challenges of recovering one of our most iconic big cats – the African lion.  Or, the physical reintroduction of a species – even if it means flying them thousands of kilometers across international borders – to re-populate and nudge an ecosystem back in the right direction.

Upgrading is where we are at in the historic wildlife restoration of Gorongosa National Park.  An indigenous population of lions are making their recovery here, they are the largest single hunters in the system.  Painted Dogs have also made their return recently with the first pack of dogs successfully re-introduced and released in to the Park this year.  As individuals they may be small in size as compared to the mighty lion, but working collectively as a strongly bonded pack to hunt across the landscape they are functionally a super-organism in their own right.

Painted dogs are an endangered species, with less than 6,000 left on the entire continent, this cross-border translocation from South Africa to Mozambique was pivotal in many respects.  This specific group of dogs faced a dead-end in South Africa where space for the species to roam has simply run out – they are among a growing pool of predators unwanted by communities, ranchers and even wildlife reserves afraid of losing livestock.  Rescued to Gorongosa they got a second chance at life in the wild.  In return, the ecology of the Park began a significant shift back towards a “wholer” state that proceeded the devastating war. In this case, every individual did count, and is making a difference for the better.

Gorongosa ranger – Maria Faife (right) – helps offload Painted dogs from a charter flight in a cross-border effort to restore this species to their historic range in Central Mozambique

As conservationists we are often challenged by society to argue for “upgrading” and the continued existence of large predators; Why should they be saved?  Despite being armed with the science, the question always stumps me, it’s hard to imagine why it even needs to be asked. The answer for me has become far more personal rather than about the latest cutting edge scientific publication. What I know with certainty is large families of species have evolved together for thousands of millennia, standing the tests of time and carving out a complex ecology that define the very ecosystems that sustain us all on Earth. Diversity, complexity, resilience, abundance: I can trust in this.

So, when we have the chance to make that difference for the good – to step up and commit to actively heal a wilderness, to recover a species, to expand a range, to upgrade – we do it.  We just know it’s the right thing to do and we now know what is possible to achieve – at large, significant scales – when people work together to reverse depressing global trends.

A satellite-collared lioness in Gorongosa drags her Waterbuck kill to her cubs. Photo courtesy of M. Holland, 2018.

Changing Planet

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Meet the Author
Paola is Associate Director of Carnivore Conservation for Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique. Her team is dedicated to the recovery and conservation of lions, leopards, wilddogs and hyaena across the Greater Gorongosa Ecosystem. Paola is a 2014-18 National Geographic Big Cat Initiative Grantee.