Wilderness to Farmlands to Towns – can we afford this change to be inevitable?

Wilderness to Farmlands to Towns – can we afford this change to be inevitable?

This topic is often on my mind and it was recently magnified when I read “Among the Elephants” by Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamilton.   Iain’s study sets out to establish how best the African elephant can be managed in the limited areas of the National Parks.  In the final chapter, he comes to the crux of the problem.

Very simply the rapidly increasing human population has resulted in the spread of rural and urban development into areas that were once solely the territory of wildlife and nomadic tribes.  This is actually a worldwide problem; however, this book highlights the problem in Africa.

For millennia elephants have roamed all over Africa from the Mediterranean to the Cape and from East to West. Between 11,000 and 5,000 BC, humans were observing them and they were featured in rock etchings, some of which have been found in Algeria.  Wherever the right mix of grass and trees existed, there too were the elephants.  As they passed, they ate the bark, young branches, fruits and seeds together with grass which they cut with their toe nails i.e. they do not normally pull it up in chunks and if this happens accidentally, they avoid eating the soil and roots. Many of the tree species in particular have seeds that will only germinate if passed through an herbivore’s gut; and since the elephant then deposits the seeds with a liberal amount of dung, the young trees germinate into an ideal growth medium, rather than into the frequently nutrient poor surrounding soil.  When the elephants have opened up an area of woodland so that there is no-longer an ideal mix, and grassland starts to take over, they move on – providing there is the space to do so.  The spreading grassland areas become savannah and can then support vast herds of grazers e.g. the Wildebeest and associated species.  Eventually, droughts and wildfires thin the grass, returning the essential trace elements to the soil, and the grazers turn to a fresh swathe of savannah.  Meanwhile the seeds that have remained dormant in the soil get a chance to germinate, usually in the vicinity of the few remaining trees, and gradually woodland builds up again.  Finally the cycle restarts with the return of the elephants.  In other words, the elephants act just like early humans with their practice of ‘slash and burn’, crop and move on, agriculture.

The problem for elephants now is not that they are hunted by humans per se; it is simply the level of hunting and the restriction of their ancient ranges by human infrastructure.  The African elephant has been hunted, for both ivory, meat and even domestication, for many centuries.  As far back as the 3rd century BC, Ptolemy set up a school for African elephants beside the Red Sea, for the specific purpose of using them with his armies!  However, in those days the population of Africa was very low and scattered, there were none of the huge urban developments and areas of cultivation that exist and are still extending to-day.  This meant that the elephant herds had the run of a whole continent to manage in their own way.

However, from the Douglas-Hamiltons’ book, it is quite clear that even in the Africa of 1975, cultivated crops were being planted right up to the boundaries of the National Parks wherever there was sufficient water for crop growth.  This conflict of land use had been started in past decades by the white settlers, but now that many were leaving, the conflict was being continued to an even greater extent by the ever growing local tribes.  It is an inconvenient fact that if land grows good woodlands, then there is enough water initially for humans to grow good crops.  Where crops can be grown, then towns arise to process them, transport them and provide the necessary infrastructure for a growing non-nomadic culture.  At this point the phrase “enough water initially” becomes crucial.  Inevitably, artesian wells have to be sunk and if water is found then the community continues to grow, if not it eventually moves on.  Unfortunately, the aquifers thus tapped are finite reserves, and their very use may hasten the draw down time for surface waters, thus threatening any remaining surface flows and the wildlife and ecosystems that depend on it.  Where the townships thrive, both the wild animals and indeed the native nomadic tribal peoples become regarded as nuisances; and their lives, harmonious with nature, are restricted to ever smaller areas in the interests of Growth – or should that be Greed.

So, if the change posed in the title is inevitable, then modern humans are faced with yet another dilemma; presuming that they are all agreed that they wish ALL the species on the planet to be able to survive.  Creating a habitat for one species, does not serve the vast mosaic of species that normally co-exist symbiotically.  The best solution is to let wild animals and their vegetation have sufficiently large areas to cycle naturally, in all parts of the globe.  However, this poses the question of how many humans the planet can actually support.  If we and all the other species are to live in harmony, with enough space to be able to enjoy our lives, then we do as individuals need to control our populations.

Traditionally, having long got the better of our carnivorous predators, our population has been controlled by disease and frequent and bloody wars.  However, this latter is a very unpleasant way of behaving and it is to be hoped that diplomacy will always prevail.  But even now, while this happy state of affairs is being established, all national, ethnic and religious groups need to consider how to prevent over population by humans, whilst preserving our varied gene pool and our diversity of thought and culture.  The more numerous we become, the more we encroach on wilderness areas, the scarcer our resources become and the more each diminishing resource costs to use.  In the 1960s water in the UK was still free.  Now we have to pay an ever increasing amount for this commodity so essential to life.  As our population rises so does the cost of living – for how long can we support these increasing costs that actually do nothing to save the species on this planet.


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