JWO prize winner wants to link Africa’s isolated conservation areas – Dr Elizabeth le Roux and Jonathan Oppenheimer

Written on 11/04/2022
Linda van Tilburg

As humanity demands space to continue to grow and prosper, they increasingly interact and compete for resources with wildlife. Conservationist Jonathan Oppenheimer described it as humanity being like an ocean that erodes the spaces of wilderness, which is “terrifying”. To promote research for the preservation of the continent’s natural environment, Oppenheimer has established a grant, the Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer Research Grant in memory of his late wife that has been awarded for the past 4 years to boost African researchers. This year’s winner is Dr Elizabeth le Roux, research fellow at the University of Pretoria and an assistant professor at the University of Aarhus in Denmark. Dr Le Roux’s work was chosen from over 300 applicants from 29 African countries. Dr Le Roux told BizNews she is seeking ways to link isolated conservation areas in Africa but stressed the importance of making it work for pastoralists. – Linda van Tilburg

Humanity is eroding the islands of wilderness

One of the great challenges we have in the world today is this analogy that I have of humanity as the ocean of the world we live in. We have these islands of wilderness that remain intact and exist. The essence of oceans is they are the most powerful force on the earth to date. They are particularly powerful as corrosive forces; they erode things and I see humanity eroding those spaces of wilderness; and that’s terrifying. There are a whole bunch of things. If we don’t actively think about how we preserve those wildernesses, we will allow ourselves to disappear with them, whether it is logging in the Amazon, whether it’s burning trees for cropland and planting of palm oil forests in Indonesia, whether it’s the denuding of large canopy trees in Kruger and seeing the biodiversity decline there, whether it’s the commercial use of timber in the Congo. All of these things are humanity eroding these last wildernesses that we have and even where we choose to do nothing, the impact of humanity, effectively fencing these areas not with fences but with humanity, is material and really significant

Only a handful of reserves in Africa are self-sustainable

So, as I understand Elizabeth’s work, it’s about understanding the prospect and the space for corridors to connect these islands. The reality is, the island needs to be big enough to be self-sustaining, and what is big enough? It needs to be huge. I was talking to Peter Fernhead of African Parks and Peter was saying across the African continent; there are only a handful of reserves – literally a handful – that are large enough to be ecologically sustainable in their own right and they’re all shrinking. What Elizabeth is proposing, which I think is such genius and the work she’s going to do is to try to find that out: how do you connect these subscale domains of wilderness in a sustainable way, which can effectively bridge them to one another and allow migration up and down these corridors that she’s thinking about so that you can have a more sustainable ecological domain in the context of subscale wildernesses that are shrinking. Then we also need to think on top of that about how we preserve and grow those wilderness. 

The Great Springbok Migration of the 1800s

Historically, if you go back to reading the diaries of the Moffats about the Moffat mission up to Kuruman in the late 1800s, they talk about not being able to move their wagons for up to two weeks because of the physical press of springbok on migration around the wagons. The springbok migration in the Kalahari dwarfed the zebra and wildebeest migration in the Mara. It can’t happen today. There are fences, there are roads, there are people and the population of springbok is no longer there. 

Connecting the different ‘isolated’ protected areas – Dr Elizabeth le Roux 

What I propose for the project is connectivity of different protected areas. We have all of this intention of lots of protected areas across Africa and within each of these protected areas we’re working and managing towards high biodiversity and protecting species within the protected areas. But one of the issues that I see as an issue, and many people do see it as an issue, is that these protected areas are very isolated from each other. This is a problem going into the future because we know that there’s a lot of change coming. Climate change will shift environmental conditions for species and normally what would happen is these species would respond by moving, they would follow their climatic conditions, the environmental conditions that’s suitable to their survival. But if we put them in small, isolated reserves, they don’t have that response available to them. So, what this project is about is to look at how can we promote certain land uses such as rangelands and pastoralist land uses in between these protected areas where the rangeland itself might not be the pristine habitat as in the protected area, but that is managed in such a way that it is semi-natural and natural enough to be able to support this connectivity of species between protected areas. 

Creating corridors of wildlife that include the needs of pastoralists 

Migration corridors – like these bridges that cross a highway, for example, that’s a very direct approach to connectivity – and the ideal they would be to maintain a section of landscape that is almost exactly the same as the protected areas. It’s kind of extending the protected area. I’m not really thinking in terms of extending a protected area. I’m more thinking about how we marry the ideas of a conservation supportive landscape with a landscape that is supportive of people and pastoralist people. If that is the case, if it’s both a production landscape and a conservation supportive landscape, then we can think of connectivity across bigger areas. So maybe not all the way from the southern tip to the northern, but perhaps over several tens of kilometres, or even hundreds of kilometres, between protected areas.

There would always have to be an understanding of or an agreement of how people want to manage, how they see the landscape because there’s also a lot of understanding from traditional pastoralist communities about what the landscape needs and how the landscape responds. So, there are always these interactive components entering into discussion with local communities and understanding their wants and needs and what they see as their future. But I think that there’s a lot of margin for true discussion from both sides, because at the moment, pastoralist communities are under such immense pressure because perhaps they have their areas but these areas are not as open as they used to be. Pastoralist communities can’t move and track the seasonal landscape as they used to. They are more pressured from all sides with different land uses. So for example, tourism and other land uses but the point being that way back when, pastoralists were able to understand nature and how the grass there would respond to their cattle and they would move their cattle to follow the green and would have summer grazing areas and winter grazing areas. And nowadays they’re so stuck in what they are allowed to use and where they’re allowed to move that they are kind of forced to overgraze the area. So, I think that when entering into these discussions, a lot of communities would also be willing to say, this is how I understand the system and this is how I want to use the system. But they realise that they’re being so pressured that there needs to be some kind of negotiation. How do we give pastoralist communities more freedom to be able to track greenness and track seasonality and thereby also lower the pressure on any particular pastoralist site or particular arrangement?

A three-year project involving PhD students and African academics 

I have three years. The way that I envision this project being put together is that it will not only be me. So, I see myself as kind of the manager of the project, but the idea would be that this would be a collective effort from many different African academics and African students. We will employ three PhD students within this project and for each of the three PhD students, I will connect with another early career scientist at an African institution, and we will form the core team that drives this project. In among this core team, we will add collaborators with particular expertise and collaborators that can take the students in particular directions and teach them particular things. The idea would be that it would be a very wide network, but a very African rich network that will be involved in this project. 

Momentum is growing to reintegrate nature into landscapes 

It’s a time with a lot of momentum towards reintegrating nature into landscapes that’s predominantly people. Even within the city that I live, there’s a lot of patches of grasslands and flowers maintained by people or not maintained but rather not cut, just left to be wild and present these habitats, of course, also bringing insects and things into the urban environment, but also allowing for them to move from patch to patch to patch to maybe a bigger forest complex. I think people are becoming more and more aware of the necessity of this. If we’re talking bigger, more extensive semi-natural landscapes, such as what still exists in Africa, I think if we show that these kinds of dynamics that people are trying to integrate into urban environments, this is happening and occurs at a bigger scale in the wild areas of Africa that are not protected. This is an important component of Africa that we need to protect and the only way to protect it would be to support pastoralists giving them the freedom to maintain an area in a semi-natural state. Yes, there will be back and forth discussion about what is a semi-natural state. How do we maintain it, what are the cattle densities required? How do we make sure that there is benefit for people but also not let areas become overgrazed, with too many cattle and no movement and whatnot but we can find that midway that is both beneficial to the pastoralist and beneficial to conservation. We need to also focus our attention on these pastoralist areas and to recognise the benefit that comes with those. It’s not just conservation versus people. There is huge potential for integration at various levels. 

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