Ecosystems intertwined

Shark fin delicacy danger

Sharks existed millions of years before any evidence of humans on earth. As a result of their position at the top of the predator list, any disruption to shark populations can drastically affect the marine ecosystem, claims Peter Knights, director of WildAid International.

And when humans kill about 100 million sharks per year, it is a serious concern that the billion dollar economies that revolve around fisheries and marine life will collapse.

One expert says there has been a 90 per cent decline in shark populations worldwide in the last 20-30 years.

Fishermen catch sharks largely far off the coast of Costa Rica where they tie miles of “long lines” fashioned with hooks.

The rise of China’s middle class has been targeted for the rise in the shark fin industry as what was once a delicacy for the high class of populations in Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan has now become commonplace.

The only way any species (including humans) is to survive is through positive human intervention in the global ecosystem. Whether it is tracking and tagging animals or culling, the systematic killing of a group of animals, humans are continuously intervening in the lives of ecosystems. It remains to be seen whether these interventions are positive or negative ones.

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Photo: From game reserves to our own backyards, conservationism affects everyone differently.

Numerous southern African countries have begun culling elephants and lions, among other animals, in an effort to balance an ecosystem created in national parks where animals have been penned into unnatural habitats that often inhibit their migratory patterns.

Many argue that the animals of the world’s parks and those in the global ecosystem bare a striking similarity. Both ecosystems of animals have been heavily influenced by human populations.

When people think of conservation they “seem to think that pristine wilderness means a region without humans; a land untouched. That is bullshit,” says Gerhardt Lorist, Work Experience International (WEI) authority at the Welgevonden Private Game Reserve, located just north of Johannesburg.

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The culling of species that create an imbalance in national parks has become a contentious issue among many conservationists.

Conservationists, environmentalists and the global population are beginning to realize the importance of ecosystems as they pertain to our longevity.

The global ecosystem as a whole needs a worldwide reaction and action from its citizens, but this proves to be a daunting task.

“Conservation isn’t like rocket science,” says WEI conservationist Tom Avent. “It’s harder.”

Kruger’s conservation

Kruger National Park, the largest of its kind in South Africa, is home to some of the most advanced conservationist and research projects in the world. Collecting data in the heart of Kruger’s 19,000 square kilometres, which spans two South African provinces, is no easy task.

“We are doing the biggest research in Kruger,” Avent describes. “There is a lot of pressure to do it well. You are always going to have an unhappy party.”

Kruger conservation projects include elephant satellite mapping, water management and fire management through maintained bush burnings.

While larger parks like Kruger have been assessing ideas like culling, smaller private reserves have begun the process of killing some of their animals to preserve their reserve’s ecosystems.

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Conservationists work diligently to track animal populations and migrations, often using both ground and aerial techniques.

Smaller reserves have presented a problem to conservationists. One major problem is predator-heavy habitats are characterized by low herbivore reproduction.

And although much debate has arisen over elephant culling, with the South African government legalizing the culling of the world’s largest land mammal just this past year, the case has now risen for the cull of lions.

EcoTravel claims that the predator-prey balance in many game reserves is unsustainable.

The fencing-in of national parks has blocked the routes of lions’ historic migration, which revolved around the rainfall in the region and the availability of water. This means predators like lions remain in the same locations, preying on the same herds, thus depleting prey.

National parks have even resorted to constructing permanent, man-made watering holes, which are a point of contention for some conservationists as their removal often means a dispersion of predator species which takes strain off the ecosystem that revolves around sparce water availability.

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Ecosystems are extremely interdependent. Here, an ox pecker cleans the ticks out of the ears of an impala.

In relatively recent times, African lion populations spanned Europe, Asia and Africa. With the loss of the majority of these historical habitats, debate surrounds the management of the booming lion populations, which are now living in a much smaller area.

Lions, especially those with cubs, consume a lot of prey; it is known that the best answer is to remove a lioness and her offspring. Yet when conservationists lack funding, investment dollars must be included when thinking long-term, meaning that an unhappy game reserve investor could mean a drop in much-needed funding.

The idea behind conservation is a delicate issue for some, especially those who stand to gain or lose from its proliferation.

Funding is important to the maintenance of efforts, even in conservation, which has become more of an industry as ecotourism opportunities crop up on every continent worldwide.

The maintained wild

It feels like an oxymoron that game reserves and parks are closely monitored. Animals are counted and tracked; sometimes contraceptive methods are implemented on larger species like elephants.

The closely-monitored Kruger National Park houses 336 species of trees, 507 species of birds and 147 species of mammals among hundreds of species of reptiles, amphibians and fish.

For some parks like Welgevonden, which is small and relatively new, sustainability is still a far off achievement. According to South Africa Explored, from an original pride of five lions and herd of less than 50 elephants, the park now boasts 32 lions and 84 elephants.

There is a high level of interconnectivity within the ecosystem, so sometimes it is necessary to cull lions and elephants when their populations become too large for park officials to handle.

To leave lion numbers unchecked would create a food web that would crash. Every aspect of the reserve is dependent on the health of everything else.

This dependence is a man-made phenomenon, from the cutting off of natural migration patterns to the creation of fake watering holes, among other national park tactics.

This extends beyond isolated ecosystems in artificial areas like game reserves that were artificially created and thus must be monitored closely by humans.

Web of connections

WEI conservationist Natalie Cooper explains how all species are interconnected in a web of dependence.

“Birds of prey presence is related to the numbers of small mammals and the number of insectivores to the number of insects,” Cooper explains.

Scientist and environmentalist James Lovelock, who proposed the Gaia hypothesis, argues that biotic and abiotic environments are composed of many complex interrelationships.

More simply, Lovelock describes the earth as a single living organism.

Just as humans and other living creatures are made up of cells, organs and systems to make one whole functioning organism, so is the earth.

“It’s as if the eco-environment is itself an entire living organism. Within this fluctuating system, you find humans. I do not understand why we feel that we are on a different tier,” said Lovelock.

As part of this global ecological system, the fact that our everyday lives are not immediately impacted does not mean that our actions are not changing the world around us forever.

From South African game reserves to the Amazon rainforest, the deterioration of these complex ecosystems will have worldwide effects. The loss of even one animal, such as the shark, in the food chain could cause major collapse.

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Conservationists work diligently to track animal populations and migrations, often using both ground and aerial techniques.

This possibility may become a reality because of issues such as pollution, the shark fin soup industry and even deforestation. Collapse of this food web would result in fish overpopulation and, in turn, a destruction of reef systems, which are responsible for stabilizing and filtering ocean and sea systems. Overpopulations of jellyfish are also a concern with an imbalance in marine ecology.

Our lives are often affected by organisms to which we are unaware, like bees. These insects are an integral component in our agricultural sectors and aid in our acquisition of food.

Agriculture is heavily dependent on bees as pollination vectors; they have now become a commodity for the agricultural industry.

Avent continues to support the interconnectivity of our lives on a level that most individuals are unaware.

“I know I benefit from the Amazon rainforest. I know I can eat the fish I like because of the Amazon,” Avent continues.w “If the rainforests are desecrated, the mangroves would dry up [and your] favourite fish would be no longer available to you.”

From reserve to world

The problems South African game reserves face are not only a testament to how the human population has treated African wildlife, but how the world treats the earth’s ecosystem.

“Each animal is a tenuous support in a delicate house of cards. We have a variety of organisms to make our life possible. Whether predator, prey or parasite each are interconnected,” says the BBC.

—With files from Alanna Wallace