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SOS Rhino : In the News : Animal, Plant Life Dwindling

Animal, Plant Life Dwindling

  The Herald (Harare)
June 21, 2004
Posted to the web June 21, 2004
Nelson Chenga

THE deep booming trumpet of the ground hornbill reverberates across the savanna bush country in Zimbabwe's Mudzi District, as a family of three uglylooking birds forage for food in the tall grass.

The awesome call of a unique remnant of the prehistoric era and mostly confined to remote parts of Zimbabwe, could however be slowly receding and vanishing into the past as human beings fast deplete the country's plant and animal habitats.

In Mudzi District, a place was named after the ground hornbill - Dendera, its affectionate Shona vernacular acronym - but the bird is now so rare in the area that very few born in the last 20 years know what the bird really looks like.

Village elders say the extraordinary looking bird has since migrated into the yonder hills bordering Mozambique.

The ground hornbill is one among many such unique animal, bird and plant species that could silently be disappearing from the face of the earth mainly due to human invasion.

"A combination of poaching and habitat loss has reduced the total world rhino population from 500 000 some 30 years ago to under 18 000 today," says the World Conservation Union, IUCN.

The rhino horn is extensively used in traditional medicine in Asia and as handles for ornamental daggers in the Middle East.

Effective protection and sound management of areas with protected species has been and still remains the major challenge facing countries that are home to rare plants and animals.

Information compiled between 1990 and 2002 and posted on the World Resource Institute's EarthTrends website indicates that of the 270 known mammal species in Zimbabwe 11 are threatened with extinction.

The website shows that of the 4 440 higher plant species known in the country 141 were on the verge of extinction while 10 of the 229 known breeding bird species are in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth.

In classifying the species as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable, the World Resource Institute uses declining populations of species as major criteria.

Sourcing from the United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre EarthTrends, however, notes that: "Data on threatened species of mammals, birds, plants, reptiles, and amphibians underestimate the total number of threatened species in these groups worldwide."

While data on threatened species is better represented for mammals and birds than for other groups EarthTrends further indicates that: "Beyond the group of described species, there are many species that have yet to be described and whose status is yet unknown."

Zimbabwe is among five African countries that have since the 1989 ban on trade in ivory successfully managed to conserve its elephant population so well that numbers have ballooned to over 89 000, almost double the country's 45 000 carrying capacity.

At the 10th Conference of Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of flora and fauna, Cites, in Harare in 1997, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe were, however, allowed oneoff controlled sales of their ivory stockpiles to Japan.

Since then, two other countries - South Africa and Zambia - have joined the three Southern African states in calling for a relaxation for the Cites ban to allow them to raise money for conservation.

Zimbabwe, for example, is spending more than US$50 000 to store its 20 tonnes of ivory and failed at the 11th and 12th Cites conferences to be allowed to trade in the commodity used mainly in carvings and jewellery.

The website EarthTrends says about 25 000 plant species and 5 000 animal species are listed under Cites.

Zimbabwe's conservation success story in the 1990s resulted in many farmers cashing in on the abundance of wildlife by turning some of their vast holdings into conservancies.

But these gains risk being reversed if Zimbabwe fails to maintain the standards it has set for itself and other Southern African countries.

The Presidential Land Review Committee Report compiled by the former Chief Secretary to the President and Cabinet, Dr Charles Utete, and released in September 2003 expressed concern at the welfare of the country's natural resources, such as wildlife.

"Emphasis has tended to be on the use of land for crops and livestock, with not much attention being paid to wildlife production as a legitimate land use option of newly resettled farms," said the report.

In one of its recommendations, the report says that "resolute action be taken to stem poaching and illegal settlements in parks estates".

The Land Audit Report also makes a chilling warning: "Without (measures taken to protect the land and its natural resources) deforestation, soil erosion, land degradation and siltation would occur unhindered, rendering future economic development unsustainable."

In other words, Zimbabwe needs to urgently balance its conservation drive and the equally important land reform to maintain its world renowned conservation image.

The needs and grievances of communities who have settled in protected areas such as the Gonarezhou National Park must be addressed without delay because the environmental impact of their continued stay there could have far reaching consequences.

There is an urgent need to act fast in light of well documented evidence that impoverished communal areas can no longer fulfil the basic needs of communities. The large scale dependence by Zimbabweans on forest resources for fuel, construction timber, etc, has become unsustainable with rampant deforestation and woodland degrad- ation.

While the Ministry of Lands, Land Reform and Resettlement is busy implementing the findings of the Land Audit Report in an effort to regularise the entire programme more effort should be put in protecting animal and plant life in the resettlement areas.

It has been said that poverty is the greatest enemy of the environment. Evidence of this abounds in the communal areas where poor families are trying to make ends by exploiting the country's natural plant resources.

The baobab tree, whose bark is used extensively in mat-making, is now on the brink of extinction. The over-exploitation of the giant tree for commercial purposes has rendered the baobab incapable of effectively regenerating its bark.

For hundreds of years Southern African communities have stripped the tree bark to extract pulp which is used to treat fever, diarrhoea, malaria and as a vitamin C supplement.

But such extraction posed very little threat to the tree since damage was minimal and infrequent such that the tree had a good chance of regenerating.

Compiled data from many organisations indicate that the baobab, an unmistakable feature of the landscape in most droughtprone parts of Southern Africa, has been and still is a source of livelihood for many communities.

The baobab is a multi-purpose tree, judging from its numerous uses. Its leaves and fruit are good as relish substitutes. The fruit is used as a fermenting agent in traditional brews and makes a refreshing traditional drink when dissolved in milk.

The seeds, which yield an edible substitute for vegetable oil, can also be eaten raw or roasted or ground to produce a coffee like beverage.

Pulped seeds are also known to cure gastric, kidney and joint ailments.

But all this treasure is at risk as economic survival continues to dictate the future of these vulnerable and sometimes unique species.

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