Our planet teemed with wildlife a hundred ears ago. Theodore Roosevelt saw it when, shortly after leaving office as 26th President of the United States, he explored Africa for nearly a year, collecting thousands of specimens for the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. His expedition bagged hundreds of animals, flaying them and salting their hides and other body parts for shipping to Washington, where they formed the basis of what is still today one of the world’s most comprehensive natural history collections.
In the National Geographic article, “Mr. Roosevelt’s ‘African Game Trails'” (November 1910, image of the cover alongside), the former President described an inexhaustible bounty of wildlife. There is no danger that the elephant will become extinct, he said, “because large elephant reserves have been established; and furthermore, wise regulations have been adopted and are enforced; such as prohibiting the sale of tusks below a certain size, the shooting of females except for museums, etc.”
The President could not imagine how our generation would struggle to protect the elephants in those parks, a battle to conserve wildlife that many experts are starting to think we may be losing.
Garden of Eden … without Adam and Eve
In the National Geographic article 107 years ago, Roosevelt described what we might now perceive is a lost world: A vast African wilderness teeming with wildlife he said was like the “Garden of Eden without Adam and Eve”.
Barely more than a century after Roosevelt’s epic safari, many of the animal species he saw in such abundance are seemingly doomed. They — and perhaps half of all other species on the planet — may be gone from the face of the Earth within the next hundred years, conservationists fear.
World Wildlife Day, today, March 3, is the anniversary of the signature of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), an agreement between more than a hundred countries to protect “threatened” wild species. This special day for the global observance of wildlife was declared by the United Nations to address ongoing major threats to wildlife, including habitat-change, over-exploitation and illicit trafficking.
Half of all wildlife extinct within 80 years?
World Wildlife Day coincides this year with the Joint Workshop of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and of Social Sciences on “Biological Extinction,” at the Vatican. Helping organize the conference were several National Geographic scientists, including Peter Raven, Chairman of the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration and President Emeritus of Missouri Botanical Garden.
“The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilisation than climate change [because] they are irreversible.” (Peter Raven)
“By the beginning of the next century we face the prospect of losing half our wildlife,” Raven told the Biological Extinction workshop. “Yet we rely on the living world to sustain ourselves. It is very frightening. The extinctions we face pose an even greater threat to civilisation than climate change – for the simple reason they are irreversible.” (Biologists say half of all species could be extinct by end of century)
National Geographic Photo Ark
But the struggle to save wildlife is far from being a lost cause. Many individuals and institutions are working hard to halt and reverse the tragic losses we are wreaking on the natural heritage handed down to us over billions of years. It is certainly possible that a hundred years from now our descendants will look back, not on a further decline or disappearance of Earth’s wildlife, but on its recovery, thanks in large part to what is being done today to avert catastrophe.
The National Geographic Photo Ark is an ambitious project committed to documenting every species in captivity—inspiring people not just to care, but also to help protect these animals for future generations. “I want people to care, to fall in love, and to take action,” says Photo Ark founder and National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore, who has visited 40 countries in his quest to create his photo archive of global biodiversity. To date, he has completed intimate portraits of more than 6,000 species. His work has been featured many times in National Geographic magazine and other media, and even projected on the exterior of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City.
You can find out more about Sartore’s National Geographic Photo Ark project and how you can help the project on the the Photo Ark website.
About the Big Five
In tribute to World Wildlife Day, National Geographic Voices is sharing some of Sartore’s photos of Africa’s Big Five: Lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant, and buffalo — juxtaposed with the same species “collected” by Theodore Roosevelt more than a century ago. The contrast is stark, the early photography versus the new, the animals gunned down in the wild versus those in modern zoos and other sanctuaries dedicated to saving their kind.
Africa’s big game hunters, people like Theodore Roosevelt, dubbed these iconic animals the “Big Five” because they were considered extremely dangerous to stalk and shoot. In a lecture he gave to the National Geographic Society upon his return from Africa, TR reported: “We had casualties to two of our native attendants from wild beasts. One man was mauled by a leopard and one man was tossed by a rhino.”
Today the Big Five are popular with tourists on photography safaris, but also with recreational hunters willing to pay big bucks to get Big Five heads and skins as trophies.
Sport hunting is controversial, but it may not be the biggest threat to the Big Five. Loss of habitat to cultivation, ranching, fencing, mining, and roads is probably the more serious challenge. Africa’s human population is growing faster than on any other continent, and the thousands of additional Africans being born every day need food, energy, shelter, and other support their whole lives.
Poaching of wild animals is on the rise in most parts of Africa, often with the use of wire snares that maim and kill even non-target species that stumble into the simple but lethal traps. Diseases from domestic animals, such as cattle and dogs, spread into wild animal populations. Alien species of animals and plants introduced to Africa deliberately or accidentally compete with native species for food and water. Earth’s changing climate is making much of Africa more prone to drought, putting even more pressure on all species to compete for scarce water. Humans dam and divert rivers for their needs, leaving many other species high and dry.
All of these are exacting a terrible toll on Africa’s once thriving wildlife. Will the Big Five be around in the wild a hundred years from now, or will we know them only from zoos, such as these specimens photographed by Joel Sartore?
Here is a brief review of each of the Big Five species, illustrated with photography from Theodore Roosevelt’s 1909 safari and contemporary images from Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark.
African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)
Theodore Roosevelt with an elephant he shot on safari © Edward Van Altena, Library of Congress
There were perhaps a million wild elephants in Africa when President Roosevelt traveled across the continent in quest of collecting specimens for the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. Today there may be fewer than 300,000, and their numbers are dropping.
Results of the two-year, U.S. $8 million Great Elephant Census (GEC) of African savannah elephants led by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) were released at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Hawaii in 2016, confirming massive declines in elephant numbers over just the prior decade. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst reported 30 percent of the wild population (144,000 elephants) was lost between 2007 and 2014, a rate of species decline of 8 percent per year, primarily due to poaching.
Large numbers of carcasses were counted in many protected areas, indicating that elephants are struggling both within and outside of parks, Amherst said in a news statement. Experts say that poaching and the ivory trade pose serious threats, and if not stopped, savannah elephants could disappear from many parts of Africa. (Read the full post about this.)
Forest elephants, a sub-species of elephant living in an area that had been considered a sanctuary in the Central African country of Gabon, are rapidly being picked off by illegal poachers, who are primarily coming from the bordering country of Cameroon, Duke University researchers said last week. More than 80 percent have been taken in a decade–a loss of about 25,000 elephants– they report in the February 20 issue of Current Biology.
Elephants are holding on for now in Botswana, and parts of Zimbabwe, Namibia, and South Africa. But even in these countries poaching is on the rise. If poaching can be contained and reduced, a longer-term issue for elephant survival is protection of large areas of habitat to sustain their needs.
Encroaching human settlements increases the prospect of elephant conflict with farmers, so there will always be a need to work out ways for people and pachyderms to live alongside in harmony. That could include wildlife corridors, over- and under-passes on roads, and compensation schemes for crops destroyed by wildlife from adjacent reserves.
An African elephant, Loxodonta africana, at the Indianapolis zoo. Photograph by Joel Sartore, the National Geographic Photo Ark. Click on the image for more information about Photo Ark.
Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum)
South Africa is home to nearly 70 percent of the 29,500 rhinos left on Earth, down from several hundred thousand in Africa before the 1800s, when the European imprint on the land intensified, Bryan Christy wrote in the in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine. “Rhino poaching has reached disastrous proportions during the past decade. In 2007 South Africa reported losing just 13 rhinos. In 2008 it was 83. Last year it was 1,175. In Kruger, home to some 9,000 rhinos, poachers kill on average two to three every day.” (Read his full report.)
The future of the rhino in the wild depends largely on drying up the demand for its horn, especially in Asian markets where many people still believe rhino horn is a natural form of drugs like Viagra, a cure for cancer, or simply a status commodity to flaunt huge wealth. China has moved aggressively in recent years to introduce harsh penalties for illegal importing and consumption of products made from body parts of Endangered Species. But the only reliable way to end the criminal trade in rhino horn is to win the hearts and minds of the consumers, winning public support in the same way that much of the Western world became disgusted by use of animal skins in the fashion industry.
Meanwhile, South Africa, ground zero in the war on rhinos, reported last week a drop in the number of the pachyderms killed by poachers for the second year running. Experts remain skeptical that this is a real turning point, however. (ANALYSIS: Lies, damned lies and rhino statistics)
African Buffalo (Syncerus caffer)
The African buffalo is distributed throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but is now generally confined to protected areas, within which it is well represented, and other areas which are sparsely settled, according to the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species, which ranks the buffalo as a species of Least Concern.
Extinct in a few countries, the buffalo has been reintroduced to other areas from which they were formerly extirpated, including some parts of South Africa. So that’s one species of the Big Five that’s hanging on, at least for now.
African Leopard (Panthera pardus pardus)
Leopards have lost three-fourths of their territory worldwide, National Geographic reported in May 2016. But they are doing relatively well in parts of Africa.
“Over time, the leopard has suffered from loss of habitat and prey species, as well as from direct persecution. It has long been hunted for its spotted skin, which is still prized in parts of Africa, as well as Southeast Asia. Unsustainable trophy hunting also continues in some areas, says Andrew Jacobson, lead author of a study and a National Geographic explorer with the society’s Big Cats Initiative.
As humans encroach on their habitat, the big cats are adapting. “Can we do the same,” another National Geographic article (Learning to Live With Leopards, November 2015), wondered. The answer is nuanced, but there is reason to be cautiously optimistic as this cat is a survivor, and it may just hang on long enough for people to change their attitudes and learn to appreciate what the species contributes to the planet.
African Lion (Panthera leo)
Lions have disappeared from 80 percent of their historic African range, National Geographic reported in August 2013. “No one knows how many lions survive today in Africa—as many as 35,000?—because wild lions are difficult to count,” David Quammen wrote for the Magazine. That would be significantly lower than the 100,000 lions thought to have roamed Africa’s wild lands 50 years ago. “Experts agree, though, that just within recent decades the overall total has declined significantly,” Quammen added. “The causes are multiple—including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching of lion prey for bush meat, poachers’ snares that catch lions instead, displacement of lion prey by livestock, disease, spearing or poisoning of lions in retaliation for livestock losses and attacks upon humans, ritual killing of lions (notably within the Maasai tradition), and unsustainable trophy hunting for lions, chiefly by affluent Americans.”
But there is good news. Many conservationists are working throughout Africa to slow and reverse the decline of Africa’s king. The National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative supports scores of projects, saving hundreds of lions, and helping a new generation of African teachers, conservationists, women’s groups, and others to find sustainable ways to live with and appreciate the African lion.
The National Geographic Photo Ark is a multi-year project to photograph all species in captivity. Africa’s Big Five — lion, leopard, rhinoceros, elephant and buffalo — are among them. To learn more about the Photo Ark, visit natgeophotoark.org,