5 big African conservation stories that have touched animal lovers this year - and caused global outrage

Such has been their impact, that they attracted more sympathy than causes about human suffering, as petitions and donations soared.

AFRICA is home to some of the world’s most charismatic and iconic wildlife species, many of them living in some of the planet’s most spectacular landscapes. As such, they hold wide appeal to many, and conservation concerns around them invariably tend to attract wide attention. 

We take a look at five of the biggest stories on their survival this year:

CECIL THE LION MEETS HIS END

THE week has been dominated by details of the early July killing of the beloved Zimbabwean lion Cecil, and the search for his hunter, who has since dropped out of public view. The outrage elicited is of an intensity rarely seen. Within days, an online petition seeking justice for Cecil was clocking nearly 400,000 signatures.

Walter Palmer, an American dentist, reportedly paid $50,000 for the hunt, in which he together with his guide lured Cecil, a lion with a distinctive black mane and one of Zimbabwe’s more recognisable ones, to his death, before beheading and skinning him.

The subject of a study by an international university, Cecil was killed over two agonising days after the first attempt with a crossbow was botched, his death enraging conservationists and animal lovers globally.

Zimbabwe is seeking his extradition, while the US Fish and Wildlife Service has opened an investigation. Palmer, probably now the world’s most infamous dentist, apologised and said he was misled by his guide, who will be tried in August. The mea culpa has done little to placate many.

African lions number about 40,000 and are found predominantly in eastern and southern Africa. They have seen their population decline 30% over the last two decades due to habitat loss and other man’s predation.

 THE REALITY SHOW OF THE NAMIBIAN RHINO HUNT

Another endangered animal in Africa is the black rhino, and the hunting down of one in May by another America citizen Corey Knowlton in May (Americans and their guns) amid a blaze of publicity triggered world headlines, many of them blunt.

Knowlton had bagged a licence for $350,000 in January 2014 from the Nambian government, and over five days stalked a black rhinocerous, before eventually felling it with at least five shots.
“Any time you take an animal’s life it’s an emotional thing,” he told CNN, which tracked his adventure, while standing over his dead prize.

The telling difference is that this was a hunt fully backed by the Namibian government, which argues that permits are given only for old rhinos that no longer contribute to the gene pool and which kill younger more virile rivals. The money then goes back into conservation efforts.

The highly scrutinised hunt again raised the hackles of animal lovers, but Namibia is generally more amenable to this kind of hunting, and Knowlton has had a quieter aftermath compared to his compatriot Palmer.  

 THE ABANDONED CHIMPS OF LIBERIA

The fate of some 67 chimpanzees that were the subject of nearly 30 years of biomedical research has stoked global ire and attracted even world-renowned chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall to their plight. 

Read: Liberia’s ‘Planet of the Apes’ chimps facing starvation; Jane Goodall pleads for them

The New York Blood Centre in March this year cut off all funding for the apes upkeep, years after it committed to caring for them in their lifetime as appreciation for their contribution to a world-renowned research project on viral infections and which they were “contracted” for in the 1970s.

The abandoned chimps are now entirely dependent on humans for their survival, there being no reliable supply of fresh water or sufficient food on the western Liberian jungle islands on which they live on—nicknamed “Planet of the Apes” by locals. They also cannot be returned to the wild as they have been exposed to various diseases.

A petition for emergency crowd funding has raised nearly $155,000 in just two months, above its target. The much-criticised NYBC has insisted it does not own them, and has sought to shift their care to the Liberian government, with which it is involved in a blame game.

THE DYING PENGUINS OF AFRICA

On South Africa’s west coast, the numbers of African penguins have plummeted 90% since 2004. Data shows the number of breeding pairs is now less than 25,000, down from a million in the 1920s.

The seabirds, which can’t fly, on the continent breed in South African and Namibia but often struggle for their food, fish, while changing climate is also a challenge.

University of Exeter researcher Richard Sherley, who this month published a study on the penguins, says the “outook on the west coast is quite gloomy”.

While African penguins should be able to survive for 30 years in the wild, they are probably only living about 10 years on average, according to Sherley. Fewer chicks are also being born, for a bird that already breeds slowly.

 BABY ELEPHANTS FOR EXPORT

Zimbabwe was again in the spotlight when it in December announced it would export at least 60 baby elephants, arguing that while it had the capacity for only 42,000 elephants, it was home to some 80,000 of the pachyderms.

Exporting elephants is not illegal in the country, and officials say the trade is within international regulations. The cash would be used for conservation, they argue, blaming ongoing relentless poaching on a lack of funds for patrols. Part of the problem is that few conservationists believe that that what they see as Robert Mugabe’s rapacious government would not pocket the funds.

But the resulting furore drew in even US-Canadian actress Pamela Anderson, who in her capacity as an honorary director of animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) wrote an emotional letter to Zimbabwean authorities.

“I am writing you to urge you to do everything in your power to assist in the efforts to stop such profiteering at the expense of wildlife,” Anderson said in her letter to the country’s Environment Minister in April. Perhaps, unsurprisingly, Harare wasn’t moved.

However, the government has said it would continue to capture and transport live animals “to appropriate and acceptable” destinations, noting that zoos in the United States, Germany and Australia all had endangered species such as elephants exported from Zimbabwe.

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