Africa’s drylands in a changing world

In June 2019, a symposium was held at Mokuti Lodge, just outside the Von Lindquist gate in eastern Etosha. At that time, the park was celebrating 112 years since proclamation, and it was the perfect opportunity to reflect on its rich history of wildlife conservation and research. It was in a context of increasing concern of how intensification of global change will affect wildlife conservation, that Wendy Turner (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA) set out to lead a group of 23 of us on a mission to write a perspective piece to synthethise our knowledge of this ecosystem, and provide insights into the broader challenges facing wildlife conservation in this vulnerable dryland environment. Despite the pandemic and the writing taking a bit longer than expected (I’ll let you in on a secret: it always does…), our collaborative work has finally been published in the journal Global Ecology and Conservation (see link to the publication at the end of this post).

So, what is our perspective you might ask?

The importance of a tree…

A herd of springboks rest in the shade of a tree during the height of the dry season in Etosha National Park (Photo credit: J. Mendelsohn).

Looking back

We first looked backward, using a literature review to summarise the history research in the region.We found that research has been mainly focused on animals, and among them mainly the charismatic mammals such as mega-herbivores, ungulates and carnivores, while other taxa (e.g. plants or birds) and topics (e.g. human impact on the ecosystem) received far less attention.  However, over time, focus has shifted from organisms and population to ecosystem and community studies as well as molecular work. These shifts are also driven by technological developments such as remote sensing and DNA sequencing.

Research in the Greater Etosha Landscape showing (a) the distribution of focal research areas investigated, (b) the number of citations per year for publications and (c) biological levels of organisation studied through time for 448 peer reviewed references. The violin plot (b) shows the density distribution of citations around the mean (red dot) with the box plot showing the median and first and last quartiles. In the bubble plot (c), the size of the circles give the number of references in each decade for each level of biological organisation while color intensity represents the percentage of allreferences from a decade focusing on that particular level of biological organization. The number of references per decade is shown in black circles at the bottom of the chart (Elephant photo credit: Wendy Turner).

Looking ahead

We then looked forward, focusing on eight key areas of challenge and opportunity that were identified following a survey conducted on the Symposium participants : climate change, water availability and quality, vegetation and fire management, adaptability of wildlife populations, disease risk, human-wildlife conflict, wildlife crime, and human dimensions of wildlife conservation.

Results of a survey of Symposium attendees asked to list their opinion of the biggest threat(s) or challenge(s) to wildlife conservation in the Greater Etosha Landscape (responses from  77 attendees).

Despite the amount of research conducted in and around Etosha, there is still a large gap between the scope of recent efforts and the needs of wildlife conservation to adapt to climate and land-use changes. Given the complex nature of climate change and locally existing system stressors, we need a framework of adaptive management supported by integrative and multidisciplinary research to address these challenges. A critical area for growth is to better integrate research and wildlife management across land-use types. Such efforts have the potential to support wildlife conservation efforts and human development goals, while building resilience against the impacts of climate change.

While our conclusions reflect the specifics of our landscape, they have direct relevance for other African dryland systems impacted by global change.

You can  read the full publication here.