What do a moth and Lady Ross’s Turaco tell us about our future?

By Dr Mark Nicholson

I began a tour around western Kenya 2 weeks ago on the perimeter of the Maasai Mara Game Reserve, part of the world-famous Serengeti ecosystem where 1,500,000 wildebeest (gnus) munch their way annually in a large oval from central Tanzania, across the border into Kenya and back. I was there to work, not to sight-see, but my way to work entailed long drives on bumpy roads past thousands of animals, varying in size from pygmy mongooses to giraffes and elephants.

This ecosystem includes huge areas of Maasai-owned land traditionally used for grazing but much of it recently subdivided into thousands of small plots. These were gradually being fenced and cultivated, resulting in yet more loss of habitat. Now though 100,000 ha. of these plots have been converted into ‘conservancies’, and so doubling in size the land set aside for wildlife. In the conservancy model Maasai plot-owners lease land to conservationists, who pay a rent equal to or greater than any income derived from livestock or smallholder agriculture. The conservancies in turn derive their income from tourists staying in the upmarket camps and provide much-needed employment to the Maasai (the people who speak maa), most of whom have now moved into nearby settlements. The central Maasai Mara Game Reserve is normally overrun by tourists, though not last year or this. 3000 bed-nights mean 17 ha/ tourist. In the conservancies, a tourist will have an average of 140 ha to him/herself but pays for the privilege; some of these luxurious camps charge more than $1500 per person per night. Provided the rich tourists return, the conservancy model should prove to have benefited both people, wildlife and the environment.

In 1970, the vast majority of wildlife in Kenya was outside the National Parks on ranches, farms and pastoralist grazing lands. Hunting was banned in 1977, which was a death knell to wildlife conservation outside reserves: poachers moved in, land was sub-divided and fenced, and habitat destroyed. Today almost all wildlife is confined to parks, reserves and a few large ranches. In 50 years, wild animal numbers have crashed. The number of lions in Africa is believed to have fallen 90 percent, from 250,000 in 1970 to 23,000 today. It is the same for pachyderms, giraffes and many other species. Vultures, which perform a vital ecological function, have almost been extirpated in the Mara and most of Kenya owing to the use of pesticides put in carcasses to kill lions which have eaten pastoralists’ livestock.

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Harari reckons that it took many thousands of years for humans to remove the Giant Diprotodon from the planet, which had been around for 1,500,000 years and survived 10 ice ages. With it went 90 percent of Australia’s megafauna. It then only took 2,000 years for humans in the Americas to get rid of large animals such as the Sabre-toothed Tiger and the Woolly Mammoth. But with nearly 8 billion of us today we are succeeding in 100 years what it took our ancestors 20,000 years to achieve.

Do we really care? If you have always lived in a city and never seen a rhino, maybe what the eye doesn’t see, the heart does not grieve. Do I really care that the Sabre-tooth Tiger is extinct? Our ancestors would doubtless have been delighted, once there was no longer a risk of them becoming lunch for one of them. But if we have seen a tiger or a Javan rhinoceros in the wild, it would surely sadden us deeply if we knew the last one had gone.

At the start of my safari I came down to the mess tent one morning and saw a large and stunning-looking moth (pictured above) underneath my table. I know little about moths but I do know that moths outnumber butterflies (15-20,000 species) by around ten to one and some are exceptionally beautiful. And these 150,000 moth species are only those that have been described: many more remain to be discovered. As an aside, I recently re-read Nabokov’s most famous novel, Lolita, after 50 years. One may strongly disapprove of the theme but he was undoubtedly one of the great writers of the last century and he was also writing in his third language. Nabokov was a polymath and also a world-famous lepidopterist, who could have helped me identify my specimen. Having seen this wonderful moth, I pondered how sad I would be if one day I learnt that this species had become extinct.

I am no entomologist but I am an enthusiastic amateur herpetologist. I get paid to lecture companies on snakebite and its treatment. My purpose is not only to help save human lives but also to save snakes’ lives. Most people here will kill snakes on sight. Yet of the 200 or so species in East Africa, only about 10 species are going to spoil your day and only about 3 are really going to spoil your day. Snakebite fatalities in Kenya are rare, around 1000 people die a year. Worldwide, around 100,000 die from snakebite, compared with 1,250,000 who die annually in road accidents. Those who do succumb are generally the poor in rural areas who are usually bitten at night and have no access to nearby hospitals. The strangest snakes here are the burrowing asps (or, if you prefer, mole vipers or stiletto snakes). They are quite short, very dark with tiny pin-like eyes, spend most of their life underground and hence are rarely seen. I am fairly sure it was one of them that finished off Cleopatra. My youngest daughter loves going to the snake park in Watamu on the Kenya coast. 20 years ago, the park would get calls every day from some house-owner who wanted a boomslang or mamba removed from their house or garden. Today these garden plots have been turned into grass and frangipani, the snakes have gone, and the calls to the snake park are monthly. But the mice and rats have returned in numbers.

Back to my journey. After leaving the Mara, I continued north and then west. Western and central Kenya comprises the highly fertile and densely populated one-third of the country, the rest being semi-arid rangeland and desert. Between the large town of Nakuru and the northern lakes, we passed hundreds of motorbikes each laden with up to six huge bags of charcoal. Most Kenyans cook with charcoal, which means cutting down yet more bush and destroying more habitat. Although both geothermal and wind-turbine electricity is now being generated, it is expensive and not nearly enough for 50,000,000 people. The answer has to be nuclear energy of which I, however unfashionably, have always been a strong advocate. Years ago, I chatted at a party with an Afrikaner Professor of Physics at Potschefstrom University who had returned from a ‘Pariah’ (Taiwan, Apartheid South Africa and Israel) conference, with plans to increase greatly nuclear power generation in Africa. When Nelson Mandela took over the reins in South Africa, the nuclear power stations were scrapped (lest enriched uranium should get into the wrong hands) and now 30 years later the country is chronically short of electricity.

Turning west, just south of Lake Baringo, took me up to the small town of Kabarnet, home of the last dictatorial President of Kenya, Daniel Arap Moi (L’Etat, c’est Moi). I lived there for 5 years: above my office at that time were 5 huge Podocarpus trees in which every morning gathered my favourite birds of the more than 1100 bird species in Kenya. Lady Ross’s Turacos are part of an endemic African family known as the Musophagidae (or plantain eaters, though the turacos much prefer figs to bananas). They are beautiful birds with a pompom of scarlet, violet-blue feathers, yellow face & bill, scarlet primaries, and an expression of utter inanity. Every morning they would start their morning chorus: a high-pitched, bubbling, gossipy but euphonious call. But President Moi wanted a palatial hotel built where the trees were. The average occupancy in this hotel in 2019 was 9%; in 2020, 4%. I stayed there this month, and opened my window at dawn to be greeted by silence, apart from two raucous hornbills. The turacos had left town.

From Kabarnet, after a steep hairpin descent into the hot Kerio valley and up the 5,000ft (1,500 metre) wall of the Keiyo escarpment, I arrived at another old colonial town, Kitale, now seething with humanity and Chinese & Indian motorbikes. In the Kitale Club bar hangs the huge head of the last buffalo shot on the golf course by a Mr. Tweedie in 1934. No wildlife remains in the area outside the Mt. Elgon National Park. Finally, onwards to Kakamega, the most densely populated region of Kenya. Kakamega forest is the last remnant of the Central African rain forest in Kenya. 100 years ago it covered 250,000 ha; today 20,000 ha. remain, and even this patch includes exotic plantations. The forest still contains over 375 species of butterflies, even if the buffalo have gone, but the forest continues to be nibbled at by firewood gatherers and cattle.

So the megafauna are fast disappearing in Africa; the snakes are going, the birds are going and maybe the insects are going too, as in Europe. This is the Anthropocene extinction and we are right in the middle of it. Extrapolate and what will we be left with?

At present there are 7,800,000,000 people on Earth, with the UN forecasting 9,200,000,000 by 2050. At Kenya’s independence in 1963 there were 6,000,000 people here. Today there are over 50,000,000 with predictions of twice that in a few decades. The intern who worked with us in the Mara quite joyfully admitted to having 19 siblings. Yet population growth is still not even mentioned as a major problem, least of all in Africa, where politicians still urge their own ethnic groups to go forth and multiply, so they can get more votes.

When Rachel Carson wrote her seminal work, Silent Spring, in 1962, she was talking about the effect of poisons (DDT) on the environment. A new Silent Spring is approaching when the sublime dawn choruses of Africa are hushed or drowned out by the cacophony of human expansion. Do we continue our hand-wringing or can we find a constructive way of reducing our numbers? If we don’t, Nature will surely find a less benign method.