A group of leading conservationists has declared that an extinction crisis is facing the world’s largest wildlife. In a new report titled “Saving the World’s Terrestrial Megafauna”, they found that 59% of the world’s largest carnivores, including big cats, and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores, face dramatic population and range losses. The Conversation Africa’s Samantha Spooner spoke to one of the authors, Peter Lindsey, about the findings.
How serious is the threat facing megafauna?
The threat is severe and accelerating. Approximately 60% of the world’s largest carnivores and herbivores are classified as being threatened with extinction according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of threatened species. We are at serious risk of losing some of our most iconic, charismatic and beloved species.
In some cases, species may not necessarily go completely extinct, but disappear from vast areas where they occurred. For example, African elephants are facing a massive poaching onslaught, 75% of their populations are declining and their range is shrinking fast.
African elephands are rapidly decling. Villiers Steyn/Shutterstock
What are megafauna, where are the biggest populations and why are they important?
Megafauna are large animals. For example, mammalian carnivores of 15 kg or larger like African wild dogs or lions, and herbivores of 100 kg or larger such as elephants, rhinos or hippos. Significant populations occur in a number of places in the world, including Africa, North America, northern Europe and parts of Asia. The highest densities of megafauna probably occur in parts of southern and East Africa.
Megafauna species are very important for a variety of ecological, social and economic reasons. They play a vital role in ecological processes such as predation (preying on other animals), nutrient cycling, seed dispersal and through the “engineering” of soil and vegetation. For example, large herbivores consume and trample plants, which can maintain open areas in otherwise dense vegetation. This can be crucial for other species to gain access.
Large mammals are also important to human societies as symbols and totems. A great number of people derive enormous value from the simple knowledge that large, charismatic, and sometimes dangerous species still exist. And in some cases cultural values bestowed on megafauna translate into economic values through tourism industries.