Friday, July 25, 2014

Guest Post: “Saving the Species”

It’s 4:45 in the morning. My alarm obnoxiously sounds off. I spring out of bed and quickly hustle to throw on some clothes. I tear out of my bedroom and run down the path towards the faint outline of a white truck.
A voice calls out to me. “You ready? The first day is always a memorable one.”
“It’s a dream come true. I could barely get any sleep last night I’m so excited,” I reply.
It’s day one of a six- week adventure as a volunteer with a conservation organization called Wildlife ACT (African Conservation Team), in the heart of Zululand in eastern South Africa.

I sit down on a seat in the bed of the truck and am joined by two other volunteers. The engine lets out a growl and we tear out of the drive, racing through the thick cloak of darkness that surrounds us. I look rampantly to my left and right, squinting to see if I can make out anything moving in the grass. Nothing. Soon the sun peeps up behind the tall mountains in the distance. It climbs higher and higher, emitting a crimson hue that illuminates the most beautiful stretch of African grassland before us. Herds of wildebeest and zebra graze peacefully as we whiz by.

Fortunately, every morning for the remainder of my time with Wildlife ACT began this way. And each morning I was awestruck by the magnificence and beauty of the world God made around me. But sadly, not everyone sees it this way.

Africa’s wildlife is engulfed in a war, a brutal massacre that has slaughtered millions and is pushing many species closer to extinction. The reasons for these heinous crimes range from poaching to snaring to habitat loss. But regardless of the reasons, the effects are indelible.

In the early 1930s and 40s there were an estimated 3-5 million elephants roaming through Africa. Today there are fewer than 690,000. This decrease is a result of the demand for ivory. And though the ivory trade is illegal, an estimated 12,000 elephants are killed each year in Africa. At this rate elephants could be extinct in 50 years.

In many traditional Asian medicines rhino horn is a valuable ingredient, despite no scientific proof of its medical value. The horn is ground to form a powder or made into tablets as a treatment for illnesses such as nosebleeds, strokes, convulsions and fevers. This high demand has resulted in organized poaching efforts in which poachers use night vision scopes, silenced weapons, darting equipment, helicopters and other highly advanced technologies to kill rhinos. Rhino poaching has sent populations of both white and black rhinos plummeting, with about 20,000 white rhinos and fewer than 5,000 black rhinos left in the wild.

There are of course many other species that are also affected. A 2010 United Nations report estimates that gorillas will disappear from most of the Congo Basin by the mid 2020s. The African Wild Dog is the second most endangered carnivore in Africa (after the Ethiopian Wolf) with fewer than 6,000 remaining in the wild. At one of the reserves I worked on several of the dogs had three legs due to snares set up by poachers. Leopards have suffered from falling prey to the shots of hunters who see the cats as a fashion accessory rather than the magnificent creature they are.

But poaching is not the only threat to wildlife. Another prominent threat is the co-existence of humans alongside animals. The rich culture and heritage of the many tribes and peoples of Africa stretches back thousands of years, and much of this heritage is still practiced today. Each of the three reserves I worked on had a boundary marked by a fence, and on the other side of that fence were houses and land that belonged to the surrounding communities. Relations between the reserves and communities are often tense, and members of one community even started a fire on one of the reserves I was at as a reminder that they could be a threat, and as a protest to being removed from the land. Many communities feel a strong attachment and right to the land since many ancestors are buried on the land and the community can benefit from the reserve’s resources. Many of the animals are killed illegally, except instead of the ivory trade or medical industry the animals are killed to feed families.

The mindset is also different. Conservationists often struggle with convincing communities that some rituals, though practiced by ancestors for many years, can be destructive towards the environment. For example, there is a church in South Africa called the Shembe. This church has around 5 million members and participants in ceremonial rituals must wear a uniform consisting of a loincloth of monkey tails, a leopard skin belt, headgear with ostrich feathers and a leopard skin cape strewn across their chests. Members must wear the cape because it epitomizes power and represents being the Zulu king. Most of these capes come from leopards that were illegally poached in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

The war on wildlife and the environment stretches far beyond Africa. There are an innumerable amount of issues affecting every part of this planet. From my time working on the front lines of conservation I am reminded that the splendor of the earth, from its soaring mountains to deep oceans, and the creatures who call it home, are all apart of God’s glorious kingdom. This kingdom is facing imminent and serious threats, and everything that can be done, must be done in order to protect it.

Psalm 104:14-21 You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart. The trees of the LORD are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God.

Matthew Bowen has attended Sardis with his family since 2003. He is a junior at the University of South Carolina where he is currently studying Public Relations. He spent this past semester studying abroad in Dublin, Ireland and this summer working in South Africa. He loves animals, Gamecock football, traveling and the outdoors.

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