I’ve just returned from a life-changing trip to South Africa, not just because it was my first time to the continent, but also because it has redefined my perspective on the megafauna extinctions of the late Quaternary. I was there primarily to attend the University of Pretoria’s Mammal Research Institute 50thAnniversary Celebration conference.
As I reported in my last post, the poaching rates in one of the larger, best-funded national parks in southern Africa (the Kruger) are inconceivably high, such that for at least the two species of rhino there (black and white), their future persistence probability is dwindling with each passing week. African elephants are probably not far behind.
As one who has studied the megafauna extinctions in the Holarctic, Australia and South America over the last 50,000 years, the trip to Kruger was like stepping back into the Pleistocene. I’ve always dreamed of walking up to a grazing herd of mammoths, woolly rhinos or Diprotodon, but of course, that’s impossible. What is entirely possible though is driving up to a herd of 6-tonne elephants and watching them behave naturally. In the Kruger anyway, you become almost blasé about seeing yet another group of these impressive beasts as you try to get that rare glimpse of a leopard, wild dogs or sable antelope (missed the two former, but saw the latter).
Let’s just let that digest for a moment.
If you have seen elephants in the wild, and you have had that ‘oh, it’s just another elephant’ feeling, I challenge you to think about it from the perspective that in every other continent, the megafauna assemblage is long gone. Africa is the last setting on Earth where humans can interact with them (both positively and negatively).
When you think about it like that, I doubt you’ll ever be blasé again about such future interactions.
But human pressures in Africa are growing, meaning that despite largely squeaking through the megafauna-extinction period that happened elsewhere untainted, we may very well be witnessing the final days of Africa’s megabeasts too. I hope to hell that I am wrong, but we don’t have a great track record in this area. I remain largely pessimistic.
This was one of the principal reasons I coughed up to bring my nine-year old with me because I really don’t think she’ll have the opportunity to see a rhino in the wild when she’s my age.
Seeing these animals in a wild state also gave me a new perspective on interpreting the ecological patterns of megafaunal communities elsewhere during the Pleistocene. We can debate long and hard about the complex climate-vegetation-consumption interactions that occurred when the megafauna was teaming in Eurasia or Australia, but we need only look to Africa to see how it really worked. One thing that struck me was just how nearly every square metre of the ground, and nearly every plant, was influenced to some degree by these herbivores (acknowledging of course that densities of many species, like elephants and many antelope are probably unnaturally high in places like the Kruger). The megafauna is (and was) a superlative ecoengineering unit that altered entire continents, allowing other species to exist in the niches they created.
While some of this inference has already been pointed out by much of the ground-breaking ecological research that African and other ecologists have done over the last century, I think we need to bring this ecoengineering component into tighter hypothetical focus for the next phase of African ecology. This was indeed one of the things we discussed at the conference I attended, and something that will be brought to light soon with the publications arising from this paradigm-shifting meeting.
All this brings me to my last point. You might have been following the debates surrounding the definition, onset and existence of the Anthropocene — the ‘geological’ era defined by humans. I am of the opinion that the debates are more or less meaningless anyway because even if we are now laying the foundations for an actual geological layer of fossils arising from our current destruction of life on Earth, the plausibility that anything sentient will be able to view and interpret this layer many millions of years from now is vanishingly remote.
Whether the Anthropocene started 50,000 years ago in Australia and Europe, or whether it started in 1640 is also largely irrelevant — there is no question that extinctions are happening by our hand at elevated rates (relative to inter-mass-extinction intervals).
So my proposition is that when we wake up one day with the realisation that elephants, rhinos, giraffe, hippopotamus and perhaps a few more species are no longer living in a wild state, the Anthropocene should be considered to have ended. I further propose that we call the following era the Minicene, because all that will likely remain on the planet as long as human beings number in the billions will be the smaller species that can persist despite our consumption.
I dare say that my daughter will witness the onset of the Minicene, and I might even survive long enough to see it too. I’m not looking forward to that day.