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Kruger Park and climate change

The IPCC‘s technical paper on Climate Change and Water (pdf), published in June, features some dire numbers for South Africa’s premier national park, the Kruger National Park. Should the global mean temperature exceed 1990 levels by 2.5 to 3 oC, then 66% of its animal species may be lost. Similary, the Cape’s fynbos biome, a biodiversity hotspot, large tracts of which were recently declared a World Heritage Site, is projected to shrink by up to 61%. It is almost beyond my ability to imagine destruction of biodiversity on such a scale in places that I know well and are part of who I am.

So it is with anger that I witnessed the G8 powers’ leaders back away from substantive and immediate reductions in their countries’ emissions and vaguely promise halving of emissions by 2050. Halving with reference to what baseline? 2008 and not 1990? What about intermediate emissions targets? What happened to some of these countries’ undertakings under Kyoto? A spectacle of spinelessness.

Not that China and my own South Africa can simply claim the moral high ground and point accusing fingers at the rich nations. South Africa is one of the most carbon-intensive economies in the world, and China’s aggregate emissions are already approaching those of the USA, albeit on a much lower per capita basis.

But others are able to express outrage and apply pressure better than me. What interests me is the static nature of protected areas (PAs) like the Kruger Park in the face of changing climatic conditions. Protected areas are human creations and like human settlements their locations have been determined by our experience of relatively stable and benign climate conditions over the last millennia, but mainly the last 500 or so years.

In fact many PAs are what and where they are because the areas were less attractive and habitable for humans, more specifically colonial humans. They are opportunistic creations. The lowveld plain east of the escarpment where Kruger is located was a fever-ridden area for the boers at the time (the late 19th century) that the reserves that would make up the park were proclaimed. Modern-day Kruger is a north-south oriented, 300km-by-60 km sliver of land (see ecoAfrica’s Kruger Park layer in Google Earth for a spatial exploration) jammed between the escarpment and Mozambique. Although relatively large, its ecosystems and wildlife populations are artificially managed – man-made waterholes and fences determine the distribution and movements of wildlife.

Species have always migrated as climate has changed over the millennia, but neither national park boundaries nor national borders will be able to move. They are locked in. That is one problem; another is that climate may be changing faster than species can adapt. There is a further problem too: patterns of human settlement and land transformation have limited the options for natural systems. It is only fairly recently that conservation priorities have shifted away from conserving species and landscapes to protecting the integrity of ecosystem processes that ensure that Nature has options so that species can adapt. Re-establishing migration routes and ecosystem functioning are some of the rationales behind transfrontier parks such as the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park that comprises Kruger, Limpopo and Gonarezhou national parks.

It is predicted that as temperatures rise and rainfall decreases in the Cape, so fynbos plant species will migrate south-eastwards – that is if there are corridors for them to migrate along. Let us for a moment imagine a similar scenario for the vegetation in Kruger, where it migrates eastwards into Mozambique, into its mirror-image park, Limpopo National Park, and beyond. When the fences are eventually down, the herbivores will follow their food and the predators will as well, but Kruger’s tourism infrastructure and its restcamps won’t be able to cross the border. In fact it is highly unlikely that South Africa’s tourism and parks authorities would be pleased about ceding their tourism income to Mozambique. Rather, artificial interventions to retain species within Kruger might be intensified. [Note: this is not a scientific, real scenario, but a thought experiment]

We have fixed cities, parks and borders in space, but the elements and conditions that support life – biodiversity, ecosystems, biomes, climate – are not fixed in space, never have been and never will be.

Originally published on ecoAfrica’s Blog

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